Hearty minestrone makes convivial, low-stress meal
Soup is the ultimate comfort food and one of the foundations of Italian cooking. Minestrone (literally "big soup") is easy to make and eminently adaptable. It gladly accepts just about any ingredient you care to toss in and delivers a satisfying meal in a bowl.
Styles of minestrone vary throughout Italy. Some have a thick texture, thanks to pureed beans and long-cooked vegetables, while others have a more broth-based consistency with lightly cooked vegetables or meats added toward the end of cooking.
Though delectable as written, the minestrone recipe here is easily adapted to whatever is on hand. No potatoes? Try sweet potatoes, turnips or squash. Kidney, navy or garbanzo beans can replace the cannellini beans. The rind of Parmigiano-Reggiano (never throw one away) gives the soup body and infuses it with a salty, nutty flavor.
Add small pasta to the soup during the last five minutes, or try the rice variation. Slice a loaf of crusty bread, open a bottle of Chianti, and Sunday supper is served.
Adapted from "Hazan Family Favorites" by Giuliano Hazan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $29.95). Makes 4 servings.
1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
2 celery ribs, diced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
8 ounces cabbage (preferably Savoy)
4 ounces green beans
12 ounces boiling potatoes (such as Yukon Gold)
12 ounces zucchini
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 cups reduced-sodium chicken or beef broth
Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (optional)
1 1/2 cups canned, drained cannellini beans
PLACE onion, carrots, celery, olive oil and butter in a 6-quart soup pot over medium-high heat. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until onion turns golden and carrots and celery just begin to brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, finely shred cabbage.
TRIM ends of green beans and dice them. Peel potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch dice. Trim ends of the zucchini and cut into 1/2-inch dice.
ADD cabbage to sautéed vegetables, season lightly with salt and cook until cabbage wilts, about 5 minutes. Add green beans, potatoes, and zucchini. Add broth, 4 cups water and cheese rind.
BRING to boil, lower heat and simmer, covered, 2 1/2 hours.
ADD cannellini beans and cook 20 minutes more.
Nutrition information: Per serving: 422 calories (38 percent from fat), 18 grams fat (5 grams saturated fat, 9 grams monounsaturated fat), 15 milligrams cholesterol, 22 grams protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams fiber, 1,800 milligrams sodium.
Minestrone with rice: Bring 3 cups soup and 3 cups water to a boil. Stir in 3/4 cup Arborio or other Italian rice, and cook until al dente, about 15 minutes. Ten minutes into cooking, add a dozen coarsely shredded fresh basil leaves. Serve at room temperature, drizzling each of the 4 portions with 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil.
Pasta e fagioli as good as Olive Garden's
Pasta e fagioli, Italian for simply pasta and beans, is a hearty soup with plenty of vegetables, beans and, of course, pasta. The recipes vary on what kinds of pastas and beans to use as well as what to season the soup with.
The one ingredient that is constant in all is jarred spaghetti sauce. Some recipes were even brand-specific. Traditionally a meatless soup, many of the recipes also called for ground beef.
Some recipes called for using the beans with their liquid and some didn't. Draining the liquid from canned beans reduces the sodium in the recipe. But the liquid can be used to thicken the soup. So set some aside.
Slow-cooker Pasta e Fagioli Soup
Makes about 12 servings (1 1/4 cups per serving). Prep time: 20 minutes. Total: 7 to 8 hours on slow-cooker low setting.
2 pounds ground beef chuck
1 cup diced onion
3 carrots, chopped or julienned
3 ribs celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled, minced
2 cans (28 ounces each) diced tomatoes
1 can (15 ounces) red kidney beans, drained
1 can (15 ounces) cannellini beans, drained
2 cans (15 ounces) beef stock
1 jar (24 ounces) traditional spaghetti sauce
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons oregano
2 teaspoons basil
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
8 ounces ditalini pasta
BROWN ground beef in large skillet. Drain fat.
PUT beef and all ingredients except the pasta into a large slow cooker. Cook on low for 7 to 8 hours or high for 4 to 5 hours. Before serving, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and add to soup.
TO COOK soup on the stovetop: Brown meat in a large soup pot. Add onion, carrots, celery and garlic and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients except pasta, and simmer 1 hour. Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. Add pasta to soup and simmer 10 minutes more.
Nutrition information: Per serving: 412 calories (32 percent from fat), 15 grams fat (5 grams saturated fat), 39 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams protein, 870 milligrams sodium, 72 milligrams cholesterol, 8 grams fiber.