Soup is the perfect party food. No, really, it is! Warm, soothing, comforting, and full of nutrients. Simple to make and universally loved, soup is a wonderful component of a dinner party. On cold days nothing warms you as much as a bowl of steaming broth, on hot days a cool Gazpacho is refreshing. Whether you serve it as a first course or entree, at lunch or dinner, soup warms the soul.
Minestrone is one of my favorites to make. Like most soups it is a great way to utilize leftovers or excess produce in your refrigerator and pantry. Add enough vegetables and pasta and it fills you up. Add slabs of fresh bread and you have a meal that everyone loves.
There are a surprising number of ways to make Minestrone. It can be completely vegetarian using plain water or a vegetable stock, or more commonly here in America, it is made with beef, veal, or chicken broth. Order it at different restaurants and sometimes it is pale golden, and other times it arrives a deep red. It can be a thick, rich soup or a light broth with vegetables. It all depends on the preferences of the chef.
Minestrone has been around since recorded history and started as a purely vegetable soup with a little spelt flour for thickening. In the Mid 16th Century the introduction of tomatoes and potatoes from the Americas changed the nature of the common vegetable soup. As this soup developed, regional differences emerged and, with the lack of formal recipes, distinct differences became the norm. Each region proudly pronounces their version as the “best.”
My own version varies nearly as much as it does in Italy. Depending on the season and my cravings at the moment, the ingredients change. Sometimes I make a pure vegetarian version and sometimes I use stock and add some meat. But for me there are a few constants: mirepoix, fresh vegetables, herbs, and pasta. Beyond that, add whatever you like!
Do you know what Italian parsley looks like? It can easily be confused with cilantro, but Italian parsley has a more elongated and less feathery cluster of leaves. When in doubt, smell it – parsley smells sort of grassy and cilantro is very pungent. Here’s a photo to help you out!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Because the pasta absorbs so much of the broth and becomes too soft if cooked in the soup, I always make it separately. Boil it in well salted water, drain, and toss with a little olive oil. Then I place a little in each bowl and pour in a couple of ladles of the soup. Stir, sprinkle with chopped fresh herbs, and serve. The pasta is cooked to perfection and there is plenty of broth in every bowl.
Kitchen Skill: Cooking Pasta al dente
Why: To rid the world of overcooked pasta!
How: Set a colander or strainer in your sink. Bring a very large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add 1 to 2 tbsp kosher salt. The water should taste salty! Pour in pasta, stirring. Bring back to a boil then reduce heat to medium-high. If it is threatening to foam over, add about 1 tsp oil. Stirring occasionally, cook until pasta is softened but still has some resistance when you bite it. This is usually 1 to 2 minutes less than package directions. Remember that it will continue to cook with the residual heat! Drain in colander and immediately add back to pot. Stir in a little olive oil or prepared sauce to prevent sticking. Enjoy!
- 8 oz pasta, such as penne, macaroni, orecchiette, mini shells, etc. or more if desired
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 2 stalks celery, chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 4 medium carrots, chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
- 1 tbsp minced fresh rosemary or thyme leaves
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 cups of diced fresh tomatoes or 1 (xx oz) can diced tomatoes, with their juice
- 1 quart (4 cups) low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock
- Parmesan rind, optional
- 1 tsp salt
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 (14 oz) cans cannellini beans or home-cooked
- 4 to 5 medium-sized red, Yukon Gold, or Russet potatoes (peel Russets), diced
- 1 to 2 cups thinly sliced greens, such as cabbage, Swiss chard, kale, or spinach
- 2 to 3 small zucchini
- 1/4 to 1/2 fresh lemon, optional
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Freshly minced Italian parsley or basil
- About 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil and cook pasta al dente, about 1 minute less than recommended on package directions. Drain thoroughly and toss with a little olive oil to prevent sticking. Keep warm over very low heat.
- In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Cook onions, celery, and carrots in oil until softened, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and herbs, and cook about 1 minute or until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and chicken stock. Add water if needed until liquid is covering vegetables by about 2 inches. Add Parmesan rind if you have one. Stir in salt and pepper. Bring to a boil.
- Take one of the cans of beans and smash them into a paste (this thickens the soup). Add this paste plus the other can of beans and the potatoes to the pot. Cook until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the greens and zucchini and cook an additional 5 minutes or until zucchini is barely done. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust salt and pepper. Squeeze in a little lemon juice if desired. Let sit off the heat for about 15 minutes for flavors to blend. Soup may be made up to 2 days ahead to this point. Store in the refrigerator and reheat when ready to serve.
- Meanwhile, place some pasta into each soup bowl. Add 1 to 2 ladles of soup. Pour a little olive oil over the top of each bowl, sprinkle with some Parmesan cheese and the parsley or basil. Serve immediately with slices of crusty artisan bread. Mangia!
- Yield: about 4 to 6 main course servings