Saturday, October 16, 2004
Minestrone is a great soup because it is comforting and very flexible. There are certain things I always put in mine - leeks or onions, celery, carrots, canned tomatoes, cannelini beans, and (these are what make the soup better-than-usual) green beans and fresh basil - but to a large extent, quantities and what-else-I-have-around are pretty flexible. The last batch I made had chopped chard and chunked butternut squash in it. This batch was made with chicken broth, not veggie, and had meatballs (yay Trader Joe's! - these were also originally intended for Italian wedding soup), the escarole, and mushrooms. The soup is pretty good without the extras (esp. if you have lots of basil!).
My recipe (such as it is) is a riff on the one in a most excellent soup cookbook. I did, however, review the original when I "wrote it down" and realized that I had made several major departures. It doesn't have celery, includes cabbage and other things, includes the pasta (I figure I already have enough carbs in my life) and uses chicken. But it did give me the idea that green beans and fresh basil (and mushrooms when I have them) are great in minestrone.
Preparing the aromatics:
Chop or slice 1-3 each leeks, scrubbed carrots, and celery ribs and saute in a little olive oil in a Dutch oven till soft, taking care to not burn them. If you feel like adding something like bell peppers, chard ribs, cabbage, or winter squash that would benefit from similar treatment, this is the place to do it.
When you figure these are done, add 1-2 cloves sliced or minced garlic and saute for one minute more, till it is fragrant.
Add one 14 oz can of good quality canned tomatoes (diced by you, or the manufacturer ... if you do it, kitchen shears in the can work well), a couple of bay leaves, some sprigs of thyme, and a good quantity of fresh basil, chopped or cut in chiffonade.
Then add the beans. I use the equivalent of two 14 oz cans of beans. If I can get fresh cannellini or cranberry beans, as I often can in the late summer to early fall, I am on those like white on rice. Otherwise I use at least one can of good-quality cannellini beans (I like Progresso brand) and sometimes mix it up by including kidney or garbanzo beans. If you have a Parmesan rind, and are not feeding vegans, add it here.
You could, of course, use dried beans that have been soaked. You will need to simmer the soup a lot longer to cook them. I have actually put the canned-bean soup together in about thirty-five minutes, the last twenty or so of which did not require my attention.
Here's a trick I learned from Cook's Illustrated: At this point, DO NOT ADD THE BROTH. Salt it a bit and cover the Dutch oven. Let the tomatoes and beans simmer together for at least ten minutes. It is very flexible at this point so if you want to leave it longer, go ahead.
If you are adding some vegetable that needs to be simmered for a while, such as kale, put it in now, and put some of the broth in too. But not all of it.
This one I play by ear. It depends on what I am going to put in the soup. I add the broth (minimum I use is six cups; this works out to be one of those aseptic containers - I usually use mushroom or roasted veggie broth, but Swanson's chicken is very nice if you are not feeding vegetarians - and a can. Or, of course, homemade if I have it) and then the rest of the veggies based on how long it takes them to cook. Mushrooms will go in (sliced) and simmer for at least ten minutes. Similar for chard leaves (cut in ribbons) or escarole (ditto). If you want a soup with meat in it, Italian-style meatballs or chunks of chicken are very tasty in this. Again, some things are pretty flexible. Make sure the broth has enough salt in it (taste).
The last thing I do is put the green beans in. A good line of frozen, especially frozen French filet beans, is entirely acceptable in the wintertime. What I usually do, in an attempt to keep some color in the beans, is add them and immediately take the pot off the heat. The retained heat will cook them, especially if (as I often do) I am making the soup for later consumption.
Remove any rinds, thyme sprigs, and bay leaves and serve. Parmesan is good in this, as is commercial pesto.
If you are using pasta of any description in this, cook the noodles seperately. They will absorb all the liquid. Trust me on this one (although those shells cooked in homemade chicken broth were marvellously tasty).