Ben venga il Minestrone
The Italians are brilliant with words, especially when it comes to food. Take that most humble of dishes, soup. In English, we pretty much have the one word to describe it. Oxford Companion to Italian Food author Gillian Riley makes the point that Italians have many specific words for the dish while English is rather limited, “Soup and stew are easygoing, almost interchangeable words in English, used to describe many recipes, anything from a thick to a runny dish.”
While we’re lacking in synonyms for soup, there are words, many of them borrowed from French, that describe very specific recipes and method rather than a general type of dish (bouillabaise, bisque, vichyssoise, even ‘chowder’ is an anglicised chaudière). “Gumbo” is borrowed from African.
In Italian however, there are words that describe many different types of soup that we would otherwise have to use adjectives with – crema (a thick, creamy soup such as a potato and leek soup), passata (a vegetable or legume puree), minestra (a stock-based soup with chunks of vegetables and/or meat), minestrone (like a minestra but heartier, with the addition of beans or pasta or both), brodo (broth), zuppa (usually a thick soup with seafood, meat or vegetables), vellutata (a soup that we would probably call a “cream of” – enter name of vegetable – soup), not to mention the multitude of dialectal names of dishes across the regions.
Mastering soup, that most comforting and perhaps most giving dish, is underrated, but like the prolific food writer Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher said, “It is impossible to think of any good meal, no matter how plain or elegant, without soup or bread in it.”
Brodo is the very first of over 700 recipes in Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (1891), which is no coincidence – a good broth is the base of any good Italian soup or stew. To turn brodo into minestra, simply add more chopped seasonal vegetables, and in the case of minestrone (the “-one” implying something bigger), also the addition of beans or pasta or both.
Artusi opens his recipe for minestrone with possibly my favourite anecdote in the entire book. He begins by recounting that minestrone “recalls memories of a year of public anguish and my own singular case”. It was 1885. Artusi was staying in Livorno at a time when cholera was snaking its way through the Italian peninsula.
Poking his head into a trattoria, he asks, “What’s the soup?”
“Minestrone” is the reply.
“Ben venga il Minestrone,” says Artusi – welcome the minestrone.
That night, sleeping in his hotel in Piazza del Voltone in a white palazzo kept by a certain Signor Domenici, he begins to feel what he amusingly describes as a “revolution” in his body and spends the night back and forth to the bathroom, cursing the maledetto (‘damned’) minestrone. He escapes to Florence the next day only to discover the news that the epidemic had reached Livorno and that Domenici, his host, had been the first cholera casualty. Not every cookbook recipe begins with a story like that!
Soup has always played an important part in the regional cuisines across Italy – it’s a dish that anyone could put on the table, even if it was something as modest as Livorno’s brodo di sassi, a broth of the poorest kind, flavoured only with rocks from the sea. Soup, and more specifically minestra or minestrone was also a traditional dish to put on the table on Fridays when fasting was observed, a Catholic ritual that meant no meat was to be eaten. It’s a ritual that has slowly given way to modern habits, after the poverty of the Second World War made abstinence from eating meat impratical. But even so, you may notice that the vintage tea towel used in these photos (a little beauty nabbed from my husband’s nonna’s kitchen, it’s a 1960s original by Milan-based designer Ken Scott) shows a vegetable recipe for a ‘delicate soup’ inscribed with the day it’s meant to be made, venerdì – Friday. But if you ask me, minestra or minestrone, is good any day.
The idea here is to take advantage of fresh, seasonal ingredients (which also happen to be the cheapest, even more so if they are local) rather than looking at this as an opportunity to clear out the sad-looking scraps at the bottom of the crisper drawer in the fridge.
If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere you’re lucky with Spring coming up as you have a beautiful choice of broad beans, freshly shelled peas, young carrots and artichokes. In Victoria, autumn chills are just starting to seep into the evening air. I’m making mine with the last of the late summer zucchini, some yellow squash, and onions, which are lovely at this time of year too. In a couple of months when winter arrives, I can’t go past adding more root vegetables, silverbeet and for that Tuscan flavour, cavolo nero (Artusi suggests adding also cabbage).
This is a vegetarian version, but if you want to make this more substantial and meaty, use beef stock as the base and 50 grams of chopped pancetta in the pan with the onion. A little trick of casalinghe to add some flavour to a vegetable soup is also to throw in the thick rind of Parmesan cheese when you can no longer grate anything else from it – it adds lovely flavour and when it’s softened in the warm soup, you can eat it too ( strict vegetarians, just be aware that real Parmesan cheese is made with real animal rennet).
For 6 people:
- Homemade beef or vegetable stock, about 1 litre or enough to cover the vegetables
- Roughly chopped seasonal vegetables (see suggestions above – in this one I used 2 yellow squash, 1 zucchini, some freshly shelled peas) plus the vegetables below
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 medium carrot, chopped
- ½ stalk of celery, chopped
- 1 small potato, cut into 1-cm cubes
- 1 clove of garlic
- 2 Bay leaves
- A tin of borlotti beans, drained
- ½ Tin of whole, peeled tomatoes (or 2 or 3 fresh Roma tomatoes)
- 50 grams of pasta (the tiny shapes like risoni, stelline etc are perfect), rice or farro
- A handful of parsley, both stalk and leaves, chopped
- Grated Parmesan cheese
- Toasted slices of bread for each bowl
- Olive oil
Gently heat the diced onion and chopped garlic in some olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the parsley stalks, the bay leaves, chopped celery and carrot. When the onion begins to become translucent, add the other seasonal vegetables, beans, tomato and some small-shaped pasta, rice or farro. Cover with stock, bring to the boil and place a lid on top and cook until the vegetables are tender.
If you have really delicate Spring vegetables, you can put them in towards the end so that they are still bright and have a slight bite to them. If you want something lighter (minestra), leave out the beans and the pasta, rice or farro.
Serve the minestrone with a piece of toasted bread in the bottom or on the side of the bowl, plenty of grated Parmesan cheese, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and chopped parsley on top.