Time to round-off the blog’s winter mini-series of Italy soup recipes with the most famous of them all – Minestrone.
And when we’re talking about how to make Minestrone, the great delight is that there is absolutely no definitive recipe. It’s one of the very few Italian dishes that’s genuinely national, but recipes vary from region-to-region; town-to-town; and family-to-family.
All are variations on a theme of vegetables cooked in a liquid, so with that in mind, it’s probably easier to set-out two basic ground rules for what Minestrone definitely isn’t…
– it’s not tomato soup with a few added chopped vegetables, which I actually thought it was until I arrived in Italy and tasted the genuine article.
– and as it is – to my mind at any rate – a vegetable soup, I don’t go in for adding some recipe suggestions of little lardons of pancetta or anything else meaty.
But then again, if that seems like a good idea to you – go right ahead.
Though there’s no set list of Minestrone ingredients, there are four definite groups of recipe ingredients that can be infinitely mixed and matched:
I can’t offhand think of a single vegetable that can’t be used in a Minestrone. The underlying key is to use what’s in season; not to let one particular vegetable predominate; and to use vegetables that offer contrasts in taste and texture.
How many different types of vegetables ? Think in terms of at least a dozen. My favourite mix above has, I think, around 20.
Virtually everyone agrees that a Minestrone should contain pulses – usually cannellini and/or borlotti beans; and even chickpeas. (Is a chickpea a pulse or a legume ? Whatever. It’s a good ingredient)
Pasta or Rice
When I’m making Minestrone, I’ll add just 50g of dried pasta: invariably something like spaghetti or chitarra snapped into short lengths. You can buy special ‘soup pasta’ – tiny little shapes – if the mood grabs you.
A word of advice here. Don’t add dry pasta to your Minestrone. It’ll make it starchy. Cook the pasta in a separate pot, drain it and then add just before serving so it doesn’t go on cooking in the Minestrone until it’s a tasteless mush.
Or add a similar quantity of cooked rice. I prefer pasta – but it’s all down to personal tastes. Just don’t use both as it’ll make your Minestrone too heavy.
At its most basic, you can use water. Stock’s better. I’ll use a home-made chicken stock that’s a regular by-product of a Sunday roast chicken lunch. A home-made vegetable stock will repay the effort; if you’re using a cube, get the very best you can find; or a bottled stock, or one of the new stock jellies.
A splash of red wine can be added too. Or not. (Not is better).
How To Make Minestrone
For four servings, you’ll need 500-600g of chopped vegetables/pulses; 50-100g of dried pasta/rice; up to a litre of liquid.
Then it all starts to get a little controversial.
Modern recipes suggest chopping the veggies into largish chunks. Traditionally, they’re diced quite small. This means they cook quicker and give you a wider variety of tastes in each spoonful.
The downside is that if you’re sticking to traditional principles, just dicing your way through the dozen or more vegetable ingredients needed – let alone soaking and pre-cooking your pulses – means your Minestrone is going to take a long time to make.
And unless you’re cooking for a vast family, you actually need only tiny quantities of each vegetable ingredient, which makes shopping for them a pain.
There are shortcuts, like dried Minestrone mixes which you add to your cooking liquid. I’ve tried a few and they’re uniformly dire.
Better – much, much better – (and I have to say, in this context, absolutely indistinguishable from fresh) are the frozen vegetable mixes that you can find in dazzling array in Italian supermarkets. Here you get what you pay for. The cheaper ones contain confetti-sized pieces of unidentifiable vegetables; the more expensive – like the one I’ve photographed – in appearance and taste are the equal of anything you’d produce after slaving over a hot chopping board at home.
Not for the purist I know, but if top chefs like Jamie Oliver can use frozen veg in their recipes, then count me in too.
In my own favourite Minestrone mix, the quality’s excellent; the vegetable ingredients change according to the seasons; and if you feel anything’s lacking, you can quickly personalise the mix however you want. In my case, by adding some pasta and a pinch or two of chilli.
Bottom line is from freezer to bowl takes no more than 30 minutes and the skill level of tipping frozen veg into simmering stock and then waiting until it’s tender is minimal.
Drizzle over the best olive oil you can find; add a sprinkle of grated parmesan; pour a glass or two of rough red wine; and have some good bread ready sliced and you’ve made a meal that will warm, revive and soothe you.
That it’s also delicious and absurdly cheap are – mixing my culinary metaphors – just the icing on the cake.