Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Minestrone and Kitchen Meditation

I have often ordered minestrone in a restaurant, expecting a divine compilation of fresh ingredients, beans, and pasta.  Too frequently, I am disappointed by a salty, tasteless soup full of manufactured vegetables.  This fall I began perusing recipes to find that all the best sounding minestrone included pancetta.  I then began a 3 day search for the perfect vegetarian substitution (most common search result: vegan bacon. Really?).  The solution: olives. Kalamata olives are full of flavor, a little bit "meaty," and have a complex saltiness.  I worried that they would take over the soup, but they simply add dimension without distinct olive flavor.

The slow cooking method used here develops a rich flavor that does not need stock or broth, or excess salt to carry the dish.  It needs some time, but you can chop as you go, throwing in each ingredient as it is ready and allowing the flavors to become rich and full.  This dish is a cooking meditation.  Take your time, perfectly dice your vegetables, embrace imperfection, and cook just to cook. Nourish your  body with simple, delicious meal, and your soul with the peace of kitchen meditation.

Adapted from Love & Olive Oil

  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion, diced
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 4 celery ribs, diced
  • 3 medium carrots, diced
  • 1 bunch Swiss chard
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 (28-oz) can whole tomatoes in juice
  • 1 qt hot water
  • 5 cups coarsely chopped kale
  • 1 piece Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (about 3 by 1 1/2 inches)
  • 1 (15-oz) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
  • Garnish: 1 cup dry ditalini pasta cooked to al dente; grated Parmigiano-Reggiano; drizzle of olive oil.

1. Heat oil in a heavy pot (Dutch oven is perfect) over medium heat and add onions, celery, and carrots, stirring occasionally, while preparing chard.

2. Cut out stems from chard and chop stems, reserving leaves. Stir chard stems into mixture with bay leaf, garlic, 1 tsp salt, and 3/4 tsp pepper, and olives and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very tender and begin to stick to bottom of pot, about 45 minutes total.

3. Push vegetables to one side of pot. Add tomato paste to cleared area and cook, stirring constantly, until it starts to caramelize, about 2 minutes. Stir paste into vegetables and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. (Paste may stick to pot, but don’t let it burn.)

4. Stir in tomatoes with their juice, breaking them up with a spoon, then add hot water, scraping up any brown bits from bottom of pot.

5. Bring to a simmer. Stir in parmesan rind. Simmer, covered about 20 minutes.  

6. Stir in kale and simmer another 20 minutes, covered.

7. Coarsely chop chard leaves and stir into soup along with beans. Simmer, partially covered, 10 minutes. 

8. Discard rind. Season soup with salt and pepper.

9. If using ditalini, stir in just before serving.  Top with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.

10.To freeze: only make enough ditalini for the amount you are serving immediately and stir into serving bowls.  Do not freeze with ditalini because it will turn into a sticky mess.

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