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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Beginner's Guide to Minestrone Soup: How to Improvise Recipes

Minestrone has a certain kind of magic about it. Making it always makes me feel like I am channeling my imaginary inner Italian grandma. It is a very forgiving dish because you can put so many different things together, depending on what is conveniently at hand, and still wind up with something spectacular. And that is also its charm: when minestrone grows out of the joie de vivre of improvisation in the kitchen it is never the same twice. So you learn to savor what you have.

A number of folks I know, my mother among them, are very uncomfortable with the idea of not following a set recipe in the kitchen. So I decided to draft a beginner's guide to improvisation, using the kind and forgiving minestrone soup as the example. It is possible there may be some minestrone purists out there who take umbrage at my liberal guidelines, and if so, please feel free to write in with your own take on this versatile soup, or links to time honored family traditional recipes for it. I'm sure we'd all appreciate it.

1. Figure out what the essential elements of the dish are. For minestrone, it always includes some liquids, tomatoes, some vegetables, pasta, herbs and legumes. Those simple elements are enough to characterize minestrone soup: to establish its character as distinct from corn chowder, tomato bisque, and broccoli cheddar, to name a few.

2. Think about what ingredients fulfill the essential elements. Here's a simple list I built for minestrone:


  • Canned diced tomatoes
  • fire roasted tomatoes
  • fresh vine-ripened tomatoes
  • heirloom tomatoes

  • Chicken broth
  • chicken stock
  • water
  • white or red wine

  • Chickpeas
  • kidney beans
  • white beans

  • Onions
  • celery
  • carrots
  • potatoes
  • corn
  • peas
  • green beans
  • zucchini
  • bell peppers
  • mushrooms

  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Thyme
  • Cumin
  • Rosemary

A quick review of the list I've given shows that I have already done some mental editing. I could have included beer or milk in a general list of liquids because, hey, they are wet. I could have included black beans or black eyes peas in the list of legumes. But when I made the list of possibles, I ran it through a sort of filter of things that seemed Italian to me. So the more Latino-associated black beans fell off the list. I know that minestrones are not typically creamy, so milk fell off the list. If I had made a list of pasta shapes, I would have left off long and thin spaghetti in favor of something smaller, easier to eat in little spoonfuls.

I've done this editing of the list so that if you are a beginner to improvising a recipe, you have a firm foundation to start from. Select some, but not all, from each of the categories and you are well on your way to a recipe!

3. See what is convenient and hanging around the house. Have some asparagus that needs to get used up? Perhaps that is enough to get it into the recipe. Missing green beans? The soup will get on without it. Don't have any kidney beans? Use the chickpeas instead. The flexibility of working with what you have is part of the wonderful innovation of necessity.

4. Now that you have decided on what ingredients you'll be using, we're going to build them up into a recipe. The first decision is amount. How much carrot will you use? How do you decide? As a general rule of thumb, I like to work in 'natural' increments. If you are using beans, use a can of them. Onions? Start with one, but two is almost never too much. As you start chopping you will realize that you have a pretty good sense of quantities. If you start thinking it looks like too much carrot, it probably is. So stop adding carrots.

Figuring out the "right" amount of herbs is the toughest job because small changes in amount can have a big affect on the flavor and overall "feel" of the final dish. That is why we are going to leave them for last, and add them very gradually.

5. Chop your vegetables into roughly equal sized pieces. Start by cooking the firmest vegetables first in a little oil. So things like carrots and onions go into the pot first. As they start softening, move on to moderately firm vegetables, such as bell peppers. Things that cook very quickly and can't sustain a long heating process, like peas, will be added at the very end, after we have added the liquids and herbs.

6. Once you've got some color and softness to cooking those harder vegetables in oil, its time to add your liquids. If you are using tomatoes, they almost always go in at the "liquids" stage because we're going to be using their juice as well as the tomato bits. Here again you are going to be eyeballing, relying on natural increments, and mentally comparing the look of what is in front of you to what you've seen before when you've eaten minestrone. Start with one 16 oz can of tomatoes, diced or crushed are both fine. Stir it around with the other vegetables. Now add your broth or other liquid. I like to add it one cup at a time. As you are adding broth, stir and look at the soup again. Think to yourself: "Does this look about like the other minestrone soups I have had and liked before?" Chances are you need more tomatoes, but this will depend on how many veg you've added so far, and whether you like your soup with lots of tomato flavor. Pour pour pour and trust yourself.

7. Herbs. Now here's the challenging part. A little bit goes a loooong way, so if you are unsure, the key is always to add in small increments. When I select herbs, I use one part brain and one part nose. The brain is me thinking and remembering what kinds of herbs seem to belong to this "category" of food. Because we're making an Italian soup, I'm already thinking about oregano, basil, parsley or even rosemary or thyme. It is one part nose because I often find myself making decisions about herbs by first smelling (or sampling) the food I've got going, and then sniffing my herb containers while I still have the flavor of the food in my brain. If the two seem good together, I'll add some. If not, I move on to a different herb.

As a rule of thumb, start simple, by adding one or two different herbs that seem to go with the category and that smell good with the food when you do your side-by-side sniff test.

This is also a good time to add those staple seasonings: salt and pepper. When added correctly, salt will accentuate the flavors of the other herbs. So if you have been dumping herbs in there and it still doesn't seem like enough to you, try adding a 1/4 or 1/2 tsp of salt and stirring first. Resist the urge to liberally dump salt into the pot. You can always add more. You can't subtract.

8. Add the quick cooking or already cooked items last, including already cooked pasta, rinsed cans of already cooked beans, and delicate vegetables including peas (even frozen peas only need a few minutes to heat through). Mushrooms, because they cook up so quickly, are typically also only added in the last 10-15 minutes. If you add already cooked beans or pastas in at the beginning they will be mushy and falling apart by the time the soup is cooked through and the flavors melded.

Viola! Serve it up and sit down to your steamy warm bowl of minestrone!


dining room tables said...

Thanks for this very useful information. This can help me through my journey in the kitchen.

Anonymous said...

Love this write up! How to be Fearless in the kitchen. :)

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