Minestrone. The big soup. Infinitely adaptable to what’s in season, how much time you have, what you feel like eating. Always exactly right.
Minestrone is a good clean-out-the-fridge or tidy-up-the-garden soup. It tastes a little different every time, and a lot different from season to season. But the basic template is always the same. Serve with garlic-rubbed toasts, or Parm wafers, or just some hunks of bread.
The key to a good minestrone that isn’t just a big pot of sameness is adding each vegetable when the time is right. Some need to be sweated slowly to soften; others only need a quick boil; still others just need to wilt. Keep your vegetables separate and layer them into the pot, so you get a nice mix of long-braised and just-cooked flavors.
Minestrone needn’t have any meat at all. Sometimes it’s nice, though, for a little flavor boost. If you want to use meat, dice it (for pancetta) or remove it from its casing (for sausage).
The base (hard vegetables)
You always want aromatics to begin any soup: an onion, a clove of garlic, a carrot, and a stalk of celery, minimum. Dice them all into pretty cubes.
In the fall and winter, try adding a parsnip or two.
Then get your not-hard not-soft vegetables ready. You can include anything you like, depending on what you have lurking in the crisper or threatening to bolt in the garden.
- Spring: Garlic scapes, fennel
- Summer: Mature summer squash, sweet peppers, cauliflower and broccoli
- Fall: Chard stems, sturdy greens (shredded cabbage and kale, etc), escarole
- Winter: Sturdy greens, Brussels sprouts, turnips, celeriac
These are your sweet season-heralding veggies, the ones you don’t want to cook to death.
- Spring: Asparagus, shelling peas
- Summer: Green beans, edible-pod peas, baby squash
- Fall and winter: shredded delicate greens (i.e., Swiss chard)
You need some starch in this soup. Potatoes (raw, diced), small pasta (dry), and white beans (cooked) are all classic here; pick one or all.
Most minestrones can benefit from some tomato to acidify and thicken the broth (use tomato and oregano for the “classic” minestrone flavor)
- Summer and fall: Peel fresh paste tomatoes
- Winter and spring: use high-quality canned tomatoes
But you don’t need to have any tomato at all. Copious herbs can take its place easily for a pretty green minestrone.
- Spring and summer: fresh mint, basil, thyme, and oregano, or a big spoonful of basil pesto
- Fall and winter: rosemary, thyme, dried oregano
If using meat, brown it in a large stockpot until it crisp. Pour off fat if there’s more than a tablespoon or two.
Throw in your aromatics and sweat them slowly in the rendered fat (or in oil). Salt them and let cook until they are very soft and have browned (at least fifteen minutes).
Put in your medium vegetables and turn up the heat, browning them lightly.
Add tomatoes, if using, breaking them up with your hands. Add enough chicken stock or water to cover everything in the pot generously. Drop in potatoes and/or beans, if using, as well as any woody herbs (rosemary, mint, oregano, sage). Bring to a boil, drop in a Parm rind if you have one, and simmer for at least an hour.
Ten minutes before serving, turn up the heat and bring back to a boil. Taste the broth; it should be flavorful and rich. Add salt if it needs it. Boil pasta in the soup for the prescribed period, adding any other last-minute vegetables (green beans, shredded greens) a couple minutes before serving. Stir in a couple big spoonfuls of pesto if using, and add any delicate herbs (basil, mint).
Serve with plenty of cheese and cracked pepper.