A Humble Zuppa
Around the beginning of the New Year, I generally feel that I am the ideal candidate for bankruptcy and/or gastric bypass surgery. And for some unknown reason my desire for financial and dietary parsimony translates into my cooking dishes that consist largely of dried beans. Last year I overzealously purchased 10 pounds of dried black beans at a cheap Mexican bodega and then mostly forgot about their existence for the rest of the year. Then when I was preparing to move from my apartment, I cooked those black beans for days on end in efforts to rid myself of them. Giuseppe said I was turning into a Tuscan ‘mangiafagioli.’ Tuscans are famous for the adoration of beans.
Tuscan epithets notwithstanding, this year I have been a little less hyperbolic with my legume purchasing. However I still like the idea of starting the year off right with a humble, hearty ingredient that happens to be cheap, cheap, cheap! Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the visit of the three wise men to Jesus. In Italy this means filling stockings full of candy for children. In our house, it means I am making minestra, the first of a weeklong series of bean-based dishes, Giuseppe and I will consume--our penance for consuming frittura and foie gras for two weeks straight.
This recipe for minestra calls for dried cannellini beans. If you prefer, you could use canned instead---though I emphatically prefer the texture and flavor of dried beans in this soup. Beyond remembering to soak your beans overnight and slowly simmering them in water, cooking dried beans could not be easier. I suggest making more beans then what are called for in this recipe as they are nice to have on hand and can be kept sealed in a plastic container (in their simmering liquid) for roughly five days in the fridge.
The other key to making a flavorful and texturally appealing minestra is slowly cooking the vegetables in the soup. I cook my minsetra for about two hours. If you are time pressed you can cut the time, but your soup will not be as rich. Minestra is one of those dishes that fools you into thinking it must be ‘bad for you’. It tastes so rich one wonders if there might be butter? bacon? In fact minestra’s rich flavor comes from gently simmering the vegetables for several hours. The final product will be a thick, hearty soup that should not be runny in the slightest. This recipe is vegetable packed and apart from calling for a few shavings of Parmesan and olive oil, is extremely low fat. You’ll feel great after eating it and save the leftovers. Minestra always tastes better when reheated the following day.
To prep your dried cannelloni beans for this soup: 1) soak overnight in water that comes three inches above them; 2) drain and rinse in cold water; 3) place beans in pot large enough to accommodate them and add water to come three inches above the beans ; 4)bring pot to a boil over medium heat and then lower to a simmer; 5)simmer beans for two hours. You can season the beans with salt and pepper after they are finished cooking, but for this recipe pre-seasoning will not be necessary. Do not be tempted to salt your beans when they are simmering. The salt will cause them to crack and become mushy. Also, be careful that the beans are cooking at a gentle simmer. If the water is aggressively boiling, the beans will crack.
Serves 6 as primo
4 Tablespoons olive oil
1 white onion diced
3 Carrots diced
3 Celery ribs diced
3 Zucchini cut diagonally into ¼” thick coins
1lb green beans (fresh is best, frozen is fine) trimmed and cut diagonally into 1/2” long pieces
28 oz Canned whole/ peeled San Marzano tomatoes (or other whole canned tomatoes that are neither pre seasoned nor fire roasted)
4 Cups chicken stock (if you absolutely don’t have stock, you can instead use water)
2 Teaspoons salt
Cracked pepper to taste
2 Teaspoons dried oregano
1 cup precooked cannellini beans (see note above.)
2 cups fresh spinach
¼ cup grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese (or Grana Padano)
1 Tablespoon finely diced parsley (optional garnish)
Heat olive oil over medium in a 6qt Dutch oven (or other similarly sized pot)
Add onions, carrots, celery to Dutch oven and sauté stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon for approximately 8 minutes. Your onions should be yellow and translucent but not brown.
Add zucchini to soffritto mixture of carrots, onion, celery. Sauté stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon for three minutes.
Add green beans to the Dutch oven. Sauté stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon for three minutes.
Add canned tomatoes to Dutch oven and stir to coat in vegetable mixture with wooden spoon.
Add chicken stock, salt, pepper and oregano (and if you happen to have it, add a parmesan cheese rind). Bring to a boil and then cover and reduce to a simmer.
After the minestra has simmered 30 minutes, add the cannellini beans (Note: If you are using canned beans, add them after the soup has cooked 1.5hours as they will only require 30 minutes simmering time).
Simmer the minestra for an additional 1.5 hours. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon to break down tomatoes. If you find the broth is evaporating from you soup you can always add cold water in half-cup increments. Taste for salt and add more according to your preference.
After you minestra has cooked 2 hours, add fresh spinach. Wilt the spinach slightly for about 1 minute in the soup.
Plate minestra in bowls, garnish with parmesan, parsley, and a drizzle of olive oil and serve with toasted bread.