Editor's Note: Jeannie Marshall's new book, The Lost Art of Feeding Kids, tells the lively story of raising a child to enjoy real food in a processed world, and shows the importance of maintaining healthy food culture. Available now from Beacon Press. See below for more information.
It’s winter in Rome. When I was growing up in Canada, winter was something you braced yourself for (and having just spent the holidays in Toronto, I remember why). But winter in Rome is a gentle season. There is a little rain, a little sun, and it gets just cold enough to make soup. In January when I ask people what they’re having for dinner, the answer most often is “a little minestra.” It’s a simple, warming, comforting, traditional vegetable soup that can include beans and pasta. I think it turns up on the table so often in January because it’s light fare after all the December excess, it’s economical because it uses up the vegetables in your fridge, and yet it’s still substantial and satisfying. While there is a method for making a good minestra, there isn’t an exact recipe. My son will tell you that it must include zucchini flowers because the first minestra he helped to make at his preschool included them. He still believes they are the secret ingredient in a superior soup. But the slow cooked soup blends the flavors of the vegetables, rather than singling out any individually, into something that is at once distinctly minestra and at the same time slightly different from every other minestra.
Minestra is a way to use up that last quarter of a cabbage, the last zucchini or two sitting in your crisper drawer, even the stems from swiss chard, the cauliflower core, the broccoli stalk, and certainly one of the many parmesan rinds that seem to breed in the tiny freezers of Italian refrigerators. I know some home cooks who save the less beautiful pieces of their vegetables during the week to make a minestra on the weekend.
Whether you buy specific vegetables for the minestra or use up what’s in the fridge, the flavor comes from adding the vegetables one at a time to the pot. You either need an interesting conversationalist in the kitchen with you or some good music because cooking the vegetables takes time. (I recommend an Italian crooner like Paolo Conte or perhaps an Italian opera like Rigoletto accompanied by a small child asking for help with his math homework.)
But once all the vegetables are duly softened in the pot and you’ve added the water, you can leave it to simmer with nothing more than a gentle stir here and there for a couple of hours. It’s not a difficult soup to make, but it does take time. Since the flavors develop and deepen if it’s left to sit overnight, I’ll sometimes make it on a Sunday so that dinner is ready for Monday (or, more likely, we’ll eat it on Sunday and again on Monday). Then, I just turn the pot of soup on to warm up while I cut some bread, lay out a little cheese, fill the water glasses, pour a glass of wine for myself, and my husband and light the candles.
Minestra – a sort-of recipe for 6 to 8 servings:
1 large spoon of butter
1 generous glug of olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
2 or 3 large carrots, diced
2 stalks of celery, diced
¼ of a large head of red cabbage, diced
¾ cup of swiss chard stems, diced
a few of the large, outer leaves of broccoli, diced, along with the stalk
3 or 4 medium-size zucchini, diced (throw in the flowers if you have them)
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
a handful of green beans, diced
a small jar (about 1 cup) of peeled tomatoes, or 5 or 6 fresh plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
6 to 8 cups of water hot from the kettle (start with 6 cups, if it needs more add as you go)
a parmesan rind (if you have one)
Salt to taste
1 cup of cooked cannellini or borlotti beans
Some freshly ground parmesan to taste
a little more olive oil
Start by gently heating a spoonful of butter and a few glugs of good olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Then add the onions, and allow them to cook slowly on the low side of medium heat until soft and golden. You don’t want to rush it, so allow 10 to 15 minutes. Add the carrots, and allow them to soften as you stir gently for about five minutes. Add the celery, stir and let soften for about five minutes. These are the essential ingredients to form the base of any good soup; after this the choice of vegetables is up to the cook.
Continuing with my version, add the cabbage, stir, soften. Add the swiss chard stems, stir, soften. Add the broccoli leaves and chopped up stalk, stir, soften. Add the zucchini, stir, soften. Add the potatoes, stir, soften. Add the green beans, stir, soften.
Add the tomatoes, stir, and then add the water and the parmesan rind. Give the soup a good stir, put the lid on and turn it down to low. It should simmer, but very gently.
Now, let it simmer for about two hours. Stir it every now and then; add more water if it seems to be evaporating too quickly. After about one hour, taste it and see if it needs a little salt. The parmesan rind, if you’ve used it, will add a saltiness to the soup, so salt with care, but don’t be afraid to add the salt—it’s essential to a good soup. The salt you add to your own homemade soup is a tiny fraction of the sodium in processed soups. But, if you will be dining with a baby or a toddler, wait and add the salt at the end, after you have removed their portion.
Once the soup has cooked for about two hours, add some cooked beans. I happened to have some bortolotti beans left over in the fridge so I used those, but you can use other kinds of beans. Let it cook for another 30 minutes.
Remove the parmesan rind from the pot and discard it. Scoop about ¼ of the soup into another bowl or a pot and blitz it with an immersion blender until it is smooth, or use a blender. (If you are feeding a baby or toddler, scoop out more and they can have a purely pureed bowl of soup.) Add the pureed soup back to the pot and stir.
It’s delicious as it is, but is even more hearty with some cooked, small pasta, which you could add to the pot at this point.
Serve with a dollop of olive oil and a spoonful of grated parmesan.
Cut up some grainy, crusty bread, light the candles, and turn the Italian crooner back on the stereo.
ABOUT THE BOOK
When Jeannie Marshall moved from Canada to Rome, she found the healthy food culture she expected. However, she was also amazed to find processed foods aggressively advertised and junk food on every corner. While determined to raise her son on a traditional Italian diet, Marshall sets out to discover how even a food tradition as entrenched as Italy's can be greatly eroded or even lost in a single generation. She takes readers on a journey through the processed-food and marketing industries that are re-manufacturing our children's diets, while also celebrating the pleasures of real food as she walks us through Roman street markets, gathering local ingredients from farmers and butchers.
At once an exploration of the US food industry's global reach and a story of finding the best way to feed her child, The Lost Art of Feeding Kids examines not only the role that big food companies play in forming children's tastes, and the impact that has on their health, but also how parents and communities can push back to create a culture that puts our kids' health and happiness ahead of the interests of the food industry.
Jeannie Marshall is the author of The Lost Art of Feeding Kids, now available from Beacon Press. She has written for Canadian national newspapers and magazines such as the Globe and Mail and the Walrus. Before moving to Italy in 2002, she was a features writer at the Toronto-based National Post.