I adore minestrone.
Minestrone is a soup that embodies the best of “seasonal cooking”. Its content depends on what’s good at the market, and almost always contains a bounty of fresh vegetables, packed with flavor. You can make it from ingredients that literally cost pennies. It pays for itself after the first meal, as the flavors develop marvelously on the second and succeeding days thereafter.
There are many ways to make minestrone, but not all of them are recipes worth following. The recipe I use is one that’s based on whatever is in season, and sometimes on whether I want it to be vegetarian, vegan or not. Generally, there is a basic template that you can fill in the blanks with just by looking at what’s in your pantry, then winging things from there.
I like to use beans prepared from dried instead of canned. For one, you can control what goes into the soup. For another, you can adjust seasoning to taste. Remember that starches (potatoes, beans, etc.) tend to absorb salt, so keep that in mind if you choose to season the beans before adding them to the soup.
This soup is a fine example where using water is preferable over stock or broth. Why? Because water is a blank canvas that lets you taste the vegetables more than if you used something like vegetable stock, which can sometimes muddle flavors.
If you don’t have heirloom beans, regular beans are fine.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil + more for garnish
1 tablespoon pancetta, finely diced (omit the pancetta to make this vegetarian)
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
2 celery ribs, trimmed and diced
leaves from the celery ribs, finely minced
1/2 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1/2 head Savoy cabbage, shredded
2 leeks, trimmed, cleaned and thinly sliced (use the pale green and white parts only)
1 28-oz. can whole plum tomatoes, crushed by hand + juices
2 cups cooked heirloom beans
sea salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste
2 bay leaves
enough FRESH (you can use dried but if you do, I will know ) oregano, Italian parsley, thyme and sage to make about 1/4 cup chopped herbs
5 cups water
a small piece of rind from a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional, for garnish)
chopped Italian parsley (for garnish)
Gently warm olive oil in a Dutch oven or large pot over medium heat, then add the pancetta, onion and potato. Cook until the vegetables leave a thin film on the bottom of the pot and the onion has become somewhat translucent, about 6-8 minutes.
Add the remaining vegetables and the beans, seasonings, herbs, water and cheese rind (if using) to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook, partially covered for 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours.
Uncover the pot. Stir a few times, then taste for salt and pepper. You can augment the soup with cooked pasta or rice. This is a very substantial soup and is perfect for a cold winter’s night such as tonight. Ladle onto warmed soup bowls. Top each bowl with a little extra-virgin olive oil, a spoonful of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese if desired, and a sprinkle of Italian parsley. Serve immediately.
This recipe makes about 6 to 8 servings.
Time: About 2 1/2 hours, prep time included.
Traditionally, minestrone is sometimes served with a pesto. The pesto can be made with arugula, watercress, or scallions instead of the usual basil/pine nuts/cheese mix. Or, if you want, you can purée a couple of ladlefuls of the soup in a blender, food processor or food mill, then return that to the soup pot before serving.