Friday, June 26, 2009

Minestrone: La Cucina Povera

Much colorful mythology surrounds the origins of minestrone, but there is no doubt that it is deeply rooted in the venerable Italian tradition of la cucina povera- the kitchen of poverty, or "peasant" cooking. Roughly translated, minestrone means "the big soup", one which contains a wide variety of ingredients. Many a home cook with a penchant for simple vegetable based cuisine has created her own unique versions over a lifetime.

Minestrone is made year round; its varying ingredients reflect the season, the ingredients on hand, and the mood of the cook. My recipe is built on a foundation of fresh seasonal vegetables, beans which I've recently cooked and stored in the fridge, and whatever pasta is in the pantry. This summer style minestrone takes 45 minutes from start to finish. A delicious and satisfying meal in a bowl, it is cucina povera at its finest.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2/3 cup leek or onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 celery rib, sliced
1 medium carrot, sliced
1 medium zucchini, sliced
1 cup cilantro or parsley leaves, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 or 2 dried red chile peppers
2 Yukon Gold potatoes (1+1/2 cups) cubed
2 fresh ripe tomatoes (1 cup) chopped
1 whole dried shiitake mushroom (optional)
5 cups fresh water
1 tablespoon mirin rice wine (optional)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup cooked beans (white, black, or kidney)
1 cup pasta (small shells are my favorite)
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano (or a few sprigs fresh if available)
1/4 teaspoon dried basil (or 3 or 4 fresh leaves if available)
1 tablespoon light miso paste
1-2 cups leafy greens, chopped (spinach, arugula, chard, other)

In a heavy bottomed soup pot saute the leek, garlic, celery and carrot until fragrant. Continue to saute on a medium flame, adding zucchini, cilantro, bay leaf and chile pepper. Stir for another minute or two, adding a little more olive oil if necessary. Add potatoes, tomatoes, mushroom and water and bring to a gentle simmer, then stir in mirin, tomato paste, beans, pasta, and herbs. Cover pot and simmer on a low flame for about 10 minutes, stirring a few times, until potatoes are tender and the pasta is just al dente. Remove mushroom, slice thinly and return to pot. Dissolve miso in a small bowl with some of the soup liquid and add to pot. Place greens in soup, stir briefly, cover, and allow to sit for about ten minutes on very low flame until greens are lightly cooked. Taste, adjust seasoning, and serve immediately in warm soup bowls.