Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A (and not The) Minestrone

Names are tricky business. When I think about it, people have known about this for ages. I mean, one of Shakespear's most well-known and time-tested soliloquies is based on this point precisely. So a little cross-cultural discussion on the meaning of food names should really come as no surprise.

Minestrone, in my American Italian-deli-experience, is a soup with assorted veggies, beans, tomatoes, herbs, Parmesan, and pasta. So, when I woke up this Sunday and saw that the contents of my refrigerator were positively begging me to make minestrone, I listened.

Asking around, and doing a bit of googlework, only increased my confusion. At this point, I really have no idea what a minestrone ought to include. Pasta, or no pasta, that is the question. But after a handful of conversations, I don't think many Italians know the answer either. And does it matter? Do old men with suspenders holding up their trousers get in arm-flailing discussions when their local trattoria messes with the sanctity of minestrone? My Italian friends assured me they do not. But I will keep an eye out for this...just in case.

The problem with names is that they carry such weight. Another surprise came as I learned Italian woman don't take the surname of their husband. Many women in Rome have assured me that this is quite preferred, and other culture's traditions of abandoning one's name upon marriage are really quite silly.

As I am currently between last names, I can appreciate their point. Why complicate an already complicated balance like marriage and family with the added identity-altering pressure of name conventions? 

Names are loaded. The mere idea of changing one bears all kinds of identity re-configuring implications. But is that really necessary? Just because one does or does not change their name, or the name of something, does it really mean something changes? I don't think it has to.

I've long detested the name of my blog. Cumin in the Cupboard made clear sense to my North American friends, but when mentioning it to non-native English speakers, it needed explaining. And names shouldn't need explaining. So I changed it.

For now, we are just sticking with JosieLee..my first and middle name. Nothing cute, kitsch, or clever, as that would imply an expected transformation of blog identity, which you will not find. This space is still about the food I eat and the ideas connected to it. Maybe it will slowly, organically change in the future, as things often do, but big radical changes just seem a bit too try-hard to me. It is what it is.

My soup recipe here is just A minestrone, not THE minestrone. Maybe it's just a minestra. The name doesn't matter. What matters is that it is really quite tasty (even better the next day), and is full of flexibility on what ingredients can be brought to simmer. I find the anchors of this soup to be the pancetta and the Parmesan rinds. For me, it is the flavours imparted by these two salty basics that form the backbone of a minestrone, pasta or no pasta.

Recipe: Minestrone with Borlotti Beans and Chard
Serves: 4 - 6
Eat with: Chianti Classico or Pinot Noir

4.5 oz (125g) pancetta
1 onion, minced
stems of 1 fennel (or celery)
olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
1 large potato, scrubbed and diced
1 large bunch chard
2 16-oz. cans stewed tomatoes
1 1/4 cup dried borlotti beans
6-7 cups chicken broth
1 large Parmesan rind
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried thyme
1 cup dried tempestine pasta (or use another small pasta shape, or rice/semolina grains/couscous)

The dried beans should be soaked and pre-cooked first. Either soak overnight and then cook in boiling water for 20 minutes while starting the soup. Or do a fast-soak: boil for 30 mins and then let sit in that warm water 1-2 hours. Or just use 2 cans of beans.

1) Finely cube the pancetta, and dice the onion and fennel stems/celery. Peel the garlic cloves, but leave whole. In a large pot with a smidge of olive over low heat, gently cook all for 15 mins, until fragrant and soft.

2) Add in the potato and chard. Cook 5 minutes until the volume of the greens is reduced. Add in the tomatoes, pre-cooked beans, broth, Parmesan rind, and herbs. Bring to boil, reduce, and simmer 45 mins.

3) During the last 10 mins, add in the pasta (or if it's a larger shaped pasta, pre-cook and add in...but tempestine is basically semolina grains...so that can just be added in.)

4) Serve with freshly grated Parmesan over top.

- Jo


  1. Perhaps in all of my 100% italian heritage years, I've never had a real minestrone then? Although my parents are notorious for completely adulterating traditional Italian meals...so I really shouldn't take it to heart. Either way, this soup sounds DELICIOUS! Which is all that really matters in my (italian) opinion. :P

    1. Hi Joanne, thanks for the weigh-in on the soup matter! Your opinion seems to be shared by every italian i've quizzed over the last couple days...it's the taste, not the contents. You are lucky to have had parents making it growing up! small envy :)


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