Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lunchtime comfort for this seemingly endless winter – the Joys of Soup!

We have a special guest blogger with us this week: my darling (and talented) wife, Vicki, who is also an excellent cook in her own right. We often combine efforts while making meals, but I generally get completely out of her way when soup is on the menu. She has a special talent when it comes to making delicious, warming soups and many of her recipes are original. This is one of them, and I can guarantee you’ll enjoy this minestrone if you essay forth. So take it away, Vicki! (The photo to the right was taken on our first night in Rome during a writing research trip in June 2011.)

I usually don’t complain about the weather, mostly because it’s pointless – there’s nothing you can do about it! But this winter (evidently the coldest in over 20 years) has turned me into a miserable grumbler, even when it’s sunny. As a result, I’ve been baking bread every week, and making lots of soup. I find both of these activities very calming, the same way I feel about gardening. My total focus is on the task at hand, and random thoughts almost never flit into my mind.

Minestrone with our homemade pesto.
Today I would like to share with you my newest labour of love: minestrone. My previous experience with minestrone consisted of opening a can, heating it up, and thinking how dreadfully mediocre it was. Therefore I seldom ate it, and shied away from it in restaurants as well.

As you may know from Rick’s previous postings, I am studying Italian. I have a fantastic teacher, Sabrina, and I really love the language, culture, and cuisine (la cucina), as well as the beautiful countryside and, of course, the Italian people.

At a recent lesson, I brought in a translation I had done of a recipe from Sale e Pepe, an Italian cooking magazine. Since the recipe required stock or broth (brodo), I asked what was the difference between brodo, minestra and zuppa, especially the last two. Well, that is not easily answered! La zuppa often contains pieces of meat (or fish) cooked in the broth, and la minestra usually contains cut up pieces of vegetable cooked in the broth, and often some sort of starch, either pasta, rice or grain depending on the region. Plus there is minestra chiara (clear) and minestra legata (thickened). There are so many recipes that it seems pretty well impossible to give a definitive answer. The reason I decided to try to make minestrone was because I had a ‘light bulb’ moment after that lesson. In Italian, when you see ‘one’ on the end of the word it often means large. So minestrone is a large minestra!

In the pot simmering.
Here is my version which, although it has potatoes, does not contain a starch like rice or pasta. You could, of course, add this. I’m going to try it the next time. It’s not a quick recipe unless you’re really fast at cutting up vegetables, but it does cook quickly once everything is ready. It is so packed with veggies that it almost looks like a stew!

I like to have all my ingredients ready before I start cooking so that I can relax and not worry about the dish getting overdone because I’m still chopping vegetables while things are cooking. You can also make this a completely vegetarian recipe by leaving out the pancetta and using only vegetable stock. You could use zucchini and or summer (yellow) squash instead of winter squash. I had some left over sugar snap peas which I put in this time and they tasted really good. And of course I also used some of Rick’s delicious home-cured pancetta. Enjoy!

Vittoria’s Minestrone
Serves 6

4 oz (113 gms) pancetta, 1/2-inch (1 cm) dice
2 Tbs olive oil
3 Tbs garlic, minced
1 cup leeks, white only, cut in half lengthwise, then in 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) slices
1 cup onions, chopped
1 cup celery, 1/2 in (1cm) dice
1 cup carrot, 1/2 in (1cm) dice
3 cups vegetable stock
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup tomatoes, skinned and chopped (canned if you like)
2 fresh bay leaves
1 cup red-skin potato, 1/2 in (1cm) dice
1 cup French or regular green beans, cut in 1 in (2.5 cm) pieces
1 cup winter squash, like buttercup or butternut, but not acorn 1/2 in (1cm) dice
1 can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups Savoy cabbage, shredded
1 Tbs fresh thyme (if you are not using pesto for a garnish)
3 Tbs fresh parsley, chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
pesto and/or grated parmigiano cheese, crostini for garnish


  • Warm the olive oil in a large pot. Add the pancetta and cook at a low heat for about 8-10 minutes until the fat is rendered. Remove the pancetta from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  • Add the minced garlic to the fat, sauté for 30-40 seconds, then add the leeks, onions, celery and carrots. Increase the heat to medium, sprinkle with a bit of salt and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently so that the vegetables cook evenly.
  • Pour in the stock, add the tomatoes, potatoes and bay leaves. Bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add the green beans, squash and kidney beans. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the cabbage, parsley, thyme and cooked pancetta. Simmer for about 3-5 minutes until the cabbage is cooked.
  • Correct the seasoning, but remember to go easy on the salt if you are adding pesto and/or cheese until you have stirred them into the soup and tasted it. Serve the soup in a heated bowl.

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