MINESTRONE: A MARKET STORY
Most Saturdays, you’ll find me on the prowl for ingredients to turn into a dish with staying power, one that improves in flavor when made in advance and that will get us through part of a hectic week. In August, you might find an eggplant tian on our table (leftovers can be worked into pasta or provide the filling for a fabulous hero) and, in the winter, a pot roast or other braise is always a hit.
At the Union Square Greenmarket, my decision to make minestrone this week’s undertaking was sparked by the beautiful kale and cabbage from Northshire Farm, up in Herkimer County. There has already been frost upstate, and I knew the greens—basically, two variations of the same vegetable—would be the sweeter for it.
There are many versions of minestrone in the world, but as far as I’m concerned, if it doesn’t include kale, then it’s vegetable soup, not minestrone. I’m partial to the variety known as lacinato, which I always say has more aliases than a gangster on the lam. Whether a market purveyor or your local supermarket labels it Tuscan kale, black kale, cavolo nero (“black cabbage”), or dinosaur kale, it’s easily recognized by its crinkled leaves (above photo, at left) and the alluring, almost meaty, depth of flavor it brings to the pot.
In the mountainous Piedmont region of Italy, the narrow roads hairpin around backyard kitchen gardens filled with the plants, which grow a good two to three feet high and spread out luxuriantly, like palmettos. Their distinctive color—an inky green-blue-black—reminds me of the Atlantic Ocean, even in the foothills of the Alps. One of the darkest of the brassicas (which include broccoli, brussels sprouts, mustard greens, and collards), lacinato is packed with vitamins A, K, and C as well as calcium, protein, and loads of carotenoids; in fact, it’s one of the most nutritious (and delicious) vegetables on the planet. It’s also one of the easiest to prepare: In general, the stems and center ribs are tender enough to eat, so there’s no need to strip them out of the leaves beforehand.
Regular cabbage, with its tight head of smooth leaves, is perfectly fine in a minestrone, but given your druthers, choose a savoy type (above, at right) instead. Flaunting a characteristic loose hoop skirt of crinkled leaves, savoys have been immortalized by still-life painters and ceramicists for centuries, but they’ve long been renowned, too, for their hardiness and flavor. I was delighted by the manageable size of the ones above, and their sweetness is outstanding. I used one in the minestrone, and perhaps next week (cabbage keeps well in the fridge), I’ll shred the other and sauté it Indian-style, with cumin, chiles, and fresh ginger.
Beans play an integral role in minestrone—they contribute richness and body—but take care not to turn this into a bean soup. I always like to keep John Thorne’s rumination on minestrone (which you can find in his essay collection Mouth Wide Open) in mind. “Each aspect is rather delicate,” he observes, “and the main goal of the cook is to let all the parts shine through …. Because the soup is built around no special ingredient—beef, say, or chicken or meatballs or shrimp—no spoonful is to be treasured more than another.”
I also share John’s aversion to tossing a Parmigiano-Reggiano rind into the mix. “As anyone who has gnawed on one will know, the rind is nearly tasteless,” John writes, “and does nothing for the soup that a generous grating of the actual cheese can’t do better.” Reading that was liberating, and I stopped fishing a greasy, only slightly-less-hard remnant out of the finished soup (and feeling obliged to genuflect in the process) years ago.
One last thing: I’m not including a procedure for cooking the beans in the recipe below, so use whatever tried-and-true method works for you. What I often do is put a pound of dried beans to soak in the morning, then cook them up that night, while I’ve got supper working. The next day, I’ll use some in minestrone, and freeze the rest in small, easy-to-thaw amounts. They come in handy for all sorts of things.
Makes about 4 quarts
A quart or two of this soup in the freezer means that down the road, you can put a delicious and wholesome supper on the table without any effort at all. When reheating the thawed soup, simply add water to thin. I like to serve minestrone with garlic toast or large homemade croutons. I’m equally fond of how Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s grandfather enjoyed it, as described in The Italian Country Table: Lay a slice of toasted rustic bread in each soup bowl, moisten with olive oil, and ladle in the minestrone.
¼ cup olive oil
3 ounces thinly sliced pancetta or prosciutto, chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 large celery stalk, chopped
¼ pound green beans, trimmed, cut into ½-inch lengths
2 medium zucchini, chopped
½ pound potatoes, peeled and cubed (submerge in cold water if prepping ahead)
1 bunch kale (preferably lacinato), stems and center ribs discarded only if tough, leaves sliced thin crosswise
1 small cabbage (preferably savoy), cored, halved, and shredded
1 large can whole tomatoes in juice, drained, roughly chopped
6 cups chicken broth (low-sodium if using store-bought)
1½ cups cooked white beans*
salt and freshly ground pepper
freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or your best extra-virgin olive oil** for serving
1. First, make the aromatic base that gives the soup its underpinning. Heat the oil in a 7- to 8-quart heavy pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the pancetta, and cook it, stirring, until it’s pale golden and crisp, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and cook until it’s softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, carrot, and celery and cook until they begin to soften and mellow, another 4 or 5 minutes.
2. Time to add the green beans, zucchini, and potatoes. Stir them into the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add the kale and cabbage, stirring them into the vegetables. Cook for another 5 minutes or so, until the greens begin to wilt, then add the tomatoes and broth. Increase the heat to bring the soup to a boil, then cover the pot and reduce the heat, fiddling until you achieve an even simmer. Now, you can pretty much leave the soup alone for one hour.
3. In a blender, purée about half the white beans with 1 cup of their cooking liquid. (This detail sounds like a pain, but it takes less than a minute and gives finesse and body to the finished soup.) Add the purée and remaining whole white beans to the soup and simmer for another 15 or 20 minutes and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with a sprinkling of Parm or a drizzle of olive oil.
*Soaking and cooking dried beans from scratch is staggeringly simple, but I have terrible luck with cannellini beans—they never seem to get tender. That’s why I prefer borlotti (cranberry) beans, Great Northerns, or navy beans. If you want to use canned beans, drain and rinse them first. I wouldn’t use that thick residue left in the can for puréeing but would substitute water.
** Or both, if you’re the go-for-broke type who loves butter and sour cream on a baked potato.