When I see bundles of rainbow chard, full heads of green escarole or bushels of curly savoy cabbages, I know it’s time for a savory winter vegetable soup. Warm, hearty and satisfying, winter vegetable soups are great meals that are simple to make and even better the next day.
Although chard, escarole and cabbage are among my favorite ingredients, shaved Brussels sprouts or dark leaves of kale often work as substitutes. I also like to swap dark red onions for sweet yellow ones, as I find they have a heartier flavor. Sometimes, I’ll even rinse creamy white cannelli beans for additional protein, and other days, I prefer the comforts of chewy ditalini pasta tubes to bite on.
That’s the brilliance of a good soup base — if you have a good recipe, you can interchange the ingredients based on whatever you can find. Although my soup creations vary, I think the following guidelines yield great results:
Patience — When I make soup, I give myself plenty of time to sweat the vegetables. Sweating vegetables means you cook them without allowing them to caramelize. When vegetables caramelize, they release their sugars and turn brown, which often leads to a bitter taste. By sweating the vegetables, they retain their texture, shape and moisture, without sacrificing taste. To sweat vegetables, simply lower the heat, use a good oil, stir the vegetables often and be very patient!
Leafy Greens — If you’re making soup, one or more of the following leafy greens are needed: escarole, parsley, kale, cabbage or chard. When it comes to chard, take each leaf and lay it flat on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, make two long cuts, one on each side of the stem. Once the stem is removed, you can chop the stem and add it to the soup. Chard stems are colorful and flavorful, with a texture similar to celery. Save the leaves for the final cooking phase of the soup.
Cheese Rind — When making a soup with a tomato base, add a piece of cheese rind like Parmigiano-Reggiano, for a nutty and rich layer of flavor. Most grocers and cheese markets will sell you just the rind if you ask. If you happen to buy fresh cheese regularly, save and freeze the rinds for such an occasion.
Finish — All soups need a garnish: a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkling of herbs, a dollop of cream. For minestrone, I take the extra step to make a pistou. Pistou is a simple sauce made from basil leaves, garlic and olive oil. Very similar to pesto, but there is no cheese or nuts. Just a few seconds in a mini-chopper and you have the secret to a truly savory and satisfying soup. You can also refrigerate or freeze pistou for future use.
Winter Vegetable Minestrone Soup
Yield: 8-10 servings
1/2 lbs. pancetta or bacon, medium dice
2 red onions, medium dice
4 celery stalks, chopped
3 large carrots, chopped
3 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch rainbow chard, stems removed and chopped
1/2 head escarole, leaves only, chopped
1 piece Parmigiano Reggiano rind
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
3 cups ditalini noodles (mini-tubes)
Water for the soup
Salt and Pepper to taste
For the Pistou:
3 cloves fresh garlic
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt to taste
- Heat a large dutch oven with olive oil over medium high heat. Add the pancetta, onions, celery and carrots. Stir frequently, allowing the vegetables to sweat, but not brown, for 8-10 minutes.
- Add the chopped chard stems. Allow stems and vegetables to sweat for an additional 20 minutes. Lower heat if necessary, to prevent from browning.
- Add the potatoes and garlic to the pot and combine well. Sprinkle with a good pinch of salt. Move all the vegetables to one side of the pot and add the tomato paste. Allow paste to cook for a minute or two, then fully incorporate into vegetables.
- Add the diced tomatoes with all their juice. Add enough water to cover vegetables and create the soup (water line should be about two inches above vegetables). Stir and bring to boil. Once boiling, lower the heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes.
- In a separate pot, boil the noodles in salted water. Strain and drizzle with olive oil.
- Prepare the pistou. Using a food processor or mini-chopper, combine the garlic, basil and olive oil with a generous pinch of salt. Add more olive oil if needed. The pistou should be a smooth and thick sauce, not chunky or dry. Set aside.
- When cooking time has passed, taste the soup. Adjust flavors with salt and pepper. Continue simmering, if needed, until vegetables are tender.
- To serve, ladle bowls of soup then add a spoonful of pasta noodles. Drizzle with pistou.