MAYBE YOU grew up with a nonna who’d stand by the stove with a big wooden spoon in her hand making minestrone from scratch. Not me.
I ate minestrone in mediocre Italian-American restaurants where the waitresses at those candles-in-Chianti-bottle joints served soup prepared with tinny-tasting canned beans, soggy elbow macaroni, overcooked frozen vegetables and a flurry of processed “Parmesan.”
Which explains why, as an adult, I just said “no” to minestrone — until I started making it myself.
Drawn to the task by photos in a food magazine, intrigued by the addition of pancetta and Parmesan rind, I grabbed my own big wooden spoon and made the best minestrone I’d ever eaten.
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Had my husband not already asked me to marry him, he’d have done so after his first taste of this winter-weather wonder, a one-pot meal vibrant with fresh vegetables whose flavors improve when you slowly introduce each to the pot, allowing time to sauté with the pancetta and aromatics.
Dried beans and orzo act as thickener, and the rind from a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano — do seek out the good stuff — is a flavor enhancer dear to legions of Italian grannies who will agree that while there’s no right way to make minestrone, to leave out this prize (or worse, to throw it out) would be criminal.
I’ve toyed with this recipe, substituting prosciutto for the pancetta, Chinese long beans for the green beans and chicken stock for beef stock, and you shouldn’t hesitate to suit yourself. Vegan? Ditch the meat and cheese and use vegetable stock. Don’t like chard? Stir in a bit of Tuscan kale or spinach to finish. No red wine? Use white, but either way, pour yourself a glass while you’re cooking, plant a candle in an old Chianti bottle and eat up.
Serves 6 to 8
1 cup dried cranberry beans (substitute pinto, Anasazi or other similar-sized dried bean)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces thick-sliced pancetta, diced
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 cups chopped green or savoy cabbage
2 cups green beans cut into 1-inch lengths
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced fennel
1 russet potato, peeled and diced
1 cup diced zucchini
4 to 5 cups beef broth
1 (14½ ounce) can diced tomatoes
¼ cup dry red wine
¼ cup orzo
2 ounces Parmesan rind
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
2 cups roughly chopped Swiss chard (stalk end removed)
Parmesan for grating
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Place beans in a small pot with water to cover by 2 inches. Stir in salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and rest, covered, for 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a large soup pot over medium-high heat, sauté the pancetta in the olive oil, stirring until crisp. Add onion and garlic and cook until onion is translucent.
3. Add to the pot (separately, sautéing a few minutes between additions) the cabbage, green beans, celery, carrots, fennel, potato and zucchini. Cook 10 minutes longer, stirring occasionally.
4. Stir in four cups of broth, the canned tomatoes (plus their juice) and red wine. Add the cranberry beans, orzo, Parmesan rind and Italian seasoning. Lower heat and simmer for 1 to 1½ hours, stirring occasionally until the beans are soft — but not too soft, adding broth as needed to make a thick soup.
5. Season to taste with salt and pepper; just before serving, stir in the chard until wilted.
6. To serve, garnish with fresh-grated Parmesan.
— adapted from “Cuisine at Home”
Reach Nancy Leson at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.