Sunday, February 15, 2009

Minestra: hearty vegetable soup/stew

This soup tastes great for days; I tend to make a lot so I can heat up a bowl any time. You can freeze in small containers for an instant meal to thaw out some other day.

The basic concept is a foundation of a bean or a legume, and a roasted winter squash, combined with other hearty vegetables. It can be vegan (no meat or dairy) or you can make it even tastier by starting it with bacon and adding a Parmesan cheese rind.

Winter Squash: Do it the Easy Way

Have you ever peeled and cut up a butternut squash? Talk about an exercise in masochism! Plus it does not taste nearly as nice as this alternative: you simply cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and roast on a cookie sheet in the 350ยบ oven. When it is done ~50 minutes, scoop out the yummy cooked squash (compost the hard peel) and add to the other cooked veg.

Always Cook Dry Beans Separately!

I chose red lentils for this soup, because they are small and very easily digestible by most people, thus a better choice when taking it to a potluck party! Even so, I follow my bean rule: cook the beans separately then add fully cooked lentil to the rest of ingredients, i.e., vegetables, herbs and spices, salt.

Caramelized onion

I like my onion really well cooked. I use a technique I call ‘froil’ = fry then boil. First, brown the onion some, then add water a little at a time so it sort of boils and gets very soft and sweet. If you are cooking for vegetarians, fry onion in olive oil, otherwise, slice bacon into small pieces and fry with the onion slices (I like semi-circles of onion for a nice mouth feel). When both onion and bacon and fully browned and cooked, add other veg. and enough water so veg won’t stick and burn on bottom of your pot. At this point I put my parmesan cheese rind in the pot to soften up, so it will then be easy to remove from pot when it is soft, cut it up into very small pieces, and add back to the pot.

Your squash bakes in the oven, your seasonings and all other veg are cooking away, and your lentils cooking in a separate pot… everything finishes at around the same time, under one hour. Mix it all together: the scooped-out cooked squash, the lentils, which are a creamy slurry by now, and your seasoned fully cooked onions and other veg. The squash and lentils make a creamy base to support chunks of hearty veg. This soup is a very satisfying lunch. You can serve it on its own, or cook up some pasta, e.g., penne, rotini or shells and spoon this minestra soup/stew onto cooked drained pasta. You can grate parmesan cheese on top if you like.

Veggie suggestions:

Carrots, summer squash, e.g., zucchini, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, yam, potato. I have also made an Ital vegan version in a Rastafarian-inspired style with no cheese or bacon, and adding coconut cream and plantain. I usually prefer green cabbage in this soup but I used purple this time, as that’s what was good at the store. I LOVE garlic so I use several cloves of that too, sliced thin and added when bacon/onion is almost cooked through, before other veg added, so it browns a bit but does not burn.

Cut the Cheese!

This business of the parmesan cheese rind: I started out doing this for my dogs when I cooked bones in a crock pot for them. We use lots of parmesan cheese here so I get big Costco-sized pieces and save the rinds. When I make a soup where a cheese flavor enhances it, add the rind to water till it softens enough to cut easily. Unlike the rest of the cheese, which will disintegrate and melt into the soup, the rind keeps its satisfying chewiness for a lovely additional texture.

Seasoning: Herbs and Spices

There is enough flavor just from the rich combination of vegetables, that you don't need much to spice it up. Salt to taste. If you like a bit of kick add cayenne pepper or mustard powder or both. I have lots of organic dried oregano from my garden so I use some.

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