I am always tempted by minestrone when I see it on the menu at Italian restaurants, especially during the cooler months. Its such a complete and robust meal – full of seasonal vegetables, hearty beans and pasta and a lovely, wholesome broth. I also love to cook it at home, as it is a very versatile soup and will adapt to the seasons or contents of your fridge. With the addition of beans and a large stash of vegetables, it is also a healthy dinner covering most of the food groups.
My mother often cooked minestrone while we were growing up, and so this recipe is loosely based on the one which I learned from her. Curious to see whether she followed tradition, a quick search through my numerous cookbooks showed that there is no prescribed recipe for minestrone, it being an inexpensive peasant style meal, with its name meaning “to serve up” or big soup. There appear to be many different variations to the theme, depending on the region or time period – including using the cooking water from borlotti beans as the stock; adding pancetta or ham to flavour the soup; potato vs pasta vs rice as the carbs and whether to add parmesan or pesto (or both) to serve. So feel free to substitute any of the vegetables or stock below with what you have lying around.
One recipe for minestrone particularly caught my attention. Barth recently bought me Pellegrino Artusi’s “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” in order to further my culinary education (he is a bit of a classicist – I had never heard of the book before it arrived). Artusi is said to be the great-grandfather of Italian cooking, and is one of the first known authors to bring together the recipes from the various different regions of the unified Italy in one cookbook, designed for the home cook. The book, published in the late 1800s, reads more akin to a how-to-cook manual for relatively experienced home cooks and records various cooking experiments performed by the author, complete with peculiar anecdotes – with numerous tidbits of information, brief and direct directions, 1890’s dietary advice, compliments to the delicate sensitivities of the readers and entertaining stories. Its a beautiful story of the history of Italian cuisine, and I’m absolutely loving slowly making my way through it (although I find the recipes more of historical value than useful for day to day cooking – I wouldn’t recommend following the how to make pasta recipe if you are a beginner cook, even with the life sized cut out of a tortellini shape in the book…).
I can’t help but share the introduction to the minestrone recipe with you. Artusi begins his recipe as follows “Minestrone brings back memories of a year marked by collective anxiety and a singular personal experience“, and then goes on to describe his experience in Livorno in the bathing season of 1855, where cholera was making its way through Italy. After ordering the soup of the day, minestrone, at his hotel Artusi wrote:
“That night, I felt the onset of a frightening disturbance in my body that had me running regularly back and forth to the rest rooms – which in Italy should rather be called an unrest room. “Damned minestrone! You will never fool me again” I cried out, raging against something which was perhaps quite innocent… Monday the sad news reached me that cholera had broken out in Livorno, and the first to be struck dead was none other than Domenici [the minestrone cook] himself. And to think I had blamed the minestrone!”
He finishes the recipe by warning that the soup is not for weak stomachs. Perhaps not the best story to entice you to cook this soup, but I can assure you that my version is very healthy, tastes really good and will not make you sick (and that introduction is much better than the story accompanying his apple strudel recipe “Do not be alarmed if this dessert looks like some ugly creature such as a giant leech or a shapeless snake after you cook it; you will like the way it tastes!”). If he was alive now, I can only begin to imagine his blog posts, something to aspire to… This recipe serves 4 adults as a main meal.
- 1 brown onion
- 2-3 celery stalks
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 leek
- 2 carrots
- 10 mushrooms
- 1 zucchini (courgette)
- 2 x 400g tin tomatoes
- 2 cups vegetable stock
- 1-2 cups water
- 1 bay leaf
- 20-25 green (string) beans, topped and tailed
- 400g tin borlotti or cannellini beans (or 2 cups beans, soaked overnight and cooked)
- 1 medium sized parsnip
- 80g wholemeal penne, macaroni or shells (or if gluten free, add rice instead)
- Half a bunch cavolo nero or other spinach, spine removed and cut into thin strips
- Half a bunch parsley, roughly chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Olive oil, for cooking
- Parmesan cheese, to serve
- Finely dice the onion, celery and garlic and add with a splash of olive oil to a large heavy based saucepan over low-medium heat. Wash the dirt from the leeks and finely chop and add to the saucepan. Chop the carrots into 3-4mm coins and add to the saucepan. Saute the vegetables on low-medium heat for 10-15 minutes until the onions are translucent.
- While these vegetables are sauteeing, chop the zucchini and parsnip into 2-3mm coins. Chop the mushrooms into quarters. When the onions are ready, add the zucchini and mushrooms into the saucepan and stir for a minute or two. Add the tinned tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes over medium heat until the tomatoes are slightly reduced.
- Add the stock, parsnip, borlotti beans, bay leaf and 1 cup of water to the saucepan and let simmer for 20 minutes over low-medium heat. You may need to add another cup or two of water, depending on how thick you like your soup.
- Add pasta and simmer the soup for another five minutes. Then add the green beans, cavolo nero and half of the parsley and let simmer until the pasta is cooked (about another 5 or so minutes). Make sure you take the soup off the stove as soon as the pasta is al dente, as you do not want soggy, over cooked pasta…
- Ladle the soup into bowls, sprinkle over the remaining parsley and grate some parmesan on top. Enjoy as is, or with a thick slice of fresh bread to mop up the soup.