The Big Soup

“Minestrone is the name for a variety of thick Italian soups made with vegetables, often with the addition of pasta or rice. Common ingredients include beans, onions, celery, carrots, stock, and tomatoes.”

I have to admit something: I do not have a very developed palate. I’ve been with my Italian SO for almost six years now and I have just now, within the last month or two, started to eat cooked onions and chunks of tomatoes. Imagine how embarrassing it was to pick around tomato and onion chunks when I was in Italy this summer with his family. I still will not eat raw onion or tomatoes or big chunks of the latter, but if the pieces are small enough  and cooked enough, I will happily shovel them into my mouth.

Here in Southern Great Plains State, we finally have weather that somewhat resembles autumn. We had rain all weekend and I decided on Friday to make minestrone soup. There is a lot of information regarding the origins of minestrone. It has an obviously Italian origin and a version of it featuring ingredients such as farro, chickpeas, and fava beans was a staple of the Roman diet. Minestrone as we know it probably arrived on the scene in the 16th century when tomatoes and potatoes were brought to Europe from America. Modern-day minestrone belongs to the tradition of cucina povera which literally means “poor kitchen”, meaning it has rustic, rural roots. It is one Italian word that corresponds to the English word ‘soup’; it means a very large and substantial soup but we usually use the word to describe the specific soup.

I totally agree with its classification of cucina povera. Since I am a teacher, I get paid once a month and as of last Friday, I was down to less than $5 in my checking account. I had most of the ingredients for the soup, but I still needed a small pasta, celery, an onion, and spinach which are not very expensive items by themselves but to someone that is down to her last $5, I might as well be buying black truffles and foie gras. Thankfully, the SO came to the rescue and I was able to buy everything I needed; interestingly enough, my purchase totaled less than $5.

Ingredients, from left: frozen spinach, kosher salt, black pepper, zucchini, carrot, celery, dried thyme and basil, onion, Great Northern beans, acini di pepe pasta, miced garlic, bacon, petite diced tomatoes, Dadi bouillon cubes, and a can of Swanson’s chicken broth.

Acini di pepe is a small pasta that looks like spaghetti with a hole in it. Any small pasta, or even brown rice, would work very well. The recipe I consulted called for pancetta, which is an Italian unsmoked version of bacon that is dry cured with salt and seasoned with spices like nutmeg, fennel, pepper, and garlic. I did not have pancetta but the bacon I had was a perfect substitute. Lots of minestrone recipes (including the one I used) called for borlotti beans; I actually shelled fresh borlotti beans while I was in Italy and didn’t know what they were called. Anyway, I used Great Northern beans but you could use any white bean. The Dadi bouillon cubes are a very popular brand of bouillon cubes in Italy; we picked some up while we were there and now I will never use Swanson’s broth.

Phase one: LOTS of chopping.

Phase two: Soffrito, meaning underfried. The bacon, onion, carrots, celery, and garlic are sauteed together to develop a flavor base for the soup. I later added the thyme, basil, salt, and pepper while the vegetables and bacon sauteed. One change I would make is to cook the bacon for a little while first to render some of the fat off.

Phase three: Enter the Dadi, tomatoes, and beans.

Four cups of Dadi broth and the extra can of Swanson’s broth. Also, one can of petite diced tomatoes. Make sure you rinse the beans well before adding them, it will reduce the sodium.

Phase four…. (enter South Park reference here)

Phase five: Minestrone!

After the soup simmers for about an hour, I added the zucchini, pasta, and thawed spinach. It’s important to squeeze the extra water out of the thawed spinach; I used a fine sieve and a spoon but I know some people will put the spinach in a tea towel and squeeze it over the sink. The pasta absorbed some of the cooking liquid and I think if I had to do it over again, I would have added the zucchini first and let it cook longer before adding the spinach and pasta because the zucchini was a little too firm.

This was an excellent soup to reheat. We had plenty of leftovers and we ate some on Monday. The pasta got huge after sitting over the weekend and absorbed a lot of the liquid, so while I was at physical therapy, my SO had to add about six cups of Dadi broth to increase the amount of soup liquid. He made some sourdough croutons which were super sour and a delicious addition. It was a really great soup and I will keep it in mind for Lent because if you remove the bacon, it’s a completely vegetarian dish and the beans keep the protein count high. As evidenced by the leftovers we still have in the fridge, it’s definitely the Big Soup.

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