If you want the best homemade minestrone this winter, make it this summer.
Search “minestrone recipe” and you come up with over 8 million references. The soup must be a top contender for the most adopted and adapted recipe in the world.
Recipes for minestrone (including this one) are open to many variations and substitutions. Even in Italy, minestrone’s mother country, each family, village, or region has multiple versions that morph with the available ingredients and the seasons.
Minestra is the word for soup in Italian. Minestrone is the “souperlative,” a BIG soup. Minestrone is designed to make the best use of abundant summer vegetables. In the height of summer, our garden drowns us in fresh vegetables—a lovely problem! Minestrone is the solution; I make several five-gallon batches. But we can only eat so much, so minestrone is also my favorite winter soup. All summer I pack the excess away in freezer containers and then celebrate the warm summer abundance when the days are short, and the garden is bare.
Minestrone is simple to make once you understand the basics. Think of this recipe as instructions for a technique. Get creative with what you have, but follow these seven steps:
1. Build the foundation with caramelization and the Maillard reaction.
You might not think of vegetables this way, but they are loaded with sugars. When you expose them to high heat, the sugars undergo a chemical transformation called caramelization, producing browning and sweet nutty flavor molecules. Similarly, when you brown meat the protein/amino acids, fats, and sugars react together, which creates richer and more complex flavors. That’s called the Maillard reaction. Herbs, spices, and pepper flavors are oil and heat soluble. They dissolve and intensify in this step.
You’ll need a big thick-bottomed pot, a decent amount of oil, high heat, and regular stirring to get even browning and to avoid burning. Add ingredients one at a time, so their internal liquids evaporate, and temperatures stay high. As ingredients brown, some of the sugars stick to the bottom of the pan. This is the base and the foundation for full minestrone flavor.
Over high heat, add water and tomatoes in liquid form. Bubble, bubble, sputter … you can hear the foundation dissolve off the pan bottom and into the stock.
3. Add the secret ingredient if you have it.
Italians (and other cooks in the know) have a secret weapon for making minestrone. It’s the rind from Parmesan cheese. After you’ve grated away the interior of a wedge of Parmesan, take the remaining rind and store it in the freezer. When it’s time to make minestrone, pop the rind into the pot when you add the greens and liquid. It adds a magic umami flavor to the soup. Just don’t forget to fish out the rind before serving. (It can be rinsed off and frozen again for reuse.)
4. Give it time.
Now slow the process down to marry the flavors. Add green such as spinach, chard, kale, or cabbage. Cover the pot and simmer gently until the vegetables are tender.
5. Add substance.
Beans, grains, and pasta are the substantial nutritional elements, the protein and carbohydrates that make minestrone a filling meal in a bowl. One or all can join the party, but each one must be pre-cooked separately.
Beans, if cooked from scratch (meaning dry), need to be started hours beforehand. Or use canned beans. I cook big batches of beans and store them away in the freezer for uses just like this. Add them with some or all of their cooking juices after the vegetables are tender.
Grains, preferably whole grains like barley, wheat, brown rice, spelt, or quinoa, need to cook separately. Most take about 45 minutes. Add them when the vegetables are tender. Watch out: Grains like to expand and crowd out everyone else. Go lightly.
Pasta is a classic addition but it is not essential. Use short and thick or tiny soup pasta shapes. Cook them separately and add them at the last minute, just before serving, to preserve a firm texture. Pasta cooked or stored in the soup bloats up into an un-appetizing flabbiness.
6. Taste and adjust.
Balance is what they mean in the recipe when they say “adjust seasoning.” It’s the part where you taste, taste, and taste. Taste for the point where sweet, salt, sour, and richness meet. Use your toolbox: salt, pepper, tomato, herbs, garlic, oil, and tomatoes. Add fresh or dried herbs, and use a variety of rosemary, oregano, marjoram, sage, thyme, and basil. They’re all mint family cousins that enjoy and enliven each other. And don’t be afraid of salt. It is known as a balancer. Just be careful. Work to produce the best minestrone you have ever tasted and everyone else will love it.
7. Finish fresh.
Garnish is more than a pretty face; it’s the final fresh layer to a great minestrone. The classic garnishes are fresh chopped parsley and a grating of sharp Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese. Or drizzle with pesto, dust with freshly ground black pepper and/or top with a fine dice of fresh tomatoes or roasted red peppers.
- 1/4 cup olive oil (more as needed)
- 2 medium yellow onions, cut into 1⁄2-inch dice
- 6 large cloves garlic, minced
Meats, 1/2 pound total (optional)
- One or a mixture of ground or finely cut beef chicken, pork or Italian sausage, and/or salami, prosciutto, ham, bacon, or pancetta, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
The Vegetables, 6–8 cups total sliced or diced
- 1 medium carrot, quartered and sliced
- 1 medium stalk celery, sliced
- 2 medium zucchinis, quartered and sliced
- 1/2 pound eggplant, 1⁄2-inch dice
- 1/2 pound mushrooms, 1⁄2-inch dice
- 1 large red or yellow potato, cut into 1⁄2-inch dice
- 1/4 pound green beans or okra, trimmed and cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
- 1 medium red or green sweet pepper, 1⁄2-inch dice
Herbs & Greens
- Use a balance of fresh herb (1 part dried herbs equals 3 parts fresh)
- 1/4 cup minced fresh herbs: sage, thyme, basil, parsley, rosemary, and oregano
- 2 bay leaves (optional)
- 1/4 bunch kale, chard, collard greens, or spinach, cut into ribbons
- 1/2 pound cabbage, shredded
- Water as needed
- 2 –3 cups fresh grated tomato made by cutting the tomato in half and grating it into a bowl or canned diced or crushed tomatoes with liquid
- Parmesan rinds (optional)
- Salt (to taste)
- Freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
Grains & Beans (optional)
- 1 ⁄2 cup grains like brown rice barley, wheat berries, spelt or quinoa, cooked and set aside
- 1 cup dry short and thick or small soup pasta cooked al dente and set aside
- 1 ⁄2 cup dry beans or 1 1⁄2 cups cooked beans with a firm texture such as garbanzo, borlotti, cannellini, black, navy, kidney, lima, tepary, lentils, or black-eyed peas (save the cooking liquid to add to the soup)
- 1/4 cup minced fresh Italian parsley
- 1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
- Cracked black pepper
- A swirl of pesto
- Chopped fresh tomato
- Chopped roasted red pepper
- Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottom pot. Add the onions and garlic and sauté over high heat, stirring regularly, until you see some browning. Add the meat, if using, and stir until lightly browned. Add the vegetables one at a time, allowing each to brown a little. Add the herbs, salt, and pepper. Continue stirring regularly.
- When the veggies are wilted and browned, add the greens, tomatoes and enough water to cover soup by 1 inch. Stir, scraping the bottom of the pan. Add a Parmesan rind or two if you have one. Bring to a boil. Then reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook until the vegetables are tender, 20–30 minutes. Add the grains and/or beans, if using, and enough bean cooking liquid or water to cover soup by 1 inch. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- How thick do you make minestrone? Thick enough to hold the stirring spoon upright in the pot. So, I usually add a few more vegetables at this point to get the consistency that I want. Simmer slowly, covered, another 15–30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning again. (If freezing the soup, stop here.)
- Add pasta (if using) and garnishes just before serving.
*Chef Molly Beverly is a food activist, teacher, caterer, food coach, chair of Slow Food Prescott and former chef of Crossroads Café in Prescott, Arizona. This recipe comes to us from Edible Phoenix. Photos by Gary Beverly.