Photo by Judith Hausman
The air is cooler, the garden is straggling and our tastes are turning. It’s time to throw everything into the soup pot, trusting our palates and our instincts, flying without a recipe, seasoning at will. Minestrone is not for purists.
First, you have your sofrito — that is, the indispensable onion and garlic family and any form of those: shallots, leeks, cipollini and so on. Also the prolific pepper family: bell, long, Hungarian, wax and so on. Just be circumspect with the very hot one — they can really take over. Chop them coarsely (this is not the place for a delicate, tiny brunoise) and soften them with the onions and garlic in olive oil in a large, heavy pot. Toss in any sliced celery and fennel you can find. And the carrots. Let’s not forget the carrots!
Look around your fridge or kitchen counter for some vino — in it goes, red or white. Wait until the liquid evaporates a bit, turn down the heat and drop in plenty of random tomatoes. I core but don’t peel them, but many people do peel. I bet you’re already seeing gorgeous colors in the simmering pot, aren’t you?
Dice the last zucchini or yellow squash, tip and cut up the last green or wax beans, dice the new potatoes into small-ish cubes so they cook evenly. When those vegetables cook to semi-tender (just spoon out a piece or two and test it), add chopped greens, such as chard, kale, cabbage, and Asian ones, too, like bok choy, napa cabbage or totsoi. About the only garden clean-outs I omit are beets and winter squash, but hey, if you like them in, they go in. It’s your minestrone.
About this time, you can decide to add broth if you like it soupier, or you can freeze this Big Soup base and add the broth when you defrost. You can also start cooking a starch separately now. Brown rice is good, barley is good and whole-wheat macaroni is, too. You should also cook kidney beans, chick peas, lentils or black beans separately, or open and drain a can of cooked beans instead. Any starch or beans will soak up the liquid from the soup if they cook directly in the pot and they take up a lot of room in the freezer.
The last-minute finesse is the herbs: I always seem to have plenty of forlorn basil to tear into the soup, but oregano, parsley, lovage and rosemary are great in this mix, as well. Adjust the salt and pepper to your taste now.
If I freeze the minestrone, I like to use quart zipper-closed bags but it’s a shame not to eat at least some of this Soup of Life right away. In fact, minestrone makes great party food. Let your guests ladle up a bowl of bubbling Big Soup right from the stove. Then lay out bowls of garnish on the table: grated cheese, pesto, roasted garlic cloves, anchovies, diced black olives and homemade garlic croutons. Offer several kinds of herb butter and bread — I like corn muffins, a crusty peasant loaf and maybe a walnut-whole-wheat round. Pour plenty of rustic red wine, cider or seasonal beers. If you play your cards right, maybe someone will even volunteer to bring an apple crisp for dessert.