Minestrone with Basil Oil
Not that minestrone doesn’t deserve star billing of its own, but I always think of it as the first stage of my favorite veggie soup, ribollita, which I first tasted when I was living in Florence years ago. I can’t remember the name of the place, but on a cold day in October, my friend Stacey suggested we go to an old trattoria on the banks of the Arno for the traditional Tuscan soup made from minestrone and stale bread — saltless Tuscan bread, of course, which crumbles up so nicely. We sat down in the barrel-arched cave and ate two enormous bowls of hearty, thick stuff that was perhaps just as much bread as veggies. It warmed us to our bones.
Every time I make minestrone, I remember that day, and can’t wait to make ribollita with my leftover baguettes. Sometimes, I actually cheat and blend the minestrone with the hand blender to make it ribollita-like, but without bread. Either way, it’s wonderful.
This time, just for fun, I made some basil oil to drizzle on top, which I really liked. Takes no time to put together, so you might as well, because it brightens up the soup in flavor and color. I know often pesto is served with minestrone, but since there’s already Parmesan in the soup, that seemed like overkill. I don’t think that the Florentines would mind too much, do you?
This is a very forgiving soup – consider these ingredients as a suggestion, not a follow-the-rules sort of recipe. The work here is really in the chopping; this little soup pretty much cooks itself.
Makes 8-10 servings
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 leeks, sliced (white parts only)*
4 large leaves basil, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 stalks celery, sliced
2-3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
2 medium zucchini, sliced and then quartered
4 new potatoes, chopped into 2-inch pieces
½ head Chinese cabbage or Napa cabbage, sliced in 3-inch pieces, (save a handful to add at the end)
handful green beans, ends trimmed and sliced into 2-inch pieces
½ red bell pepper, chopped in 1-inch pieces
32 oz can diced tomatoes
6 oz can tomato paste
32 oz chicken stock
3 Bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
rind of Parmesan cheese
32 oz can canellini beans, or any other small white bean
basil oil, recipe follows
1. In a large stockpot, drizzle the 3 tablespoons olive oil and add the leeks, garlic and fresh basil. Turn the heat on medium and let cook, giving the mixture a stir every now and then, until the leeks begin to soften.
2. Add the carrots and the celery and let these cook for about five minutes. Now, add the zucchini, new potatoes, cabbage, green beans, red bell pepper, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and chicken stock. Stir it all together, if you need to add water, do it now — you may need to add as much as 16 to 32 oz. There’s a lot going on in this soup, and it needs room to cook. Add the bay leaves, thyme, and red pepper flakes, and the Parmesan rind — whatever you do, don’t skip this, because it’s the most important element for the soup’s flavor. Loosely cover and let the soup cook for about 2 hours. Taste for seasonings and add salt and freshly ground black pepper. Just before serving, add the beans and let them warm up a bit. Serve with basil oil and a hunk of crusty bread.
*If you can’t find leeks, just use a medium yellow onion.
Cowgirl Tip: I often add fresh spinach to this, too, and you can add whatever other veggies you’d like.
Makes 4 ounces
15 large leaves basil
1 small shallot, minced
4 oz olive oil
pinch sea salt (or more to taste)
Put all of the ingredients in a small food processor and pulse until blended. Pour into a jar and refrigerate for a half-hour, at least, before using.
Cowgirl Tip: Be sure to keep this refrigerated so it doesn’t spoil.