I’ve bemoaned the lack of interest in soup before, but I’ll say it again: A good soup is deeply gratifying to make, heartwarming to eat, soul supporting to digest and furthermore it is an excellent indicator of a cook’s abilities . In a soup, especially a clear one, there is no hiding. All your flaws, lazy ass cut corner ways and lack of basic talent will be painfully visible. So if you’re an indifferent cook, now is the time to learn. Fortunately making stocks and soups really isn’t rocket science. Start by looking up the basics: Taking Stock and Making It.
If you are going to make minestrone, there is really no way around making stock first. Cubes will be a terrible idea and a Campbell packet, though serviceable for sauces and even cream soups just won’t cut it in a minestra. Minestrone comes from “minestrare”, “to administer” in the sense of serving a restorative, which is of course where the word restaurant comes from.
Makes enough soup for a starter for 6, or lunch for 4
- 1.2l good chicken stock
- Parmesan rind, at least the size of half your palm
- olive oil for frying
- 100g sliced baby carrots
- 100g sliced celery
- 100g diced beans
- 180g diced brown onion
- 150g cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 can cannellini beans, drained and washed
- 3 Tbsp simple tomato sauce or ½ can diced tomatoes
- salt & black pepper
- grated parmesan and ground black pepper to serve
There are as many recipes for minestrone as there are people in Italy, so feel free to substitute celery for broccoli, onion for leek and pearl barley for beans. As long as your stock is a good one, your soup won’t suffer.
Your chicken stock should not be too fat, but a light covering of grease is not a bad thing. As far as the parmesan rind is concerned, peel off any wax covering and grate whatever usable cheese can be grated off. You really need only the rind. It’s not a disaster if you don’t have one, but try and keep all your old parmesan rinds from now on. They keep in the chiller for half a year at least and you can freeze them if you like. It will change the texture, but not the flavour, which is what we are after. It’s this parmesan rind that will give our soup a smell and flavour I remember from childhood. (Nostalgia setting in)
Bring the stock to a light simmer, add the parmesan rind and keep the stock simmering for 20 minutes to half an hour. I taste my stock and see whether it needs to be reduced or not. If it does, I leave the pot open, if it doesn’t, I partially cover it with a lid.
What size you dice your vegetables is really up to you, just don’t cut a superfine brunoise. This is a country soup. Beans are of course not really diced, but just sliced the same length as the other dice. I found some organic baby carrots, so rather than peeling them, I scraped the rind off and cut them into rounds. Continuing on the country soup theme, I picked the thinner branches of celery and just sliced them. These little Chitose tomatoes you can get from Isetan in KL are sweet and ripe, which is ideal. If you can’t find ripe tomatoes, lightly salt and sugar your cut tomatoes and leave them to marinate at room temperature for about half and hour, then use them together with the juice they have produced.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast iron pot (if you have one) and fry the onion and carrots in it for about two minutes. Make sure they don’t brown. Add the celery and fry for another minute. Now add the beans and fry for one more minute. Strain the stock into the vegetables, add the simple tomato sauce (or your half can of diced tomatoes. and simmer for about 15-20 minutes. While the stock is simmering, drain the cannellini beans and wash them under running water.
A word about canned beans; I found these canned beans to be of better quality than any of the dried beans I could buy and cook here in Malaysia, so it’s not just about convenience, but also about taste. One drawback is the fact that they can’t be boiled for very long, or they will fall apart, so they won’t add much starch to your soup. But they are wonderfully tender and taste as a bean should taste.
Feel free to use dried beans and boil them to tender loveliness, if you like, I’m sticking to my cheating ways. Oh, and if you can’t find cannellini beans, borlotti will do just as nicely. Just please don’t use red kidney beans. Reserve those for your Mexican Chilli.
This soup is not one that should have crunchy vegetables in it, so simmer until they are soft, then add the beans. If you are making the soup to serve later, don’t add the tomatoes until you have reheated the minestrone. They just need two to three minutes to heat through and soften lightly.
Just before serving, gently reheat your soup, add the tomatoes and simmer very gently for 2 minutes and you are ready to eat! Serve this with chunky bread and a bowl of freshly grated parmesan. I’ve also served this with Taleggio toast or even pesto bruschetta. See the note below.
Minestrone makes a great One Dish Lunch or even a light dinner. Here’s a few tips on what you can do to make your soup more substantial:
- Once you have fried the vegetables, dust one tablespoon of flour over and stir it in. Fry for 30 seconds, then add the stock. Increase the bean content from one to two cans and simmer an additional 5-10 minutes after adding the beans, to allow some of them to break up a little. (Don’t turn it into mash, though!)
- Slice a nice, thick piece of bread, butter or oil both sides lightly and toast, then spread one side with a little pesto, place it into your soup plate or bowl, grate parmesan on the bread and pour the minestrone over it all.
- Cut a few Italian sausages into thick rounds and boil them in your soup. Count about half a sausage per person.
- If you’re feeling really greedy, do all the above.