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Wednesday, July 24

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There is a bit of a chill in the air at night. The humidity levels have dropped consistently. And even though the leaves haven't started to turn colors yet, it is obvious that Autumn will come calling very soon.

There is something about this time of year that inspires me to make huge pots of food for freezing. It's like I feel a need to stock up now for the long cold blast awaiting me. The past two years I've made quarts and quarts of tomato sauce to get me through the winter. I still have a handful of jars left, my experiment last year with making olives didn't go very well, and I was looking for something to cook up when I had a cup of minestrone at a traditional Italian restaraunt when I realized that since this is my favorite soup, maybe I should make a lot of it. (Just in case you're not interested in making quarts of soup, rest assured that the recipes here will be for a much more modest batch.)

As I set out to do some research, it occurred to me that most of my wintertime comfort foods would fall in line with the Italian concept of cucina povera, or "poor kitchen." Soups, stews, biscuits, pots of beans, etc. are all filling and cheap, but tasty and variable. And the emphasis of this soup on vegetables matches with my current emphasis on eating less meat. (Which will probably change soon, so don't worry my carnivorous readers.)

Minestrone is derived from the Latin word minestrare which means "to serve" and is where the English word "servant" comes from. And even though my knowledge of the Italian language is very rusty, I do know that soup means zuppa and refers to more of a broth-based soup, something one would start a dinner with, whereas minestrone appears to mean "big soup," to stand for something more hearty and therefore perfect as a light meal or as a part of a larger dinner.

And while this soup's contents vary from region to region and season to season, it does contain a few similarities. It tends to contain a lot of vegetables as well as beans, and it tends to be chunky and have a rich broth. It's believed by many food historians that Roman armies traveled far and wide fed on a diet of minestrone and pasta fagioli, or beans and pasta. It's not hard to imagine why that might have been the case.

The good thing about minestrone is that it's common across the entire country of Italy. The mountainous regions are likely to use lamb, the northern regions are likely to use rice or chestnuts instead of pasta. In the middle regions you'll likely find it thickened with bread crumbs and flavored with cheese, and in the south you're likely to find beef bones, pork rind, or parmesan rind used to flavor and thicken the soup. Since we're not in Italy, our minestrone is most likely that of Tuscany, made with kidney beans and pasta tubes in a light tomato broth. In the north they rarely use tomatoes and in the south they're more likely to use tomato sauce as a soup starter than anywhere else.

This soup is great because it can be made vegan as well as vegetarian, or it can dressed up with all manner of meats and cheeses. And with vegetables easy to find and in great supply right now, this should be a wonderfully easy soup to locate the ingredients for. And it's all genuine and authentic, or so you can claim if anyone asks.

Since these are soups that are cooked over a few hours, you don't have to use vegetables that are at their prime. So if you've got some limp zucchini kicking around in your fridge that you don't know what to do with, minestrone is the perfect answer.

Soups that are vegan tend to freeze for a much longer time than soups that contain meat and dairy, but all of these should last at least for two to three months in the freezer. And I'm sure there will be a handful of days during the next two or three months when soup sounds good. Below you can find recipes for Minestrone de Ligure (end of summer with lots of greens and parmesan rind), Minestrone de Toscana (contains beans and bread crumbs) and Minestrone de Sardinia (contains chickpeas and pork bones).

Minestrone de Ligure
Pesto sauce is very common in Liguria, as is the use of greens.

1/4 pound of bitter greens (dandelion, arugula, radicchio)
1/4 pound of spinach that has been washed and coarsely chopped
1/4 pound of chard or escarole
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 cloves of minced garlic
1 large onion sliced in thin half-circles
1 stalk of celery, minced
2 quarts of water, vegetable broth or chicken broth
1 parmesan cheese rind
1/2 a head of cabbage cut into 1/4" strips
1 pound of potatoes, peeled and chopped fine (starchy is better)
1 15 ounce can of pinto beans or cranberry beans
3 ripe plum tomatoes that have had the seeds and skin removed and chopped in large chunks
2 zucchini, chopped
4-6 ounces of small pasta that is hollow
salt and pepper to taste
grated parmesan

1 bunch of parsley
1 bunch of basil leaves
3 tablespoons of pine nuts
1/4 cup of olive oil

Begin by washing all of the greens. A salad spinner is a great investment for this since you can not only use it to get the water off the vegetables, but also use it to spin water around the greens to remove the dirt faster. Place a skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil, garlic, onion and celery to it and stir frequently until the onions start to brown. Meanwhile, place a large stock pot over medium high heat. Add the water or broth and the parmesan rind and let it come to a boil. Once it does, throw in all of the greens (chop up large pieces into bite-sized pieces) and the cabbage, potatoes, beans, tomatoes and zucchini. Once the onion mixture is brown, stir that into the pot, reduce the heat to low, cover it and let the soup cook for an hour and a half. Stir it occasionally to keep it from sticking.

Make the pesto by combining all of the ingredients (include the stems from the parsley but not from the basil) in a blender and pureeing until the contents are smooth. About 10 minutes before you're ready to serve, remove the parmesan rind if it isn't melted and discard. Add the pasta and let it cook until it is al dente. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary. Serve in a bowl with a swirl of pesto on the top of the soup and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese. Serve with farinata.
Makes 4-6 servings.

Minestrone de Toscana
3 quarts of water, vegetable stock or chicken stock
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 leeks
1 stalk of celery
4 carrots
1 ounce of pancetta, cut into tiny bits
2 cloves of garlic
1 15-19 ounce can of peeled, chopped tomatoes
1 pound of potatoes
3 zucchini
1/4 pound of fresh green or string beans
1/4 pound of chard, cut off the stem
a sprig of fresh rosemary
2 cans of canned cannelini beans
1/4 cup of dried bread crumbs

Place a large pot over medium-high heat and add the water or stock. Cover and let it come to a boil. Meanwhile, cut the two leeks down the center then into quarters, but not all the way through the roots. Run the leeks under cold water and separate the leaves to remove all the dirt. Shake to dry and place on a cutting board. Bunch together with one hand safely out of the way of the knife and slice them into thin strips. Chop the celery finely. Peel and cut the carrot into quarters and then chop them finely. Place a skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil, leeks, celery, carrots and pancetta. Cook this for about 7-10 minutes or until the leeks start to turn golden. Throw in the garlic to cook for a few minutes before scraping the pot into the boiling water or stock. (If necessary, you can drain off the fat.) Add the can of tomatoes to the stock. Lower the heat to low. Feel free to chop the tomatoes smaller if you prefer smaller chunks. Wash the potatoes, zucchini, beans and chard very well. Cut or tear everything into bite-sized chunks and throw it in. Add the rosemary sprig to the middle of the pot and cover with a lid. Let it cook for about an hour. About 20 minutes before you'd like to serve it, stir in the cans of beans and the dried bread crumbs. Remove the rosemary and serve with toasted garlic bread.
Makes 4-6 servings.

Minestrone de Sardinia
2 quarts of water, vegetable broth or chicken stock
2 16-ounce cans of chickpeas
1 15 ounce can of chopped tomatoes, chop the tomatoes fine or run it briefly through a blender
1/2 pound of arugula or dandelion greens, torn or chopped into small pieces
1 head of Belgian endive, washed well and cut into short strips
1/2 pound of pork bones, or rind (not a ham bone)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 rib of celery, minced
1 carrot, peeled and minced
one medium onion, diced
8 ounces of small pasta
salt and pepper to taste

Place a large pot of water or stock over medium-high heat. Bring the liquid to a boil and reduce to low before adding the chickpeas, tomatoes, greens, endive and the pork bones. While you're waiting for it to boil, place a skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil, celery, carrot and onion. Let it cook for 7-10 minutes or until the onion starts to turn golden. Scrape the contents of the skillet into the boiling water. Cover and let it simmer for about an hour and a half. About 10 minutes before serving, add the pasta and let it cook till it is al dente. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste before serving. Serve with olive oil for diners to drizzle over the soup as well as a hunk of very crusty bread, or even pita bread.
Makes 4-6 servings.

Of course if you're going to be eating minestrone and eating Italian bread, you should drink an Italian wine to go with it. For soups that are light on the tomatoes, try a Trebbiano D'Abruzzo. This grape is what is used to create balsamic vinegar so it is hearty enough to stand up to these soups. If you prefer a red wine for a more tomato-based soup, try Brunello di Montalcino. It is similar to Chianti, but since it is less well-known you're more likely to find a bottle that is inexpensive and tasty. You shouldn't have to spend more than $10 to get a decent and young bottle of Italian wine to go with your dinner. Don't feel like you have to spend a lot of money to get a fantastic bottle of wine. After all, this is peasant food and should be enjoyed as such.

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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