From The Spokesman-Review, March 10, 2018

I’m not a check-list or must-see kind of traveler. I’m generally more interested in people than in places, in being outside rather than touring museums, in sharing small intimate moments. I prefer to avoid crowds, even if that means skipping sites others have recommended insisted I visit.

I understand that people put items on the don’t-miss list because some things are just plain awesome. I’ve gotten up before dawn to see the sun rise at Angkor Wat, and I’ve waited on line to see that munchkin, the Mona Lisa. Everyone says the Grand Canyon doesn’t disappoint, and it elated me, though I may have appreciated it more if my companions and I had spent time lingering instead of rushing through it rim to rim to rim in a day.

The things I remember, though, tend to be more impressionistic than images captured by everyone else’s phone. Seeing photos I’ve taken that look exactly like what I’d already seen on websites or in magazines doesn’t make them more meaningful to me.

Instead I find myself, when reflecting on past trips, thinking about conversations I had with a Canadian journalist while on an Israeli bus, or moments alone looking at a vista of pointy hills and Cyprus trees through a narrow walkway in a walled-in hilltop Tuscan town, moments that make me want to burst into song a la musical theater.

So I tend to just go and see what I can see. If I do any research ahead of a trip, it’s often about food. Before I left for Italy last month, I googled Tuscan treats. Turns out I liked ricciarelli as much as I thought I would (cookies with almonds and meringue – what’s not to like?) and panforte exactly as little as I’d predicted (fruit cake – ick).

I was traveling with a friend and we went to visit his father and step-mother, who live in a 70-room medieval villa in on a hill in a town outside of Siena. On the first night, we walked across the street to the one business in the town, a restaurant.

My hosts said I needed to try a Tuscany specialty, ribollita (“reboiled”), a peasant dish where leftover vegetables and stale bread create a thick, hearty soup. Delicioso! I was assured that each place makes it differently and decided to sample as many versions as I could.

There’s pleasure in elegant variation. I watched my hosts, who have lived in Italy for decades, order the same meal at the many different restaurants we went to. They’d have lasagna three or four times in a row or repeatedly order pasta with Bolognese sauce. My American foodie friends are always on the lookout for something new and different, something surprising and exciting. In Italy, I was reminded that there are many beautiful ways to do something simple.

Some of the lasagnas I tried had only a hint of pink. Some were meaty. The flavors of ragu – tomato sauce – varied as much as the Chianti Classicos we imbibed. But I kept coming back to rebollita.

A couple of years ago, a friend, knowing that I cannot cook much more than frozen mac and cheese in the microwave, had offered to teach me how to make soup. Any soup I liked, she said, she’d teach me to prepare.

As often happens when it comes to food, I suffered a complete and total failure of imagination, so she suggested a Tuscan white bean and kale number. She hadn’t known the name, but I now know it’s Italian for “reboiled.”

Because I understand that beans are good for me, and kale has done an amazing job convincing people that it, too, has merit, I agreed. But I had some stipulations. No chopping. I do not chop.

No problem, she said. Trader Joe’s sells mirepoix – diced onions, celery and carrots – universal soup base. You can purchase frozen cubes of smashed garlic, as well. All I’d have to do is open a couple of cans. Cans I can open.

I forgot about the recipe until this winter when I was in Tuscany. I realized that to make it more authentic, I just had to add bread while the soup was still cooking.

Here, from a woman who has been described by her best friend as “domestically disabled” is a recipe for ribollita, also known as Aileen’s Tuscan White Bean and Kale Soup, from the imprecise notes I took while watching her make it. Buon appetito! (It’s even better the next day.)

aka Aileen’s Tuscan White Bean and Kale Soup

To canola oil add mirepoix and cover

Add some garlic after mirepoix is soft

Add a little white wine

Add some chili flakes

Pepper and a bit of salt

Can of tomatoes

Can of white beans, rinsed and drained

Bay leaf or two

Add broth to cover

Bring to a bubble then simmer to 15-20 minutes until carrots and celery are cooked

Add shredded bread – stale is fine

Add kale and salt and a pepper to taste (about five more minutes)

At the end, add some lemon juice

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.

Tags: column, Everything is Copy, Rachel Toor, Rio