Those who love cooking, or even just cook regularly, have their repertoire of tried-and-true favourites, those dishes wheeled out when the desire to experiment or try something new has been superseded by the need for reliability and the sweet ease of familiarity. In the grim middle months of the year it is minestrone for me. A meal in a soup – especially my particular version, an accidental adaptation of Marcella Hazan’s.
The first time I made it out of her wonderful book Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, I misread the quantity of cannellini beans – so instead of adding toward the end a 400-gram tin of them I toppled in the same weight in dried beans, which I had soaked overnight then simmered to done-ness. (How I could I have got this instruction so spectacularly wrong completely escapes me.) The funny thing is that despite my minestrone now bearing about four times the volume of beans, it was undeniably superb – so much so that this version became my blueprint.
At the time in Sydney it was not possible to source the cavolo nero – kale – that I had remembered from minestrones I had eaten in Italy; Marcella herself proposes Savoy cabbage but I blithely exchanged this for silverbeet. This was a robust soup to which I quickly became addicted on cold winter evenings, often eating it night after night after night, accompanied only by some warmed bread. A quite perfect meal, composed as it is of such a variety of vegetables.
And yet the secret to its beauty lies not in my extra beans nor in my silverbeet substitution but in the layering which is called for in the recipe. Marcella is quite clear in the amount of time she allots to each added vegetable – so that every one you add is allowed several minutes to imbue the previous ones with its own particular character, right through to the end.
Minestrone means ‘big soup’ in Italian and it is a classic example of ‘cucina povera’, or peasant cuisine. There is no set recipe; in my Ricette Regionali Italiani (hefty tome of regional Italian recipes) there are ten distinct types listed.
Here, however, is my Hazan adaptation, sufficient to feed at least eight people, or a single person every night for a week.
In your biggest pot heat olive oil and soften three thinly sliced onions to a pale gold. Add four diced carrots and cook for several minutes, stirring periodically. Add two sticks diced celery, cooking and stirring for several minutes. Ditto two medium potatoes, diced. Next – always separated by several minutes – drop in a large handful of topped-and-tailed green beans, also diced. Several minutes later add 450 grams diced zucchini. Then a bunch of silverbeet leaves coarsely shredded. Now let all these vegetables cosy along together for about six more minutes. Next comes 11⁄2 litres of stock – beef, chicken or vegetable, depending on your inclination – one 400 gram tin of peeled tomatoes with their juice, and the rind, if you happen to have one lurking, of a piece of (real) parmigiano-reggiano. (Another secret, I reckon.) Stir well, cover pan, bring to the boil then lower heat to a steady but gentle simmer for 21⁄2 hours. After that topple in your 400 grams of soaked, cooked, drained cannellini beans (or just a tin if you prefer it less beany!), stir well, season and simmer for another half hour. Check for seasoning and serve with crusty bread.
Like curries and casseroles it is even better the next day, and the next, and the next…