You probably don’t need a whole tin of plum tomatoes for today’s recipe: half will do. You might be tempted to put them all in, reasoning that you are making a big panful, and you don’t want another half tin of something hanging around the fridge, being pushed further and further in until it freezes to the back wall. I mention this as I recently tipped a whole tin in. I am suggesting you don’t, as it tips the tomatoes from being collaborative to shouty. The minestrone was tasty and satisfying, but my every mouthful was accompanied by the same nag I have when I wish I hadn’t said something. Why did I do that?
In Italian, the suffix –one denotes “big”. So culo (bottom) becomes culone, a big bottom; naso (nose) becomes nasone, a big nose; minestra (soup, of course) becomes minestrone, a big soup. Minestrone, like minestra, comes from the word ministrare, which means to administer, or distribute, in this case a substantial soup from the pot to many plates, a convivial action that unites us in an everyday way.
Minestrone also sums up the Italian knack for taking the most basic and economic ingredients and bringing them together in a delicious way. In her book the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan describes how Italian soups owe their character to two elements: the season and their place of origin. I would add two more elements: the state of both the fridge and cook. Nowhere is this combination of elements more apparent than with minestrone, the many versions of which are almost as useful as a map or calendar.
For the minestrone from her home region of Romagna, Marcella uses – as do many of her recipes – beef stock, plenty of cabbage and a finishing touch of grated parmesan. Her Milanese minestrone includes basil and is enriched with rice for a dish served at room temperature during the hot and still summer months. In a heavyweight tome called Le Ricette Regionali d’Italia – The Regional Cooking of Italy – a comprehensive yet concise collection of Italian recipes, there are eight versions of minestrone. A recipe from the Ligurian coast includes lettuce, wild greens and a nifty swirl of pesto, while a Tuscan dish is dense with white beans, cavolo nero and served over day-old bread. A Piedmontese version is rich with globe and jerusalem artichokes. Then, like a session of improvisational music making, all these versions have infinite personal variations.
But as lovely as it is to discover regional variations, and to stay faithful to “authentic” recipes, cooking is also about being inspired – about being given a basis to improvise around, using what you have, putting together combinations you enjoy. With this sort of cooking, freedom reigns. Every minestrone begins with some sort of soffritto of aromatic vegetables in fat. Then more vegetables, maybe herbs, probably beans, certainly liquid – all of which is cooked over a low flame for some time until the soup has a dense, mellow flavour. Marcella says the flavour should recall no vegetable in particular, but all of them at once. The “big soup” can be finished with pasta, rice, bread, grated cheese, or simply a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.
Minestrone is made with a staggered march into the pan. By adding the ingredients gradually you lay down foundations of flavour, one thing sizzling gently while you chop the next. Once everything is in the pan – including the marvellous, umami parmesan rind if you have one – let everything simmer, slowly, until the flavours have come together. As is so often the case, an overnight rest improves flavours, so it is worth making a big panful. It also freezes well, but before you add pasta. Just defrost and then reheat gently.
The recipe below is a template. I wish I’d had a handful of frozen peas to throw in … and I am still nagged by that whole tin of tomatoes, but isn’t this how we learn? Spring is in the air in Rome, but evenings still close in thick and fast and a big pan of a big soup bubbling away, then shared out, is a good thing – especially when enjoyed with a glass of red wine.
- 2 red onions
- 2 carrots
- 2 celery sticks
- 40g butter or pancetta
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 200g potatoes, peeled and diced
- 300g other vegetables: fennel/ peas/ turnip/artichoke heart/leek/pumpkin
- 200g savoy cabbage or kale
- 120g tinned plum or fresh tomatoes (around half a tin)
- A large parmesan rind
- 400g cooked cannellini beans
First serving for 4
150g short pasta, such a ditalini or mafalda, or rice
2 tbsp grated parmesan
Second serving for 4
4 slices toast
2 tbsp grated parmesan
1 Peel and dice the onion, carrot and celery. In a large, heavy-based pan, over a medium-low heat, gently fry these in the olive oil and butter (or pancetta) with a pinch of salt, stirring every now and then for about 8 minutes, or until soft and fragrant.
2 Meanwhile, peel and dice the potatoes, then add them to the pan, stir and cook for 5 minutes. Chop the other vegetables, shred the cabbage/kale, add all these to the pan and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the tinned tomatoes (resist the urge to put in more than half a tin) and parmesan rind, stir, then add 2 litres of water, cover and leave to simmer gently for 1½ hours.
3 Add the beans. Stir and cook for another 30 minutes. If you find the minestrone is looking a little too thick, or dry, add a little more water. Once cooked, fish out the rind and season with salt and pepper.
4 To serve, two ways. On the first day, serve half the soup with some short pasta or rice cooked separately until al dente; maybe swirl in some grated parmesan. The second day, serve it over toast zig-zagged with olive oil and sprinkled with cheese.
- Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and the author of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome (Saltyard) and winner of the André Simon food book award @racheleats
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