What a winter it’s been here in the Willamette Valley! Our winter weather is normally mild and rainy, but rarely too rainy—it’s an acquired taste, but it’s really rather charming weather once you’ve acquired it. The weather this last month, alas, has been downright Midwestern, with persistent biting cold and snow that stuck around so long it eventually turned black.
The weather showed in the stands at the Portland Farmers Market. The autumn’s bounty is long gone and the chill in the air reminds one that the spring’s bounty is still many weeks away, but there were a few hardy vegetables on display. Winter classics like kale, cabbage, squash, and a myriad of roots lent the farmstands a colorful quality if not an abundant one.
It is always a bit of a challenge to find inspiration from the produce that grows in the dead of winter, but one thing that works spectacularly is minestrone. Minestrone, basically, is a vegetable soup that includes a mix of aromatic vegetables, leafy greens, maybe a legume or two, and really, whatever else comes out of the ground looking good. The simple formulation gives rise to all sorts of regional variations of the dish, and produces a template that can be followed regardless of season or location. The soup that results is thus a marvelous expression of the place and time it was cooked. Though I’ve been cooking minestrone for many years, I don’t think I’ve ever made it the same way twice.
Minestrone might be the rare example of a dish that actually works even better with the offerings of the leaner winter markets than the more bountiful ones. Those hardy winter vegetables produce a rich, comforting broth with a nice hint of sweetness, and the root-heavy vegetable assortment ensures that the finished soup “sticks to your ribs,” as my grandfather would have said.
Preparing minestrone is above all else an exercise in knife work. The lion’s share of the labor involves peeling, prepping, and cutting the pile of vegetables it takes to produce a pot of minestrone. Embrace it as an opportunity to practice your knife skills! The recipe below produces a big pot, about eight servings or so, with a fairly nuanced and complex broth. If you’re wanting something less laborious to prepare, simply use a smaller array of vegetables, and you’ll get a soup that’s less complex but no less delicious. If you’re vegan, you can omit the Parmigiano, or if you recoil at the idea of a vegetarian dish, you can add some pancetta to help form the flavor base. In truth, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with minestrone, so long as you use the best quality vegetables you can get your hands on.
Dead of Winter Minestrone
- 1 large onion
- 1–2 parsnips, depending on size
- 1 small celeraic
- 1 large golden beet
- 1 medium rutabaga
- 1 medium sweet potato
- 1 cup of dried red beans, soaked overnight
- 1 bunch kale, rinsed and de-stemmed
- 1 rind of Parmigiano
- ~1/4 cup EVOO
1. Peel and dice the first three ingredients—your “aromatic” vegetables, so to speak—into nice soup-size chunks. Pile them into a nice, big pot (a 2-gallon soup pot is perfect) and pour a nice drizzle of EVOO over the top. Place it over medium-low heat, and gently sweat the aromatics, stirring occasionally to ensure that they never brown.
2. While the aromatics sweat, prepare the beet, rutabaga, and sweet potato. Once they’re ready, throw them on into the pot, drizzle in a bit more EVOO, and stir to combine it all. Ideally, the aromatics will have sweat for 10 minutes on their own, and then for another ten minutes along with the other hard vegetables, but the timings aren’t critical. Just stir and moderate the heat to ensure that nothing browns.
3. Once the vegetables have started to soften and the onions are turning translucent, add the beans, the Parmigiano rind, and enough water to cover. Be just a tad generous with the water, anticipating that some will evaporate and you’ll be adding a bunch of kale later on. Bring the pot to a soft boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer and loosely cover the pot.
4. Let the soup simmer for 90 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Give it a taste. At this point, the vegetables should be starting to soften all the way through, but it may take a little more or less time depending upon how big you diced them. Once it feels like it’s getting close, toss those chopped kale leaves into the pot. Let it go for another 30 minutes or so. It’s ready when the kale leaves are tender, the veggies are cooked through, and the flavors have just started to meld together a little.
You can serve it at this point, but it’s far better if you refrigerate it overnight and serve the next day. That really allows the whole melding-of-the-flavors thing to run its course, and your patience will be rewarded with a rich, satisfying soup. My go-to garnishes for minestrone are a pinch of grated Parmigiano, a drizzle of EVOO (the good stuff), and some choped parsley. You could do a white wine with this if you were so inclined, but January screams for a red. Something fruit-forward and lively like a Dolcetto will be a great complement to the understated sweetness of the broth.