Friends, we’re truly into the month of January, the credit card bills are starting to come in, (it’s amazing how much debt you can get into trying to buy your kids’ love), and you’re starting to realize you need to stretch your food budget a little bit further than you’d planned. (Well, that or figure out how many times a week you can sell your blood before it becomes dangerous to your health.)
There must be something we can make that will be filling, healthy, and inexpensive too. Which brings me to the humble vegetable soup known as minestrone. Minestrone is a hearty vegetable soup/stew, usually made with beans and pasta. Traditionally, it was made as a way to get a healthy meal in a time when meat was very expensive.
I usually like to make my minestrone using chicken broth, and elbow macaroni. But, on a trip to my local market, I happened upon butternut squash noodles in the produce section. Did this inspire me to make my recipe vegetarian and gluten-free? Well never let it be said that I’m above pandering to my vegan readers! (But also, this recipe is super healthy, and tasty.) You can use regular pasta instead, just follow the same steps. I had some leftover polenta as well, so I made polenta croutons to keep everything gluten-free.
Homemade Minestrone with Polenta Croutons
(Prep time: 15 minutes. Cook time: 1 hour. Serves: many, many people.)
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, cut into large chunks
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 stalks celery, roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp paprika
- 1 tbsp dried savoury, or oregano leaves
- 3 medium size tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 1 1/2 tbsp poultry herbs, minced
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
- 10 cups cold water (or 5 cups chicken broth, 5 cups water)
- 1/2 lb small potatoes, quartered
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 tbsp fresh-ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 540 ml can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- 3/4 lb butternut squash flesh, cut spaghetti-style (or use 3/4 lb cooked macaroni noodles)
- 1 zucchini squash, halved and cut into 1/2 inch thick slices
- 2 tbsp fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced *chiffonade-style*
- 2 cups baby arugula leaves
- 1/2 lemon, juice and zest
- 2 green onion stalks, thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp freshly grated parmesan cheese (optional)
*To slice en chiffonade, stack basil leaves one on top of the other, largest to smallest. Roll the leaves into a cigar shape, and slice across the rolled up leaves into very thin strips.*
Blanch the squash noodles in boiling, salted water for 1 minute. Drain the squash, and transfer the noodles to an ice water bath to stop the cooking process. Allow the squash to chill for a couple of minutes, then drain and set aside. (Conversely, cook elbow macaroni in boiling, salted water until just al dente. Drain the pasta, and add to ice bath for 2-3 minutes. Drain the pasta, and set aside.)
Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat, until the onion has started to go soft. Add the carrots, celery, paprika, and savoury leaves. Sauté the vegetables for another 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, sugar, balsamic vinegar, and poultry herbs. Sauté for another 1 minute.
Pour in the water; then add the bay leaves, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and beans. Allow the soup to come to a boil over medium-high heat.
Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pot, and simmer your soup for 10 minutes. Feel free to spend this time figuring out how many of your Christmas presents you can return before your relatives start to notice.
After 10 minutes, add the zucchini, and butternut squash (pasta). Taste the soup at this point, and adjust the seasoning. (Add salt to the soup in 1/2 tbsp increments, tasting after each time you add more salt, until you find the right level for you.) Continue to simmer the soup, covered, for another 15 minutes. While you wait, practice your excuses for your family: (“I loved that set of dvds about the Bible Aunt Sandy, but I just remembered I don’t have a dvd player. Or a tv. Plus I think I might be legally blind…”).
Now, you can add the final few ingredients to the pot. If you are using parmesan cheese, stir it gradually into the soup. Simmer your minestrone, uncovered, for another 5 minutes, gleefully dancing about the kitchen as the fragrant steam emanating from the soup pot buoys your spirits .
To make the polenta croutons, preheat the oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit. Cut pre-cooked polenta (available in most grocery stores) into 1/2 inch thick slices, and place on a baking sheet. Season with a little salt and pepper, or grated parmesan cheese.
Bake the polenta cakes for 10 minutes, or until they have gotten crispy on the outside; then flip them over and bake for another 10 minutes. Cut the polenta into 1 inch cubes, and use in the place of bread croutons. You can make these ahead of time, they will keep for 1-2 days in a bag on the counter.
Can we talk about polenta for a second? Polenta is a type of cornmeal porridge, similar to the corn grits found in the southern United States. The only difference is that ‘polenta’ sounds much sexier than ‘grits’. In fact, Italian can make almost anything sound sexy. Don’t believe me? Look up the Italian translation for ‘garbage dump’. Go ahead, I’ll wait… (twiddling thumbs)… see what I mean? Describing something in Italian instantly makes it more appealing. Remember that the next time you have to describe yourself on one of those dating site blurbs.
Garnish the soup with the polenta croutons, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and copious amounts of grated parmesan. Serve with a large piece of baguette as well, if you happen to have a ‘Licence to Dip’.
So eat well my friends, secure in the knowledge that your minestrone will fortify you in between your many trips to the blood bank over the next few days. At least until you figure out how to get your parents’ tv back from the pawn shop.