I just made a potful of soup, packed with seasonal vegetables. Italians call this minestrone, a “big soup,” compared to a less ambitious minestra featuring fewer ingredients.
Pellegrino Artusi, the so-called “father of Italian cuisine,” tells an amusing but sobering story. In 1855, he found himself in the coastal city of Livorno. Entering a trattoria, he asked what kind of soup was on offer. “Che c’e di minestra?” The answer: minestrone. After dining, Artusi suffered for several days from “a severe revolution in the body,” including diarrhea.
He fled the city, swearing never to eat minestrone again–only to learn later that cholera had struck Livorno, killing the trattoria owner, and was likely the cause of his affliction. Not the soup after all, he concluded.
But perhaps the soup was at fault, given that, as it was soon discovered, cholera spreads through contaminated food or water.
We’ll never be sure about that particular soup, but Artusi’s description of how to make minestrone lives on. Root vegetables, cut small. Beans. Some kind of greens. Rice, to thicken the soup. The most important directive: Modify the soup “a modo vostro” according to the tastes of your region and the vegetables you find.
That advice still holds today. Artusi decrees that minestrone is not for delicate stomachs, but I respectfully disagree. I consider a hearty minestrone to be the healthiest of soups.
I’ve been making minestrone for 40 years, so I don’t follow a recipe. Once I’ve gathered suitable ingredients, the soup building begins. Key steps:
Lay down a flavor base. My soffritto begins with onion in olive oil. As it progresses toward golden, I dice celery, carrots, garlic, adding each as I finish. Onion and garlic can be chopped, but other vegetables should be diced small, all the same size, so they look nice and mingle well. If you have decent knife skills, it doesn’t take that long—and is not onerous, once you get some music or a podcast going.
Some cooks add small bits of pancetta at this stage but I don’t.
Keep adding vegetables such as zucchini and potatoes. I love the rhythm of preparing each ingredient as the one I’ve just added gently sautés.
Season and cover with liquid. For me, the basics are canned tomatoes I crush or puree, the liquid from dried beans I’ve cooked, and water. Many classic minestrone recipes call for meat or chicken broth, which does add depth of flavor, but I prefer letting the soup sing its vegetal heart out. At this point, I throw in a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano rind, if I have it, to further enrich the soup.
Simmer until the ingredients are very tender, adding greens, rice or another grain, and cooked beans during the last hour of cooking. Let the soup rest overnight, refrigerated, for the flavors to marry.
Dish up your soup. Minestrare, the root of minestra and minestrone, refers to this joyous act. Drizzle each serving with good olive oil, set a bowl of grated cheese on the table and serve it forth.
This recipe makes about four quarts of soup. Use your largest pot and plan on sharing with family and friends.
- 1 large or 2 medium onions
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3 stalks celery
- 3 carrots
- Up to 4 cloves garlic
- 2 medium potatoes peeled
- 2 zucchini
- 1 can (28-ounce) plum tomatoes with puree
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 piece Parmigiano Reggiano rind optional
- 3 cups shredded kale cabbage or other greens
- 3 cups cooked cranberry or cannellini beans plus their liquid if cooked from scratch
- ¾ cup farro, Arborio rice or pastine
- Best extra-virgin olive oil for garnishing, optional
- Chopped parsley or other fresh herbs optional
- Grated Parmigiano Reggiano or other hard Italian cheese
Finely chop onion and cook with olive oil over medium heat until golden brown. Meanwhile, cut celery and carrots in small dice. Add to saucepan, stir and reduce heat to low. Chop garlic and add to saucepan. Cook for a few minutes to release aromas.
Cut potatoes and zucchini in small dice, adding to saucepan. Briefly puree tomatoes in a blender or squish between your fingers. Stir into vegetable mixture. Add water* to a depth of 2 inches above ingredients. Season with salt (about 1 tablespoon) and pepper. Add cheese rind, if using.
Bring liquid to a simmer, reduce heat and barely simmer until vegetables are very tender, adding kale, beans and farro during last 45 minutes of cooking (add water as needed).
Before serving, cut cheese rind in small pieces and return to soup. If you like, garnish each serving with a swirl of olive oil and/or chopped herbs, and pass a bowl of dgrated cheese.
*If you like, chicken broth can be substituted for part or all of the water. If the broth is seasoned, cut back on the amount of salt added.