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Originally published January 31, 2012 at 3:04 PM | Page modified January 31, 2012 at 11:51 PM

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Give leftovers hearty new taste — use them as ingredients in soup

Mario Batali talks about a traditional Tuscan bread-based soup called ribollita and offers a recipe for a hearty white bean soup.

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Even though it has been unseasonably warm in 2012, February is still the time of year for comfort food, and we're making soup. Rugged, simple and full of flavor.

Because of its white-bean base, this recipe is reminiscent of a traditional Tuscan bread-based soup called ribollita. Ribollita is Italian for "reboiled." Traditionally, the soup was made by reheating leftover minestrone soup, and thickening the mixture by adding vegetables and bread.

Like much of Italian food, ribollita comes from humble beginnings. Over centuries of poverty on the Italian peninsula, small farmers and serfs created soups, making use not just of water but also bread and vegetable bases, making thick and delicious combinations. During the Middle Ages, meat was reserved for the noble and the wealthy. Peasants cooked with what they had; they combined leftover bread with any available vegetables and made soup. Its contents changed based on what was around and available.

This soup is hard to mess up. Incorporate whatever's leftover. Every family's ribollita is different, and the same family makes it differently every time. Easily double quantities for a dinner party or save some in the freezer for a week.

The ribollita mentality is one the Batali clan heartily embraces, especially in the winter months. The concept of cooking what's available and fresh is not reserved for the summer months.

The accompanying recipe for Broccoli and White Bean Soup is unlike ribollita in that there is no cavolo nero (often called Tuscan kale or Lacinato kale). This dish can be served in many ways. It could easily be a lunch in itself, or a nice antipasto. Low in fat and high in protein, beans are the choice ingredient. If you season and cook them properly, they're delicious, too.

Soup is essential to a home cook's repertoire because of its versatility. Soups work in every season. The broccoli used in this recipe could easily be substituted with kale or spinach, as the market permits. Basic ingredients like dry or canned beans and Parmigiano-Reggiano are items my kitchen is never without.

Last week, we made a version of this soup with leftover roasted root vegetables and beets. It was a lesson in simplicity.

James Beard Award-winner Mario Batali, a Seattle-area native, is a chef, restaurateur, author and TV personality. His latest book is "Molto Batali."

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