When most of us use the words "comfort food" we usually mean something that warms us both inside and out, wrapping us up physically and emotionally. But during the dead heat of summer, when the humidity turns the air into hot mayonnaise, the sun turns the pavement into a short-order griddle, and we're all, as old-guard southern ladies persist in calling it, "glistening," comfort turns ice cold and is served in tall, frosted glasses and chilled bowls.
The irony is not lost on me that two of my own ultimate comfort foods are soups that are at their best in that dead heat, when their key ingredients are at their peak: my grandmother's vegetable beef soup, and the minestrone that Ilda, our school's cook, made while I was doing graduate studies in Genoa, Italy. While both soups can be, and often were, served cold, there's nothing cool about making them.
In the decades of summers since I finished graduate school and my grandmother retired from cooking, guided by MaMa's handwritten notes and Marcella Hazan's incomparable minestrone recipe, I've spent countless sweltering hours in front of a hot stove, trying to reproduce those two soups, and have never completely succeeded.
One reason, as I've learned the hard way, is that the individual finesse each cook brings to the pot can be imitated, but not copied. Another is, of course, that what goes into the pot makes a big difference. The produce I use now, no matter how fresh and good, isn't at all the same as theirs. I simply can't get tomatoes and okra that come even close to those my grandfather grew, nor the tomatoes, fresh cranberry beans, and spicy-sweet basil that are unique to Liguria's sea-kissed terraced gardens.
That doesn't mean the soups resulting from those steamy hours haven't been good, satisfying, and comforting. And I've learned some important lessons, not least of them the reality that trying to recapture a flavor memory exactly is like trying to catch sunshine in a jar.
But perhaps the most important of those lessons has been to stop imitating someone else's finesse and embrace the one that only I can bring to the pot. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but it's only when we stop doing that and start trusting ourselves that we really come into our own as cooks. And that, in the end, is what really matters.
First Vegetable Soup of the Summer
The most useful thing to come out of all those years of trying to capture my grandmother's and Ilda's vegetable soups was the realization that beneath their considerable differences, they were constructed in exactly the same way. That's probably why, when I'm making soup without a thought for recreating either one of theirs, what I usually end up with is at once like neither one and yet both.
Case in point: When the first day of the season brought a craving for summer vegetable soup that wouldn't be ignored, this is what happened. Taking advantage of early morning's relative cool, and not wanting to use up those cool moments on a trip to the market, I surveyed what was already on hand. There weren't yet any good fresh tomatoes or okra, and I'm not yet growing those, so I used good-quality Italian canned tomatoes and skipped the okra. There wasn't a cabbage in the house, but I did have a head of broccoli that needed to be cooked. There was no corn, but there were fresh green beans in the fridge, frozen butterbeans and peas in the freezer, and there's always a can of cannellini beans in the pantry.
Without okra, corn, and cabbage it wasn't anything like my grandmother's soup, nor did the absence of those things and an added cup of cannellini make it anything like Ilda's minestrone. But it was awfully good, and more to the point, provided the comfort it was meant to give.
Serves 4-6 as a main dish
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound lean ground beef, crumbled
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced
2 large ribs celery, washed, strung, and diced
2 large or 3 medium carrots, lightly peeled and diced
A good handful of young green beans, washed, topped and tailed, strung, and sliced ¼-inch thick
1 small zucchini, scrubbed, trimmed, and diced
1 small yellow squash, scrubbed, trimmed, and diced
1 large or 2 medium heads broccoli, stem peeled and diced, florets broken into bite sized pieces
1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes or 2 light cups fresh tomatoes with their juices, peeled, seeded, and chopped
6 cups meat broth, preferably homemade
1 large or 2 medium red-skinned or gold potatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup fresh or thawed frozen small green butterbeans or Ford Hook lima beans
1 cup fresh or thawed frozen small green peas
1 14-ounce can cannellini or great northern beans, drained and rinsed or 1 cup dried cannellini, soaked, cooked, and drained
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1. Put 2 tablespoons of oil in a 4-to-6 quart heavy-bottomed Dutch oven set over medium heat. When it's hot, raise the heat to medium-high and add half the crumbled beef. Cook until it's lightly browned and has lost its raw, red color, then remove it with a slotted spoon. Add the remaining oil and beef and brown it in the same way. Remove it from the pot with a slotted spoon and adjust the heat to medium low. Add the butter.
2. You'll add the vegetables one at a time, the same way a minestrone is built, beginning with the onion. Let it simmer, stirring occasionally for 3-4 minutes, without allowing it to brown. If it begins to, add the next vegetable to slow the cooking down and lower the heat under the pot. One at a time, in the same way add the celery, carrots, green beans, squashes, and diced broccoli stems, allowing each to cook 3-4 minutes before adding the next one.
3. Add the broth and tomatoes and raise the heat to medium high. Bring it to a simmer, stirring often, and then add the potato. Bring it back to a simmer and cook 3-4 minutes, then add the butterbeans and peas. Bring it back to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and then stir in the cannellini or great northern beans. When it comes back to a simmer, return the beef to the pot along with a generous pinch of salt and liberal grinding of pepper. Adjust the heat to a slow simmer (the steam bubbles should barely break the surface) and let it simmer for two hours.
4. The soup should be quite thick, but if during the simmer it gets too thick, thin it with boiling water as needed. When it has cooked for two hours, raise the heat and stir in the broccoli florets. Once it begins simmering again, readjust the heat to a lazy simmer and let it cook for another hour, again adjusting the liquid as needed with boiling water. Taste and adjust the seasonings and simmer 5 minutes longer.
5. To serve hot, turn off the heat and let the soup settle for 5 minutes before ladling it into warm soup plates or bowls. Serve it with crusty bread or fresh-baked cornbread and, if you like, freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese passed separately. To serve it cold, remove it from the heat, and stir until it cools slightly, then let it cool completely, cover tightly, and refrigerate until 30 minutes to an hour before serving. Let it sit, covered, at room temperature for 30-45 minutes. If it seems too thick, dilute it with a little chilled water as needed. Taste and adjust the salt and serve with crusty bread or cornbread.