Shit, man. Autumn is officially here. Life sucks now.
The weather hasn’t turned cold, yet, but already the days are getting short. Sunset is at just after 7 p.m. this weekend, which is the most bullcrap thing in the whole world. Daytime warm weather may seduce you into thinking you can live as if in summer over these next few weeks, but then darkness claps shut overhead 90 minutes too soon and ruins fucking everything. Screw this world, you say, as you take a flying leap off the roof of your house, forgetting once again the overgrown and cobwebbed evergreens that thwart even your most sincere suicide attempts.
This seasonal transition gets harder every year. Increasingly, I am of the opinion that the only way to survive this transition is to pretend as if you are looking forward to it. The calendar is cool about this: it puts Halloween right there, right in range, so you can be excited and look forward to something other than five months of uninterrupted misery. Ah, one night where I can enjoy thinking about death before I spend the following 150 nights wishing for it.
Here’s another way to celebrate the season, if leaf peeping isn’t your thing and you don’t give a shit about apples: Make soup. Now is a good time for it—plenty of late-summer produce is in season, and the weather is cooling enough that you might find yourself genuinely grateful to have something warming to eat. Mostly, though, you will tell yourself that you are doing this to celebrate autumn, and the soup will reward the effort, and you will derive some joy from the changing of the seasons, from the one good season to the tedious and unwelcome shuffle of all the others.
The soup we’re going to make—minestrone—has it all: depth of flavor, hearty chunks, the guilty pleasure of pasta and potatoes, and all the meat ... iness you could ever want? Yes, yes. Minestrone is the best. Why haven’t you always made minestrone? Who can say? Today, this particular failure ends. Let’s do it.
The shopping list is simple enough: You’ll need some pasta; you’ll need some stock; you’ll need some beans; you’ll need some herbs; you’ll need some veggies. And some cheese. And a cheese rind.
Your veggies are split into two groups, here: you’ll use certain veggies to make the broth more flavorful, and you’ll want some other veggies to chop up and be the hearty substance of the finished soup. For the flavor base, grab a big yellow onion, a couple carrots, and a couple stalks of celery. For the chunks, go with a couple big zucchinis, two or three healthy gold potatoes, a can of whole tomatoes, and a head of savoy or napa or green cabbage.
Wait, where is the meat? you are asking, because by God, soup chunks damn well better include some goddamn meat. Hold tight for a while, buddy. We’ll get to the meat a little bit later. We haven’t forgotten about the meat.
While you’re waiting for the meat, put a medium chop into the mirepoix (a fancy culinary term meaning “onion, celery, and carrot”) and arrange the stuff in little piles of chopped onion, chopped carrot, and chopped celery. Now, in a giant heavy-bottom stock pot or dutch oven or cauldron or whatever, get a few big glugs of olive oil over medium heat, then add the onions and stir ‘em around a few minutes until they start to turn light brown. Now drop in the celery and carrots and keep stirring. What you’re looking for is gently caramelized onions and significantly softened carrots and celery. It’ll take a few minutes.
When everything in the pot is soft, you’re going to add your beans. Now. There are many recipes for minestrone. They are all slightly different—some use spinach instead of cabbage, some skip the potatoes, some use different kinds of pasta, some mix up the herbs, some use different broths, some even have mmmmmmmmlet’s put a pin in that and move on. Ahem. Where they should all agree is here: Minestrone should be made using cannellini beans.
I am violating a good and fair and useful rule, here. Food, you see, should be delicious and nutritious. If it is not nutritious, it is not food; if it is not delicious, you will not want to eat it, and if you do eat it, it will be a miserable chore, and your already humble life will be more miserable for it. Beans, I gather, are all pretty nutritious. As for deliciousness, it is true that many of us may disagree on which beans are the most delicious. It would seem, then, that a good and fair and useful recipe would liberate the cook to choose whatever damn bean they like best, under the expectation that whichever bean you like best will make the most delicious soup for you.
And so it is with no small amount of internal torment that I say the following: Screw that, minestrone is made with cannellini beans. First of all, what kind of asshole dislikes cannellini beans? They’re beans. You eat them. And second of all, the beans are basically the defining ingredient of minestone—not the noodles, which can be found in plenty of other soups; not the vegetables, which can also be found in plenty of other soups; and not the meat, which we are not talking about right now, will you just drop it? Minestrone has lots of the things lots of other soups have, and it has cannellini beans. And so, you are going to make your minestrone with cannellini beans. Deal with it.
Or, fine, fuck it, use red kidney beans. See if I care.
You’re going to need a cup or so of beans. I like my minestrone pretty bean-y, so I’m probably closer to a whole can. However much of whatever interloping-ass bean you choose to use, dump your beans into a colander and rinse them off, then dump them into your pot with the mirepoix and stir everything. We’re just heating up the beans, here. This will also be a very good time to add a bay leaf and a sprig of thyme and maybe even a pinch or sprig of oregano. Stir all this stuff around until you can smell it.
Okay. What you’ve got in your pot, there, is your flavor base, plus some beans. We are now going to begin turning this into something soup-like. Dump in your can of tomatoes, including all the delicious tomato juice. If you’ve got a rind from some hard Italian cheese somewhere in your cheese drawer (or, if you were able to pay an outrageous markup for a handful of rinds at your local grocer), drop that in there, too. And, of course, add four or five cups of delicious beef stock to the pot. Now things are starting to look soup-ish.
On beef stock: There are very few things that are more delicious than homemade beef stock. The process is incredibly straightforward. You get some soup bones, you roast ‘em in a hot oven until they’re dark brown, then you barely cover them with cold water and simmer them with some vegetables until all of the flavor has been leeched from the meat and marrow. That’s it. Once you’ve pulled out the solids, what you have is ridiculously rich and dark and meaty stock, and a terrific feeling of accomplishment. Congratulations, man. Truly.
Here’s an issue: It takes roughly five hours to make beef stock, and so the total cooking time of our simple minestrone leaps from maybe 90 minutes to most of a workday. The best possible minestrone will be made with homemade beef stock. But! A perfectly delicious and hearty minestrone that you will proudly serve and hungrily devour can absolutely be made with stuff you bought in a container at the store. Foodies are going to mew about this down in the comments. You should continue ignoring those people, forever.
Whichever way you go, once the stock is in the pot, give the whole thing a big stir, bump up the heat until the soup is boiling, then bring it down to low heat, wait for it so settle into a steady simmer, and walk away for an hour.
Your natural inclination, here, is to use this time to sob into a pillow about the impending arrival of cold and the end of all that is good in the world. Unfortunately, you’re going to need to use this time to do a little light chopping, instead. Chopping can be quite cathartic—perhaps even as cathartic as a good cry? Cut your zucchini and potatoes into roughly dice-sized cubes, and put a rough chop into the cabbage.
Once the hour’s up, throw the vegetables into the soup. They’re gonna need 20 minutes or so to soften. We’re almost home. The very last step will be chucking in the noodles, which you will do as soon as the potatoes have reached a sort of al dente texture, whatever the potato equivalent of al dente is. You’re gonna dump the dry pasta in, slap a cover over the pot, and let the pasta cook for 10 minutes.
This is cool. Where beef stock normally has the texture of water, the broth of this soup is going to be thickened by starch from the beans, starch from the potatoes, and starch from the pasta, so it will be almost stew-like. It’s also done a fair amount of reducing over the last 90 minutes, which means it is really rich. The last step here will be fine-tuning the soup to your exact preferences—stir in a little salt and pepper, and taste. Too rich? Add a little water. Not flavorful enough? More salt. Do this little by little, until it’s where you want it. There. Done.
The minestrone is ready for serving. There are a couple of nice ways of doing this: you can grate some of that hard Italian cheese over the top and garnish with a little fresh basil; or, you can go nuts and drizzle basil pesto over the top, blowing the shoes and socks off of whoever is lucky enough to have a taste.
Now. Listen. About the meat. Here’s the thing: there is ... no meat. Minestrone, you see, is—hey, listen, dammit, you already made the soup. Minestrone is a hearty and delicious and filling soup, and it’s simple to make, and it makes great leftovers, and you are already glad you made it. There’s no point throwing a huge fucking temper tantrum now.
Just take a damn bite. MMMMMMMMMMMMMMM. It’s meaty! Dark and bold, with a rich, savory base and ample chunks of fun, tasty, satisfying vegetables and beans and noodles. Ladle a huge steaming portion into a huge bowl, dress it with cheese and basil, or pesto, or both, grab a beer and a spoon and a napkin, and dig in.
It’s not summer anymore, man. Like, officially. Nothing to be done about it. We’re entering survival time. Soup will not save you, but it helps. Eat up.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, hate-loves and writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Gawker,Vice Sports, and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll. Check the Foodspin archive here.