There's a lot to love about Italian food, and undoubtedly one of those things is their commitment to carbs. It was Italians after all who invented panzanella, i.e. bread salad, and for this I salute them every summer. Many Italian dishes involve a combination of carbs - pizza Bianca with thin slices of potato, or pasta mollicata which is spaghetti with fried breadcrumbs,
Minestrone traditionally involves almost every form of carb imaginable - pasta, beans, potato and bread - and that might be why it's such a crowd pleaser. It's also a dish that's easily tailored to suit individual tastes and needs. It’s simple, for instance to keep it vegetarian or add meat, and you can swap out the macaroni for gluten free fusilli if needed. I omit potato in this recipe, and add a couple of less traditional touches like parmesan rind and herb oil. I’m sure that with some tinkering, you too can personalise it for yourself.
Why use dried beans instead of canned?
If you’re short on time or forget to soak dried beans in advance (see next paragraph about prepping extra!), you can of course use canned beans. You’ll need 2 cans for this recipe. But there are benefits to using dried. Generally, dried beans deliver a better texture and flavour than canned. You can control the seasoning and saltiness as well as making sure they aren’t overcooked and mushy. Also, they’re cheaper, lighter to lug home and take up less pantry space.
Finally, here’s a tip that we’ve talked about in previous recipes: soak and cook double the amount of cannellini beans required, then freeze them in a well-sealed bag or container. I freeze mine in a ziplock bag in a thin brick shape which makes it both easier to fit in the freezer and makes it a cinch to break apart for a speedier defrosting. Having precooked beans in the freezer is the handiest thing, and Future You will be so thankful.
We love this minestrone. I hope you enjoy making it and eating it as much as our family does!
Prep time: 15 min plus overnight soaking, Cook time: 1 hour
For preparing the beans:
1 cup dried cannellini beans (which equals 4 cups cooked)
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
1 medium carrot, cut into 3 or 4
1 celery stick, cut into 2
2 medium cloves garlic
2 tsp vegetable or chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1 tsp salt
A sprig of rosemary/thyme/oregano
For the minestrone:
2 tbsp olive oil, plus more as needed
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely diced
1 celery stick finely diced
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp minced fresh rosemary
1-2 sprigs fresh oregano, finely chopped
1 400g tin diced tomatoes
1 Parmesan rind, (or if no rind, just a chunk of parmesan about the size of a matchbox)
1 cup uncooked sourdough macaroni or other small pasta
4 cups fresh spinach- baby or english, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
Herb & Lemon oil:
1 cup of fresh herbs in any combination. (I used basil, parsley, thyme, oregano and chives. Use leaves only, not stalks)
Approx 1/3 cup olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Soak the beans in a large bowl of cold tap water overnight (5-12 hours is good). The beans will expand a lot so be sure to cover them very well with the water.
After soaking, drain and rinse the beans then place them in a large cooking pot. Add the halved onion, 4 cloves of garlic, carrot and celery stick, plus plenty of water - the beans should be covered by about 5 cm at least. Now add the seasoning: 2 tsp vegetable or chicken stock, 2 bay leaves and a couple of sprigs of herbs like rosemary, thyme and oregano. Bring to the boil then reduce and simmer for 45 mins, or until beans are tender but still have just a little firmness.
While the beans are cooking, you can make the herb oil and cook the macaroni- here are the instructions. Note: it’s best to keep pasta separate until it’s time to serve up, as it can otherwise become overcooked and mushy from sitting in the soup too long.
To make the herb oil, throw the herbs, oil, lemon juice and seasoning into a blender or food processor and blitz until it's all combined. The end result should be the consistency of a thinner, runnier pesto - add more oil if needed. Set aside.
Boil the macaroni as you normally would (it should take about 8 mins), and drain it as soon as it becomes al dente - don't overcook it because it will be added into the hot minestrone to serve, which will soften it a little further. Put it in a bowl, and drizzle with a little olive oil to prevent it from sticking together. Set aside.
Important note for this next step: don't discard the cooking liquid!
After 45 mins of simmering, or when the beans are tender, place a colander over a large bowl, jug or 2nd cooking pot on a stable surface or your sink, and drain the beans - the bowl/pot will catch all of the precious cooking liquid. Put this liquid aside, we'll be using it soon. Use a slotted spoon or tongs to remove and discard the onion, carrot, celery and herbs from the beans.
Place the empty pot that you used to cook the beans, back on the stove and turn onto a low heat. Add the olive oil, diced onion, carrot and celery and saute on slow heat for 5 mins or until softened. Add the crushed garlic and saute for a further 2 mins.
Add the tin of tomatoes, 8 cups of the reserved cooking liquid from earlier, parmesan rind and herbs. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Now add the reserved, cooked cannellini beans. Put a lid partially on the pot so it doesn't evaporate too much, and keep it all at a gentle simmer for approximately 10 mins. If you want a thinner soup, add more reserved cooking liquid.
Check the soup for seasoning, and add salt and pepper as necessary.
Remove the parmesan rinds, bay leaves and any sprigs of woody herbs you may have used.
Add the spinach and stir through.
To serve, ladle the minestrone into individual bowls and add 2-3 tbsp cooked macaroni. Sprinkle some parmesan on top, then drizzle with a little herb oil. Serve with crusty bread.
Minestrone keeps for up to 5 days in the fridge, or 3 months in the freezer ( in fact it’s one of my go-to freezer meals!). Just reheat before adding cooked pasta, leafy greens, Parmesan and herb oil.
Pimp My Recipe
Want to make this even more sumptuous? Add 2-3 finely chopped preserved lemons at the same stage as adding the tomato.
Add some pancetta or bacon. This Minestrone recipe is vegetarian, but traditionally it's made with pork of some variety, often pancetta. If you want to include pork, do it at the sauteing stage. Just halve the amount of olive oil, then add about 1 cup chopped bacon or pancetta along with the onion and garlic and proceed as per the recipe.
Feel free to add other veggies to this dish. At the stage where you add the tinned tomatoes, you could also include fine diced chopped zucchini, pumpkin, potato, anything you fancy. Another traditional minestrone ingredient is savoy cabbage, which is finely shredded and added at the end of cooking like spinach.
Add anchovies! They are often a chef’s secret weapon for adding depth of flavour and salt to recipes. Just 2 or 3 chopped Anchovies do magical things to minestrone. Add them at the beginning when sauteing onions. You won't taste the anchovies, but you'll enjoy an extra dimension of rich umami.