Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Not At All Mini: Minestrone!

Though I enjoyed my mother's Czech dishes like holubky, spaetzle, palačinky filled with prune lektvar, and chrusciki, it was the 'exotic' foods I experienced when in Italo-American friends' homes in New York City that thrilled me.  My goodness, I would muse, where did they get such a big pot in which to simmer that red sauce all day long so the entire house knows of its fragrant existence?  How can they pile up so many small pastry puffs into a gooey, dripping-with-honey tower without it toppling over?  Why are those delectable, golden-brown, oh-so-tender slices of veal stuffed with aromatic sublimity called Veal Birds?

Baby broccoli leaves, white beans, peas, garlic, basil, and bay leaves happily all came from the potager.

Decades ago, I made my first minestrone; a boyfriend of Italian ancestry test-tasted it.  Being of a sweet disposition, he pretended it came out OK.  It was all right, if you were expecting a firm-textured casserole that happened to have minestrone flavours.  There was too much cabbage which acted like a crazed sponge, sopping up all available liquid.  Happily at present, I do make an excellent minestrone.

Minestrone Soup
(makes about 8-10 servings)

  • Tomato paste, 6 T
  • Carrot, one large
  • Potatoes, two large, all purpose
  • greens, sliced thinly, either kale, spinach, escarole, or young broccoli leaves, 1/2 cup*
  • beans, white, or chick peas, or a combo of the two, dried and cooked or canned, 1.5 cup* plus extra for additional mashing if you want a thicker, more heartily flavoured soup.
  • Peas or green beans, or a combo of the two, fresh or frozen, 1 cup*
  • macaroni, small, or vermicelli broken into pieces, 1/2 cup*
  • Parmesan, grated, for serving
  • Parmesan rinds, small, one or two
  • Bay leaves, two
  • Basil, fresh, chopped, 2 T, if dried, 1 T
  • Garlic, several fat cloves
  • cèpes, 2 small handfuls
  • 2.5 quarts of liquid, beef/veggie broth, water, and cèpes liquor
  • Olive oil, 2 T
  • Salt (I use about 2 T) and freshly ground black pepper to taste 
  • Optional:  cubed, cooked beef from making stock, about 2 cups*, if not you can increase the amount of beans and macaroni to make up the difference
* American measure, that is, 8 oz

Keep in mind making a good minestrone depends on all the chosen ingredients working well together not only in taste, colour, and texture, but they also need to be present in pleasing proportions to each other. Minestrone is a lovely medley of vegetables not a mere hodgepodge made with what you may have on hand.  Veggies past their prime are better used when they are all pureed to a creamy, highly seasoned consistency and honestly presented as doctored-up, left-over-veggie soup.  Certainly minestrone can be vegetarian, but I usually save some beef when making Borscht with Beef/Onion Dumplings along with some broth for our minestrone, though using cèpes and their liquor gives a 'meaty' flavour.

Of course my recipe is not the only mixture of ingredients that works. Have your hand, and fun, with making up your own using your preferences.  The only caution is that the cruciferous family--yes, cabbage along with cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, Brussels sprouts--all give off an unpleasant taste and smell when boiled for more than five to ten minutes making reheating thawed portions problematic. Additionally, potatoes do not freeze well.

If using dried beans, cover with water and soak overnight.  Next day boil until tender, about a hour.  Rinse either cooked, dried beans or canned beans under running water well as to lessen the amount of raffinose.

Gather the ingredients.  Pour some boiling water over the cèpes to let soften.

Peel, trim, and chop carrots.  Peel potatoes and chop.  Slice thinly the broccoli leaves/kale/escarole/spinach.  Press the garlic cloves or chop finely.

Using a hand-held blender, fork, or potato masher, cream 1/2 cup of the beans, keeping the rest whole.

Rinse the cèpes several times, reserving the liquid.  To begin the soup base, saute the crushed garlic in the olive oil.

Pour in the beef/vegetable broth and cèpes liquid.  Add the tomato paste and the cèpes.

Stir in the tomato paste until it is well blended. Toss in the Parmesan rinds, bay leaves, and basil.  Now that the basic soup is in place, the thing to remember is to add the various ingredients in stages--the ones needing the longest cooking go in first.  So start with the carrots as they are the hardest veggies.

When carrots are almost tender, about 10 minutes, add the cubed potatoes and sliced greens.

Add the mashed beans and stir to blend until the soup has some body.  Extra beans can be mashed to thicken even more the minestrone.

When the potatoes are nearly tender, add the peas and the macaroni.

As the macaroni is cooking, and if you are adding beef, coarsely chop the chunks.

Check to see that all the veggies and the macaroni are indeed ready and then stir in the reserved whole beans and the beef to gently reheat for a minute or two.  Fish out rinds and bay leaves.  Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Serve with grated cheese.  It's pretty to look at, lovely to smell, and deliciously healthy to eat!

In the potager, the mornings come usually with a light frost covering the garden, but by late morning, the sun is shining, the sky is blue and clear, and I am out and about, only needing a long-sleeved shirt to keep warm while pruning.  Yes, it is that daunting task at hand as the sap in the trees and bushes have not risen yet, therefore it is permissible to remove the plant equivalent of fingers, arms, and legs from our green friends.  

Roses are the first to get their surgery--some of them still have their leaves from last summer because this winter was so mild.  Soon, the nine trees, mostly fruit-bearing along with numerous small-fruit and ornamental bushes/shrubs will get their turn.

One of 20 rose bushes, before pruning

After pruning

Some daffodils are beginning to open, no matter how cautiously--their cheery yellow is like a splash of sunshine brightening their corner.

However, I am still spending a lot of time in the sous-sol's potting room preparing for indoor sowing.  Dayo jumps on the window sill suddenly when he has something important to discuss.

He of course realises I can't hear what he is saying very well through the closed window so he waited attentively for me to open it.

He obviously wanted to check if the potted bougainvillea is overwintering OK which it is.  Whew!

À la prochaine!


Basic Pruning Information
How to prepare cèpes