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Grandma's Minestrone

(recipe, Caroline Cummins)


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Introduction

After my second child was born a couple of years ago, a cousin brought me a batch of her great-grandmother's savory minestrone. The soup was thick and filling, thanks to the technique of mincing the soffritto vegetables very fine before sautéing them. As my cousin explained, the family recipe is rather vague: Soak a handful of dried beans in some water for a while. Sauté the meat, if you're using it. Sauté the soffritto vegetables. Add some other diced vegetables, such as potatoes, tomatoes, and cabbage. Add the beans and a kettleful of boiling water, then simmer everything for a couple of hours. Add salt to taste and a few sage leaves. Add the meat and some tiny pasta, cook for a few more minutes, remove the sage leaves, and serve. After fiddling with the basic idea for a while, I came up with this version. It's faster, since it skips the soaking-the beans step. And it's a little easier, since it limits the number of vegetables you need to chop. Most of all, it's delicious, especially with drifts of freshly grated Parmesan on top.

Ingredients

  1. ¼ lb. minced bacon or ground beef (optional)
  2. A few Tbsp. olive oil
  3. 1 medium onion, diced or minced
  4. 3 to 4 celery ribs, diced or minced
  5. 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
  6. 2 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  7. A few fresh sage leaves, minced
  8. ½ tsp. fresh minced oregano, or ¼ tsp. dried
  9. ½ tsp. fresh minced thyme leaves, or ¼ tsp. dried
  10. Pinch of red-pepper flakes
  11. Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  12. 1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes
  13. 4 cups (1 quart) chicken or vegetable broth
  14. 1 cup (about 5 ounces) frozen peas
  15. Parmesan rinds (optional; see Note)
  16. 1 can (14.5 ounces) pinto beans, drained and rinsed
  17. 1 cup small dried pasta, such as orzo, stars, or couscous
  18. Freshly grated Parmesan, for serving (optional)

Steps

  1. If using the meat, sauté it in a large Dutch oven until browned, then remove and set it aside.
  2. Put the olive oil, onion, celery, and carrot in the pot, and sauté over medium heat for a few minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, for about 10 to 15 minutes, until the vegetables are translucent and golden. Add the garlic, the herbs, the chile flakes, and a little salt and pepper, and sauté another few minutes. Add the tomatoes, the broth, the peas, and the cheese rinds, if using, and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 20 minutes, until the flavors have melded.
  3. While the soup is simmering, cook the pasta in boiling water in a separate saucepan. Drain the cooked pasta and toss it with a little olive oil.
  4. If you cooked the meat, add it and any collected juices back into the soup pot. Add the pinto beans and simmer everything for a few minutes, until just heated through.
  5. Serve by portioning out about ⅓ cup cooked pasta into each bowl, then ladling soup over the pasta. Pass the freshly grated Parmesan at the table, if you wish.

Note

If you're down to the end of a hunk of Parmesan cheese, hang on to the rind and toss it into this soup; it will soften and give a rich, complex flavor to the soup. You can freeze Parmesan rinds, too, and pull a few out whenever you make an Italian vegetable soup.