As a cook, I roar into April and May with arms and mouth open wide. My meals are a study in green, efforts to shoehorn as many different vegetables as possible into a single serving vessel. Many dishes from my kitchen have featured in this aim, but just one has filtered through as a standby in the season’s weekly rotation: minestrone.
Early versions might include green garlic and leeks, sweet white turnips and carrots, radish and turnip greens, asparagus and parsley. Later, I might swap in bulb spring onions for the leeks and garlic scapes for the green garlic; replace the radish and turnip greens with all but the tenderest inner leaves of a head of escarole; and add coins of early zucchini, and as many fava beans as I feel like peeling. As tomatoes come in, I might add two or three, so ripe they’re easy to peel with a paring knife, and later, flat pole beans.
If that sounds out of step with what minestrone typically summons to mind, consider that in Italian, the word simply means “big soup.”
“This is because regardless of where it is made, there are multiple vegetables used, as opposed to using just one main vegetable, as is the case in many soups,” says Micol Negrin, founder of Rustico Cooking, a culinary school in New York. “A starch is always incorporated, and it may be short pasta such as tubetti or short-grain rice or potatoes to thicken it up. Zuppe, on the other hand, are thickened with bread.”
In Italy, minestrone varies by season and by region: In the northern region of Lombardy, Negrin says, minestrone might include pasta and winter squash; farther south, in Tuscany, cannellini beans and cabbage or kale; in the coastal city of Genoa in the northwestern region of Liguria, it would be finished with pesto. Cookbook writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, whose most recent book is “The Four Seasons of Pasta” (Penguin, 2015) with chef Sara Jenkins, told me of a Milanese version of minestrone made in summer with rice and always served at room temperature.
Beans, believe it or not, are not always present. But as a vegetarian cook, I am ever on the lookout for ways to harness ingredients that create a depth and richness of texture and flavor — those we tend to associate with dishes we deem satisfying.
Beans and pasta, together, accomplish that beautifully. In the accompanying recipe, dried cannellini or limas or mayocobas are soaked, then cooked slowly, producing a full-bodied broth that functions as the soup’s base. The pasta cooks directly in that broth, releasing its own sweet, nutty-tasting starch and thickening the soup. Together they create a backbone of body and earthy, buttery flavor that brings the herbal, grassy profile of the vegetables into balance and lends a measure of fullness that verges on hearty.
For a springtime minestrone, I favor a white or yellow bean for its golden cooking liquid. The precise variety is less important, although starchier varieties, such as limas and the large Greek beans called gigantes, tend to create a richer broth.
The olive oil you cook your minestrone with should be extra-virgin and good-tasting. In the company of such clear, straightforward flavors, the character of the oil will make a prominent statement, for better or for worse. Further, don’t be tempted to whittle down the amount too much: “It’s not just the flavor of the oil that’s important. Fat also carries flavor; it helps bring out the taste of everything else,” says Jenkins, who also authored “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).
The arc of your soup, though, is your selection of vegetables, best determined by the stage of the season and what local growers are harvesting.
As much, let your soup reflect what’s in your refrigerator at any given time — which may be whatever fractions of bundles and bunches you have uncommitted to the remainder of the week’s cooking. Minestrone happily accommodates industry as well as enthusiasm. The only firm rule is that you use an assortment.
For the initial saute of the alliums and other aromatics, my own preference is for a light touch and minimal browning early in the season — the better to frame the sweet, grassy clarity of new growth. As the harvest takes on a certain heft, I’ll brown the aromatics correspondingly. The broth from cooking the beans goes in next, and the pasta after that, to cook directly in the pot. The remaining vegetables are added in succession, their order and timing of addition dependent on how colorful and tender you want them to be.
When the minestrone is ready, the pasta will be barely tender, whatever leaves you’ve added to the soup silky and green, and the broth creamy with starch.
Stir in any final flourishes, such as slivered scapes or green onion tops; let the soup rest for a minute or two, then ladle it into bowls. Garnish moderately: with black pepper, more of the same oil, a little grated cheese. Serve with good, crusty bread (drizzled with olive oil, toasted dark, and rubbed with a cut garlic clove, if you take Jenkins’s recommendation), the better for saturating with the broth in your bowl.
Relish this one. Chances are, it won’t be the same next time.
Horton is a freelance writer living in Seattle. She will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
4 servings (makes 7 to 8 cups)
If you’re using garlic scapes, add them shortly before serving, with the herbs.
MAKE AHEAD: The beans need to be soaked for at least 8 hours and preferably overnight. They can be cooked, cooled and refrigerated in their liquid for 2 days before you proceed with the recipe. (The beans may absorb more liquid the longer they are stored, so you may need to add more broth or water for the soup.) The cooked minestrone will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days; if you plan to freeze this soup (for up to 1 month), do not add the pasta until the minestrone has been defrosted and reheated.
From food writer Emily C. Horton.
1 cup dried white or yellow beans, such as cannellini, lima or mayocoba, soaked for at least 8 hours and preferably overnight
8 cups water, or more as needed
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
1 3/4 teaspoons sea salt
2 medium leeks or 2 medium bulb spring onions, or a combination, white and light-green parts thinly sliced (if using spring onions, thinly slice the green tops and keep them separate)
2 to 4 stalks green garlic, white and light-green parts thinly sliced; may substitute 3 to 4 garlic scapes, cut on the diagonal into 1/2-inch pieces (may substitute 2 large cloves garlic, crushed)
2 to 3 medium carrots, scrubbed and chopped
Leafy greens from 1 bunch (6 to 8 ounces) turnips, leaves separated from any tough stalks and chopped or torn into bite-size pieces (may use kale, collards, escarole or broccoli rabe)
6 ounces dried shaped pasta, such as orrecchiete or small shells
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed
6 ounces (1/2 bunch) slender asparagus (woody ends trimmed off), cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces
10 to 15 sprigs parsley, leaves and tender stems chopped
1 tablespoon marjoram leaves, chopped (optional)
1 ounce grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino Romano cheese, for garnish
Cover the soaked beans in a stockpot or large saucepan with the 8 cups of water. Add the bay leaves, 1 tablespoon of the oil and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Bring to a low boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low; cover partially and cook for 40 minutes to 1 hour, occasionally stirring gently, until the beans are tender but not at all mushy. Remove from the heat, cover and let stand; the beans will continue to soften somewhat as they cool. Leave the beans in their cooking broth and do not drain. Discard the bay leaves.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the leeks and/or green onions (white and light-green parts), green garlic, carrots and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Cook for 7 to 8 minutes or just until the vegetables begin to soften.
Pour off enough of the cooling bean broth to measure a total of 6 cups; add 5 cups to the pot with the vegetables, then stir in the remaining teaspoon of salt. Reserve the remaining 1 cup to thin the soup later as needed. (If your beans have absorbed so much liquid that the yield is less than 6 cups, add or use water as needed.)
If the leafy greens you are using are mature and fibrous, add them at this point; cook for 5 minutes before adding the pasta. If the greens are relatively tender, stir in the pasta; once the liquid starts bubbling at the edges, add the greens. Some younger, very tender greens (turnips or radish tops, for example) will cook even more quickly, in which case, cook the pasta for about 5 minutes before adding the greens. Stir in the pepper.
When the pasta is 2 to 3 minutes from al dente, transfer the cooked beans to the pot. If you’d like a thinner soup, add the remaining cup of broth and/or water, as needed.
Add the asparagus; cook for 2 minutes, then add the spring onion tops, if using; garlic scapes, if using; parsley; and marjoram, if using. Turn off the heat, and allow to stand for a minute or two.
Ladle into bowls and garnish each portion with a drizzle of oil and sprinklings of pepper and/or grated cheese, if desired.
Nutrition | Per serving: 450 calories, 18 g protein, 71 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 980 mg sodium, 14 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
Recipe tested by Kara Elder; e-mail questions to email@example.com