Minestrone, the Big Soup

Too many years have lapsed since I underwent my Minestrone ritual, and I refuse to put
it off any further. It’s not as if its creation is something I dislike; on the contrary, I find it one of the most soothing of culinary acts to perform, with its solemn series of small and considered steps. Rather, it has been a combination of laziness and failure to consecrate the necessary time – coupled with the clearance of sufficient freezer space to accommodate a winter’s supply of deeply satisfying weeknight meals-in-a-bowl.

Minestrone in Italian means big soup – no delicate, elegant broth but a lusty, gutsy potage of vegetables left gloriously intact in spite of the lengthy time they simmer. Variations abound, although common to most are onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes and beans. One of my cooking bibles is ‘Le Ricette Regionali Italiane’, translation unnecessary: it offers ten different recipes for minestrone according to region, with subtle distinctions. There’s a Sardinian minestrone with chickpeas and pork rind; two minestrones from the Veneto incorporating barley and one adding sausage; one from Livorno with rice and a little prosciutto; another Tuscan one with macaroni and pancetta; a very rich Milanese one calling for pancetta, pork rind and lard along with the vegetables and borlotti beans; a lovely Ligurian one finished with a dollop of pesto – there is even a cheesey buttery pumpkin one in which float the shards of snapped spaghetti. In other words, no set recipe for this hearty peasant dish which, depending on which version you believe, was conceived as a way to utilise whatever vegetables were in season or whatever ingredients were simply left over.

The recipe I use comes not from the afore- mentioned compendium, however, but from Marcella Hazan’s ‘Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking ‘. She calls it a Minestrone alla Romagnola and given her native home is the region of Romagna her authority is unquestionable. Unquestionable too is the beauty of her version, which – as to be sure all proper and self-respecting minestrones insist upon – is reliant on the building up of flavour- layers, each vegetable enjoying its own brief bask in the ingredients it joins so imparting its own essence to the gradually swelling crescendo of taste. If I seem overly lyrical it is enough to glance at the three pages the recipe straddles, their water-marked, spattered and puckered paper to remind me of the winter after winter I constructed this dish, in the process – and this is of course one of the great joys of cooking – creating out of the tiny tweaks and adjustments I made to it my very own version. The thing I have forgotten – which is also one of the reasons it has been so easy these past years to forgo its ritual: my sheer lack of memory – is the perfume of the cooking process. You begin with sliced onions softening in butter and olive oil in the biggest pot you own: that fragrance in itself is as unbeatable as garlic sizzling in olive oil. In, then, go the diced carrots for their several minutes, then the celery, then the potato. All of the characters in the cast have been diligently scrubbed, peeled, diced into neat uniformity, waiting in separate receptacles. In go the green beans, then later the zucchini, and then it’s shredded silverbeet, or cavolo nero (‘Tuscan cabbage’) if you can find it. A reliable beef broth then covers everything and – a gorgeous touch – the rind of the Parmigiano Reggiano you just happen to have in your refrigerator, as well as tinned tomatoes. Season, cover, simmer for 21⁄2 hours; add borlotti or cannellini or red kidney beans you have soaked overnight, cooked then drained, and give it another half hour’s simmer. Check the seasoning. Decant into serving-sized containers for the freezer, your kitchen now bathed in the homely, sturdy, buttery scent of big soup.

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