Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sumptuousness for the new year

January minestrone, again
If I'd had things my way, I'd have woken up late New Year's Day to a bowlful of this minestrone--warm, nourishing, vegetal, and earnest. I'm a firm believer in starting the year with a good soup. After all that splendid holiday fare--the roasts, the potatoes, the mounds of sweets--it's exactly what I need. 
And that was especially true of this past holiday in particular. Christmas was one thing, but New Year's Eve was really something else. My boyfriend and I were visiting with his parents, and they'd invited a few people over to celebrate. You have no idea how much we ate. We set the table no less than three times over the course of the evening. We had three dinners that night, each broken up with a few drinks, some cards, and a little pool. First came the meatball soup, the piles of smoked and cured meats, and a kale salad. Then there were cabbage rolls (glorious), sausages, and a luxurious cabbage gratin. Finally, as we rung in the New Year, there was a pork loin, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts on the table. (And of course there was dessert.) The Romanians know how to run a feast (but I should have known that already).
Prep for stock
The next day, there were leftovers galore, so I waited until I was back in Chicago to make this much-needed soup. Now, ordinarily, I wouldn't bother making my own vegetable stock. But I wanted this soup to be positively virtuous, so homemade stock it was. And after a string of lazy days, it felt right. All that scrubbing, peeling, and chopping was meditative, renewing--and well worth it, besides. The stock gives the minestrone its depth, sweetness, and complexity. It's the heart of this soup, really. It makes it just about as sumptuous as any humble vegetable soup can be. And at the start of the year, that's all the sumptuousness you might really need.
Happy 2012, friends.

January Minestrone
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Note: Make ahead. As with many soups, this minestrone just gets better in a day or two. If you aren't serving it all at once, only blanch as much chard and cook as much pasta as you'll need immediately. You risk overcooking them otherwise. Umami. Don't overlook the parmesan. The vegetables can't do it all on their own. The parm gives the soup the satisfying kick of umami it needs. Vegans, you'll have to make up for it in good-quality soy sauce or tamari. Parmesan rind. You can also improve the depth and flavour of any vegetable broth by adding the rind from a wedge of Reggiano. Think of it as the vegetarian's ham knuckle.

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to finish
2 cups finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup chopped parsley
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 cup diced celery
Salt and pepper
2 bay leaves
8 parsley branches
6 thyme sprigs
9 cups vegetable stock (recipe below)
Rind from a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano (optional)
3 cups cooked white beans (I used alubia blanca but cannellini would be just fine) 
Soy sauce, to taste
1 small bunch of Swiss chard or kale
2 1/2 cups cooked small pasta (I used ditalini, small and thimble-like)
Thin shavings of parmesan, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano

Heat the oil in a wide, heavy-bottomed pot with the onion. Saute over high heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
Add the tomato paste, parsley, garlic, vegetables, and 2 teaspoons salt and cook 3 minutes more.
In the meantime, tie up the aromatics with kitchen twine or bundle them in cheesecloth. Add them to the pot along with the stock, and the rind, if using, and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. At the 15 minute mark, add the beans to the pot.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Blanch the greens until bright, just a minute or two. Drain them and run them under cold water. Remove their stems and chop the leaves finely. Set aside.
Taste the soup for salt and season with freshly ground black pepper. If it needs more depth, stir in some soy sauce, starting with 1 tablespoon. Remove the aromatics.
Just before serving, add the greens and the pasta to the soup and heat through. Serve with extra virgin olive oil drizzled into each bowl, a generous grind of pepper, and the parmesan.
Serves 6.

Basic Vegetable Stock
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Note: Volume. My 5.5-quart dutch oven just fits all of the liquid and vegetables. If you don't have something nearly as big, you might try simmering everything in 2 quarts of water to make a more concentrated stock and then diluting it with an additional 3 cups of water for the minestrone.

3 small onions
3 large carrots
3 celery ribs, including a few leaves
1 large bunch of scallions
1 1/2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
12 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
12 parsley branches
9 thyme sprigs
2 bay laves

Scrub the vegetables and chop them roughly into 1-inch chunks. Heat the oil in a wide, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the vegetables, garlic, and herbs and cook them over high heat for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently. The more colour they get, the richer the flavour of the stock. Add 3 teaspoons of salt and 3 quarts of cold water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth.
Makes about 9 cups.


  1. happy new year! all the best for 2012.
    i feel healthier just for reading the ingredients for this soup. we had a stew packed full of vegetables just after christmas - definitely a great way to start the year.
    i love your recipe book in the background full of post-its, i do the same thing.
    I'll give this a go over the next couple of weeks x

  2. This soup looks delicious, but when I read cabbage rolls and the word glorious after them, that's all I can focus on! I'm envious of your Romanian connections and the feasting you got to experience. Would you by chance happen to have a good cabbage roll recipe?

  3. Zoe, happy new year to you too! I've misplaced my post-its, but I love poring over cookbooks when I first get them and marking all of the things I want to make. I rarely get through them all, but it's so exciting just leafing through the pages of a new book. Let me know what you think of the minestrone, if you get around to making it.

    Amy, I understand :) A glorious cabbage roll can be a distracting thing. Unfortunately, I'm pretty new to this cabbage-roll business (and cooking meat generally), so I don't have a recipe to recommend. However, my boyfriend's mom promised me a copy of the Romanian cookbook she's been cooking from for years (that's where her cabbage rolls come from, the glorious ones). It's the sort of book the mothers buy for their daughters when they get married and that they pass on to their own, so I'm excited! It should be coming in the mail in the next couple of weeks. I'll have to keep you updated.

  4. This looks like a wonderful soup for this time of year. I love a good minestrone, especially the ones with swiss chard or kale. Glad I found your blog!

  5. Stephanie, thanks for dropping by. I'm always trying to sneak more greens into things when my boyfriend's not looking, this soup included. :)