This weekend I had a friend coming for supper on Saturday and another for lunch on Sunday, so I thought I'd make a good hearty soup to feed them both. I had some shredded cabbage and grated carrot in the fridge, and I was pretty sure these were ingredients for minestrone. So I got out my trusty Claudia Roden bible, The Food of Italy.
I was right. Her recipe for "minestrone alla milanese" had finely shredded white cabbage, and also carrot - though that was meant to be diced, rather than grated. But I figured it wouldn't matter. Because as Antonio Carlucci explains, in fact there's no such thing as "the real minestrone". Instead there are many versions, each one authentic for those who make it.
I didn't want enough soup for ten people, so I halved Roden's recipe (it still made a lot). I did use Tony Gamboni's genuine pancetta (he cut it the correct thickness and then diced it up for me), and proper borlotti beans (canned, not dried - she allows for that). But her recipe has rice in it - that's probably what makes it "milanese" - and I didn't want to put rice in, because it's inclined to suck the flavour out of soup. Instead I used a handful of the pasta called biavetta, which is shaped like grains of rice. I left out the peas (because I only had frozen ones), put in more garlic, and used a can of chopped tomatoes, plus a squeeze of paste, instead of fresh ones. And rather than celery, I used lovage leaves and stalks from the garden. I reckon my soup still had every right to be called "real minestrone".
Minestrone alla Karori (guided by Claudia Roden)
120g pancetta (Italian unsmoked bacon), cut into small pieces
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
small bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped
2 carrots, diced (or grated)
2 tender celery sticks, thinly sliced
or small bunch lovage, finely chopped
2 floury potatoes, peeled and diced (the new Agria on sale now are perfect)
1 can chopped Italian tomatoes
tomato paste (optional)
1 can borlotti beans, drained of their liquid
about 1/4 of a not-too-huge white cabbage, shredded
2 courgettes, diced
2 tablespoons rice-shaped pasta (biavetta or orzo - if you want really thick, filling soup, use more pasta)
To serve: small bunch basil, cut into strips, grated grana or parmesan cheese, crusty bread
In a very large saucepan or stockpot, heat the diced bacon gently until the fat runs, then add the onion and fry gently until pale golden. Add garlic and parsley and stir until the aroma rises.
Add carrots, celery, potatoes and tomatoes. Cover with plenty of water, bring to the boil, turn down to low heat and simmer gently with the lid on until the potatoes are cooked through but not mushy - about 45 minutes.
Add the drained borlotti beans and salt to taste. Add a squeeze of tomato paste if you think it's needed - the soup should taste full-bodied, but not actually tomatoey. It should be thickish, but not too thick - add a little more water if necessary. Cook for another 10 minutes.
Add the cabbage and courgettes and cook for another 15 minutes. The veges should all be thoroughly cooked but still in distinct chunks.
Add the pasta and cook for at most 10 minutes more, until the grains of pasta are cooked enough to bite through easily but not mushy. Check seasoning.
Stir in the basil. Serve minestrone in wide bowls, with grated cheese on top (large flakes in my case, as I don't have a proper fine grater), and crusty bread on the side. At this point it's appropriate for your family or guests to come up with an enthusiastic "Mamma mia!", or other complimentary Italian phrases.