Minestrone. From the pre-Roman times, a thick vegetable-based soup was the staple of what is now modern Italy. Pre-Columbian times dictated a more porridge-like vegetable soup thickened with spelt, but as the centuries passed, the base of a variety of seasonal vegetables went from this porridge to a thinner broth with bread and then colonialism brought new flavours from the Americas. What would become new staple ingredients, the New World vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes, and corn diversified the vegetable component, but the idea of minestrone was always, at its root, a hearty vegetable stew.
Like much of Italian cuisine, there is intense regional variability. From one town to another, the recipe would vary depending of what vegetables were the most prevelent. Meat may be added to some recipes, but it was never the main ingredient. It was often a means to use odds and ends of proscuitto, pancetta or other sausage pieces. Some regions added pasta, while others added rice. Early recipes added other whole grains like farro, and from the beginning any number of bean varieties were included.
My recipe, like most minestrone recipes, changes with the seasons. Spring can include asparagus or garlic scapes. Summer can have green beans, corn, or broccoli. Autumn can have cubed pumpkin or parsnips. Or winter can have much more root vegetables like potato, celeriac, or rutabaga (Swede). I’m fortunate enough to live somewhere that has an abundance of farmers who grow in greenhouses. This gives a greater vegetable variety even as the months turn colder.
This time of year is also good for the last of the harvest. Tomatoes picked green gradually ripen in the pantry and can be made into small batches of sauce as they ripen red. My new favourite easy tomato sauce is a Roasted Tomato Sauce. I used this as my tomato component for my minestrone, but any homemade tomato sauce would work equally as well.
Roasted Tomato Sauce:
12-15 medium ripe tomatoes, halved
1 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
2-3 Tbsp Mighty Trio Organics cold pressed canola oil
Preheat oven to 180C/350F.
Drizzle the bottom of a large roasting pan with the oil. Place the halved tomatoes, cut side down, in the pan and sprinkle over the chopped onion. Roast in the preheated oven for 45 minutes. Pull the pan out of the oven. The skin should be starting to darken to a deep dark brown.
At this point, using a pair of tongs, pinch the skins free from the roasted tomatoes and discard the skins. Transfer the contents of the pan (roasted tomato flesh and onions, with the juices), to a large blender. Purée until smooth. If the purée is not thick enough for your liking, transfer to a medium saucepan and simmer over medium low heat to a desired thickness. Makes 4-5 cups (depending on the size of the tomatoes).
1 Tbsp Mighty Trio Organics cold pressed canola oil
1 cup Meadow Creek Farms smoked ham garlic sausage, chopped into 1 cm(1/2″) chunks
1 cup celery, chopped into 1 cm(1/2″) chunks
1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped into 1 cm(1/2″) chunks
1 cup parsnips, peeled and chopped into 1 cm(1/2″) chunks
1 cup rutabaga (Swede/turnips), peeled and chopped into 1 cm(1/2″) chunks
1 cup broccoli, florets cut into small pieces and stem peeled and chopped into 1cm(1/2″) chunks
1 cup Doef’s Greenhouses sweet bell pepper (green, yellow, orange, or red), cut into rough 1cm (1/2″) chunks.
3 cups Roasted Tomato Sauce or your favourite tomato sauce
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2-3 Tbsp dry oregano
3/4 cup Gold Forest Grains dry red lentils (Other beans can be used but would require a pre-soak before using like lentils in this recipe)
3/4 cup dry pasta (I prefer a short pasta like fusilli, shells, farfalle or even macaroni for this)
***Note: Any of the vegetables I use are from numerous local farms around central or northern Alberta: Sparrow’s Nest Organics, August Organics, Meadow Creek Farms, Peas On Earth, Riverbend Gardens and sometimes over the summer I’m fortunate enough to have friends give me vegetables from their own vegetable garden. Try to seek out the freshest vegetables. The flavour with stand out, the closer to the source you get your vegetables.
In a large pot, sauté the sausage in oil over medium high heat until it starts to get slightly golden. Add the celery, carrots and parsnips. Sauté over medium-high heat until the vegetables start to soften but not brown (about 5-7 minutes). Add the rutabaga, broccoli stems, tomato sauce, oregano and stock. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover with a tight lid and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the pasta, bell peppers, broccoli florets, cover again and simmer for a further 45 minutes. This is a very hearty soup on its own. It could serve 4 as a main course or 6-8 people if you pair it with a sandwich. I recently paired it with a grilled sausage sandwich where I used the Roasted Tomato Sauce as a sandwich spread.
***Further Note: If you prefer your pasta with a bit more of an al dente texture, add the dry pasta closer to halfway through the simmering process (ie. around the 30 minute mark). If you use brown rice or barley instead of pasta, add them at the same time as the tomato sauce and broth. The meat component can be left out, but you may need to adjust the seasoning with the addition of salt and/or pepper. I find the salt in ham, proscuitto, pancetta, bacon or smoked sausage season the soup well enough along with the dry oregano. If you choose very soft vegetables like zucchini or eggplant, add them in the last 10-15 minutes of the simmering process. I like to oftentimes, halve cherry tomatoes and place them at the bottom of each serving bowl, then ladle the finished minestrone over the top for a surprise burst of tomato flavour when eating.