Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Rao's Cookbook" - Minestrone

Date I made this recipe: February 26, 2011

Rao’s Cookbook – Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking by Frank Pellegrino, Preface by Dick Schaap and introduction by Nicholas Pileggi
Published by: Random House
ISBN: 0-679-45749-6
Recipe: Minestrone – p. 34

As “promised” in last week’s blog, this week’s recipe selection is from Rao’s Cookbook. Rao’s is an Italian eatery in East Harlem, New York.

Just like last week’s risotto, minestrone was not something anyone in my family made. I don’t know why that is, especially since my Sicilian grandparents had a huge garden, but it is. Instead, my grandma made pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans). My Aunt Rose reports that whenever she (Aunt Rose) had a baby, my grandma would fix pasta e fagioli for my grandfather to eat while she was gone and then hit to road to help my Aunt Rose with the new addition. And by all reports, grandpa didn’t seem to mind at all (and really, if you tasted the recipe, you wouldn’t, either!)

Perhaps minestrone was never an item of the family table because it does take some work to chop all those vegetables. In fact, it occurred to me that some people will not want to make this recipe because it is a little labor intensive but you should. It’s very good and so healthy, too!

Just like the mushroom risotto recipe, some substitutions were made: instead of fresh fava beans, I used frozen lima beans. And don’t ask my why my grocery store was out of fresh zucchini but they were and so I used more potatoes. And at $5.99 a can, San Marzano tomatoes were out of the question and so I substituted a $2.99 can instead and I doubt that anyone could tell the difference. These days, 3 bucks is 3 bucks! I also like macaroni in my minestrone and so I boiled a small amount of shell noodles that I had handy and added them to my bowl. Yum-my!

I think my brain is frozen as of late because it took a while for it to sink in that the Academy Awards are on Sunday (tomorrow). (First I spaced out President’s Day, then the Oscars—what’s next?) Don’t ask me how I could miss that event what with the endless press and speculation and whatnot but I did. And normally, I would make something that was Oscar-worthy and blog about it but the beauty of this cookbook is that I don’t need to because…

Rao’s is so noteworthy that anybody who is anybody in the acting world has eaten there. In fact, the cookbook is filled with quotes from the rich and famous: Woody Allen, Vic Damone, Fran Drescher and the like. And I hate to be the one to break it to you, but reading this cookbook is about as close you’ll ever get to eating at Rao’s, never mind mixing and mingling with celebrities. The place is tiny, everyone has their own table (so to speak) and if you don’t, you just about have to have a note from God to get in on any given night. I don’t have a table and I don’t have a note and so there it is. So just like the “losers” on Oscar night, practice your “I’m so happy for him/her” look and just suck it up!

Now if this cookbook and recipe doesn’t do it for you as a consolation prize, then you can always go out and purchase one of Rao’s bottled sauces from your grocery shelf (depending on where you shop). But just like those San Marzano tomatoes, the sauce is expensive (to my budget) so I say buy the danged book, buy the ingredients and make the recipes yourself. You’ll thank me later! (Or you can thank me now – your choice: “I’d like to thank the Academy… and Rao’s…and Ann without whom none of this would be possible….”)

Minestrone – serves 6 to 8
½ cup fine-quality olive oil
1 cup chopped onions (note: I had some leftover Spanish onion from the risotto so I used half Spanish and half yellow onion for this dish)
1 cup chopped whole leeks
¼ cup minced Italian parsley
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
2 cups peeled and diced tomatoes
2 cups diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced zucchini
1 cup fresh fava beans
1 cup fresh or frozen green peas
2 cups canned imported San Marzano Italian plum tomatoes, with juice
4 cups Chicken Broth or water (Note: if you have this cookbook and want to make homemade broth, see the recipe on p. 8)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 to 2 cups cooked cannellini or kidney beans (Note: if you have this cookbook and want to make homemade beans, see the recipe on p. 12. I have the book and I still used canned beans!)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
¼ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

A note from Ann: many cooking shows stress the important of evenly chopping or dicing or slicing your vegetables and you will want to follow suit (to the best of your ability) because you want everything to cook evenly. So be prepared that dicing your vegetables may take a while longer than you’d like but you’ll be happy that you went to the trouble. Besides, I find chopping or dicing to be particularly relaxing!

Heat oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. When hot, stir in onion, leeks, parsley, and thyme. Lower heat and sauté for about 5 minutes or until onions begin to brown.

Add the remaining vegetables, one at a time and sauté each for about 3 minutes: potatoes, carrots, celery, zucchini, fava beans, and peas. When all the vegetables are sautéed, stir in tomatoes, broth and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for about 1 hour, until soup is quite thick. (Note: when I made this soup, it was pretty thick to begin with given all the vegetables in it, so you may need to add a bit more broth or water than called for so that you don’t end up with a stockpot of vegetables).

Add cooked beans, mashing some against the side of the stockpot with the back of a spoon as you stir them in. Cook for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from heat and sit in basil. Serve sprinkled with Pecorino Romano cheese. (And if you want macaroni in your minestrone, start cooking it separately before you add the beans so it finishes at the same time as your soup. Place some of the macaroni on the bottom of the bowl add the soup and then the cheese.)

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