Just a short drive from our house in Colorado Springs is our favorite Italian market and deli Mollica’s, which is perhaps best known as a popular, packed lunch spot on Garden of the Gods Road just west of I-25. Mollica’s is the happy kind of place that still serves old school “red sauce” meals like spaghetti and meatballs or a very good lasagna (all made with fresh pasta) as well as yummy pizza and calzone — though I couldn’t call it a “pizza place.” A large part of the lunch menu has always been devoted to stellar sandwiches (think grinders from house made sausage, scratch meatballs, heroes, and hot Italian beef) and a full line of filling salads that of course are served with fresh bread and butter. While I’m ready to eat anything Mollica’s makes –check out their dinner specials, too — I nearly always choose a salad because I can also get a cup of their minestrone–a simple and herby vegetable soup that just hits the sweet spot in my tummy. Occasionally I wonder why I don’t make some minestrone at home, but for some reason, I rarely do. That just changed.
Last week, with a big piece of leftover roast turkey breast peering out at me from the fridge, I had a feeling it was time for minestrone — there was just enough lean turkey to add a good bit of protein without overpowering the gorgeous vegetables. Maybe I only miss going to Mollicas; we’ve had take-out a time or two, but it’s not the same as eating at one of their tables covered with the red checked tablecloths. (Could I need a new tablecloth?) I had dry cannellini beans in the cupboard, fresh greens in the vegetable drawer, a bin full of onions and potatoes, a five-pound bag of carrots, some zucchini, and at least two quarts of homemade chicken stock in the garage freezer. What I was lacking was a little pancetta, which is Italian bacon that is salted, but not smoked. It comes in very thin slices or in chunks or already diced. Bacon can sub for pancetta, but for minestrone, pancetta’s the thing that flavors the soup and helps make it taste like… well, like minestrone. (I’ll insert here that many minestrones are made without meat; I include a link for a vegetarian recipe in MORE INFO THAN YOU WANTED down below. Some are even served cool or at room temperature come summertime.) I added the pancetta to the online list of things we were picking up the next day and I was about to be off to the soup races.
The thought of spending most of the day, off and on, cooking beans, thawing broth, and then making soup I could share with a few friends, filled my heart and gave me a big something to do to take my mind off the frightening political mess our country has gotten itself into. While a good book has its own draws, there’s little like being busy in the kitchen or smelling something lovely cooking to lift one’s spirits.
I like Bob’s Red Mill cannellini beans. While you could use any white beans (dry or canned), the larger cannellini beans show up in the soup a little better and are also known as white kidney beans.
So what is minestrone anyway? Read on below; it appears the Italians agree with me–soup is a remedy!
The word minestrone, meaning a thick vegetable soup, is attested in English from 1871. It is from Italian minestrone, the augmentative form of minestra, “soup”, or more literally, “that which is served”, from minestrare, “to serve” and cognate with administer as in “to administer a remedy”.
Because of its unique origins and the absence of a fixed recipe, minestrone varies widely across Italy depending on traditional cooking times, ingredients, and season. Minestrone ranges from a thick and dense texture with very boiled-down vegetables, to a more brothy soup with large quantities of diced and lightly cooked vegetables; it may also include meats.
In modern Italian there are three words corresponding to the English word soup: zuppa, which is used in the sense of tomato soup, or fish soup; minestra, which is used in the sense of a more substantial soup such as a vegetable soup, and also for “dry” soups, namely pasta dishes; and minestrone, which means a very substantial or large soup or stew, though the meaning has now come to be associated with this particular dish.wikipedia
In other words, the Italian-American restaurant version of minestrone is only one thought. Think of it as a vegetable soup including local/seasonal ingredients that make it a specific region’s or even a certain cook’s famous specialty. I decided to look around and get a few different ideas about how the soup’s made by a some different cooks:
Research in my own cookbook library brought up Marcella Hazan's "Minestrone ala Romagnola -- Vegetables Soup Romagna Style," which featured a long, slow cooking of seasonal vegetables plus the staples (onions, celery, carrots) in a good meat broth. The recipe includes cannellini beans and a crust of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese much like mine does. The fats, however, are both olive oil and butter and there is no meat other than what was used to flavor the broth. In ESSENTIALS OF CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKING, Marcella also gives a recipe for a summer version, Milan style, served at room temperature with rice.
If you’ll read this story of minestrone by Jul, one of my favorite Italian food bloggers in Tuscany, you’ll get a real kick out of hearing how her Italian mother made it (a frozen bag of soup is a part of the story) — and perhaps will also enjoy her special recipe which features fresh spring or early summer vegetables (yummy new peas, for instance), olive oil, and water — totally vegetarian.
The encyclopedic and famous Italian tome, THE SILVER SPOON, includes a wide variety of minestroni in its “primi piatti” (first course) section. They range from a Tuscan soup full of rosemary, beans, and greens with rice to a winter minestrone based on potatoes, leeks, turnip, cabbage, and chard. Only one included pasta and that was the soup from Naples. Two included Parmesan cheese and one was topped with grated provolone.
So after looking those and a few other recipes over ( btw: one or two included pesto!! stirred in at the end), I felt quite within my rights to make my Colorado minestrone with the ingredients I had at hand and to season it to my heart’s desire. My turkey, needing a fast home, would be perfectly fine to make this a one-pot meal and if I wanted to toss in a handful of dried herbs (it is, after all, winter here) I could do so without a worry or a care. In fact, I could add the kitchen sink. Well, not the kitchen sink, but …
I’ll be thinking about what might be on your counter or in your fridge or freezer because there are myriad ways to change up this soup. Maybe you’d like your dinner very, very meaty and all you have is some ground turkey or beef or Italian sausage. Brown the meat up with onions, carrots, and celery and proceed with a smile on your face. Or there are a couple of leftover pork chops or a small piece of pot roast in the fridge? Cut any cooked meat into small dice and toss it in with the last addition of vegetables. What about that cup of steamed green beans you almost threw away? Ok! That now tiny bag of frozen peas or corn in the freezer? Sure; toss it in for the last 5 minutes of cooking. Minestrone is also a great venue for using up leftover pasta of any sort. If you’ve no Parmigiano-Reggiano, any other hard grating cheese will do or you can skip cheese and garnish with a little fresh parsley. However you make it, you could even name it for yourself (Jennifer’s Minestrone, for instance) or for the person who loves it best. Whatever you decide to throw in, I hope you’ll send a bowl to a neighbor while you’re at it because the recipe makes a lot. Try this:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/3- pound diced pancetta or bacon
- Large yellow onion, diced
- 4 leeks, white and light green parts only, sliced
- 3 stalks celery, diced
- 3 large carrots, trimmed and diced
- 1 fennel bulb, trimmed and diced
- Kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, and crushed red pepper
- 4 large, plump cloves of garlic, minced
- ½ cup white wine
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 28- ounce can diced tomatoes
- 2 quarts chicken stock, homemade or purchased low-sodium
- 3 quarts water, or more as needed to keep the soup very brothy (if you cooked dry beans, you can use some or all of the bean broth)
- Parmesan rind
- 2 cups chopped cabbage
- 1 large turnip or potato, peeled and diced (could sub 2 parsnips)
- 2 teaspoons each dried thyme, oregano, basil, and rosemary – or to taste
- Bay leaf
- 2 cups cooked, diced turkey (about 2/3-pound)
- 3 cups cooked cannellini beans, or two 15-ounce cans, drained
- 1 medium zucchini, diced
- 1 cup shredded fresh kale leaves (dice stems and sauté with onions, etc. if you like)
- Hot sauce–optional
- ½ pound ditalini or tubetti pasta, cooked (season the cooked pasta with salt, pepper, and a good drizzle of olive oil)
- Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving
- Heat a 12-quart soup pot over medium flame; drizzle oil in evenly. Add pancetta, onions, leeks, celery, and carrots. Stir and season with a teaspoon kosher salt, ½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper, and 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper. Cook, stirring, for 10 minutes or until vegetables are softening. Add garlic and cook another minute or two.
- Pour in white wine; cook several minutes, stirring, or until wine is reduced by half or so. Stir in the tomato paste. Add the tomatoes with the juice, chicken stock, and water along with the parmesan rind, the cabbage, and the turnip or potato. Sprinkle and stir in all of the dried herbs, including the bay leaf; add another teaspoon of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer and cook covered 30 minutes, adding water if needed to keep the vegetables floating freely in the broth. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more pepper as needed.
- Add cooked turkey, cooked cannellini beans, zucchini, and kale. Gently simmer covered another 30-45 minutes or until all vegetables are tender, adding more water if soup becomes too thick. Taste and adjust seasonings one last time, adding a dash or more of hot sauce if you like. Remove parmesan rind. For a thicker soup, purée very briefly with immersion blender or by pulsing two or three cups of the soup in the food processor and returning to pot. Serve hot topped with a few spoons full of cooked pasta and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.Whoever gets the bay leaf does the dishes.STORAGE: 3-4 days in the fridge. 4-6 months in the freezer if made from just cooked turkey. I would not re-freeze if you've made this from previously frozen turkey or other meat.
WINE: Since this is a big soup, whole-meal deal, break out an inexpensive Chianti and call it good. Really. There’s no need to spend much, though a “Classico” or “Reserve” will taste just a little better than a B-flat Chianti.
SIDES: Nothing more than crusty bread. Butter if you need it. Skip dessert. This is January after all!
MORE INFO THAN YOU WANTED:
White Bean Hummus Recipe/MYRECIPES (Note: you can sub peanut butter for the tahini. It’s good.)
Minestrone from Scratch: File under Adulting/JULS’ KITCHEN (one of my favorite Italian food blogs)
LIFE GOES ON:
I made my own Pear-Almond Torte for Date Night dessert. Discovered the recipe needed editing. I will rewrite it soon, but if by chance you make it, the baking powder is listed in the ingredients deck but not in the directions. It goes in at the same time the salt does. Duh, Alyce. I’m often my own worst editor. This is an easy, accessible, but elegant dessert I often serve with whipped cream laced with scotch. You can make it with apples, too.
One of my favorite writers, Susan Herrmann Loomis (dancing tomatoes.com) just published a beautiful new book. Will soon show you what I’m cooking up from PLAT DU JOUR: FRENCH DINNERS MADE EASY. Check out a video of Susan teaching how to make my favorite dough for pie, pâte brisée (–pronounced: paht bree-ZAY)
Friday’s breakfast: eggs poached in 1 scant cup of leftover bean soup. Best use for just a wee bit of soup in the fridge.
It’s a scary time; I’m in prayer for peace. James Taylor sings “America” so beautifully. I’ll leave it right there,