Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Eleanora's Kitchen - 125 Fabulous Authentic Italian-American Recipes" - Nonna's Homemade Minestrone

Date I made this recipe: April 26, 2009

Eleanora’s Kitchen – 125 Fabulous Authentic Italian-American Recipes by Eleanora Russo Scarpetta with Sarah Belk King
Published by: Broadway Books
ISBN: 0-7679-1221-7 © 2004

Recipe – Nonna’s Homemade Minestrone – p. 82-83

A few years ago when I was surfing my TV for something interesting to watch (“57 channels and there’s nothing on…”), I stumbled across a Martha Stewart Living show. Martha’s guest that night, Eleanora Scarpetta was demonstrating the fine art of canning tomatoes from her garden for later use in one of her many Italian-American recipes.

Now Martha followers out there know that Martha is not the warmest of TV “talk” show personalities. If Martha was an attorney, I, for one, would squirm on the witness chair as she makes me a tad uncomfortable, even if she is a kitchen goddess. As one girlfriend said “You’ve gotta respect someone who grows their own Easter grass.” I can’t argue with that.

Apparently, Eleanora was not intimidated in the least. As I recall, she ran circles around Martha, such that you thought some kitchen fairy had waved a magic spatula and turned Eleanora into a new TV star. She was the quintessential New York Italian with her accent and a bundle of energy – in fact she was a real dynamo in the kitchen that day. I was enchanted; Martha was not amused.

Or was she? Apparently she was not as upset as she seemed because Eleanora credits her in the Acknowledgments as having encouraged her to write her first cookbook. (Well Martha, you minx you!! I never saw you as a mentor – my bad!)

So back to Eleanora - as I said, I was quite taken by her because she’s a lot like me (only she’s blonde and I’m brunette…well, sort of) – she runs on high octane, is very focused, and is very passionate about food. And so as soon as this cookbook came out on the market I had to have it.
But as I mentioned in a previous blog or two, I haven’t always been good about cooking from other Italian cookbooks, given that I tend to think that my Italian family recipes are better than anyone else’s. So let’s just say I’m glad I got over that notion and made this delicious Minestrone Soup. (Although, truth be told, I overdosed on ham and pork products over Easter and just had to change it up a bit!).

Unlike Eleanora, I most certainly did not can my own tomatoes so I used canned instead. (I am fast becoming my mother whose fear or germs and botulism rivals that of the TV character, Monk.) I think today’s canned tomatoes have come a long way from earlier versions and so the flavor was just fine.

But as per usual, I have to take exception with one of the instructions, and today, kids, it is that one cannot soften kidney beans in one hour (as called for by the recipe).

Now there are several ways that one can cook these beans to avoid having them be a bit on the al dente side (as mine were) and I’d recommend overnight soaking first or, if pressed for time, boil them for a bit (see package directions) and then let them sit for about an hour or so. Either way, you won’t end up with mush but you will end up with a softer bean. (I suppose you could use canned but canned beans are pretty mushy to being with so it’s up to you).

But our instructions here said to cook the beans and pancetta over medium heat for an hour and then add some of the vegetables and cook for 45 minutes more and that was just too short. I believe my total elapsed time on the beans was closer to 3 hours and even then I thought the beans were a bit too “raw.” But much depends on your own personal taste buds so I just wanted to give you fair warning.

We never had Minestrone soup at home but of the Italian soups we did have, almost all were topped by Parmesan or pecorino cheese and so I followed suit with this and it was molto bene. And if your nonna (“grandma” in Italian although we never, ever called her that) is like mine, she’d encourage a voracious appetite by telling you “Mangia fatta grossa” – “Eat and get fat!” (Is there any Italian grandmother out there who doesn’t think the grandchildren are too skinny? I haven’t found one!)

Nonna’s Homemade Minestrone – makes about 4 quarts; serves 6 as a main course, 8 as a first course)
½ pound dried kidney beans, picked over and rinsed (**See my comments above about the cooking time. I strongly encourage you to soak the beans overnight before adding them to the pot)
½ pound piece of pancetta (preferably spicy) or Canadian bacon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large Vidalia or other sweet onion, finely chopped, or substitute yellow onion
6 carrots, peeled and chopped (about 3 cups)
4 large russet potatoes, peeled and diced into ½-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
4 celery stalks, with leaves, cut into ½-inch pieces and leaves finely chopped
2 cups homemade tomato puree, or 2 cups canned whole plum tomatoes with juice, pureed in a blender or food processor for 3 to 5 seconds
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
¼ pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths, or substitute asparagus tips or diced eggplant
2 small zucchini, cut into ½-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
1 small yellow squash, cut into ½-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
6 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, optional

Place 12 cups of cold water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add the kidney beans and pancetta and cook, partially covered, over medium heat for 1 hour. (Plan on a lot longer)

Add the olive oil, onion, carrots, potatoes, celery, tomato puree, and salt, and cook at a low boil, stirring occasionally, for 40 to 45 minutes, until the potatoes and carrots are tender but not mushy. (Note: if the soup seems too thick, add 1 to 2 cups of water to dilute to the desired consistency.)

Add the green beans, zucchini, squash, basil and parsley, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes longer or just until the newly added vegetables are al dente. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper, if desired. Discard the pancetta and serve immediately.
Variation – Pasta – such as tubettini or elbows – can be added to the minestrone for a more substantial dish. After adding the vegetables in step 3 bring a separate pot of lightly salted water to a boil and cook ½ pound of pasta according to the package directions. Drain, reserving 2 to 3 cups of the pasta water. When the vegetables are cooked, add the pasta to the minestrone. Add just enough of the pasta water to reach the desired consistency.

By the way, since I live in Minnesota, I must have typed minestrone as minnestrone countless times over before I got it right. Thank goodness for spell check!

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