If you love to cook, you undoubtedly have a few favorite cookbooks. You know…the ones with the cracked binding and the grease spotted cover and the dog-eared pages. The ones with ingredients highlighted and comments scribbled in the margins.
Yesterday I pulled out one of my old favorites, Classic Italian Cooking, by the late Marcella Hazan. This book is dear to me not only for the wonderful recipes and Ms. Hazan’s entertaining and opinionated asides about Italy and its culture (“A vegetable soup will tell you where you are in Italy almost as precisely as a map…”) but also because I’ve owned it for as long as Geoff and I have been married. In fact, it was a wedding present from my ex-husband Jerry and his wife Karol, who over the years have become part of our extended family.
The recipe I wanted yesterday was Minestrone di Romagna, and I’ve made it so many times that I really don’t need to follow the book. Besides, I always think that making soup is like a good road trip…you don’t know exactly where you’re going till you get there.
The recipe below is the original, but I always make a few turns that aren’t on the map. Like throwing a few cloves of garlic in with the onions. You’re cooking over such a low heat that there’s no danger of burning it. Also I never measure soup ingredients in cups. For this recipe I used one medium onion, three slender carrots, three stalks of celery, two medium Yukon Gold potatoes and two medium zucchini. The fresh green beans at the store looked limp and sad, so I bought a package of frozen organic ones and used a couple of handfuls. Since they’ve already been blanched I added them with the cannellini beans. For the tomatoes, I used the whole can. Why leave half a can in the fridge to get moldy and then thrown away? And I can’t abide mushy zucchini, so I always add it about fifteen minutes before I turn off the heat. I know that’s not traditional, but I’m not a traditional kind of girl.
In her directions, Ms. Hazan admonishes us, “It is not necessary to prepare all the vegetables ahead of time although you may do so if it suits you. The vegetables don’t go into pot all at once, but in the sequence indicated, and while one vegetable is cooking you can peel and cut another. I find this method more efficient and less tedious…and somehow it produces a better soup.”
As a baker, I’m a firm believer in the mise en place…that is, having everything measured out and ready to use before you start. So the first few times I made this soup I did it my way. Then, one time for whatever reason, I tried doing it Marcella’s way, and I found it compelling…if you can use that term about chopping vegetables.
There’s something totally involving about the scent of the onions (and garlic) sizzling slowly and quietly in fragrant olive oil while you’re methodically chopping the carrots into small cubes. Then you add the carrots to the pot and move on to the celery, then the potatoes…and so on. It’s like a dance between cutting board and stove. The timing seems to work out perfectly, and your brain drops back into neutral and…it’s very much like meditating.
Marcella Hazan’s Minestrone di Romagna
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup thinly slice yellow onion
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
2 cups peeled, diced potatoes
¼ pound fresh green beans
2 cups diced zucchini
3 cups shredded Savoy cabbage or regular cabbage
1 ½ cups canned cannellini beans, drained, or ¾ cup dried white beans, soaked and cooked
6 cups Basic Homemade Meat Broth
Optional (but recommended): the crust from a piece of parmigiano-reggiano cheese
2/3 cup canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, with their juice
1/3 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
Choose a stockpot that can comfortably accommodate all the ingredients. Put in the oil, butter, and sliced onion and turn on the heat to medium low. Cook over low heat until the onion wilts and becomes a pale gold, but don’t let it brown.
Add the diced carrots and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring once or twice. Then add the celery, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 or 3 minute. Add the potatoes, repeating the same procedure.
While the carrots, celery, and potatoes are cooking, soak the green beans in cold water, rinse, snap off both ends, and dice them.
Add the diced green beans to the pot, and when they have cooked for 2 or 3 minutes, add the zucchini. Continue to give all the ingredients an occasional stir and, after another few minutes, add the shredded cabbage. Continue cooking for another 5 to 6 minutes.
Add the broth, the optional cheese crust, the tomatoes with their juice, and a sprinkling of salt. If using canned broth, salt lightly at this stage, and taste and correct for salt later on. Give the contents of the pot a thorough stirring. Cover the pot, and lower the heat, adjusting it so that the soup bubbles slowly, cooking at a steady but gentle simmer.
When the soup has cooked for 2 ½ hours, add the drained, cooked cannellini beans, stir well, and cook for at least another 30 minutes. If necessary, you can turn off the heat at any time and resume the cooking later. Cook until the consistency is fairly dense. Minestrone ought never to be thin and watery. If you should find that the soup is becoming too thick before it has finished cooking, you can dilute it with a bit of broth.
When the soup is done, just before you turn off the heat, remove the cheese crust, swirl in the grated cheese, then taste and correct for salt. Serve in heated bowls with a sprinkling of parmigiano, a quick grind of black pepper, and a drizzle of good olive oil. And of course, don’t forget some good, crusty bread.
Like most soups, this one only gets better the second and third days, but it was delicious last night as an accompaniment to my Christmas cookie list making.