I had in my mind that I didn’t like minestrone. I probably got that idea from the numerous cans of it I’ve eaten over the years, with their suspicious cubed carrots and potatoes. All the chunks have the same texture, except the beans, which are mealy. And the taste of tin pervades each bite. Restaurant soup, with few exceptions, isn’t much better. It tastes like nothing more than tomato, holds no surprises, and is still a bit tinny. So I was convinced minestrone itself was deeply flawed.
Folks, I was wrong. (See, honey, I can admit it.) Last year my sister shared a bowl of her homemade batch and I saw the light. What a great soup I’ve been missing out on…at home. Minestrone is like stone soup. Remember that classic tale? Three soldiers arrive in a village hungry and asking for food. The villagers initially refuse to share their meager food supply (and why wouldn’t they), but once the soldiers start a pot of stone soup (just water and rocks initially), the townspeople are moved to contribute a little of this and a little of that. When combined, their shared resources make a delicious soup that everyone enjoys.
Minestrone is a bit like that. It can take almost anything you throw at it and yield a sum greater than its parts. It’s almost a technique or style, more than it is a recipe. I started with a simple base of onions, garlic, carrots and celery. To that I added what I had on hand: zucchini (no surprise there!) and kale. Other veggie combos to try would be green beans and chard, eggplant and spinach, okra and collards, you get the idea… You can really get creative if you want.
For more sustenance I added white beans (but any color would be fine). I cooked mine from dried, because that’s what I had, but canned would work just as well (better, really since it’s easier). If you want more starch, you could add cubed potatoes or pasta. (If you go the pasta route, just be sure to cook and store it separately from the rest of the soup or it will suck up all the liquid and you’ll be left with chunks of veggies and bloated pasta. Blech!)
Finally, a can (or jar of homemade) chunky tomatoes is needed to give it that classic minestrone taste. (Frankly, I think that may be the only required element in a minestrone. Practically everything else is negotiable.) I used chunky tomato sauce, but diced or (chopped) whole tomatoes would work, too.
But here’s the trick. Even homemade minestrone will taste like a can unless you either add a bit of wine or let the soup sit for a day or so before eating (or both). We ate ours right away and the splash of red wine was all it needed to taste slow-cooked and rich. You could add more if you like (maybe up to 1 cup?). I was just being stingy. (Okay fine, I wanted to save some to drink with my soup.) If you prefer, you could instead use 2T or so of balsamic vinegar. It would lend a different taste to the minestrone, but have a similar flavor-deepening effect.
So it’s full steam ahead with minestrone improv around here. (I was never good at improv jazz solos, but I can definitely riff on this!) The canned versions and restaurant soup (not so special) specials – they’re still banned.
BTW, this recipe makes about 8 servings, depending on how restrained you can be once you taste it. And you can make it for about 10 bucks. Now how many cans would that buy? Not eight. Homemade wins again!
Time: 20 minutes hands-on, 1 ½ hours total (more if using dried beans)
Yield: 8 servings
2T olive oil
1t bacon grease (optional)
2 celery stalks
4 garlic cloves
1 lb zucchini
3c kale (about 2/3 bunch, or equal amount of chard, spinach or beet greens – you can use up the rest in quiche, lentil soup, or vegetable stew)
1t dried thyme
1t dried oregano
1t dried basil
3c water (or broth, omitting the bouillon)
2t bouillon (beef, chicken or vegetable)
1 (28 oz) can chunky tomato sauce (diced or chopped whole tomatoes)
1 ½ c beans (I used white, but pinto, kidney, etc… would work)
¼ c (or more) red wine (optional)
1. If using dried beans, put 1c in a small saucepan. Add water until beans are covered by 2 inches. Add fresh or dried herbs if desired to add flavor (I used a sprig of fresh oregano) and ½ t salt (also optional). Bring to a boil then turn down to a simmer. Cook until soft but not falling apart (about an hour or more).
2. Chop all the vegetables and set aside.
3. Heat oil (and grease) on medium-high heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. When glistening, add in the onions, garlic, carrots and celery, stirring occasionally. Cook until soft (about 10 minutes).
4. Add in the zucchini, kale and dried herbs and cook an additional 5-10 minutes.
5. Add the water (or broth), bouillon, tomato, 1c beans (reserving the other ½ c) and wine. Let the pot return slowly to a simmer.
6. (Optional step to make a slightly thicker soup: At this point, puree or thoroughly mash the remaining ½ c of beans until smooth. Add them into the pot. If not, add in all 1 1/2 c in the previous step.)
7. Let the soup simmer gently for 45 minutes to an hour. Check the texture of the vegetables occasionally. All you need is for it to heat through and meld the flavors. You don’t want the veggies to cook much further while simmering. Shut the heat off while they are still soft but not mushy.
8. Serve immediately (with parmesan) or cool and save for later.
Freezing: This soup freezes very well. As always, cool on the counter, chill in the fridge and then freeze for best results. If using pasta you could add the pasta to the soup just before freezing. It won’t have time to bloat if you freeze immediately and then reheat from frozen later on. You just don’t want the pasta sitting in the soup while in the fridge (either before or after freezing).