Meatless Minestrone

Friday was another meat-free day for the family, and I wasn’t feeling like another fish dish. While I was at the store, I spied a bin of very nice looking zucchini and started formulating a plan for dinner - I was going to make minestrone! I don’t know why I rarely think of making this traditional Italian dish - it's so easy and nutritious and everyone loves it. Minestrone is also very versatile - it can be meaty or meatless or use stock or be completely vegetarian.

Since the ingredients can be so varied depending on taste or by what is in season or available in the store or fridge, I started wondering about what makes minestrone minestrone. All the recipes I researched used beans and tomatoes along with a wide variety of vegetables. Still not satisfied, I pulled out my ever-useful Cook’s Illustrated yearbooks to see what they said.

On pages 6 and 7 of September 1998, I quickly found what I needed: Minestrone Deconstructed. According to CI, the word minestrone literally translates as “big soup,” and indeed is a hearty Italian soup suitable for a main dish especially when pasta or rice is added. It is composed of a balance of starchy veggies and “aromatic vegetables” which brings to mind the question – what exactly qualifies as an aromatic vegetable. I assume it is any pungent vegetable (onion, garlic, leek, celery, etc), but we all know what happened when we dare to assume…so I looked it up.

All information relating to “aromatic veggies” consistently pointed me towards a mirepoix of which I’ve written before (diced, sautéed combination of onions, carrots, and celery used predominantly in French cuisine.) I further learned the mirepoix’s Italian counterpart is known as a soffritto (means "sub-fried" or "under-fried" when literally translated - in other words, sautéed). And, unlike the mirepoix which is always onions, carrots and celery (usually of a 2:1:1 ratio), a soffritto varies by region. Northern Italy typically uses an onion, celery, carrot combo while the southern regions use onions and garlic. Also unlike a mirepoix, which is typically sautéed in butter (those French really seem to love their butter), a soffrito uses olive oil, of course.

The Cook’s Illustrated recipes uses leeks, carrots, onions, and celery as the aromatics and potato, zucchini, and spinach as the starches along with tomatoes, cannellini beans, basil pesto and Parmesan rind (for flavor and creaminess).

CI also lists these recommended alternatives: kale, Swiss chard, savoy cabbage or escarole in place of the spinach, fava beans or peas in place of the white beans, and green beans, tasty turnips, cauliflower, or winter squash (such as butternut) in place of zucchini or potato.

Here is how I made my minestrone:

~3 medium carrots diced, 1 small onion (diced fine), 5 cloves garlic (smashed) sautéed in 2T extra virgin olive oil
~Add in order: One 28oz can diced tomatoes and one tomato can of water, 29oz can light red kidney beans and 29oz can garbanzo beans (undrained), small bunch kale (chopped) and medium zucchini (diced), small piece of parmesan rind and salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.
~Simmer until veggies are tender.
~Add 4oz dry macaroni and more water as necessary to prevent soup from becoming too thick. Stir every few minutes until pasta is done.
~Serve topped with fresh grated parmesan and enjoy!

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