Minestrone Soup

Minestrone is one of my very favorite soups and I have two very vivid memories that involve it.

The first was when I was around 11 or 12 and playing at my friend Julia's house. Her mother made us Progresso minestrone soup and Stouffer's french bread pizzas for lunch. It was the most perfectly perfect lunch for that particular day, and a meal Julia and I frequently re-lived as we munched our boring peanut butter sandwiches in the dismal, windowless cafeteria of PVC Middle School (architecturally speaking, that school was one of the most bleak places on earth).

The second memory is a couple decades later, in fact I remember the date:  Sunday, January 18, 2004. Redman was a mere 4 days old. Our dear, dear friends Justin and Cindy came over to the house with a giant gift basket. Among other lovely things, the basket held an enormous tupperware of minestrone soup that Cindy had made just for us. Did I mention they are dear friends? Despite our encouraging, they didn't stay long, just enough to drop off the basket, give hugs, coo over the baby and get out of our hair. 

"Oh, will you look at him?!" Cindy said. "I'm sorry, I'm getting my days all mixed up—what is he, two weeks now?"

"Hardly," Jeeps laughed, "he was born on Wednesday."

Cindy spun around and looked at me and said the only thing a post-partum woman wants to hear: "Oh bull-shit, you did not have a baby four days ago!!"

Did I mention they are dear friends?

Anyway, minestrone soup recipes seem to come in two categories: expert and the rest of us. The expert ones—and I've tried two, one from Martha Stewart, another from Cooks Illustrated—involve dried beans and a soffrito and parmesan rinds and lots of cooking time. They are wonderful if you have the time. For the rest of us insane people trying to get dinner on the table before the Witching Hour, I found this one in that old recipe book of mine so the provenance is unknown. I'm going to guess either Redbook or Better Homes & Gardens.

Minestrone for the Common Man

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 potatoes, peeled and diced (I used 2 white and 1 sweet)
  • 3 medium-size carrots, peeled and diced (I used 5 because...I like to)
  • 3 medium-size ribs of celery, diced
  • 1 medium zucchini, diced (this wasn't actually in the original recipe which I found quite odd)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed (I used 4 because...I like to)
  • 1 32-oz box chicken broth (I used one whole box plus the odd dregs of 2 nearly-empty boxes in the fridge)
  • 1 bay leaf (I also used a sprig of fresh thyme and some chopped fresh sage leaves because in my opinion, minestrone is nothing without sage)
  • 2 16-oz cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed (I only had 1 can of these so I used a 16-oz can of chick peas)
  • 1 28-oz can whole tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 - 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked pasta (optional, but I like pasta in minestrone. Usually I put shells or elbows but I happened to have some leftover orzo in the fridge so I used that)

Heat olive oil over medium heat; add all the diced vegetables and stir well to coat. Cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add chicken broth and herbs. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low; cover and simmer about 10 minutes.

Add tomatoes to soup, dumping in the juice from the can as well and breaking up the tomatoes with the side of a wooden spoon. Add beans, grated parmesan, vinegar, crushed red pepper, and salt to taste. Cook at least another 5 minutes to allow flavors to combine. Or turn heat to very low and keep on the back burner until ready to serve, it won't hurt it.

I made herbed garlic toasts to go with this. The soup was great. The balsamic vinegar pulled all the flavors together, but still, there seemed to be elusive base note missing to the broth. It just needed one last bit of "umph," and I wondered if a couple teaspoons of tomato paste in the diced veggies would have provided it. This could also be, simply, what you get when you go for the quick-and-easy, rest-of-us minestrone recipe. It's delicious, but lacks the soul and wisdom of the expert, slow-cooked version.

I can live with that.