Sunday, April 1, 2012

Minestrone Soup

Here's my minestrone soup recipe to get you through the last of the cold weather. This recipe was inspired by my mom - she would make this soup to help warm us up during the cold and foggy San Francisco summers! It's hearty, flavorful, and healthy, packed with lean protein, whole grains, and tons of vegetables. It's a perfect meal any time of the year!

Chicken meatballs:
  • 3 pieces stale whole wheat bread
  • 1 cup lowfat milk
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 lb ground chicken breast
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 1 tbsp lemon zest
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flake
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
This meatball recipe will give you the most flavorful, tender, delicate, and delicious meatballs. The lemon zest, which is such a small component of the recipe, really brings a nice freshness to the entire soup. It is a major flavor booster that lightens the overall profile of the meatballs. And while I use chicken here, you can use turkey, beef, pork, veal, or a combination of meats.

In a large bowl tear the stale bread into small pieces and pour the milk over the bread. Allow the bread to soak up the milk for 10-15 minutes, then use your hands to create a mushy paste of milk and bread. This is called a panade and will give your meatballs a soft, delicate texture. Add the remaining ingredients to the panade and use your hands to blend everything together.

Heat 3 tbsp olive oil in a large dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed soup pot on medium high to start, but note that effective heat management is critical to finding the balance between developing deep flavor and burning things. You should lower the heat to medium or medium-low once the oil begins to shimmer (and definitely if it starts to smoke), and want to keep adjusting the heat as necessary during cooking to ensure a lively saute (splattering is to be expected) and to allow a nice deep brown fond to develop on the bottom of the pot, while never turning black. Keep in mind that adding lots of room-temperature or colder meatballs to the pot will lower the temperature, so it's best to err a little on the high side until after starting each batch.  Once done with all of the meatballs, turn off the stove immediately until you begin to cook the soup base.

I like to do a test meatball patty to determine if I have adequately seasoned things, so take a teaspoon of the meatball mixture and make a thin patty. Sear the patty until fully cooked. Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly.  Once you are happy with the seasoning, start sauteing the meatballs. Form each meatball - I like to make mine 1-2 inches in diameter - and give it space in the pot. Allow the meatballs to brown, then use two forks to rotate the meatball. Continue to rotate and brown the meatballs in batches, but don't cook them fully through at this time. Place the browned meatballs on a plate and allow them to cool, then refrigerate them.

Soup base:
  • 3 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 3 (16 ounce) cans diced tomatoes, juice included
  • 2 cups ditalini or other small pasta
  • 2 yams, peeled and chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 bunch kale, roughly chopped
  • 2 zucchini, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 large handfuls of green beans, ends removed and chopped into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 rind Parmigiano Reggiano (you can save these in the freezer for soups)

Add the onions, carrots, celery, and a generous pinch of kosher salt to the same pot that you used to cook the meatballs. Saute the vegetables until slightly tender over medium heat, about 5-10 minutes. Use a spoon or spatula - wooden works best - to scrape all the brown bits from the meatballs off the bottom of the pot. Then deglaze the pot with the red wine, scraping up any remaining fond. Add the stock, tomatoes, and cheese rind and bring the soup to a boil, then reduce to a simmer to cook, covered, for 3 hours.

Seasoning soups is a slightly tricky business, but the key thing to remember is that as the base cooks the flavors will concentrate. So if you season your soup to taste at the beginning of the process, it will be over-salty at the end. But there's a lot of liquid, starch, and vegetables going into the soup that will taste bland if under-seasoned. My suggestion is to add a little salt every so often while the base cooks, but making sure it's under-seasoned until the very end. Adding a little at a time helps keep the final result mellow rather than sharp with a lot of newly-added salt.

An hour before serving add the pasta and the yams and cook until tender. Remove the cheese rind and use an immersion blender to puree the soup. The pasta and yams with thicken up the soup base. Blend to your desired consistency. I prefer mine rustic - slightly chunky and very thick. If you need to thin the soup you can always add water.

Thirty minutes before serving, add the kale, zucchini, green beans, and the chicken meatballs from the fridge. Now is a good time to liberally add some freshly ground black pepper, and add your final dose of salt. The salt should make the flavors in the soup nice and bright (as opposed to muddled and bland), but the soup should not taste salty. Cook on a low simmer until the meatballs are fully cooked.

Ladle the soup, veggies, and a couple of meatballs into a large bowl. Top with Parmigiano Reggiano, a drizzle of olive oil, and a pinch of sea salt.

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