Sometimes cooking is about planning, especially when we have a hectic time coming. All work and no play, makes Gianugo an unhealthy guy: we’re coming home late on a regular basis, and usually all we can think about is either ordering a pizza or hack a quick pasta with whatever we can find in the fridge.
We figured out this week-end would have been a good chance to get some head start for future healthy dinners: the italian tradition is full of variants of what we call “minestrone”, which can be roughly translated as “the big soup”. A plethora of recipes which include different ingredients and different approaches to cooking, yet share something in common: vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. Minestrone is basically a free for all, the mantra is somewhat along the lines of “if it’s green, it gets in”: there is no set recipe, it really depends on seasonal availability, but variety is key as you want to add as many kind of mixed vegetable to get different flavours and a lot of healthy stuff.
Minestrone has a downside: it needs small quantities of a lot of vegetables, which then take forever to wash, clean and dice to perfection. The process is quite long and somewhat boring, and it doesn’t quite fit in the non-weekend routine. Luckily enough we have refrigerators nowadays, and vegetables can stand freezing just fine: this means that from time to time we tale over the vegetable department of our grocery store, grab large quantities of ingredients and devote to a slicing and dicing day, which produces a hefty quantity of good stuff we can store in the freezer then pop in a pan and have in our dishes one hour afterwards.
Given the different variants I mentioned before, what we’re after is building a cooking base as fresh vegetables rather than cubes, then adjust it with some fresh stuff according to what we want to eat. The shopping list, again, depends on the season and the grocery store availability, but usually we start with a few varieties of green stuff (spinach, swiss chard, different kinds of cabbage: the more the merrier), then add flavour with celery, leek and onion, and top it with some chunky stuff such as green beans, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, tomato, courgette and aubergine. All this has to be carefully washed, cleaned and finely diced: the key is merging flavours, and a spoonful of minestrone should contain at least 3-4 different veggies.
All this vegetable cleaning produce a lot of leftover, as I don’t want fibrous matter in the finished product. This means a lot of stuff would be potentially wasted, as I need to carefully separate leaves from stems, use just the gems from cauliflower and broccoli, take away both ends from the green beans, peel peppers and tomatoes and so on. Throwing that stuff away is stupid, as there is a whole lot of flavour which can be squeezed. While I’m cleaning the vegetables, then, I throw the parts that wouldn’t fit in my base in a large pot, add cold water and let it simmer for an hour or so, adding a sprinkle of salt at the very end: the filtered result is an excellent vegetable stock which can be used for a nice risotto, as a base for a vegetable soup or as a cooking aid for basically everything that doesn’t need strong meat stock. We usually freeze it in 1lt and 1/2lt bags, saving a great deal of flavour and time for nice future dishes.
The final result is a few bowls of mixed diced matter: it’s time to split it into freezer bags (consider 5-600g per bag) and store it. It lasts no less than a couple of months, and makes an excellent head start for the soup of choice. All we need is some fresh ingredients that wouldn’t stand freezing very well: carrots and potatoes for sure, but you might add mushrooms, beans, chickpeas or lentils as well, according to your taste. The cooking process is straightforward, as all you need is throwing the (frozen) stuff together with the fresh ingredients in a large pan with 3 liters of cold water (let me stress it: it has to be cold water, as this will both ensure brighter colours and extract most of the flavour from the vegetables), then let it simmer for an hour or so. Halfway through, you might want to take some of the potatoes out, squash them with a fork and pour the mash back in: this will help thickening the liquid, producing a nice and creamy soup. If you want to add tin beans instead than the real stuff, wait until the last five minutes or so, as they’re already cooked. You might also want to throw some small pasta in (look for “ditalini” at a good grocery store. If you can’t find it, use the smallest format you can get), or even some rice: make sure you don’t overcook it, though, as minestrone needs to rest for a good 10-15 minutes before dishing it out. Pour the final result in a bowl, add some parmesan cheese, a teaspoon of good olive oil and possibly some pepper, and you have an healthy and tasty dinner in little to no time.
Some variants now, to prove how flexible this recipe can be:
- if you want some extra flavour, finely chop some onion, celery and carrot to make a soffritto, let it stew with some olive oil and a very low heat, then add vegetables and water;
- for the extra kick, add some bacon or pancetta to your soffritto;
- don’t throw away those nice parmesan crusts: scrape the surface, rinse, cut in small cubes and add it 30 minutes after the water is simmering, they will taste delicious!
- add a spoonful of pesto when you dish out the minestrone (avoid the soffritto step if you want to stick to the tradition of “minestrone alla genovese”);
- mix the minestrone with a hand blender (not exactly my cup of tea, but kids tend to like it more than the chunky stuff);
- use bread crouton instead than pasta.
Finally, consider an alternative for the day you’re wiil devote to dicing stuff : after a few hours at the cutting table, the last thing you want is eat minestrone for dinner. A good steak can be a great alternative, or use the vegetable stock to cook a great risotto. Save the vegetables for the busy days, and you’ll have a perfect dinner for those cold and damp times when you need some comfort food.