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The Many Faces of Minestrone

One of my favorite fall/winter/spring soups is minestrone. It's easy to make, the kids will eat it (most of the time), it's warm and comforting as the weather cools, and perhaps most importantly in my home it has many faces. For me, minestrone is a vegetable soup with pasta. This means that as the quality and availability of fresh vegetables changes with the seasons, the ingredients for my soup change too. In my recipe, I use a base of beans, canned tomatoes, chicken broth and pasta. But that changes sometimes too. The beans could be kidney, cannellini or garbanzo (or a combination of any or all). I also like using a dried bean I get at my farmers market the grower calls a "Grandma Bean" (his grandmother brought it over from Norway) that is kind of like a lima. My favorite canned tomato is the Muir Glenn fire roasted but lately I have found richer competition in the form of an Italian San Marzano variety Roma tomato. The kind I buy is packed in tomato sauce so it packs a bit more of a tomato punch. The chicken broth can be replaced with beef or vegetable broth for uniquely different flavors. Even my pasta type will change from the tradition penne to different shapes and sizes that are attracting the attention of my children (or what I happen to have in my pantry). My current favorite is Orecchiette Del Prete - a bowl shaped pasta that is delightful. The vegetable world is where my ingredients will vary the most - largely defined by what looks best at the grocery store or farmers' market. Here's a rundown on my veggie variations: Carrot: this one doesn't change much but occasionally I will replace with a parsnip or lately with a different color carrot (white or purple) Celery: a very important (and widely available) ingredient but can be replaced in a pinch by anise (or fennel bulb) for the same texture but a slightly different contributing flavor. I always use some of the leaves of both for added color and flavor. Onions/garlic: Again items that don't change much but as we progress further into spring, my dried storage specimens give way to spring onions and garlic (with green tops). These have a milder flavor and the addition of the greens really adds some nice color. Occasionally I will also trade regular onions for sweet varieties depending on what looks better. Cabbage: my current favorite cabbage to use is Napa - it has a lighter texture and flavor over regular cabbage and is generally available in a range of sizes. I will also replace cabbage with greens occasionally (kale or collard) if I am in the mood for a richer flavored soup. Also note: our produce team members will be happy to slice a cabbage in half for you if you don't want a whole one. Green beans: a "summer" vegetable, green beans are generally the item I have the most trouble with - especially in the dead of winter when quality can vary wildly from week to week. Snap peas are generally my replacement until further in the spring when English peas take the place of green beans until summer. Herbs: this is perhaps the most important set of ingredients. Parsley is a must, then I usually let my herb garden dictate what else goes in. This can be marjoram, oregano, thyme or rosemary - often a combination of several to taste. Here's my basic recipe: Olive oil (for sautéing) 3 carrots, sliced in ½ inch rounds 4 celery stalks, sliced (usually the inside stalks with greens) One medium yellow or white onion, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic, crushed 1/4 head Napa cabbage, chopped A handful of green beans, snapped into bite-sized pieces 2 tablespoons parsley (Italian or curly) 1 tablespoon marjoram or oregano (or both) 1/2 teaspoon thyme or rosemary (or both) 24 - 28oz diced tomatoes (or whole and crush them by hand - which is great fun) 42oz chicken broth 1/2 slice of bacon (optional - for a thicker broth) 1 14oz can kidney beans, drained and rinsed 4 oz cooked pasta Salt and pepper to taste I sauté all the vegetables in a bit of olive oil before they go into the soup pot - mainly to speed up cooking time but also to bring out the sugars. I also combine my herbs with the vegetables when I sauté — for no other reason than to make my kitchen smell fantastic. Add all the rest of the ingredients (except the beans and pasta) and cook for 25-30 minutes. About five minutes before the end of that cooking time, add the beans and pre-cooked pasta. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve with a nice crusty bread. Sorry if I have offended the minestrone purists - maybe I should call this my vegetable soup with pasta blog. But 30 years in produce have taught me to keep my options open. I also happen to think that life is richer with variety (and so is soup). Tell me if I'm missing something - I am clearly open to new ideas.