Although there is no authentic list of ingredients, Italian cooks say it’s possible to tell where a minestrone was made by what it contains.
You can generally expect a bowl of minestrone to have carrots, onion, celery and beans, but if the soup (or zuppa) was prepared in the northern part of the country, there will also be rice. Along the Riviera, minestrones are seasoned with fresh herbs, and in southern Italy, they are made with tomatoes, garlic and pasta. Ligurian cooks on the Gulf of Genoa, where fresh basil is plentiful, use lots of vegetables in their minestrones and garnish them with pesto.
The word minestrone refers to a large or rich minestra, which describes a thick soup. According to culinary historians, ships in the port of Genoa once acted as floating soup kitchens and served minestrone to sailors who anchored alongside in small boats.
We had no specific region in mind when we made our version of minestrone, but we wanted it filled with vegetables and still be soup. When we read about minestrones, we learned there is a technique to preparing them and that they are not for cooks in a hurry. When making minestrone, there is a lovely sequence and rhythm to the process. The vegetables are gradually added to the pot; while some are being prepared, others are sautéeing. Italian cookbook writer and teacher Marcella Hazan says this produces a better soup.
Long cooking time also helps the flavor; Italians cook their minestrones for hours. At the very least, the soup should simmer one hour, preferably two. However, the cooking can be done in stages. We served some of our minestrone after an hour on the stove, refrigerated the rest overnight and simmered it again the next day. After the second round of servings, we froze the leftovers. Minestrone is very accommodating, and for busy cooks, it’s probably perfect.
By Jean Kressy.