Hello to all my subscribers, family, and friends alike. To those of you who knew, to those who simply didn’t, and to those of you who may have wondered why I just stopped writing in June, I now begin a new chapter of DiningalDante. By way of a very quick explanation, after an almost 6-year remission, the lymphoma I had returned and as such I began an aggressive treatment regime in June which lasted more than four months. We are hopeful and cautiously optimistic as I move forward.
To all of you who shared your prayers, positive thoughts, cards, calls, visits, and general good vibes, I am deeply grateful as I believe collectively you all made a difference that helped to keep me focused on getting well. Thank you.
So with that said and the fall season now upon us, I will pick up where I left off in my effort to encourage you to try something new and eat better, healthier meals.
During my week-long hospital treatments I often thought about cooking and eating well again as I certainly wasn’t getting any help from my forced participation in the hospital meal plan! One concept I kept coming back to is the perspective the Italians define as la cucina povera, which translated can mean “cooking of the poor” or “peasant cooking.” Although in today’s foodie lexicon, peasant cooking has become a trendy concept.
To me it is more about an approach where you essentially make do with what you have on hand, and supplement that with simple ingredients to create dishes that are nourishing and delicious. If you are a regular reader of my blog posts, you will have noticed that I often mention going to my pantry to see what I had available and how I could assemble a meal with it.
The fall season is a time for heartier meals—soups, stews, braises—and for roasted preparations. With that in mind I thought I’d begin this post with a personal fall favorite, and share with you my approach to the Italian staple, minestrone. Loosely translated, minestrone means “big soup.” Almost every Italian region and household has its own personal recipe for this country-style vegetable soup, and perhaps you do as well. The dish usually features a diverse mix of vegetables, tomato, beans, and the addition of either pasta or rice. These ingredients vary by season or region, with no emphasis on one or the other. Instead, it is a melding of them all with the essence of each bowlful defined by the produce available, some flavor-building additions such as fresh herbs, mushrooms, or a piece of Parmigiano rind, and you the cook.
By way of example, some regional recipes highlight the differences in the overall flavor of the final dish: in Genova classic basil pesto would be added to finish the dish; in Milan peas and rice would be included; in Naples bell pepper, eggplant, and the use of freshly grated provolone cheese to finish; in Puglia turnip greens would be included; in Tuscany fresh rosemary, escarole, and rice would be part of the mix, and when the final leftovers are reheated and eaten bread is usually added, which actually creates a second soup–the ribollita, a truly peasant dish in the classic sense of la cucina poverna.
The following recipe is the one that I prepare but should simply be a starting point from which you can create your version, using the vegetable mix you prefer. Before we start, here are a few additional thoughts:
- I have read about more than one summer season variation of this dish, where zucchini and yellow squash are included; however my preference, as with most soups and stews, is to prepare and serve them in the fall and winter seasons.
- If I choose to add pasta to the finished dish, which would be my preference over rice, I also include some potato in the vegetable mix because it adds additional body to the soup base.
- A combination of two leafy greens are included in my recipe–whichever looks best at the market. I make my selection from either cavolo nero (black or lacinato kale), escarole, and/or chard. If chard is used, the stems are minced and included in the initial soffritto.
- Instead of zucchini and yellow squash, which are generally not considered fall crops in this region, I add either kabocha or butternut squash, or even pumpkin, although that is sometimes more challenging to peel.
- I have read some recipes that call for the inclusion of pancetta or some other form of pork added to the initial soffritto. Since, from my perspective, minestrone is a vegetable soup, and in keeping within the cucina povera approach, I choose not to include pancetta or any pork product at all.
- Along with the essential onions I also add a leek or two to the soffritto base which works well to brighten the flavor of the soup broth and provides a large green leaf to wrap and tie the fresh herb bouquet.
- Yes, a Parmigiano rind or two are added to the mix. Yes, canned beans are used, either cannellini or chick peas (much less work and cooking time). And yes, water (like most Italian soup recipes) is used instead of stock.
- As a flavor-building option, mushrooms might be included, either dried where the soaking liquid is also added to the broth; or fresh, selecting one type to emphasize its flavor characteristic; or a mix which allows for a more complex overall flavor. My preference is to include the mushrooms, and I generally choose porcini, either dried and reconstituted, or sliced fresh when I can source them.
- Serve the finished dish in warm bowls, keeping in mind that most soups are richer if allowed to rest a day after they are made. Cook the pasta separately instead of cooking the pasta within the soup itself. Serve the pasta in the soup bowl and ladle the soup over. And don’t forget to pass the olive oil at the table to drizzle over the finished dish.
2 medium onions; one red and one sweet white; diced
3 medium carrots; thinly sliced; (if the leafy tops look to be in good condition, separate the leaves from the stems and include them in the soup when adding the other greens)
2 large celery ribs; thinly sliced
1 bunch fennel stalks; thinly sliced
1 large leek, white and tender green section; thinly sliced (save one large green leaf to use to wrap and tie the herb bouquet)
4 to 5 large garlic cloves; peeled and sliced in halves or quarters depending on the size of the clove
Several sprigs of fresh sage, thyme, celery leaves, parsley, and bay leaves; wrapped and tied in a leek leaf
2 to 3 medium potatoes; trimmed, not peeled, and rough chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup canned plum tomatoes; rough chopped
12 cups water
1 to 2 Parmigiano rinds
1 small to medium kabocha or butternut squash; seeds removed, peeled, and chopped into small uniform pieces (approx 2 to 3 cups)
2 bunches of greens either cavolo nero, escarole, or chard: if using the cavolo nero remove the thick stems; if using the escarole select the outer leaves and save the tender heart to be included in a salad; if using the chard remove and mince the stems for the soffritto. The greens should be shredded.
If using: 1/2 lb of fresh mushrooms sliced or 1/2 oz dried mushrooms, reconstituted in 1 cup of hot water for 30 minutes, and squeezed dry; strain the soaking water over the soup pot
1 or 2 15 1/2 oz cans of cannellini beans or chick peas
If including, choose small pasta like ditalini, fregola or mini-shells, cooked to package instructions and added to the serving bowls along with ladles of the soup
Minced fresh parsley
Grated cheese (your choice if using), my recommendation would be an aged pecorino
A drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil or even a white truffle oil if using the mushrooms as an addition to the soup
Salt and pepper to taste
The ingredients have been listed in the order they are added to the pot. That way you are able to fully develop each flavor before moving on to the next as you build on the foundation, and don’t overcook any of the individual vegetables. This dish should cook slowly, simmering on low heat as it is assembled. When reheating the second day, do so gently, turning over the ingredients so that the heat is distributed evenly.
In a large, heavy-bottom stock pot, heat approximately 1/4 cup of olive oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot add the soffritto (aromatic vegetables and herb bouquet), the minced chard stems if using, and a pinch of salt and pepper, stirring to combine and coat while gently sautéing for 10 to 12 minutes. Don’t let the mix brown, but instead sweat the vegetables, which begins to tenderize them.
Next add the prepared potatoes. Stir to combine and continue cooking for another 5 minutes.
Now add the tomato paste, mixing until it is incorporated, followed by the chopped tomatoes, water, and cheese rind. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for approximately 30 minutes, mixing periodically, and/or until the potatoes are just about fork tender.
Add the prepared squash, stir to combine, and continue cooking for another 10 minutes.
Next add the prepared greens, the carrot tops if usable, and the mushrooms if using. Mix to combine and continue cooking gently for another 10 minutes.
Finally, add the beans, mix thoroughly to combine, simmer for another 10 minutes and remove from the heat, cover, and allow to cool. The finished soup can be stored up to three days in the refrigerator at this time. When ready to serve, gently reheat and ladle into warm bowls garnished as described.
From my perspective this recipe is a nice way to enjoy the fall cooking season and family meals or gatherings around the table. I do hope this recipe will inspire you to try this colorful dish as presented and then make it your own.
Happy to be cooking and writing again. Eat well. Be well.
Food is one way of staying connected to the people who surround us.