Friday, April 11, 2014

Minestrone


My friend Pia is blessed with italian roots and a family that knows how to cook and by extension I get to enjoy ecxellent espresso and home cooked italian food whenever I see her, which is not nearly often enough. Last time we met we cooked toegether for her birthday party and ended up with a culturally confused yet tasty buffet - cheesy chicken nachos and tiramisu, anyone? - but the star of that nights' show was the minestrone, a big pot full of tomatoey goodness and fresh veggies and a good dose of olive oil.


There are so many vegetables in her soup, that it's hard to stir the pot. The last thing to go in (the spinach) looked like it wasn't ever going to fit; but it did, of course, and it was delicious. It's a colorful soup with many different textures from all the veggies: carrots, slightly chewy celery, creamy potatoes, spinach or swiss chard for a spot of green in the otherwise very orange soup and chickpeas for some bite; if you have the time to soak and boil your own chickpeas, or just prefer them to have some bite left after boiling, do that; canned chickpeas are dead practical, but tend towards the creamy side - and should there (miraculously?) be some leftovers, they won't fall apart on you when rewarming the soup.


According to Pia, it was a medium sized disaster that we were not able to get hold of any swiss chard that day and ended up having to use spinach instead, but we all liked it just fine with spinach. In case of a swiss chard shortage, or if yo happen to live in a country where that particular vegetable has fallen out of favor (as seems to be the case here, and I haven't quite figured out why that is so), use spinach instead, it makes excellent soup; the bigger and beefier the leaves, the better, baby spinach is often what's easiest available, but can be a little on the careful side in the flavor department.


A word about the tomatoes: use plum tomatoes, there's more meat on them and they cook up beautifully. In summer, buy the best available; if you happen to live in Italy it's a no-brainer, just go to the supermarket, buy excellent red, ripe and flavorful tomatoes, you're done. In case you don't: if you're in doubt about the flavor of the tomatoes in question, abandon operations and buy canned, really good canned, instead. In winter, don't bother and buy canned tomatoes from the get go, better good quality canned than anemic, watery ones, which will spoil your efforts, I promise. No matter how well you cook, you won't be able to infuse the soup with flavor, where there isn't any in the first place.

Minestrone

enough dinner for 4 hungry adults

olive oil
2 onions
4 cloves of garlic
4 ribs of celery
6 carrots
6 potatoes
1 450 g (14 oz) can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed, or the same amount of self-soaked, boiled and drained chickpeas
2 450 g (14 oz) cans of tomatoes, go for the good stuff
2 tblsp tomato concentrate, same goes
2 l (8 cups) chicken or vegetable stock
250 g ( 9 oz ) swiss chard or spinach, chopped or baby spinach, as is
2 bay leaves
salt, pepper
2 tblsp red wine vinegar

Note:
This can be fast food, if you chop your vegetables strategically; the onions go in first, then the carrots, celery and potatoes, then the tomatoes and then all the rest - the swiss chard goes last, and inside 10 minutes everything is in the pot. The half hour it needs to cook you can spend cleaning up the mess you made while speed chopping your veggies. Or so.

1. Peel and chop the onions and garlic, carrots, celery and potatoes. In case you use fresh tomatoes, skin and chop them, too. Drain and rinse the canned chickpeas. 

2. In a nice big soup pot, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot completely and then some, more is better, don't get olive oil angst.

3. Fry the onions and garlic on medium heat until they're soft, but not brown. Add the carrots, celery and potatoes, stir well and fry for another couple of minutes.

4. Add the tomatoes with all their juices, if you have whole, canned tomatoes, chop them before you add them to the pot. Add tomato paste, chickpeas and vegetable or chicken stock, salt, freshly ground pepper and the bay leaves. Stir and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low, add the spinach and cook for half an hour, the veggies are supposed to be soft, but not dead. 

5. Taste, add more salt and pepper and the  red wine vinegar to balance the sweetness of the vegetables with some acidity.

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