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Soupe au Pistou

(French Provençal Vegetable Soup with Pistou)

Leave it to the French to create a perfectly pure and boring vegetable soup--then lift it to astonishing heights by the last minute addition of pistou, an intense concentration of garlic, cheese, oil, and tomato paste that knocks those poor little naked veggies ecstatically flat. This is a simplified version of the recipe my fishing buddy Susan Eggert gave me--I like it because it's so simple I don't put off making it...especially when I've got leftover frozen pistou in the freezer. Serve hot as a meal to 6-8 people. And don't forget the crusty bread and wine.

Garnish: Pistou
6 cloves garlic
4 Tablespoons tomato paste
¼ cup fresh basil, chopped
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup olive oil
3-4 Tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

Press the garlic, then whisk the tomato paste, basil, cheese, oil, and parsley with it in a blender til it is a rich paste.

In a large soup pot, bring the soaked beans and fresh water to a boil. Add all the vegetables and herbs, bring to a second boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for an hour. Meanwhile, make the pistou if you don't have any handy in the freezer.

Add the salt and pepper to the soup, stir well, and continue simmering uncovered for another 15-20 minutes.

When ready to serve, ladle the soup into big bowls. Pass the pistou--and extra Parmesan cheese, if you like--so people can load up the bowl with flavor that releases itself right under their noses.