Spring Minestrone

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

“The natural progression from boiling water to boiling water with something in it can hardly be avoided, and in most cases is heartily to be wished for.”
– M.F.K. Fisher

The Ligurians invented ravioli, kinda. They claim cooks on ships out of Genoa collected leftovers to pack in little pasta pouches for the next day’s meals. The culinary world seems content to go along with the Genoese and pretend that their 14th century concoction is somehow different from the stuffed pasta envelopes mentioned in a French document dated 1228 or the raviolis mentioned in Venice and England around the same time as the Ligurians were supposedly revolutionizing the putting stuff inside of other stuff industry. Malta’s had a version going back farther still, but the Maltese don’t get conquered as much when people forget their island exists so they won’t be voicing any challenges.

The truth is that we let Ligurians get away with big talk about “their” pasta because we feel sorry for them and nobody really cares anyway. The Basque fishermen kept their favored sites off the coast of ur-Canada a secret and Leif Erickson had shitty PR so the Genoese defaulted their way into discovering America even though people named it after that buttinski Florentine. Eventually, though, it was decided that you can’t discover something that you didn’t know existed so newer text books took away their claim to fame. As a palliative, people figured “Sure. You can have ravioli.”

They should have taken the win. Now they say they invented minestrone too. I’d say that they’re pushing it if they gave even a whiff of effort to the latest glory grab, but they didn’t. The story they put out makes me ache to turn “sophomoric” into a verb reserved only for them.

We’re to believe that during the First Crusades, Genoese soldiers under Geoffrey de Bouillon cooked a soup of vegetables and herbs in their helmets. I mean, they surely did. That I believe. But we’re to believe this was significant. People have heard of Geoffrey de Bouillon so you might think the Ligurians tied their attempt to usurp to a known figure in order to lend credence: “I’ve heard of that guy so it must be true.” Maybe they’re trying to gain traction from a historical link, but the Bouillon claim is stupider than that.

First, you have to assume that before the Byzantines felt the Seljuk pinch no one had put handy vegetables and herbs in boiling water before. That’s not enough. You also have to not giggle when they tell you that the word bouillon, meaning broth, gets its name from Geoffrey de Bouillon. It doesn’t. It comes from the Latin “bullire,” from which we get “boil,” which makes their story “bull.”

The Genoese do have a distinct minestrone. Theirs is cooked slowly over the course of several hours. The result is a thick, rich liquor, more velvety than brothy, but every Italian region has variations it is known for, even if the traditional way is waxing. In Abruzzi, they may add pigs’ ears and eggs, whites and yolks beaten separately. Sardinians do pigs’ ears too. In Florence, a minestrone is made with soffritto, a word that never seems to have the same meaning twice. In this case soffritto means a tomato base with pork, bell pepper, and chicken giblets. The Bellunese in Veneto make theirs almost solely with beans. In Milan, it’s customarily with rice instead of pasta or potatoes, and in Asti it’s sometimes but not always rice. Tuscans feature beans but not because they have to like the Bellunese. Friulano minestrone is basically potato soup with some tomatoes and onion.

This week’s recipe is none of the above. It’s vegetable soup but I serve Parmesan and fruity olive oil with it so I felt like it deserved to try on a fancy title. The soul of any vegetable soup, minestrone included, is improvisation. What’s seasonal? What’s available? What’s going to go bad if I don’t use it in the next couple of days?

Nowadays everything is available year round. Seasons mean very little to the produce aisle. There are times when strawberries taste better – asparagus too – but for the most part you can get a serviceable anything whenever. This is Spring Minestrone because minestrone sounds better than vegetable soup and I associate most of the ingredients with this time of year. This is far from a rigid recipe. Feel free to improvise.

Spring Minestrone

  • 4 oz. pancetta
  • ½ medium yellow onion, diced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 rib celery, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 ½ cups dry white wine
  • handful green beans, sliced
  • ½ zucchini, sliced
  • ½ squash, sliced
  • 5 oz. cannellini beans, drained
  • 7 cups chicken stock
  • ½ to 1 ½ cup ditalini or tubetti pasta, depending on preference
  • 8-10 mint leaves, chopped
  • small handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • Tabasco to taste
  • 1 leek, dark leaves removed and remainder sliced
  • 8-10 grape tomatoes, quartered
  • 8-10 cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • olive oil, for cooking
  • extra virgin olive oil, for garnish
  • 15 or so whole black peppercorns, smashed
  • Parmesan cheese, grated
  • salt to taste

Start with a few glugs of olive oil in the bottom of a large stock pot over medium high heat, add the pancetta, and sauté for five or so minutes until the pork starts to color and renders some fat.

Add the onion and carrot to the pot and sauté for another five or so minutes. This time look for the onion to sweat and the carrot to fade to dull. Add the celery and look for it to fade as well.

Add the garlic, stir and cook for 30 seconds, and then pour in the wine.

Let the wine simmer for a couple of minutes and then add the zucchini, squash, and green beans

along with the stock, cannellini beans, mint, and parsley.

With the side of a knife, smash the peppercorns and stir them into the pot along with Tabasco if using.

Bring all this to a boil and then reduce to a mere simmer and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

10 minutes before serving, bring the heat back up and get a boil going. Add the pasta. I like a little spring to mushrooms, a slight crunch to leeks, and tomatoes that are not mush so I add those ingredients with the pasta or even later.

If you don’t share my texture fetish you can add those last three vegetables at the same time as the zucchini, etc.

Two minutes after the pasta is in you can turn the heat back down to a simmer. The pasta will be warmed through and the rest of its cooking is just hydration. When it’s al dente, salt to taste and you have minestrone.

Serve with a chunk of warm crusty bread, some grated Parmesan, and a drizzle of fruity extra virgin olive oil.

I know that the measurements were even more vague than usual this week, but vegetable soup ingredients and their proportions should be decided by the cook. Everything above is a suggestion – a good collection of suggestions in my opinion, but that’s all they are. You can tell that I like a lot of solids floating in my broth. You could halve the vegetable quantities and still end up with a great final product. I pushed the upper limit of the solid to liquid acceptable range, so maybe don’t put in more than I did unless you plan on eating your soup with a knife and fork, but otherwise, go play.

Finally, I need to address the big question. Is minestrone pronounced minestrone-eh as if a Canadian was offering it to you, minestrone-ee as if your soup had a second name that’s M-E-Y-E-R, or minestrone, rhyming with alone, as if there were no generous Canadians aboot?

The answer is yes.


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