Thursday, December 15, 2011

Momma's Minestrone

Every year for as long as I can remember, my mother has made a pot of soup for Christmas Eve. The soup is always potato, and there is always an abundance of accompanying bread, crackers, and cheeses. She goes all-out, as if that night were the real deal, as if Christmas dinner were just the hyped-up side-show.

I love Christmas Eve. I love that Christmas morning hasn't happened yet, that there is still a day full of frivolity waiting, and that we sing all our carols and create sister-centric dance routines to cheesy music. I love the midnight mass, the paper bag lanterns, the darkness of the church and the sleepiness in my bones as I try to stay awake though the sermon.

It could be the anticipation of prezzies to give and get. It could be my forward-looking spirit. Or, it could simply be my mother. She made Christmas Eve special. We always read the Christmas stories--a balanced mishmash of Saint Nick and Virgin Birth and other ones of giving to loved ones till it hurt; we always had a present to open: homemade pajamas or slippers or both; and we always had that gorgeous, filling, warming pot of soup.

The only real change in the night before Christmas menu in all these years was the switch from the minestrone soup we had when I was a kid, and the potato soup we have now. My mother, for some delightful reason, is the queen of minestrone. But when my sister and I became experimental vegetarians in junior and senior high school, we had a Christmas dilemma. Mom puts beef in her minestrone, and that is, for both my parents, the only way to have it. So they compromised the best way they knew how. And now that we have the potato soup, we can't let it go.

I must have been feeling nostalgic or something this last weekend, because I knew there was only one soup I could possibly have for the wee family Christmas party we had: the long lost Minestrone Soup. So I made it like mom makes it, more or less.

I am writing about it now because I am under the impression that if you do Christmas, then you might ponder a pot of soup on Christmas Eve. It's just nice. And if you're going to go that far in listening to my advice, then you might as well try this Minestrone Soup too. Serve it with crusty Italian or French bread, lots of butter (forget the cheese and crackers, they're better with potato), and top it with Parmesan cheese. Gather with family and friends because that is the glorious goodness about holidays. Eat well, be filled, and enjoy!

Winter Minestrone Soup (adapted from Soup in Season, by Tom Wuest, Karen Hollenbeck Wuest, and Peter La Grand)

A few things: 1) This soup is best when made slowly and allowed to simmer. There is just a lot going on in there, and the flavors develop best at a sauntering rate. Consider an overnight in the fridge before the feast. Plan accordingly. 2) I have never been good about the water quantities in soup recipes. I always ignore the suggestions. I include them here as a starting point. But be prepared to add more liquid. 3) If you are vegetarian, this soup can still be for you! Just omit the beef, and then ponder if you'd like to still use the red wine, or swap it out for some white. Have fun.

fresh rosemary sprig
2 cups cooked beans (with pot liquor) or 1 can beans (I used the voluptuous Eye of the Goat, but kidney beans look great, garbanzos are classic, or some other medium-sized pot bean is good too)
4-6 cups water, V8 juice (trust me), or stock*
1 lb beef, cubed and dried with a cloth
olive oil
1/2 cup red wine
2 cups beans (I used Eye of the Goat, but cranberry, barlotti, garbanzo, or kidney works well too)
1 potato, cubed
2 carrots, cut into moons or half moons
2 celery stalks, split lengthwise, slice crosswise
4 cups chopped raw spinach, kale, collards, or chard, sliced in 1/2" ribbons (I used spinach)
1 yellow onion, chopped
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
2 leeks, split lengthwise, washed well, slice crosswise
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes (or whole, chopped, or otherwise decimated)
1/4- 1/2 lb. uncooked mini pasta (mom uses shells; I used orzo; I like shells better)

First order, cook yourself some beans. You can used canned, but come on, get yourself over to Rancho Gordo, Purcell Mountain Farms, or your whole foods grocery and get some of the good stuff. When you cook them, covered and with plenty of water (which you will not throw out, but rather, add it to the soup pot), put in the large sprig of rosemary.

Brown the beef in an oiled, fairly hot pan, more than medium but not too much. Place in a stock pot and deglaze the frying pan with red wine or broth. (Don't let all that gorgeous, caramelized meat juice go to waste!) Add the beans (if not from a can), the water/broth/juice, and bring to a boil. If you did not have a pot of beans to add the rosemary to, add it now. Let simmer through the addition of vegetables.

Begin your vegetable chopping. As you finish chopping each vegetable, add it to the pot. (Add potato first, then carrots, celery, kale or collards. Chard and spinach will cook faster and do not need to be added until later.)

While vegetables are cooking, heat some olive oil over medium heat in the meat pan. Add onion, 1/2 t salt, basil and oregano. When onion is soft, add garlic and thyme. Continue to saute until onion is translucent. Add leeks and saute for another couple minutes.

Add saute to the soup pot, deglazing the saute pan with the rest of the red wine. Add tomatoes, the canned beans if you are using them, 1/4 teaspoon salt and some freshly ground pepper.

Once the vegetables are tender, taste and adjust seasonings. Fish out the rosemary. Add a little honey if the tomatoes are too acidic, add more juice if there is a need for veggieness, or broth or bouillon. Salt if it tastes bland. Then add the pasta to the soup pot. (I have a sliding scale for the amount. If you like pasta, go for it. I always feel there is too much pasta in my Minestrone, but it seems essential. If you feel like me, go for the lesser amount). It will take 10-15 minutes to become tender.

Taste again and assess broth level. Add more liquid if needed, and taste again. In the last 5-10 minutes, add the chard or spinach (if using). When the soup tastes pleasing, and the mix is thickish but still soupy, serve in bowls with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan on top, and some parsely, if you like. Enjoy!

*Beef broth is probably logical, but I find it makes the soup too beefy. My preference is water, vegetable stock, and/or V8 juice (or equivalent). The latter is fabulous because it has a pronounced celery flavor which I find is essential to a good Minestrone. If you use the V8, consider using it in collaboration with the water or stock, as it is a fairly strong flavor and can overpower.

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