By Pia Hinckle
In Italy, there are as many ways to make minestrone (literally “big soup”) as there are ways to make pasta. Each region has a variation, and each town has a local twist inspired by what’s in season. The only rule is to use what’s on hand. This is a perfect soup to make with any leftover vegetables, greens, beans, and rice or pasta.
In my family, my mom always makes minestrone on Christmas Eve. Many people come by the house that day for a cup of cheer, and a huge pot of minestrone is always simmering quietly for anyone who needs a little pick-me-up. For dinner, we have a bowlful with fresh bread and salad. It’s a simple yet totally satisfying meal and a nice light contrast to the bigger feast awaiting us on Christmas Day.
My mom learned how to make minestrone from her mother, but especially from her grandmother Pia (whom everyone called “Nonni”), who had grown up in a small hill town outside of Lucca in Tuscany. Of course, no one ever actually wrote down a recipe that detailed tablespoons and amounts. They would just tell you to soak the beans the night before, sauté the onion and garlic in a soup pot, then throw in the greens, potatoes, pre-cooked beans, and other stuff, and add the dried pasta at the very end.
I tried to translate this tradition into a real recipe that can be adapted to your family’s liking. Late fall and winter months bring an abundance of hearty greens such as kale, Swiss chard, and spinach, all perfect greens for this big soup. You can add chopped tomatoes if you’d like, and/or zucchini, broccoli, or any other veggies you have on hand. Also, if you prefer a more smoky meat base, add some chopped bacon or pancetta to the onions and garlic. I usually double this recipe and make enough for 12–20 people, then freeze the leftovers. This is a soup that tastes even better a day or two later.
- 2 bunches of kale (or other hearty greens)
- 8 small potatoes (or 5 big), scrubbed and cut into 1-inch cubes (peel if desired)
- 4 carrots, scrubbed and chopped roughly into largish pieces
- 4 celery stalks, washed and chopped roughly
- 2–3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
- 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped small
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup dried cannellini or navy beans (prepared beforehand—see Cook’s note) or 3 cans cooked beans
- 6–8 cups water, or vegetable or chicken stock (enough to cover veggies)
- 1 pound Ditalini or other small dried pasta (optional)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
- Wash all the kale. Remove the hard center ribs with a knife. Pile the kale and chop roughly into small pieces. Set aside.
- Heat your water (or stock). Peel and chop the garlic and onion. Using a very large pot with a lid, add all of the olive oil, chopped garlic, and onion, and heat on medium-low flame. Stir occasionally, taking care not to let them burn.
- While that is cooking, wash and chop the carrots and celery. Add these to the onions and garlic. Add a pinch of salt to vegetables as they sauté.
- Scrub and cut up the potatoes. Add the chopped kale and potatoes to the sauté. Stir all together and add enough heated water or stock to cover. Mix in the cooked (or canned) beans.
- Bring to a boil and then lower heat to a simmer, with the lid just askew, for about 45 minutes. Add more liquid as needed to keep vegetables covered. For a thinner soup, add additional liquid.
- Wait until the soup is basically done to add in dried pasta or rice (if using), as you don’t want it to get soggy. Let it cook according to package directions, always adding liquid for desired thickness. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve in warmed soup bowls with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese, if desired. This goes very well with fresh French bread or toasted bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil.
Serves 6–8. Prep time, 30 minutes; cook time, 60 minutes (not including beans).
Cook’s note: Dried beans do taste best. Soak overnight in water. Discard water, rinse beans, put in the pot with enough water to cover, and cook until tender, about 2 hours, adding more water if needed. When done, rinse beans before adding to the soup. If you have a pressure cooker, beans can be cooked without soaking. Follow cooker instructions. Add a teaspoon of vegetable oil per cup of beans to water to prevent foaming.