Last week, my clients had twins. In effort to offer them a modicum of comfort amidst the intensity that is parenting newborns, I made them minestra di verdure.
Or was it minestrone? I was trying to mimic a soup we made often during the winter in Rome. I was almost certain we called it minestra. Then I started rooting around my Italian cookbooks.
My first stop was Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook, Lorenza de’Medici’s magnum opus about traditional regional Italian cooking published in 1996. The book is the size of a small poster, utterly impractical for the kitchen where most cooks read recipes. Even still, I love it, especially the detailed glossary that buttresses the recipes.
Lorenza writes: Minestra is a thin soup with chopped vegetables, often with rice or the special small pasta made for soups. It may also be chicken or vegetable broth in which these small pasta shapes (pastina) are cooked. Minestrone is a vegetable soup with rice or pasta, in which the vegetables are cut into larger pieces than those for minestra. The soup usually contains dried legumes.
Then I messaged my friend, Alessio, a sommelier who runs the wine program at Montenidoli outside of San Gimignano in Tuscany. Alessio was born in Florence and speaks the crystal-clear Italian for which Florentines are famous. He wrote back: In Tuscan vocabulary for minestra, we mean something coming from a reduction of meat and later cooked with pasta. Minestrina is what nonna eats at evening during wintertime. Minestrone is a mix of vegetable and meat/bread, seasonal vegetables like cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, mixed with old bread and beans. This response is typical of a Tuscan gastronome. They put bread in everything. The nod to nonna threw me for a loop; I never knew either of my grandmothers well and haven’t the slightest idea what they ate on cold, snowy winter evenings.
Then I asked Capo, my Italian chef-mentor who’s from Calabria and runs a restaurant in Rome. Minestrone is thin, he says, and the veggies are always cubed. In a minestra, the veggies could be cubed or blended, but it’s always denser than minestrone.
Every language has its particularities. In English we say broth, soup, stew, chowder, bisque, potage, porridge, or cream of fill-in-the-blank depending on the contents of your soup pot. Apparently, mulligatawny is a word in English that means a rich soup usually of chicken stock flavored with curry.
But, my God, do the Italians love to go granular with it.
My final stop in effort to divine a clear difference between minestra and minestrone was Italy: Dish by Dish by Monica Sartoni Cesari. Here’s where the wheels fell off the cart.
Minestra maritata is a Puglian soup of sorts. Thinly sliced fennel, wild escarole, celery and mixed chicories are layered with lardo or pancetta, topped with Pecorino cheese, covered with a rich broth, and baked briefly. The good people of Campania have their own version of this dish, which they make with a wide array of vegetables and meats (usually pork) cooked in a very rich broth and finished with spices and grated, aged caciocavollo cheese.
Minestrone ‘ncapriata, said to be one of the oldest dishes in Mediterranean area dating back to pre-dynastic Egypt, is an even further departure from my vision of a brothy vegetable soup. In central Puglia and Basilicata, they make a puree of dried fava beans – a hallmark of la cucina povera – and then pile on boiled turnip greens or wild chicories. In Lazio, we ate this all the time; the Romans simply called it fave e cicoria. It bore no resemblance to soup, as I knew it; more like a thick, bean-forward porridge.
In Emilia-Romagna, where the cooking is always rich and complex, they make minestra nel sacchetto by first mixing a dough made with flour, eggs, Parmesan cheese and nutmeg, then wrapping it in cloth and boiling it in a rich beef broth. Once the dough is cooked, they remove it from the broth, slice it in small cubes, and serve it in the broth. Not exactly a 30-minute-meal situation.
Language is a funny thing. Turns out what we mean when we call something una minestra tells a story unto itself.
Here is my version of minestra. My mother would say you don’t need to bother sautéing the vegetables before adding the liquid. She makes a perfectly good soup by throwing all the ingredients in the pot and letting it rip. I think that skipping the soffritto step is a mistake. That’s where you develop the foundation of flavor for your soup, slowly coaxing the sugars from the vegetables. But if you’re on a time crunch, or just don’t feel like soffritto-ing, then rough chop it all, throw it in the pot with a good glug of olive oil, cover with water and let it cook for 20 to 30 minutes.
Like most recipes, this one is a template, a suggestion, a foundation off which you should feel free to improvise with whatever vegetables you have on hand. You could also add thickening agents like a handful of rice or a diced potato. Pretty much anything goes, but steer clear of purple cabbage or purple potatoes as they can turn your soup an off-putting blue color.
Minestra di Verdure
- 3T olive oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1 celery root, diced
- ½ head green cabbage, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- ½ t chili flake
- Bouquet garni of 3 thyme sprigs, 1 rosemary branch, and 2 bay leaves
- Water to cover
- Kosher salt
- ½ lemon, juiced
Add oil to the bottom of a heavy soup pot. Add the onion to the oil, turn on the heat and cook gently until the onions have softened and begun to sweat. Add the rest of your vegetables and cook over medium-low heat until all the vegetables have softened, about 10-15 mins.
Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add the chili flake and cook 30 seconds.
Cover with cold water, add the bouquet garni and cook for 15-20 minutes to let the flavors develop. Finish with a big squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
Serve with a swirl of pesto or a generous glug of olive oil on top.