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Magical Italian Pesto Soup

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This legendary Italian and French traditional vegetable soup is turned into an elixir of long life by mixing in fresh pesto. A cult summer delicacy ready in under an hour.

In Provence and Liguria (Italy) housewifes prepare a delicious traditional summertime soup served with pesto. This veritable ode to glorious summer vegetables is prepared in many different ways. The most basic Italian version, Minestra Genovese [meenaystrah jaynovayzay], boils potatoes, peas, some onions, olive oil, garlic and a few herbs. Waverly Root writes in his Food of Italy about a minestrone alla genovese containing not only all the ingredients mentioned above but also squash, cabbage, zucchini, fava beans, red beans, string beans, a ripe peeled pitted tomato, diced eggplant and celery with a choice of pasta to a add to the soup just to make sure it is thick enough - vermicelli, maccheronicini rigati, ditalini or penne.

But the reason behind this soup's cult following is of course the pesto. When you mix the pesto into the soup the cheese fat melts and dilutes into the broth, turning it into the most marvellous jade-colored liquid. A miraculous elixir of long life. You really feel like you rejuvenate by one year for each bowl of this soup you flush down your intestine.

Too many cooks will spoil the pesto soup and you can make a successful and memorable pesto soup with a number of vegetables. Just buy those you can find that are beautiful the day you decide to try it and follow my instructions and you won't fail.

Pesto soup
French Soupe au Pistou
Italian Minestrone Genovese
For 4 as a main course
3 small zuchinis
1 small leek
2 large carrots
4 large potatoes
2 handfuls unshelled fava beans
1 handful green beans
1 handful green peas
1 handful of squash, eggplant, cabbage or celery (those you can find)
1 bunch basil
2 tbsp pine nuts
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp grated Gruyère cheese
2 tbsp olive oil
1 baguette bread OR 1 handful penne or maccheroni pasta

No two pesto soups use the same vegetables. There are but a few days in the year when you can get fresh fava beans, peas and green beans all at the same time, and the rest of the vegetables all have their own cycles. I recommend you use only the very best vegetables you can find and forget about those which are on my list but did not make it to your local market the day you finally decided to try this legendary soup.


Shell the fava beans.


Shell the green peas - great fun to do with the kids! I used to do it with my grandma who grew them in her garden.

Remove the damaged leaves of the leek, clean and slice thinly.

Peel and dice all remaining vegetables.


Heat 1 liter/1 quart mineral water in a large pot. I don't drink much tap water but if you do use tap water. If you prefer mineral water, there is no reason to think it will be damaged by the vegetables. The water is the soup, so good water is better than chlorine-infused tap water.

Gently put the vegetables in the pot starting with those that cook longest such as potatoes, leeks and carrots. Add a teaspoon sea salt and cover. You need to coordinate the cooking time and I recommend you put you prepared vegetables in small bowls near the pot ordered by cooking time and use a timer to add more every 10 minutes.


After about 10 minutes add the fava beans, the green beans and the green peas if using.


Boil for 5 more minutes, then add the zuchini.

Cover and cook on a low heat for 15 more minutes. If using pasta, add the pasta about 10 minutes before the end or however much time is needed to cook it.


Making proper pesto is an art that has many zealots. Before I fall prey to the pesto police let me say that I am not Ligurian and thus cannot offer final wisdom about this antique sauce. The basics of good pesto are nevertheless no more a secret. First, don't buy pesto in a jar or tube. Basil looses its fragrance after a day so guess what happens after 3 months on a shelf in rancid oil. Buy a nice bunch of fresh basil and if you can't use it the same day, just cut the bottom of the stems and put it in a glass of water. Otherwise evaporation would shrink the thin leaves within hours and leave you in despair.

Some Ligurian cooks cut each basil leaf in three to remove the central stem. I recommend that at least you prick the leaves one by one and do not use the main stem. I do my pesto with mortar and pestle, but you can probably achieve reasonable results with a kitchen mixer. Pesto and pestle come from the same latin root, and in Italian cookbooks you will find phrases like "comminciate a pestare" - start to pesto. By using some electrical applicance you would be missing the fun and breaking the chain of the thousands of cooks who have made this great sauce with a mortar since the 16th century.

In your mortar crush 4-6 garlic cloves cut in half with the stem removed. Add the basil leaves little by little and grind them down to a paste.

For chemical reasons unknown to me, basil loses its taste if you cut it with a knife but retains it if you use scissors. You can ask food physicist Hervé This why that is, but it is. You can of course add the whole leaves directly in your mortar but that will result in rather large crushed bits of basil leaves in the end product. It is not so problematic in a soup where you have loads of things floating in anyway, but for pasta you would definitely need to cut the leaves with scissors prior to grinding them in the mortar.



Pesto normally calls for pinenuts or at least walnuts. In a pesto soup these are, in my opinion, optional. But they add taste, texture and fat. If you use nuts, any nuts, be sure to keep them in the fridge lest their oil turns rancid.

When all of your basil has been turned into a paste, add the cheese. In Provence chefs use half Parmesan with one half Gruyère cheese, whereas Ligurian cooks prefer all Parmesan or half Parmesan and half Sardinian cheese. Parmesan has a wonderful flavor but is a little dry. The addition of Gruyère or another younger full-fat hard cheese increases the amount of milk fat in the soup and makes for a much more appetizing dish.

Some recipes add a few anchovy fillets to the pesto, making an hybrid sauce halfway between Provence's anchoïade and regular pistou.

You can prepare a bit more pesto than needed and store it overnight in the fridge with a tight cover, then use it on pasta the next day.

Italians add some pasta to this soup 10 minutes before serving. French cooks would rather serve it with croûtons, [crootong] fried slices of stale bread. The croûtons was on his deathbead as a 19th century calorie-bomb fossil until it regained interest after the Olive Oil Revival. You can make traditional croûtons by thinly slicing a baguette or another long bread and leave them a couple days to dry, then fry the bread in oil until golden. The modern way, which I learned at Ducasse's (see my article) sprinkles a few drops olive oil on the croûtons and places them in a very hot oven for a few minutes until they turn golden. One would expect to be able to make good croûtons with fresh bread, for he who can do more can do less, but it is not so. If you don't have stale bread you can slice the bread and leave it to dry in a 50°C oven for about 30 minutes, but the result won't be the same. I'd recommend you go the Italian way and add some maccheroni or penne at the end of the cooking.

To thicken the broth Provence chefs crush one of the cooked zuchinis to a paste and mixing it in the broth. This works really well and those who don't like too thin a broth around the vegetables will like it.


There is no question that the pesto should be mixed in with the soup until the liquid turns a beautiful pale green. But few can give up the notion of serving small spheres of pesto on top of the soup and just let the guests mix it in themselves.

If you make more soup than you can eat in one day, pour the liquid off in a separate jar and store it overnight in the fridge. If you leave the vegetables in the liquid, they will absorb most of it and turn into horrible bloated creatures with no taste in them. It takes only a minute to pour the liquid in some saucepan or even just remove the vegetable with a strainer and put them back in the pot in the strainer so that they don't touch the broth.

The pesto disappears into the hot soup and the cheese does not melt but actually dissolves in the broth. A proper soup needs a little fat and you cannot get more tasty fat than pesto. The effect of eating a bowl of this magic emerald liquor is like drinking a pint from the fountain of Eternal Youth. The glory of summer made into soup flows into your veins and turns you into a green giant.



  • #1
  • Comment by Joanna
SO glad to have this reminder about minestrone. I find that I tend to think of soup as a winter thing, particularly the soups which are a meal in a plate. But I'd forgotten that minestra tastes so much better with a little pesto ... how could I have been so forgetful?Thanks for sharingJoannajoannasfood.blogspot.com
  • #2
  • Comment by Keith
Regarding the scissors vs. knife... I might be wrong with this one but I know I've seen recipes call for bruising fresh herbs prior to cutting.  Could it be that the more violent shearing action of the scissors breaks and bruises more of the leaf than a clean cut with a sharp knife?
  • #3
  • Comment by Steamy Kitchen
(sigh) I so want to be your neighbor!  
  • #4
  • Answered by fx
Thank you Steam Kitchen, but keep in mind that Florida has much more sun than we do!
  • #5
  • Comment by Stefan
Thank you for pointing out that fat is important for the taste. I have the impression that, especially in the US, fat is considerd as the root of all evil.BTW I would not use water for cooking any soup but a stock. For a vegetable stock you will need:2 big onionsbunch of carrotescelery1 parsley roots2 leek oliv oilBouquet garni (herbs)2 leaves lourel, 2 cloveblack pepper seeds1/8l nolly prat1/2l white winechop all vegiesroast the root like vegies in olive oil.(they must not become brown)add the leek and the !unpealed onions) roast a bit longeradd the Noilly Prat and the wineadd herbs and spices (no salt at this time!)fill with water  (3 liter)gently simmer 45min, salt to the taste and filter with a cotten cloth. for a more mediterranean style add (with the leek) garlic and coeur de boeuf (an extremly fleshy tomato kind)  
  • #6
  • Answered by fx
Thank you Stefan! You are right that stock improves everything, but in this specific instance the number of vegetables and the raw garlic and basil dissolved into the sauce will cover the subtle flavor of any vegetable stock I think.
  • #7
  • Comment by norman wong
Mama mia! Thank you for sharing this. I can imagine the taste! Bravo!!
  • #8
  • Comment by Stefan
Hallo FX,Probably you are right - it depends a bit how much water you add. But I would still, roast some of the harder veggis in olive oil and add an unpealed onion - not too much for the tast but for the colour. But I am off for the market ;-) Saturday is market day in my town. Stefan
  • #9
  • Comment by Jake
Cutting or chopping (downward motion with a knife) will bruise any fresh green or herb and impair the flavor - broken cell walls, or something like that.  however, if you slice - a FORWARD movement with little downward pressure which lets the microscopic grooves which form the edge of a knife do the cutting - or shearing as with scissors, this will result in clean cuts and retained flavor.Pestare means "to batter or beat."this and other recipes I've seen on this site are great - the backgrounding and extra info put it on the same level as Marcela Hazan.  Thanks!!!
  • #10
  • Comment by Holly
I love the article, but reading it through left me wondering about a few details.  Does the olive oil go in the pesto?  Only 2 tablespoons?  After chopping or before?  And it looks like you shell the fava beans but don't remove the skins?  I'm always curious about whether the reason has to do with flavor, nutrients, or texture.  Most of my cookbooks have you parboil and remove the second skin.  Also fresh peas take very little cooking, I would put them in after the zucchini.  I thought I'd check before I tried this.  It's got a lot of ingredients, but I do love fresh vegetables so it's worth the effort.
  • #11
  • Comment by Tess
OMG! I absolutely adore pesto. And I love soup, too. This recipe sounds heavenly. I think I will try it soon. :D  I'll let you know how it turns out!  As usual, your articles and photographs inspire me.
  • #12
  • Answered by fx
Tess, have fun with this soup, you can add a little bit of cooked zuchini in the pesto paste to help emulsify it, and you have flexibility for the choice of cheese, parmesan yes but the others could be mimolette, gruyère, gouda, etc...
  • #13
  • Comment by Jacques
This veggie soup looks really appealing, must try it since I'm fond of pesto! The idea of using gruyère is interesting here, I usually use 2/3 parmesan and 1/3 pecorino..urgh I'm starting to drool. Oh as for the basil and scissors, it is apparently true for any herbs, else, you'll need to use a certain movement with the knife to avoid crushing the herb: advice from M. Robuchon himself, so I guess you're right
Great site by the way, love your pasta recipes !

Cheers from Paris
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Jacques, indeed Robuchon must be the most extreme cook when it comes to the precise application of cooking principles. I think to do a chiffonade of basil is quite difficult but that's the spirit - break as few leaf cells as possible!

The Chlorine in tap water will disappear if you leave a container of tap water out overnight.
(This won't improve the taste or get rid of any parasites mind you but the chlorine will be gone).
  • #16
  • Comment by Gina Merello.
Soy descendiente de italianos,genoveses...y mi Minestrone es muy distinto al que acabo de leer..Toda mi juventud viví en un mundo de italianos..cuando salí de casa para casarme tuve que aprender a cocinar a la chilena.Pero  seguí la tradición,crié a mis hijos con mis comidas.
Pos te diré algunas de las diferencias..ee..
Comienzo por cocer par de tomates maduros con cubos de caldos, sal y hojas de albahaca..Hasta ver casi deshechos los tomates..le agrego las papas en forma de cubo..luego el pene..los porotos verde rebanados..y el zapallo italiano también en cubos..Una vez cocidos..se apaga..y le agrego el pesto..unos  momentos de reposo y a servir...ee..Ok..?
Ajos..aceite oliva..albahaca..sal..un vez todo eso molido..le agrego el parmesano..y pronto la crema..no..?
mmmm..exquisito..se me hace agua la boca...mmmm..Y los fideos..o tallarines o pene con pesto es ídem..pero seco.
Qué dices al respecto..? Son herencias..
Qué tal si compramos la foggaza..me enviarías la receta..para ver diferencia?.
Ante mano gracias.

  • FX's answer→ Gracias por tu visita Gina, me gusta tambien tu version de esta zupa. Hay muchissimas variaciones, tambien cambia con la estacion y las verduras disponibles. Hay gente a quien los gusta los tomates, a me no me gusta demasiado!

  • #18
  • Comment by Marc
It´s been a while since anyone commented on this marvelous soup. It is getting cold out in the Northern half of the globe and everyone is expecting to either get a cold or catch a flu....

I think this recipe should be pushed forwards! Many greens are in season right now and this healthy soup is not only perfect when ill at home, it will also help build up defenses before you catch anything!
  • #19
  • Comment by Fasulye (HTLAL-Forum)
Today I have cooked this vegetarian soup and it tastes delicious. It's the first of your recipes I tried out. It's useful that you offer a tag-search function for vegetarian meals! In this case I used the English recipe but as a language-freak I also find the Spanish versions of your recipes useful. As a variation of your recipe I used ready-made (green) Pesto Genovese, not fresh one to facilitate my cooking a bit. Isn't there any pepper necessary for the recipe? (I used a bit.)
So this was a very good start, I will try more of your recipes. Fasulye
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Fasulye, the pepper as always is optional, but bought pesto is a no-no, you have to make your own, it is a world of difference. You don't really need to use the pine nuts but fresh basil, garlic and some meltable hard cheese such as Gruyère or Parmesan will give you the best results.


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