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After the basil bounty, make soupe au pistou

Use up your last basil make pistou French versipesbig batch soup. | Courtesy Terry Boyd

Use up your last basil to make pistou, the French version of pesto, and a big batch of soup. | Courtesy Terry Boyd

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:50AM

Every spring, Marion plants basil based on my best intentions. And every fall, I scramble to harvest the bounty I've failed to convert into numerous promised batches of pesto (I think I made it twice this summer). So Sunday afternoon found me, anorak-clad, gathering basil in the rain, fending off bumblebees as I snipped the flowering tops onto the compost pile.

I barely made a dent in the plants in our garden, but our freezer now harbors several zippered bags of pesto, perfect for when we'll be craving a taste of summer in the dead of winter. And I made some pistou, Provence's take on Italian pesto, for a pot of Soupe au Pistou.

As with pesto, there are countless variations on pistou. Some are as simple as basil, garlic, olive oil and salt (adding hard cheeses such as Parmesan or Pecorino is apparently a fairly recent adaptation; in fact,'s dictionary makes no mention of cheese in its definition). Some versions also include tomato or tomato paste.

The key difference between it and pesto is that pistou contains no nuts. Pesto most often is made with pinoli or pine nuts, but my go-to pesto recipe substitutes pecans.

Pistou is an uncooked sauce or condiment that can be mixed with pasta or spread on bread, but most often, it is used to flavor the soup that bears its name. Soupe au Pistou is a traditional Provencal vegetable soup (but not vegetarian, as it almost always calls for chicken stock - you can make it vegetarian by substituting vegetable broth or using water and salting to taste).

Again, recipes vary widely, but include some mix of onions, carrots, beans, green beans, potatoes, summer squashes, tomatoes, pasta and perhaps some hard cheese. You don't have to add all of these ingredients; the idea is to use what you have at hand for this flavorful, practical soup. The one requirement is pistou. Otherwise, you would just have vegetable soup, and a much less interesting one at that.

Pistou is not unlike the South American chimichurri sauce, made with parsley, garlic, salt and red pepper flakes. Both have a big garlicky kick somewhat tempered by a refreshing herb flavor. Interestingly, when I was talking with a friend from Ecuador about my recipe for chimichurri sauce, which I like to serve over grilled steak or chicken, he said his mother often keeps a similar sauce in her kitchen and stirs it into soups. Small world, right?

Pistou is traditionally made using a mortar and pestle (hence the name for it and pesto). Many cooks frown on using a food processor to make it. I don't.

Chicagoan Terry Boyd writes the Blue Kitchen blog (, where this was posted.

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