Last week I talked about il battuto, that savory combination of minced pork and aromatic vegetables that is the basis of so many great Italian dishes. These dog days of August are a fine time to turn the battuto into a summer minestrone, a flavorful vegetable soup that you start in the early morning when the dew is still fresh on the garden and is done before the rest of the household is awake. Then it sits on the sideboard, waiting to be served at room temperature, for lunch or supper on the porch. This, Marcella Hazan says, is the way they do it in Milano in all the little trattorie where businessmen go for a quiet lunch. I have never been in Milano in the summer—and frankly, wild horses would be needed to drag me to that city’s miasmic summer heat—but I will take her word for it. Heat this up if you must, but honestly it is possibly even better served at ambient temperatures. It’s always astonishing how very flavorful a simple vegetable soup can be.
Note that the battuto ingredients, in this case, are added one after the other, rather than combined all at once. And no chopped prosciutto or other meat—it is perfectly vegetarian—even vegan if you omit the rind of parmigiano reggiano. The vegetable quantities are approximate, and if you should come across something that seems to fit, by all means add it. But do keep the basic onion-garlic-carrot-celery as the foundation.
The celery should be as green and flavorful as you can get—this is not the place for blanched celery hearts. I was fortunate to find in my farm market leafy greens, called tenerumi, of Sicilian cucuzza squash (see the illustration at the top of the page), but if you can’t locate that, ordinary green chard will do just as well. The best potatoes to use are small fingerling potatoes, which will stay quite firm when cooked. As for the parmigiano rinds—I hope you’ve kept them in a bag in your freezer, adding to the bag each time you get down to the rind of a wedge of that great cheese. It adds—dare I say it?—considerable umami to the soup.
This makes enough for 6 or 8 people.
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 ½ to 2 cups slivered red or yellow onion
- a couple of smashed and peeled garlic cloves
- 1 cup chopped carrots
- 1 cup slivered or diced green celery
- about 2 cups diced new potatoes
- about 2 cups diced zucchini or summer squash
- ¼ cup long-grain rice
- 1 cup sliced fresh green beans
- about ¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
- One or two rinds of parmigiano reggiano
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 to 3 cups slivered greens
- Handful of slivered fresh basil leaves
Add the oil and butter to a heavy stockpot or saucepan large enough to hold all the ingredients and set it over medium heat. When the butter has melted add the onions and garlic, stirring to cover them with the oil. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have melted and softened. Now stir in the carrots and let them cook for a minute or two before adding the celery. Let this all bubble and sizzle together for a few minutes, while you bring 6 cups of water to a boil.
Throughout this process, the vegetables should not brown but just soften in the heat of the pan.
When the water is boiling, add the potatoes to the other vegetables in the saucepan and let them cook for a minute or two, then pour in the boiling water. The water will come back to a simmer and you should turn the heat down to let it simmer quite gently until the potatoes are almost done. Then stir in the diced squash, the rice, the green beans and the parsley. Bury the parmigiano rind in amongst the vegetables and let it all cook until the rice is starting to get tender—only 5 or 10 minutes as the rice will continue to soften as the minestrone sits. Finally, stir in the slivered greens and cook just until they are thoroughy wilted.
Remove from the heat, stir in the basil, and taste for seasoning, keeping in mind that as it cools, the soup may require more salt. Set it aside until you’re ready to serve. Of course, you may serve this immediately if you wish, but it is much better left to sit at least until lunchtime.