A Minestrone full of memories

For the longest time I found Minestrone rather bland. That is, until almost  ten years ago I tasted Marge’s, my late and beloved sister-in-law’s. Hers was wonderfully tasty. Of course I came home with the recipe. I have made it often ever since, always the whole recipe, although it yields a huge amount.  The soup is great when you have people trickling in, as it is very good reheated. It also freezes well.

I wish I could ask my sister-in-law for the origin of the recipe. She used to mail me a large Manila envelope once in a while with copies of recipes. A post-it said something like “I have been cooking lately”, and many recipes carried her handwritten comments such as “outstanding”, “superb” or “try this”. Sometimes she added her substitutes and the date when she made it. All very neat, always citing the source, always the librarian, even after she retired. The Minestrone recipe is the only one that I jotted down myself. Shortly after she died in the summer of 2006, I started the Master Gardener program at Penn State University. It was a welcome new focus and distraction in those days, and it put together my haphazard knowledge about gardening.

This week it was time for Marge’s Minestrone again. For the tomatoes, spinach, string beans, garlic and basil I used last year’s from my garden. When it comes to chickpeas, I am a purist – I cannot get myself to use canned ones. Since I forgot to soak them last night, I quick-soaked them this morning, boiling them in plenty of water for 1 minute and then letting them sit for 1 hour – exactly the time it took me to line up all the ingredients, which is most of the work. Cooking the soup is a cinch.

Marge’s Minestrone

¾ cup dried chickpeas (or 1½ cups canned)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound ground beef

1 very large onion (¾ pound,), chopped

8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1½ tablespoons salt

¾ cup finely chopped boiled ham

3 stalks celery including leaves, finely chopped

½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

1 small can (16 ounces) canned tomatoes, cut up with their juice

1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste

2 large carrots, peeled and sliced

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh or frozen basil

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

½ cup dry red wine

10 ounces chopped fresh spinach

2 medium potatoes (¾ pound), peeled and cubed

1 cup fresh or frozen string or filet beans

1½ cups elbow macaroni

1. If using dried chickpeas, soak them in cold water to cover for 8 hours or overnight.

2. Heat the oil in a large pot (stockpot). Add the ground beef and brown, stirring.

3. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent.

4. Add the garlic and all the ingredients up to the wine plus 4 quarts water.

5. If using fresh chickpeas, add the drained soaked chickpeas now.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour, covered.

6. Add the potatoes, the spinach and the beans. If using canned chickpeas, add them now. Cook over low-medium heat for 20 minutes.

7. Add the pasta and cook until just tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Add salt to taste.

Serve with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan and fresh country bread or baguette.

Makes 16 servings


Stock clarity (and a happy dog)

SwissChardWhile I consider myself a somewhat educated consumer and critical food buyer, for vegetable stock I succumbed to the delusion that because it’s organic it must be good. Until Cooks Illustrated found that the brand I usually bought tasted “like dirt” or “like musky socks in a patch of mushrooms”. Yikes. How could I have been so taste-blind? That was in 2008. Since then I either resorted to chicken broth for soup, or, on some rare occasions, made vegetable stock from scratch.

This past summer I finally got into the habit of making vegetable stock more often, usually a large amount, most of which went into the freezer. Maybe the trigger was that the new shiny stockpot I had bought last winter kept looking at me reproachfully for not being used. Or it was the mounds of fresh vegetable leftovers, scraps and peels that went into the compost bin all summer.

Depending on what’s available in the garden, I make vegetable stock in different combinations. For example, today I used, in addition to the staple ingredients onion, carrots, and parsley: Swiss chard stalks, the final eggplants of the season whose skins have toughened because of the cold nights but otherwise are perfectly fine, and a container of frozen tomato skins that accumulated when I made tomato soup a few weeks ago. I did not have any celery, scallions, and leeks but otherwise I would have added them too. Many different vegetables work well as long as they are not spoilt, don’t impart a strong flavor and color (no cabbage, turnips, beets etc.), and don’t fall apart so the stock remains clear. For a more intense flavor, I brown the vegetables and onion in olive oil first, then add the water and proceed as described.

The stockpot gets used, and someone else is happy, too. After straining the stock (salt-free until I add it to the soup I am making) I puree the vegetables. They make several days of veggie add-ons to Woody’s dinner – and he is crazy about it.Woody

Vegetable Stock

4 pounds (1.8 kg) mixed vegetables

2 large carrots

2 large onions

¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil (optional)

3 large bay leaves

1 big bunch of fresh parsley

6 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt (optional)

1. If you use organic vegetables no need to peel them, except for the onions. Cut the vegetables into chunks. Peel and quarter the onion. Heat the olive oil and brown all the vegetables and onion for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often so they don’t burn. For the fat-free version, put all the vegetables in a large stockpot right away. Add the bay leaves, parsley, peeled and smashed garlic cloves, and thyme.

2. Add 7½ quarts of water and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for 1 hour. Strain the stock through a fine sieve. Add salt if desired. Cool and refrigerate, or freeze.

Makes about 7 quarts (7 liters)

Garlic: Tell me where the flowers are

If I had listened to the lady from customer service at Burpee, the garlic I planted last October would still be sitting in the ground shriveling up in the summer heat. I’ve grown garlic successfully for the past years but something strange happened this year. The garlic did not develop any flower tops, aka scapes. So I called Burpee where I bought the planting garlic last fall to find out whether this variety, Early Italian Garlic, might be a non-blooming kind (just like the rhubarb I have in the garden). The lady at Burpee first didn’t know what scapes are, and when I told her “The garlic doesn’t bloom,” she said “Don’t worry, just wait until next year.” – as if garlic was a perennial, which usually starts to bloom only in its second year. That much for help from the pros. It was hilarious.

But the garlic was fine. We harvested about 50 nice, plump heads. Now that they have cured for a few weeks in the shed, I need to think about storage. I am debating with myself whether I should keep a small supply for a couple of months and freeze the rest as unpeeled cloves, like I’ve done in previous years. Frozen garlic is not good to use raw, but that’s not a problem for me because I use most of it for cooking anyway.

Hardneck garlic, the type that is the best to grow in this area, does not store very well. By Thanksgiving, it is light as air. Storing garlic in oil is not an option because it can produce botulism, a serious food poisoning that can paralyze or kill.

I think I will compromise. Half of the garlic will go in the freezer right away, and the other half I will hang up in bundles in the basement until I find that the garlic does dry out too quickly – or until someone complains about the strong garlic smell in the basement.