Sunday, November 1, 2009

Making It Your Own

I make soup frequently, especially as the days get shorter and the nights colder. It’s not hard to make a batch to eat all week or freeze for another time. If you’d like to try making your own too, minestrone is a great choice.

Minestrone is the ultimate vegetable soup. It allows personal variation and is really easy to make using a good broth and simple, pure vegetables like carrots, green beans, celery and zucchini. The result is a crowd pleaser that you'll return to all year long as different vegetables come into season. I started adapting the minestrone recipe from the 1980 edition of the Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook almost as soon as I tried it. This is a very reliable cookbook with excellent technique and I only disagree in a few areas—one of which is bouillon cubes. I prefer low-sodium canned broths if I don’t have time to make my own stock. I also add a few extra herbs and pasta to my version and switch out the beans to try different ones in the soup. Sometimes I have time to use dried beans but mostly I use low-sodium canned white kidney beans.

Here’s my house minestrone. Use the technique as a base and add or subtract an item or two to make your own signature dish. Leave out any vegetables you don’t like but try it once with the cabbage and spinach. Also, feel free to add any leftover or favorite vegetables to the mix. The vegetables can be chopped fairly large. They’ll stand up well to the long simmer and give you a stew-like feel. This is a big soup, suitable as an entrée served with bread and cheese or a salad.

If you are pressed for time, chop the vegetables a day ahead. You will be amazed at how relaxing it is to cook with pre-prepped ingredients.

1-2 T olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 celery, scrubbed, peeled and sliced
1 cup green beans (a large handful), in 3 cm pieces
8 cups broth (chicken or vegetable)
1 16-oz can tomatoes (no-salt)
1/2 cup red wine (optional)
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried dill
1-2 medium zucchini, halved and sliced
2 cups chopped cabbage (about 1/2 head)
1 can white kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup uncooked pasta (small shapes like ditilini) or rice
2 cups spinach
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
garnish: fresh basil leaves, torn in pieces or cut julienne-style

In a large soup pot (or Dutch oven) heat a few tablespoons of olive oil and sauté over medium heat onions, celery, carrots, potatoes and green beans until tender and just starting to brown. This will take 15-20 minutes.

Add broth, tomatoes and wine (if using). Stir together, breaking up tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Add zucchini, cabbage and dried herbs. (If using rice instead of pasta, add uncooked rice at this stage.) Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and let cook 30-40 minutes until vegetables are very tender.

Remove cover, add uncooked pasta and drained beans. Cook on low heat until pasta is ready, about 10-12 minutes. If not using pasta, allow beans to heat and cook down a few minutes. Turn off heat. Stir in cheese and spinach.

Serve immediately with basil and extra cheese or cool and store in refrigerator overnight to allow flavors to develop. This soup freezes quite well.

Note: you can skip the rice/pasta step if you have cooked leftovers. Just add 1/2-1 cup with the beans.

If you like pesto, the basil-parmesan-pine nut sauce, try pistou for an extra punch of freshness in your minestrone instead of the grated cheese and basil leaf garnish. In a small food processor, finely chop a cup of fresh basil leaves and a clove of garlic. Add 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese and 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil and mix thoroughly. Finish with a dash of salt and pepper to taste. Serve in a small bowl with a spoon so everyone can dribble a bit into his or her soup. This makes a delicious bread dip too so you may want to double the recipe.