Minestrone

Back in Ohio, in my grandmother’s two-story home, the kitchen, (located towards the rear of the house), was slightly lower than the main floor. As I recall, the transition between these two levels was lessened by a mound of cement that formed a crude ramp, although the end result was more like a speed bump. Normally this would not pose any issues and would go relatively unnoticed but, for some reason, it stands out in my mind at the moment. The kitchen door opened outside to a small patio, covered completely by grape vines, where fruit grew abundantly year after year.  When we visited, my grandmother would make "fried bread" and we would sit on that back patio, at a weathered picnic table, devouring (what to me seemed like) an enormously giant plate of perfectly browned, light and airy dough, sprinkled generously with granulated sugar.  Those were, as best as I can remember, my first “doughnuts”, and my first taste of sweets.  I was no more the 4 years old, and I don't remember eating much candy at this age (though I am sure I did).  The only two sweet things I can remember eating were Popsicles and “fried bread”.

The bedrooms were upstairs and when we stayed over I shared a bedroom with my grandfather. It was many, many years later that I questioned the fact that my grandparents had separate bedrooms, and for the life of me, I can't remember where everyone else slept in that house. At that time there were six of us plus my grandparents.  I can't tell you much more about the room, how it was decorated or even how big it was, I only remember… this is where I slept, and my grandfather snored, loudly.  This very bedroom or maybe it was another (who knows for sure, really?) was also the place where we would watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July.  The windows in that room had the perfect view of the baseball field behind the house where the city would set up the fireworks display. I don't remember much about the fireworks, they were bright and loud, and really, what else is there to remember?  I do remember my mother sitting on the bed holding my younger brother (just a baby at the time), trying to keep him from crying, especially at the finale.  

In the living room at Christmas time, my grandparents would put up a silver, aluminum tree, and “to make it really sparkle” positioned a light fixture, with an attached four color rotating plastic wheel, on the floor in front of it. The colors of the room would change from red to yellow then blue and green and, (though it was a repetitive pattern that would never change), I remember sitting and staring at that bright silver tree, sparsely decorated with small glass bulbs, for long periods of time, waiting eagerly for the next color. I was fascinated by the transition of the new color pushing away the previous one. I have always thought that this aluminum tree and color wheel combination was probably one of the things that made my grandparents feel rich and sophisticated in an otherwise poor time. Another was the trolley cart that was used to transport dinner to the table and after dinner, used to clear the dishes and roll everything back to the kitchen in one go. These memories of my grandparents’ house are tied together in one lump for very specific reasons:  that bump of cement leading to the kitchen and my desire to push that trolley cart. Later in life my sister would tell of the time I pushed the trolley, loaded with grandmas fried bread, onto the patio, where the wheels became wedged in the bricks and the freshly made bread toppled off the tray onto the ground prompting my grandmother to simply scoop up the spilt goods, place them back on the plate, and then onto the table where we happily began eating. I don’t remember that incident… but I do remember pushing the cart one night, piled high with dishes from the table, into the kitchen, at my best speed, (like I was some kind of race car driver) perhaps taking a detour to pass through and around the living room before rounding the corner and lining up with the kitchen door… … … and the sound of the shattering plates and the clatter of silverware on the kitchen floor as that cement bump caused the cart to abruptly stop and Newtons Law to take over.

Whether I remember these things about my grandparents’ house from seeing photographs as an adult or hearing countless stories, or if they are embedded in my mind from actually being there I don’t know, but as well as that cart, I remember odd and disconnected things; the big, bright, pink, plastic, piggy bank that sat near the phone; how the phone would ring in two short bursts then pause before repeating; how my grandfather would shoot at the pigeons that roosted on the eaves of the house with a pellet gun; the line of beaten down cars that parked on the street in front of the house, some of which would never travel the roads again; and how the row of telephone poles that lined the street stuck out from the ground at awkward angles, presumably caused by year after year of the ground freezing during winter.

Oddly, I can really only remember my grandmother making minestrone one time in my life, but I know she made it more often.  The reason I can remember her making it was: I was with her at the time.  This was long after we all had moved from our little town in Ohio to California and in fact I think I was in my second year of high school. I had stopped by her place as I did on occasion on my way home from school and she was in the kitchen prepping some vegetables.  I asked her what she was making and the answer was “Minestrone”.  I stood in the kitchen behind her and watched as she started putting things into the pot and I remember asking her why she had decided to make it that day.  Her answer of “I saw I had a lot of leftover vegetables in the refrigerator” was not only the reason she was making it… but it was also the recipe.

You see, minestrone doesn’t really have a set recipe; it’s made with whatever you have on hand.  The goal is to end up with basically a thick vegetable soup. When my grandmother looked into her refrigerator and saw she had some leftover vegetables, maybe just one zucchini, a carrot or two, a few stalks of celery and perhaps a handful of green beans, she would gather them all up, throw them into a pot along with an onion and some garlic (she always had onions and garlic), some broth, pasta, tomatoes (from a can), a few dried spices and herbs, and of course a couple of cans of beans. After a short while of simmering… Voila - Minestrone.

My grandmother would say that there are certain beans you’re “supposed” to use in Minestrone, but in reality whatever was in the cupboard was just fine; if you had one, a rind of Parmesan cheese could also be added to the pot while the soup simmered. It was often made with beef broth, but she would tell me that if you only had chicken or vegetable broth, then “that’s just the way it was meant to be” (actually she would have said,  “that’s the way God intended it”. I think it’s just a little odd that any God would get that involved in a person’s soup making, but hey, maybe soup is important. I imagine home gardeners who had various vegetables growing throughout the spring and summer made Minestrone more often as a way of using up all their crops. These days our gardens are pretty much the supermarket or farmers market and that’s ok. In fact it’s almost better; once you have a feel for this recipe you can stand in your local produce section and choose just the things you like and customize the soup to your taste.  As for the broth and the beans you should use… again, up to you. Look at the canned bean section and choose a few beans you like. I would say that most Minestrone is made with chicken stock now, but again use what you like, or consider a combination of beef and chicken… or hey, go all vegetable broth if that’s your thing.

Here’s how I made the batch I ate today:

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoon olive oil

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

  • 1 medium sized onion, chopped

  • 2 stalks celery, chopped

  • 2 medium sized carrots, chopped

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 6 ounces tomato paste 

  • ¼ pound green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces 

  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes

  • 4 cups chicken stock (or substitute vegetable broth)

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano

  • 1 teaspoon dried basil

  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme

  • ⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes

  • 1½ teaspoons salt

  • 1 teaspoon pepper

  • 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed 

  • 1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed 

  • 2 medium sized zucchini, halved then cut into bite sized pieces 

  • 2 medium sized yellow squash, halved then cut into bite sized pieces 

  • 3 ounces fresh baby spinach 

  • 1½ cups frozen peas 

  • ½ pound small pasta such as Ditalini or small shells – See note

  • squeeze of lemon - Optional

  • Parmesan cheese, for serving

  • See note 3 for additional options

Directions:

Put the olive oil and butter into a large stockpot set over medium heat. 

When hot, add the onion, carrot, and celery and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. 

Stir in the garlic and cook for 1 minute or until fragrant. 

Stir in the tomato paste and cook until slightly darkened, about 2 minutes.

Mix in the green beans, the diced tomatoes, the broth, and the seasonings, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. 

Bring the soup to a boil then lower the heat to keep it at a gentle simmer. Partially cover the pot and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. The vegetables should be a little more than halfway done at this point.

Add the canned beans, zucchini, yellow squash, peas, and the pasta (see Note #1 on adding pasta). You can add a little water to the pot if the broth is overly thick at this point. Return to a simmer and continue to cook, partially covered, until the vegetables are tender and the pasta is cooked through, about 10 minutes more.

Remove the soup from the heat and stir in the spinach until wilted, then add a squeeze of lemon (about 1 tablespoon) if desired. Adjust seasoning with additional salt and pepper to taste, and serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese atop each serving.

Notes:  

1. If you are not eating all the soup in one sitting it’s better to cook an appropriate portion of the pasta separately (according to package directions) and only mix it into the amount of soup you are consuming as pasta left in the soup will continue to absorb liquid and will become soggy over time. 

2. Reheat leftover soup over a gentle heat adding additional broth or water as necessary.

3. Other items you may consider adding to Minestrone

  • Potatoes

  • Butternut Squash

  • Acorn Squash

  • Leeks

  • Parsnips

  • Turnips

  • Kale

  • Endive

  • Kidney Beans

  • Lima Beans

  • Pinto Beans

  • Cooked Rice (instead of pasta, again added after the soup is finished)

Rule of thumb:  Add longer cooking vegetables to the pot at the beginning and shorter cooking vegetables to the pot towards the end. 

I think my grandmother would have approved of this version (though the lemon juice at the end and the olive oil in the bowl she might have skipped on). In the end though… this is, at least for this version, "the way it was meant to be”. 

Riley was quite interested in Minestrone and waited close by… hoping for a taste.