And you thought there was nothing for dinner. Remember the days of staring into the fridge and thinking that? Pretty soon we’re all going to be experts on how to take a few things and cobble something together. What you come up with may not be the dish you had in mind, or even one you thought you’d ever like, but if it’s a success, that hardly matters. Pat yourself on the back.
From the first chilly nights in the fall until the end of spring, there’s always a pot of soup simmering on a back burner in my kitchen. Even with limited groceries right now, that’s still the case. Housebound cooks take note. Fragments of vegetables, a fistful of pasta, a can of beans, shards of meat from a stew, pan drippings from roast chicken, a bacon strip or two just waiting for this occasion — all of these simmer together for half an hour and they start tasting quite good. Add some fresh herbs, a splash of lemon juice, and let it bubble a little more. Every little scrap is making its contribution. Don’t think the bone from last night’s pork chop or the parsley about to expire isn’t adding something important. This is the culinary version of the well-known cumulative effect.
Just as I finished filling a soup pot recently, I happened on an Instagram story in which the cook, author Domenica Marchetti, was demonstrating how to make Zuppa di Pasta, Fagioli e Verdura, a mixture of pasta, beans, and vegetables that we think of as minestrone. (I’ve never watched as many cooking videos as I am now, housebound; early Martha Stewart reruns are great fun). Marchetti has written seven volumes on Italian food and posts on Instagram as @domenicacooks; her food and photos are a delight to follow and wonderfully appealing.
In her soup video, she explains when each ingredient should go into the pot and how to get the most out of every vegetable. I rang up Marchetti, who lives in Alexandria, Va., and asked her about minestrone, which she told me means “big soup."
The name isn’t typically used in Italy. “You see many more regional soups. Minestrone is more of a general term. As you go from region to region, the names are different, soups change.” Like much of Italian cuisine, she says, the soup takes on the characteristics of the ingredients most readily available in each region.
Marchetti, whose mother was born and raised in Italy, and took her every summer to her family’s beach house in Abruzzo, is cooking right now for her husband, Scott Vance, a deputy managing editor at The Washington Post, and their daughter, a senior in college. Marchetti was a journalist before she starting writing cookbooks, teaching Italian cooking, and taking groups on culinary tours to Italy.
To get a really flavorful soup, you have to build it. Start thinking this way. Group ingredients and add them to the pot in stages, so that each softens a bit before the next group goes in. And you don’t necessarily need chicken or vegetable stock. “You can build a flavorful soup with just water,” says Marchetti, who has her vegetarian daughter in mind as she cooks.
Building implies a foundation. For many Italian soups, that means a soffritto, which is nothing more than a mixture of finely chopped celery, carrots, and onions, “the holy trinity of aromatics,” as Marchetti calls them. (Before these root vegetables are cooked, the name for them is battuto.) They go into the soup pot first with cold olive oil and they’re cooked slowly until they soften. They should not brown.
As soon as the soffritto goes in, Marchetti starts prepping the second group of vegetables. She might peel and cut up a potato or a turnip or a piece of butternut squash and add them next with some water. The vegetables are cut larger and they’re starchy, so they’ll thicken the soup and give it body. “These bring more flavor, but also texture,” she says.
With the starchy vegetables, she might add a splash of olive oil to the pot. Her olive oil is any reasonably priced bottle whose label tells her that the place where the oil was bottled is also the place where the olives were grown.
Next come the pulses: chickpeas, cannellini, or cranberry beans, which can be canned or dried (if dried, soak overnight and cook separately). “I wouldn’t use black beans but most other beans are OK. I like the liquid that beans come in,” she says, so she might add that to the pot, too. Bean liquid adds flavor. She also tips in a spoonful or two of lentils, used here as a thickening agent. “It’s a very loosey-goosey method," she says. "You can add more beans and make it a bean soup.”
She cans her own beans. When she returns from Italy, she says, “My suitcases are heavy with farro, pasta, and beans, and stuff like that. Not with shoes and clothes.”
Along with the beans, she might add a splash of cooked tomato sauce, if it’s in her fridge, or use pureed or chopped tomatoes. Sometimes the pot has no tomatoes and becomes zuppa bianco (white soup).
Marchetti always has Parmesan rind on hand (she freezes a container of pieces); rind goes in with the beans, along with a little salt and water to cover.
The pot simmers for 30 to 45 minutes, or a bit longer if the legumes aren’t cooked. She uses the back of a spoon to break up some of potato and squash to thicken the broth. It’s OK to let the pot keep simmering until everything is really tender. There’s nothing al dente here; these vegetables must be fully cooked. “Italians enjoy vegetables that have been softened,” Marchetti says. “That’s how you flavor the soup.”
Only when the soup is done is the last addition made, either pasta or a grain like farro, which she simmers in a separate pot because "they’re thirsty,” she says. If cooked in the soup, they will absorb much of the broth. Before draining the pasta or grain, she removes some of its cooking liquid so she can thin the soup with that if she needs to.
And then it’s time to ladle the soup into bowls and sprinkle them with olive oil. “If you do have a separate bottle of good olive oil, this is where you use it.” She likes the fresh, grassy flavor it adds. “Soups are hearty. Olive oil really freshens the flavor.” Then a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese goes on top.
It’s looks tempting and in the video she ladles soup into a bowl she brought back from her travels. Around the rim, in Italian, it reads, “Eat your vegetables because they’re good for you.”
Now build your own pot of soup. Once you learn how, the fridge is full of possibilities.
Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.