Prep Time:30 minutes |
Cook Time:45 minutes
It was 40 years ago this month that I went to school in Florence. I could write an entire post — nay, an entire book — on the glories of Firenze in winter: the rain slicking the Duomo, the Arno churning beneath the Ponte Vecchio, the utter lack of tourists at that time of year. But what I’m thinking about today are the fabulous boots and the minestrone that I saved up to buy the entire first quarter.
I was 19 years old and one of two sophomores in a sea of juniors in the program. A few juniors, who had been there since September, seemed very sophisticated to me. They dated Italian men and wore chic velvet pants. They knew where to buy the best leather shoes and they ate at a place called Cantinetta Antinori on the most expensive street in town. When I had set aside enough money, I followed their lead and bought knee-high boots with a gold buckle and 2-inch heel. The color was maroon, which I mistakenly called marrone. The sales clerk said the correct word was bordò (or bordeaux, like the color of wine). I even had an Italian boyfriend by then. Che bello!
In those boots (and navy velvet pants), I went to Cantinetta Antinori in Via Tornabuoni and ordered the specialty ribollita, although I didn’t know what it was. It arrived in a lovely majolica bowl and I realized it was minestrone thickened (or “reboiled”) with bread, as so many dishes are in Tuscany. There was a nearly black vegetable in it called cavolo nero. Today we know it as Tuscan kale.
There were so many firsts in Italy, but that first bite of real minestrone was unforgettable. I ate it in other parts of the country and in different seasons, too. The best turned out to be from Liguria, where they stir in pesto and call it Minestrone alla Genovese. I’ve played with minestrone recipes over the years since then. I’ve made it with cranberry beans in the fall, created this quick version, even used Mexican ingredients (!). But the version below is the most authentic and simplest to prepare (and tastes like ribollita if you float a slice of toasted rustic bread on top of each bowl). Minestrone literally means “big soup” in Italian, but it doesn’t mean big price like that first ribollita in Florence. Although it — and those boots — were worth every lira.
Traditionally, this soup is made by throwing everything in a pot with water instead of broth, and a shape of pasta called scurcuzûn, which is nearly impossible to find outside in the US (unless you live near an Eataly store or are lucky enough to have a friend give you some for Christmas, as I was). If you have a parmesan rind hanging around your refrigerator, throw it in too. You can used purchased pesto if you want to make this even simpler to prepare; stir in about 2 tablespoons at the end then serve the rest alongside.
1 large leek, halved lengthwise then sliced
1 large carrot, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 pound zucchini, diced
1 large Yukon gold potato, diced
1 bunch Swiss chard (stems included) or Tuscan kale (stemmed), chopped
1 can (14 oz) cannellini or borlotti beans
1 quart vegetable broth (see note)
4 cups water
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
1/2 cup small pasta, such as mini elbows, acini di pepe, or pastina
1 clove garlic
2 large bunches fresh basil leaves (about 4 cups), stems removed
kosher salt or sea salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for garnish
In a 6- to 8-quart pan or soup pot combine the leek, carrot, celery, zucchini, potato, chard, beans (including liquid in can), broth, water, and salt. Bring to a boil then cover and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. Ladle out 2 cups of soup and transfer it to a blender, but do not blend. Let it cool down in the blender container while you finish cooking the soup.
Bring the soup back up to a rolling boil and stir in the pasta; simmer, uncovered, until pasta is just tender, 10 to 15 minutes. When the pasta is cooked, puree the already ladled-out 2 cups of soup in the blender then stir it back into the pot (if soup is too thick, add a cup of water). Turn the heat off under the pot while you make the pesto.
To make the pesto, use the blender you used for the soup (no need to wash it) or a food processor. Pulse together the garlic, basil leaves, pinch of salt, and oil until almost pureed. Scrape into a bowl and stir in the parmesan. Stir half of the pesto into the soup; taste soup and season with salt if needed.
Ladle into bowls and drizzle each portion with olive oil and a dusting of parmesan; serve extra pesto alongside for people to add as desired. Like many soups, this one is even better reheated the next day.
note: I’m a huge fan of Better than Bouillon vegetable base