A Soupy Secret
by Sabine Eiche
The other day I was strolling through the garden beds at the Terra Nova farm, seeking inspiration among the vegetables. I saw many magnificent cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) plants, which are now at the peak of perfection. The angle of the sunlight hitting the leaves emphasized their knobbly surface, making me think of the scaly skin of a Tyrannosaurus rex. But I am not the first to have noticed this reptilian texture—it turns out that another popular name for cavolo nero is dinosaur kale.
If you find the association with prehistoric creatures a little unappetizing, I recommend that you immediately forget it, because cavolo nero is one of the tastiest vegetables, as well as one of the most healthful. It is also a key ingredient in Tuscan minestrone, which is what I am going to write about here.
I want to give you my “secret” recipe for minestrone, the most important part of which is the method. The ingredients can vary according to what is available in your garden, but the method—never! And take note, it is the same method to follow for making any other vegetable soup—if, that is, you want your vegetable soup to be considered exceptional in its class, of unsurpassable flavour.
The secret is to slowly “build up” your soup, vegetable by vegetable, instead of throwing the ingredients into the pot all at once, and to add most of the liquid only at the end. This method allows the flavours of the vegetables to “marry” and enhance one another. But beware, using a slow cooker will not produce the same results.
The first step is to gather all the vegetables, not yet washed, peeled or chopped. Minestrone at this time of the year would typically comprise one onion, a couple of carrots, a couple of celery stalks, one leek, a couple of potatoes, a nice bunch of cavolo nero, half a head of savoy cabbage, a handful (or one can) of cannellini beans (which you can substitute with great northern beans or white kidney beans; I have heard that boiling the beans for ten minutes will destroy the toxins that cause gastric disturbance) and a couple of fresh tomatoes, peeled (or one can). Of course, you can vary the quantities as you please.
Next, take a very large pot—the biggest, heaviest one you have—and pour in some olive oil (extra virgin, naturally), just enough to cover the bottom of the pot. Set it over medium low heat.
Now peel and chop the onion, but not too fine. Try to slice or chop all the ingredients to more or less the same thickness. Throw the onion into the pot and stir to cover it with the olive oil. The carrots follow. While you peel and slice the carrots, give the onions the occasional stir. Throw the carrots into the pot and proceed with the celery, always giving the vegetables in the pot a bit of a stir, just to make sure they get nicely coated with the oil and don’t stick to the pot. Lower the heat if necessary.
Don’t rush with your chopping or slicing. Remember, the vegetables need time to allow their flavours to intermingle. After the celery, add the leek (having carefully washed out all the soil and grit that likes to hide in the tight folds), and then the potatoes.
At this point, if your mixture looks too dry, you can add a little bit of liquid, either water or broth. But just a little bit, you don’t want to drown your vegetables, only to let them relax.
Cavolo nero is the next ingredient to enter the pot. Wash it and cut it into strips that you judge to be consistent in size with the other vegetables. Suddenly your pot will appear very full. Don’t panic. Stir and be patient. The mass will slowly reduce.
When the cavolo nero has become dark and limp, wash the savoy cabbage, cut it into strips and add to the pot, which again will appear too full. Exercise patience and stir gently. If necessary, add a little more liquid. When the savoy cabbage has become limp and reduced in bulk, add enough broth or water to cover the vegetables. Let everything simmer for about ten or fifteen minutes.
Now add the beans and tomatoes, and if you like also a little more olive oil. The minestrone should simmer for approximately one hour, after which you can remove the pot from the heat. It will make a huge difference to the flavour if you let the minestrone rest for 24 or 48 hours before eating it. When you heat it up, you will probably have to add more liquid, unless you like your soup as thick as a stew.
And here is a bonus “secret.” Always save the juices of your roasted meat or poultry. Scrape them out of the pans (freeze them if need be) to add to any soups (or sauces) you will be making. I suspect that this “secret” dates back thousands of years, to when humans first cooked meat over fire. I learned it in the kitchen of an elderly relative, who had learned from her forebears that nothing need ever be wasted. So, this “secret” will not only make it easier for you to clean your roasting pans, but it will also give your soups (or sauces) an extraordinary richness and boldness, reminiscent of the fare of once upon a time.