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November 14, 2008 at 12:28 PM

What to do this weekend: make this magnificent minestrone recipe

I was never a fan of minestrone, and then, back in 2000, I came across an appealing recipe, complete with step-by-step photos, in what was then called August Home Cuisine — since rechristened Cuisine at Home. If that title doesn’t ring a bell, I’m not surprised: it’s a lesser-known magazine that, like the far more popular Cook’s Illustrated, has no ads. I’ve been subscribing to it for years and it’s a real cook’s magazine, not some armchair-traveler’s idea of a food rag. I’ve been making that minestrone ever since, and seriously: it’s well worth the time it takes (just shy of an hour) to prep. This is most definitely one of those relax-in-the-kitchen and torque-up-the-tunes kind of dishes. The kind that makes you glad to be at home, not running around doing errands, or worse — working. And when you’re done, you’ll have a big pot of soup that, ladled-up for a filling meal, looks like this:

You ready? Let’s go!

Nancy’s Favorite Minestrone (Thanks, Cuisine at Home!)

Saute in 2 tablespoons olive oil:

2-ounces pancetta, diced small

Stir in:

1 cup yellow onion, chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

Add each separately and stir:

3 cups green cabbage, chopped

2 cups green beans, trimmed (and halved if they’re too long)

1 cup celery, diced

1 cup carrots, sliced

1 cup fennel, diced

1 cup zucchini, diced

1 cup russet potatoes, peeled and diced (I use Yukon Golds)

Stir in and simmer:

4 to 5 cups beef broth (I use Swanson’s chicken broth or homemade chicken broth if I have some in the freezer)

1 can (14 1/2-ounces) diced tomatoes

1/4-cup dry red wine

1 cup cranberry beans (precooked — see: note 1)

1/4-cup orzo

1 two-ounce Parmesan rind (see: note 2)

2 tablespoons dried Italian herb blend

Add:

2 cups Swiss chard, red or green, chopped (see: note 3)

Nancy’s notes:

1) Before you do anything else, you need to pre-cook the cranberry beans (aka: borlottis, Romans or shell beans): I’ve used other dried beans in this, too, depending on what’s in my cupboard:

The pros who wrote this recipe suggest subbing kidney, cannellini, pintos or any other medium-size bean. To precook: place one cup of rinsed beans in a small pot. Add water (to 2-inches above beans) and 1 teaspoon salt. Cover pot and bring to a boil. Turn off heat. Allow beans to sit 30 minutes before adding to the soup pot.

2) Parmesan rind? Yes, you read that right: it’s used as both seasoning and thickener and great for knawing on, later, when that last hunk of Parm (see photo, above) is all melty in your bowl, so stop throwing those things away! Save ’em for soup. BTW: I’ve noticed Parm-ends for sale, lately — cheap — at better cheese shops and deli-counters.

3) The original recipe says to cut the stalk from the chard. I say, “waste not, want not”: save the stalks and the cut-up stem-ends (unless they’re too woody), and saute them with the other veggies early-on.

Once you’ve got your beans cooking, set up your mise en place:

Now, In a large pot (I use my gigantor Dutch oven, which works to great effect because there’s lots of room and it heats evenly), saute the pancetta over medium-high heat in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until crisp. (And, yeah, you probably can use “regular” bacon — in which case you should use only one tablespoon of olive oil — or even diced prosciutto or guanciale — I’ve done it: pancetta’s the best, though) This should take about 10 minutes. Then add the onion and garlic and cook for two minutes:

Add each vegetable separately, stirring and allowing each of the veggies to saute a bit before adding the next — I usually start with the carrots, then celery, then fennel because they take longer to cook, but you do whatever floats your boat. And speaking of floating your boat, if you hate, say, fennel or green beans and don’t have zucchini but do have yellow summer squash, no one’s going to smack you if you sub-out one for another. This is all about you, OK, so use whatever vegetables you want to use, just consider the proportions described in the recipe.

Soon enough, you’ll see that the veggies begin steaming. That’s a good thing, as Martha might say (but then she didn’t write this recipe: the August Home Cuisine/Cuisine at Home folks did, and I shouldn’t even be bringing her up in this conversation since everyone knows about Martha and her magazines and you probably don’t know about the Cuisine-ators, whom — did I mention this? — I love).

Once you’ve got all the vegetables in there doing their steaming thing, keep at it for about 10 minutes and then add the liquids (4 cups of broth, the diced tomatoes and their canned juices and the red wine). Stir well and then add the pre-cooked cranberry beans, orzo, Parmesan rind and Italian herb blend:

Simmer over medium heat for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, stirring occasionally until the vegetables and beans are the right amount of “toothsome” for you. Add the extra cup of broth if necessary. Within minutes of serving, add the Swiss chard. Stir until wilted. The soup will have reduced quite a bit, which is what makes it so grand, in my humble opinion. And, since we’re talking about my (cough) humble opinion, I must say that my homemade bread is the perfect accompaniment to this soup:

And if you time things right and make that almost-no-knead bread-dough recipe the night before you make the minestrone (tonight? why not!) you can have the bread rising in time to pop it in the oven, and still have time to let it cool off before slicing that lovely loaf for dinner.

Have fun this weekend, and I’ll talk to you on Monday.

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