20 January 2012

The Big Soup

I don't recall my Nonny or my Mother ever making minestrone.  I remember Nonny making pastina in broth and Mom making really good homemade chicken soup and split pea soup.  In my experience, minestrone is something that you get at a mid-range Italian restaurant as an alternative to a salad before your meal and I always choose the salad.  I’ve certainly tasted a solid subset of minestrones—my sister always opts for the soup.   I've just never tasted one that makes me want the bowl.  I’m reticent to say I don’t like it because I feel one should have a really authentic and supreme version of a dish before dismissing it categorically. 

Here’s the problem with the mediocre minestrone: it’s a soupy tomato gravy accessorized with a few beans, boring vegetables, and mushy pasta.  One of the most magical things about cooking is taking several ingredients that when combined in a certain fashion make an end product that is much greater than the sum of its parts.  Take one of my favorite combinations:  eggplant and olive oil.  Eggplant is certainly not delicious on its own.  It’s spongy, slightly bitter, and smells funny.  But, when you chop it up and cook it in olive oil, something different and wonderful emerges, something rich and satisfying that has very little in common with the individual ingredients that created it.  Yes, you can tell that the vegetable is eggplant and that it was prepared in olive oil, but the flavor of the combination is something entirely new and individually delicious.

As for the minestrone, I’ve never tasted one that is more than the sum of its parts.  Mind you I am not a minestrone connoisseur, but I’ve eaten much more than my share and probably yours of Italian food.  Upon perusing the contents of my winter pantry, I discovered I have more canned tomato products than I can most likely use before the next tomato season, dried beans, plenty of root vegetables, frozen vegetables and pestos.  This combination of ingredients was practically shouting “minestrone!!”.

I found a Minestrone con Pesto recipe from Mario Batali that lended itself well to my ingredient list.  Furthermore, he is one of my few trusted recipe sources.  Allrecipes is forbidden.  It's like bargain shopping without ever finding the bargain.  It really is all recipes--including the terrible ones.  I can’t handle going through a bunch of garbage recipes to try to find a potentially nonexistent diamond in the rough.  I could put a good recipe together before I find one on that site. This is the beauty of living in the information age:  I can go to a trusted source for a well-designed and tested recipe.  Mario is one of the few that makes the cut as one of my trusted sources.  (I’m aware of the irony in a lowly food blogger complimenting a world famous chef with a food empire.)  He and I share an Italian heritage, a secondary love for Spain, and a dazzling ponytail.

I’ve adapted the recipe as follows to suit our winter pantry:
Minestrone Con Pesto 

1 ½ cup Tiger’s Eye Beans (an heirloom shell bean, but pinto or cannellini will work well)
1 ½ cup frozen peas (defrosted)
1 medium onion
1 cup shredded frozen zucchini (defrosted, moisture removed)
3 diced and frozen tomatoes (defrosted)
3 stalks celery (the only store-bought item on the list)
3 carrots
1 Tbsp tomato conserva
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Pesto for garnish
Pecorino Romano for garnish

Rinse and soak dried beans overnight.  Heat olive oil in a stock pot.  Add diced onion, celery, and carrot.  Do not brown, but once slightly softened add diced tomatoes.  Add beans and zucchini and immediately cover all ingredients with cool water by one inch.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 60-90 minutes until beans are done and all vegetables tender, but not mushy.  Dissolve 1 Tbsp tomato conserva in a few ounces of water and incorporate. Turn off heat and add peas.  Let rest for 15 minutes.  Divide soup into bowls and garnish with a dollop of pesto and a sprinkling of cheese.

There were a few things I liked about this recipe:  it doesn’t require having stock on hand, everything cooks in the same pot, and it gives an interesting use for pesto.  I’m always a little skeptical about a soup that doesn’t employ a single animal product for flavor, but this one put my skepticism to rest.  It is above and beyond the sum of its parts. 
In Italian, minestra means soup.  Minestrone means big soup and this is a big soup.  It’s hearty and chunky, and has a silky broth holding it together.  The vegetables and beans are tender, but not mushy.  The shredded zucchini does its job of adding texture and substance without imparting any squashy flavor.  And best of all, the tomatoes add depth of flavor without overpowering the meal.  Each bite contains the flavor of the entire robust soup rather than the taste of the individual vegetables.  As I ate I didn't think, “Now I’m eating a bean. Now I’m eating a carrot.” The soup transcends the ingredient list.  And to top it off, the ribbon of pesto swirled throughout adds complimentary flavor and surprise. 

See the ribbon? It's a ribbon I tell you!
This recipe, or the original from Mario, would be a great standard minestrone in any repertoire.  It’s a vegetarian dish that doesn’t feel vegetarian in the least.  It takes humble winter ingredients and transforms them into a delicious meal.  And, it redeems its name. 

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