One of the great ironies of summer is that it's the very time of year when vegetable soups are at their best, since all the ingredients are at peak season, just when the last thing one wants to do is stand over a hot stove.
Luckily, these soups really don't require the cook to stand over them for more than a few minutes. You put it together before the kitchen is heated up, hang around only as long as it takes for it to come to a simmer, then just walk away, going back occasionally to give it a stir and make sure it's not sticking to the bottom or getting too thick.
The benefits of having a batch of minestrone at the ready in the fridge far outweigh any heat that making it has generated. It's ready to provide what we need no matter what summer brings us. Served at room temperature or even a little chilled, there's simply nothing to equal it for stirring our heat-blunted appetites and cooling us down. But there's also nothing like it served warm for bringing back the sunshine when those inevitable thunderclouds roll in.
This past week, while my spouse was away at a music conference, I put together a batch of this soup and stowed it away in the fridge, where it has provided comfort for my solitary meals come rain or come shine.
Minestrone with Pesto
Though informed by Marcella Hazan's incomparably elegant recipe for Minestrone alla Romagnola (Romagna-style), my minestrone making is guided by two flavor memories from my past. One is the minestrone with pesto that our Genovese cook Ilda used to make; the other, my grandmother's summer vegetable soup, which is the standard by which I measure them all.
Serves 6 to 8
6 cups meat broth, preferably homemade, or 2 cups each canned beef and chicken broth mixed together with 2 cups water (even if the package says to use it full strength)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large or 2 medium yellow onions
1 large or 2 medium ribs celery
1 large or 2 medium carrots
6 ounces (about 1/3 pound) fresh green beans
1 medium zucchini
1 small head cabbage, outer tough, dark leaves removed
1 large or 2 medium red skinned or white boiling potatoes
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
1½ cups Italian plum tomatoes, with juice, seeded and chopped
2 cups cooked cannellini (white kidney beans), drained
1 2-inch square piece of well-scraped Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
About ¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese, optional
About ¾ to 1 cup Pesto alla Genovese (recipe follows)
1. Put the broth in a 2-3 quart saucepan and bring it to a simmer over low heat.
2. Put the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed 5-7 quart pot such as an enameled iron Dutch oven and put it over medium-low heat. While it heats, trim the onion, split it in half lengthwise, then peel, and dice it small. Stir it into the pot until it's coated with the fat and let it simmer at least 3-5 minutes. Meanwhile, wash, string, trim and dice the celery. Add it to the pot, stirring well, and again simmer 3-5 minutes.
3. Peel and dice the carrot, add it to the pot, and stir well, then wash, trim, and string the green beans. Cut enough of them crosswise into ¼-inch pieces to make a generous cup. Add them to the pot, stir well, and, while that simmers, scrub, trim and dice the zucchini. Add it to the pot, stir, and let it simmer while you prepare the cabbage.
4. Cut 4-5 inner pale leaves from the cabbage, wash them under cold running water, then cut them into dice until you have a heaping cup. Stir that into the pot and let it simmer 3-5 minutes more. Wrap the remaining cabbage well and refrigerate it for another use.
5. Peel and dice the potatoes and add them to the pot. Stir and simmer another 3 minutes or so, then add the peas, Stir well and let it return to a simmer. Stir in the tomatoes and broth, the cheese rind, and a large pinch of salt. Raise the heat to medium and bring it almost to a boil, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for an hour. Stir in the cannellini and cook for at least another hour or as long as 2. While it cooks, bring a kettle of water to a simmer and add a little to the soup as needed if it gets too thick. Taste and adjust the salt as needed, and simmer a few minutes longer to let it meld. Remove the cheese rind. It's entirely edible and some cooks consider it their treat.
6. The soup can be enjoyed hot or you can let it cool, uncovered, and serve it at room temperature. If you make it a day ahead and plan to serve it cold, let it sit at room temperature for at least half an hour before serving so that it loses that flavor-numbing chill of the refrigerator. Offer freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano if it's served hot, or hot or cold add a heaped soupspoon full of pesto to each serving.
Pesto alla Genovese
Traditionally, the cheese is omitted if the pesto is intended for soup, but Ilda used the same pesto for minestrone as she did for pasta, so I've always done the same.
This mostly follows Marcella Hazan's recipe for pesto with a couple of exceptions. When I can't get good Mediterranean pine nuts, I always have good pecans in my freezer and will substitute those, thawed and broken into small pieces before measuring them. Also, Ilda never added the butter to her pesto until she was tossing it with the pasta, and I follow her lead on that as well.
For a pound of pasta or 1 recipe minestrone, serving 6
2 firmly packed cups fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons Italian or Middle-Eastern pine nuts (see notes above)
2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and chopped fine
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2 tablespoons Pecorino Romano
1 pound spaghetti, thin spaghetti, or linguine
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, for serving
1. Put the basil, pine nuts, garlic, oil and a large pinch of salt in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process, stopping and scraping the sides down as needed, until smooth, but not completely pureed.
2. Turn it out into a mixing bowl and by hand stir in the cheeses. Add the cheese and pulse to mix. Transfer the pesto to a bowl or jar, float a little oil on top, and let it stand for at least half an hour before using it. The pesto can be made up to a day ahead. Refrigerate it if making it ahead.