In my early days as an earnest young lesbo, I did not consider myself to be good at making soup. The three we cooked when I was growing up were two pages out of my grandmother’s book, and one out of my mother’s.
Chicken and noodles was just as it sounds. I’d get home from school to a boiled chicken, cooling in its broth. It was for me to pick the meat off the bones, and then return it to the pot with a bag of wide egg noodles. Just three ingredients: water, chicken, noodles. And heavy use of the salt shaker at the table. My sister does not remember it now, but she hated that soup.
The only thing she hated more was pea soup, which started the same way: a turkey carcass cooling in its broth when we got home from school. I’d pick the meat off the bones, and return it to the pot with a bag of split green peas. Then I’d mix up baking powder dumplings in a pyrex measuring cup and drop them by the tablespoonful into the boiling broth. Seven ingredients: water, one bay leaf, turkey bones, split peas, flour, salt, baking powder. If there was fat in those dumplings, I certainly don’t remember it. Then more salt, applied in great quantities at the table.
My mother’s soup came from the Vegetarian Epicure, one of only two cookbooks in the house. The potato soup started with a potato peel broth (the instructions admonish you never to throw them away!) in which you boil leeks and potatoes. Then add a little milk and dill. To my sister’s great dismay, all three soups were regularly made in great enough quantities to feed the four of us for three consecutive nights. I expect no less of any pot of soup I make today.
But it is easy to see how these three would not add up to much soup know-how.
Months ago, when I first started writing here, I included a list of recipes that I wanted to try in the sidebar. One of the first things to appear on the list was a ribollita from Jamie Oliver. I did try it shortly thereafter, and have made it many times since, but ribollita never made it off of the list and into a post, partly because I had tampered with it so much that I wasn’t sure it could be called ribollita anymore.
After having eaten ribollita in italy, I now know that this is true. The huge pot of fennel-scented soup that I have been cooking has nothing to do with bread, and ribollita is all about bread. And as far as my fennel-scented broth is concerned, well, ribollita is not much about broth. You can no more take the bread out of ribollita than you can take the pasta out of Penna al’ Arrabiata.
In Tuscany, ribollita (which translates as re-boiled) is a minestrone (generally, beans, cabbage, onions, tomatoes) laden with enough stale bread to give it legs. The ribollita we tried literally stood up in its bowl, maintaining the shape of the ladle that placed it there, and is more akin to pasta than to soup.
In taking the bread out of Jamie Oliver’s ribollita, I unwittingly took it backward toward minestrone, where I have been happily stuck for months. The basic formula of onions, beans, greens, tomatoes, and a good measure of olive oil results in a soup that is more than the sum of its parts, and best of all, seems always to be achievable from ingredients we already have on hand.
Last night, I found these things languishing in the kitchen: yellow and red onions, parsley, a bunch of carrots, five aged zucchini, half a pot of pinto beans, spinach, and a few just-reddening tomatoes plucked green from Rose’s garden before the first frost.
minstrone: a method
1. Saute roughly chopped onion, carrots and celery in a good amount of olive oil – a third of a cup at minimum. If you don’t have carrots or celery, add more onion. If you happen to have chard stems, dice them up and throw them in now.
2. Add a teaspoon of crushed fennel, and half as many red pepper flakes. And minced clove or two of garlic, if you like. Saute for another minute or two, being sure not to let the garlic brown.
3. Tomatoes. If you have garden tomatoes a little past their prime, or have more of them than you can handle, throw them in. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong – other than a little Bisphenol A – with a can of good diced tomatoes.
4. Beans. White beans like cannellini are an obvious choice, but why not use something local, like pintos or anasazi beans? Black-eyed peas, kidney beans, garbanzos – anything, really, as long as they are pre-cooked.
5. Greens. Chard, kale, spinach, savoy cabbage – whatever. The more greens the better. Lots of recipes will tell you to blanch then separately, but I say, chop ’em up and throw ’em in.
6. Water. Salt. Black pepper. Use stock if you have it, but water will do just fine.
7. What else? Zucchini? Cauliflower? Parsley? If you’d like it to be more substantial: rice, farro, cooked diced potatoes, orzo, stale bread. If you want it to be a little thicker, puree a couple of ladlesful in a blender and return it to the pot.
8. At the table: Douse each bowl with more olive oil and grated pecorino cheese. Maybe ladle the soup over a garlic-rubbed piece of toast, or top it with croutons.
From start to finish, it shouldn’t be more than an hour. Rather than prepping everything beforehand, I chop as I go along, letting the onions saute while I chop the carrots, which saute while chopping the tomatoes, and so on. By the time it’s all in the pot with the water, it shouldn’t have to simmer for more than twenty minutes to let the flavors meld.