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Souper Tuesday: Minestrone, like nonna made it

Souper Tuesday: Minestrone, like nonna made it
Soup and pasta: Tony Jackman’s minestrone. June 2024. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

A classic among rustic classics, minestrone has no specific recipe and varies from region to region in Italy. It must contain an array of chopped vegetables, but all other ingredients are variable. And it is as Italian as pizza and opera.

Welcome to Souper Tuesday, your weekly soup fix in Daily Maverick’s TGIFood. We’re starting with a real classic, minestrone. The derivation of the name has something of a double meaning, because its roots are minestra, which means ‘soup’,  but also minestrare, which means ‘to serve’. Think of the English ‘to administer a remedy’. It’s soup as healing.

‘Minestra’ can also refer to a range of vegetable soups of different kinds. ‘Zuppa’ refers to various soups, such as tomato, that do not include pasta or rice, while ‘minestrone’ can be a range of hearty vegetable soups, with small pasta in them. From region to region in Italy, the recipe and ingredients will differ, as will whether the soup is very thick or much thinner. Some include meat, but few do.

And minestrone is just the kind of hearty soup, packed with vegetables and goodness, that you’d want to serve to somebody who is unwell, or down in the dumps, or just plain chilly. Which makes it the perfect winter soup.

Minestrone is also perfect for those times when you check the crisper and see that you have all sorts of things in there. Carrots, onions, celery, spinach, leeks, courgettes, pretty much anything you find in there. Cabbage too.

There are few rules, but the general thinking today is for minestrone to contain:

  • Beans, traditionally cannellini, but in South Africa we can substitute red kidney, speckled sugar beans and other types found in a can. Or mix them up. 
  • There must be tomatoes, and I prefer to use passata, because it is pure: only strained tomatoes, nothing else. But a can or two of chopped tomatoes, or fresh for that matter, is fine if that’s what you’d prefer.
  • There generally has to be small pasta, but rice can be substituted. I used tiny elbow pasta, which is ideal. See how they pop up at the top of the bowl in the photo. Perfect.
  • Most of all, minestrone must have a wide variety of vegetables in it, and you’d be mad not to include the basic essentials of the soffrito (carrot, onion, celery) as well as garlic.

But those ‘rules’ are not strict. Marcella Hazan tells us that the vegetable soups of the south lean heavily on tomato, garlic and olive oil, “sometimes” pasta; that the soups of central Italy are often fortified with beans, and those of the north with rice instead of small pasta. She adds, “those of the Riviera, with fresh herbs, and there are as many variations in between as there are local cooks”.

Small diced potatoes can be added, which will ultimately thicken the soup, and Hazan uses those too in her Roman iteration. Spinach is a common ingredient too, and often, today, pancetta is included, although this is not traditional. And yes, you can substitute diced bacon. Even in this true Italian cook’s version, there is meat stock and pancetta. I did include some bacon, but you certainly don’t have to.

For a Roman style minestrone (alla Romagna), Hazan uses butter as well as olive oil to kick things off, the crust of a piece of Parmesan cheese (great tip if you have some), diced cabbage and beef stock, so, again, there are no rules to speak of. I didn’t include cabbage, only because I didn’t have any and that’s how it works.

And the final ingredient of a minestrone is time. Don’t rush it (I go with Hazan, who sets the time as three hours). It’s ready when the vegetables are all al dente, and the flavours of the soup have developed and worked together to become highly desirable. Three hours also gives the Parmesan rind more time to do its work.

My version is an amalgam of all my research, with a slant towards the centre and south of Italy, rather than the rice versions of the north. And one final plea: don’t blend. This has to be chunky and rustic.

Tony’s Minestrone (Serves 6 to 8)

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup olive oil and 3 Tbsp butter
  • 3 large onions, diced
  • 4 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 2 large potatoes, diced
  • ½ cup of diced green beans
  • 3 or 4 courgettes, diced
  • A few spinach leaves, the cores discarded, and green parts shredded
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
  • Fresh thyme sprigs
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 litres vegetable stock
  • 500 ml passata (strained tomatoes)
  • A piece of Parmesan rind
  • 1 x 400 g can cannellini beans (or other)
  • 100 g small elbow pasta
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • 1 cup of grated Parmesan
  • Basil for garnish

Method

Put a deep, heavy stock or soup pot on a moderate heat and add the butter and olive oil. When melted, add the onions and cook, stirring, until softened.

Add the carrots and cook, stirring, for three minutes. Continue in this fashion: add the celery, cook, then the potatoes, cook, green beans, cook, courgettes, cook, spinach, cook, then add the garlic, thyme and bay leaf.

Add the stock and passata, and if you have a block of Parmesan with a rind crust, slice it off and add it.

Season with salt and black pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce to the lowest heat, put a lid on, and cook very gently for about two hours. Taste and adjust seasoning as you go.

After two hours, add the canned beans and the pasta, stir so that the pasta separates into the soup, put the lid back on and cook for another hour.

Remove the bay leaf and Parmesan crust.

Stir in the grated Parmesan and serve with torn basil.

Come back here next Tuesday for my beefy beans and marrow bones soup; it might sound similar but it’s very different. DM

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido. Order his book, foodSTUFF, here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

This dish is photographed on plate wares by Mervyn Gers Ceramics.

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rae Earl says:

    Just what we needed with these falling temperatures. And, made in SA so no weird unheard of things which are unavailable locally. We’ll add a helping of cayenne pepper to kick taste buds into life. Thanks for what looks like a delicious recipe/s!

  • Rae Earl says:

    Just what we needed with these falling temperatures. And, made in SA so no weird unheard of things which are unavailable locally. We’ll add a helping of cayenne pepper to kick taste buds into life. Thanks for what looks like a delicious recipe/s!

  • shannon Maxwell says:

    Perfect! I volunteered to do a soup and buy some crusty bread for a father’s day lunch my daughter and a friend are having on Sunday, so this is it! Was toying with roast red pepper and tomato soup or vichysoise, but this has called out to me instead!

  • Colin Johnston says:

    I great idea to post this recipe again. You did it a while ago and we make it often – on a cold evening or even when you just run out of energy to think of cooking, a bowl of this soup and a bit of French bread is a really good meal. We made some more today!

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Looks fantastic! Was thinking of doing a French onion soup this weekend, but may well do this instead – also a great way to use up veggies!

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