Sunday, April 20, 2014

Minestrone soup - a deliciously hodge podge Sunday brunch

I not only love to bake bread but also enjoy eating different kinds of bread. The crustier and hardier they are, I like them better. It is no wonder I am always willing and ready to try out new places as long as there is a promise of good bread. It was on one such expeditions that I went to "Olive Garden", a popular chain of Italian food in North America and on BH's recommendation tried the unlimited soup and salad lunch there. But I mostly ended up filling myself with the soft, warm bread they serve at the beginning of every meal.
Olive Garden has been a regular joint for us as family as we can all satisfy our veg and non-veg preferences. Over time, I dug my spoon into the piping hot minestrone soup and fell in love with the various flavors in that super delicious vegetarian soup. Until I tasted minestrone soup, my view of soup was limited to the 'Tomato soup' from India which is creamy, tangy but doesn't have any floating vegetables. The minestrone knocked out all my notions about soup and opened up my eyes to the world of soupy possibilities. Minestrone has been a favorite for many years now and is part of my order whenever we go to Olive Garden along with their Eggplant Parmigiana.

I am not much of a pasta person, nor is cheese my favorite. Don't judge me :-), that is who I am. I order eggplant parmigiana, as soon as the plate comes, slide out the hot cheesy layer off the top of the eggplants and eat the crispy baked eggplants with black pepper sprinkled on top of them. Why order the dish when I don't eat half of it, you may ask and also when I take out the best part of the dish according to DD. I do not mean any disrespect to the recipe or the chef but I just don't enjoy the gooey cheese on top :-). I love the fresh salad though with the grated cheese on top that they invariably offer to every guest and that I politely decline every single time.
I had it on my list of things to do for a long time to make the minestrone soup at home. I collected a few recipes but every time I thought of making it, something wouldn't align such as it was the hot summer and not soup weather, or I didn't have something in the refrigerator/pantry that I deemed necessary for a good minestrone and etc.., so it kept getting pushed and finally today made it. DD says she doesn't mind having a lunch such as this every day for the rest of her life which I take as a compliment. So here I am with some pictures and a recipe for minestrone soup. A totally vegetarian and full of veggie goodness and flavors of fresh and dried herbs, this soup makes a very filling lunch. Pair it with some bread and you have an Italian lunch in your own kitchen.
Here is what happened to the bread, I have a wonderful pizza dough recipe (source: Peter Reinhart) that I have been using for a while now - will post the recipe sometime and I also use the same dough for making bread sticks, they turn as soft and delicious as the warm breads served in Olive Garden. I made a big batch of the pizza dough earlier this week and was planning to keep aside half of it for the bread sticks but since both BH & DD loved the texture of the pizza, they ended up making it twice in the week and the dough got over which put a small dent in my plans of an Italian brunch for the weekend. But like I said, stars were aligned perfectly this time for my minestrone soup and so when I was strolling in the food market here yesterday, I found some freshly baked French baguettes being filled into the basket, picked one up and came home. A slight change of plans, no Olive Garden style bread sticks but I made some fragrant bruschetta by slicing the baguette and it was a wonderful side for the extremely delicious minestrone soup.
Minestrone is a very versatile soup, it is almost like throw in any vegetables you have and still tastes good recipe. I used Giada's recipe from here, eliminating all non-vegetarian ingredients and making some changes to suit my personal palate. So mine is a completely vegetarian soup and tastes just like the one you get in Olive Garden. Try it out yourself and let me know how you liked it.
Here is why I call it hodge podge brunch, though it was Italian in every intent and theme, I used French baguette to make the bruschetta, made a very Indian, non-cheesy version of crispy eggplant and a fresh veggie salad that was dressed with a dressing from nowhere :-). I also had a bunch of fresh, organic fingerling potatoes that I par boiled and sauteed in olive oil and coated with chutney pudi and garnished with fresh cilantro :-).
What do you need to make Minestrone soup?
Makes 4-5 servings
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion/shallots
2-3 medium sized carrots
1 medium zucchini
2 celery sticks
2 cups (tightly packed) greens such as chard, spinach or Kale
2 cloves of garlic
1 medium sized potato
2 big tomatoes
1.5 cup cooked canellini beans (Italian white kidney beans)
1/2 cup cooked pasta (typically shells are used)
4-6 basil leaves
1 sprig of fresh Rosemary
A small piece (about 1/2 Oz) of good quality Parmesan cheese
1 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
1/2 Tsp freshly ground black pepper

How do you make Minestrone soup? 
  • Wash, peel and chop carrots into bite sized cubes. 
  • Wash, remove hard ends and chop celery into bite sized pieces. 
  • Peel, crush and chop garlic. 
  • Roughly chop the greens. 
  • Par boil tomatoes for 3-4 minutes and once cool, remove the skin and chop into chunks. Reserve the water for use in soup. 
  • Puree 1/2 cup of cooked beans with 1/4-1/2 cup of water into a smooth paste. 
  • Wash and chop zucchini and potato (i use the skin) into bite sized chunks.
  • Heat a sturdy pan or soup pot with olive oil. 
  • Add the chopped onions and saute for 3-4 minutes until it softens. 
  • Add chopped carrots and celery, saute for 5-6 minutes until they turn just soft. 
  • Add chopped garlic, zucchini, potatoes, cooked beans and tomatoes. 
  • Add salt, pepper and 3-5 cups of water, piece of cheese and pureed beans. 
  • Simmer for 1.5-2 hours. Slower you cook, better the soup tastes. 
  • When you reach the last half hour of cooking, add the chopped greens and let it wilt. 
  • Add cooked pasta about 10 minutes before you switch off along with chopped basil leaves. 
  • Switch off, cover and let stand for 10-15 minutes. 
  • Serve piping hot soup with a side of bread and garnished with extra grated cheese on top. 
Notes: 
  • I used canned beans which are pre cooked and salted. I wash them a couple of times under running water and drain before adding to the soup. 
  • Usually shell or bow pastas are used in Minestrone, you can skip this totally without affecting the taste. If using cook pasta following package instructions and add it towards the last 10 minutes or so before switching off the soup. 
  • You can use any greens mentioned above but the cooking time for chard or kale might be a little longer than spinach, so use your judgement. 
  • Adding Parmesan cheese is optional but gives a really authentic and rich taste to the soup. 
  • I like the slightly acidic taste of celery in soups and add them to most of my soups.