Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tag Team Dinner: Minestrone and Bread

Sometime earlier in the week, Ann asked if I would make minestrone for dinner on Sunday and she volunteered to make a loaf of bread to go with it. Sounded good to me. Except. Except I have heretofore always made minestrone in the summer using the bounty of the garden. I have never thought of it as a winter soup before. And as Ann can all too well attest, I am guided by nothing if not the seasons in my cooking. Though once I thought about it, I reasoned that people damn well make soup year round (particularly in winter) using whatever vegetables are at hand. I know that Ann wishes a lot of times that I would just stop with the thinking and cook whatever she wants, but then I wouldn't be the person that she married, would I?

My Minestrone, Ann's Black Pepper Pecorino Bread

Minestrone Mise
I love soup and I've made a lot of minestrone in my life. Each batch is different, but the common qualities are: it is a brothy soup with big chunks of vegetables; it is not a long-cooked soup; it always contains beans and pasta; and it is always seasoned with a chunk of Parmigiano rind. Vegetables vary depending on what is on hand. I love Swiss chard in mine in the summer; white cabbage stands in now while the ground is frozen, though I would have preferred cavolo nero.

Sometimes, there are benefits to owning a restaurant, such as having quarts of ready-prepped mirepoix (onion, carrot, celery) and slabs of house-cured pancetta in the walk in. That along with diced tomatoes, a piece of white cabbage, and a bulb of fennel comprised the vegetables in the soup. Seasonings were pancetta tesa, a sprig of rosemary, garlic, pesto, salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, and a Parmigiano-Reggiano rind. Beans were canned cannellini, though in summer I use fresh bird egg beans and chunks of flat romano beans. Pasta, because of the terribly limited selection of soup pastas at the grocery store, was ditalini.

I started by trying the cubed pancetta in extra virgin olive oil with the stalk of rosemary, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and the slivered garlic. Once the pancetta and garlic went transparent, in went the carrots, onions, celery, 3/4s of the cabbage, and 3/4s of the sliced fennel.

To prep fennel, cut off the stalks and peel off any tough outer parts. Quarter the fennel vertically. Remove the core by cutting each of the four pieces on the bias. Then slice each piece horizontally against the grain into 1/8" (4mm) slices.

After the vegetables sweated for about five minutes, I added the tomatoes, the cheese rind, and a quart each of chicken stock and water. At this point, the vegetables simmer for about 30 minutes. Still to go into the pan: the beans (already cooked, don't want to overcook), the pasta (it goes in for the last 10 minutes), the pesto (doesn't need to cook, swirled in just before serving), and the remaining cabbage and fennel (goes in five minutes before serving, for freshness and crunch).

When I was ready to serve dinner, I brought the soup to a boil, seasoned it, and added the beans, and the pasta. Five minutes later, I added the cabbage and fennel. When the pasta was done, I swirled in the pesto and served.

The soup was particularly delicious and about as simple as can be. A couple days later, my Italian wife confessed that she had only ever eaten minestrone out of a can! How can this be? How do you grow up in a multi-generational Italian family and not have fresh minestrone? I suspect that there is no going back to the can now for her; she has been spoiled.

Getting Her Hands Dirty
Years ago, I used to bake bread all the time, but Ann has adopted that task for herself and she makes an excellent loaf of bread. She doesn't generally knead the dough, but this one ended up so sticky that she had to add a lot of flour to it. Still, the bread, flavored with lots of black pepper and grated pecorino cheese, was really great.

Ann's Delicious Black Pepper Pecorino Bread
It's always fun to get in the kitchen with Ann and a couple glasses of wine and do our thing. As much as I like to cook, I like it better when we do it together. We make a great team!

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