Friday, 11 April 2014

Allotment ribollita with borlotti beans, rosemary, rainbow chard, leeks, bread and olive oil

Every time I talk to my parents on the phone, invariably at some point the conversation turns to what they have eaten recently. This is normally met with a modest ‘oh just some odd bits of veg from the allotment’, but I know that that is a damn lie. They talk about their plot like some barren land with a few brown leaves poking out here and there, but the reality couldn’t be more different. They put so much work into it and I’m always so impressed whenever I see it. They took me up there at the end of last summer and I was gobsmacked. Disciplined rows of proud, vibrant vegetables stood in architecturally framed raised beds, all village fete standard and all crying out to be picked. I was like a child in a sweet shop. Commuters must have raised a few eyebrows at the muddy-kneed man laden with earthy bags and smug grin on the way home. So when they offered to return there right at the end of a recent visit I bit their arm off. 

We drove up at dusk, and the view standing on the hillside looking down at Brighton and the sea bathed in sunset reds and burnished golds will stay with me for a long time. But I couldn’t linger for long, there was digging to do and the light was fading fast. I couldn’t see much of what dad was doing under torchlight and only responded to hasty ‘quick Sam, put these in the bag’, and it wasn’t until I got back to my kitchen in London that I could marvel at what goodies lurked inside. Last summer it was all nasturtiums, new potatoes, broad beans and courgette flowers, but this time stunning rainbow chard, flowering rosemary, leeks and purple sprouting broccoli. Not a bad yield for the half a dozen trips my parents had made over the winter. My mind was racing as to what to make, and with the lingering late winter chill still in the air a soup it was to be. This would also be the best way to cram in as much of the newly-picked produce into one bowl as possible. 

When I was young, despite not having such a keen interest in what I was eating, I always remember that in the kitchens of my cooler friends were the same blue, yellow and green books. Although I didn’t identify or read The River CafĂ© cookbooks for years afterwards it feels like they’ve always been there, and they’re always my first port of call when looking for inspiration. I love the simplicity and focus on quality ingredients, which often provide the starting point even when attempting something much more complicated. Proper food that you want to eat, not just look at. Although my ingredients and flavourings are far from those of the authentic cavolo nero packed ribollita described within those dog-eared pages, the principal of showing off simple fresh greens is the same. 

Talking of beans, the borlotti beans used here also came from the folks; dad proudly presented me with a jar of the mottled beauties that he had dried and stored from last summer’s harvest. Although I have previously made this with standard tinned beans, it really makes a difference taking the time to prepare them yourself. At this point I added even more garlic, rosemary and bay and was left with about a litre and a half of lovely stock to form the base of the soup. It’s just such a shame that they lose all of their individual markings in the process. 

This recipe makes a lot of hearty, revitalising soup, but the good news is that the leftovers just get better and better. And it’s easy to tweak everything to just how you want it, with a squeeze of lemon, some more chilli or with some crispy prosciutto broken over the top.

Serves 6 generous portions.


Olive oil 
1 onion, finely chopped 
1 carrot, finely chopped 
3 medium leeks, finely chopped 
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped 
1 tbsp fennel seeds 
2 small dried chillies, finely chopped 
2 large sprigs of rosemary, finely chopped 
4 slices of prosciutto, finely chopped 
2 tomatoes, skinned and finely chopped 
2 large handfuls of cooked borlotti beans, drained but retaining the cooking water 
2 large bunches of chard, stalks chopped and leaves sliced finely 
2 handfuls of stale bread, crusts removed and torn into small pieces 
1 small bunch of wild garlic leaves, torn 

To finish: 

Parmesan cheese, finely grated 
Flowers from the rosemary 
Good quality extra virgin olive oil

Heat a large saucepan to a medium-low temperature and add a splash of olive oil. Add the onion, carrot, leeks, garlic, prosciutto, rosemary, dried chilli and fennel along with some seasoning and cook slowly for about half an hour, until everything has softened. Tip in the chopped tomatoes and cook for another ten minutes. Stir in the chard stalks and half of the cannellini beans, topping up with the reserved cooking water until covered, about 750ml-1ltr. Bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for 20-30 minutes. 

Transfer the remaining cannellini beans to a food processor and blitz until very fine. Add to the saucepan with the torn bread and the chard leaves and stir will to combine. Pour in more of the bean liquid if needed and break up some of the bread with the spoon to achieve a thick yet pourable consistency. Cook for another couple of minutes until the chard leaves are tender and then finally add the wild garlic leaves at the last minute. Taste, and season if necessary.

To serve, spoon into shallow bowls and drizzle over a good amount of extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle over parmesan and some rosemary flowers and a good crack of black pepper.


  1. I will definitely try this since I love every ingredient that goes in it . I presume you (as any good cook) use a lot of olive oil in your recipes so I would love to invite you to check out our olive oil that comes from a small family owned farm in Portugal at : or follow us on twitter : so that we can establish better communication and collaboration maybe ? I hope you like it ;)