One of the most reliable soups in my cooking universe is vegetable soup. You can make it an infinite number of ways—and at least three-quarters of those ways are uncomplicated, healthy and yummy. It’s hard to go wrong.
When I wanted to make soup during December’s cold snap, I chose Patricia Wells’ Milanese Vegetable Soup. Did I have every ingredient called for? Hardly. But I had enough of them to be able to riff on what she presents.
In the recipe’s introduction, Wells calls the soup “minestrone.” She points out that all minestrones share piles of fresh vegetables, a dried bean of some kind and a starch such as pasta or rice. For this version from Milan, Arborio rice plays the role of starch, which isn’t surprising since it’s a culinary staple of the region.
We made this soup twice during the holidays. The first time I used oyster mushrooms instead of pancetta, a shallot in place of some of the onion, sweet potato in addition to some small red potatoes, and purple cabbage instead of white. The results were fantastic.
The second time, Jon made the soup for our Christmas Eve shindig and hewed more closely to the recipe (no sweet potato, actual amounts of each ingredient, but still using mushrooms instead of pancetta). He also doubled the recipe for the expected 12-person crowd…with mixed results.
The general prep for the soup begins with melting butter in a stockpot and tossing in ½ cup minced pancetta (or mushrooms, in our case), 2 medium onions chopped and some salt, all of which cooks for a few minutes until the onions are transparent. Next, add 2 diced carrots, 5 or so chopped celery stalks including leaves, and a cup of beans (the recipe recommends dried cannellini or other small beans; I used canned cannellini), and cook for another 5 minutes. A cup of trimmed, halved green beans, some shredded cabbage, 2 medium, peeled and diced potatoes, and 2 quarts of water follow, along with a 16-ounce can of Italian plum tomatoes with their juice. Wells says to place a food mill over the stockpot and puree the plum tomatoes directly into the bubbling brew. I chose to dump it all into the pot and use kitchen scissors to chop the tomatoes into smaller chunks—a kindergarten craft approach, but quite effective.
At this point, cover the soup and let it simmer over medium heat for about 30 minutes. Once the half hour is up, season with some salt and pepper to taste and let the soup continue bubbling gently on the burner until the beans are soft (since I used canned beans I opted for another 15 minutes; for dried beans it could take up to an hour). Finally, add a cup of rice (I only had a half cup) and simmer until the grains are al dente, about 20 additional minutes.
The results: Patricia Wells suggests stirring a few tablespoons of freshly grated parmesan cheese into the soup before serving. I’m not sure this is necessary since I sprinkled a ton on top after ladling servings into two bowls the Sunday evening I made it.
Jon and I both loved the soup. The variety of flavors—from the mellow sweet potato and earthy carrot to the green pop of celery and bright tomato notes—was hearty, satisfying, and a contrast to blended soups that taste more or less the same with every spoonful. The rice and white beans added some welcome heft; the parm cheese a salty-umami zip.
Wells warns at the conclusion of the recipe that the soup will thicken over time. We didn’t notice a huge difference the second night, except the flavors had melded even more.
Fast forward to Christmas Eve day, when Jon made a double recipe of the soup for our family bash. This means he added two cups of Arborio rice, along with two cups of beans, to the recipe. When I got home from a half-day of work and asked how the cooking was coming along, he pointed to the stovetop.
“We’ve got a massive quantity of soup here.”
I peered under the lid of one of our biggest soup kettles. The bubbling mass was two inches from the top of the pot—and thick as wallpaper paste.
“Wow,” I said, stepping back. “Hope all the vegans come.”
It turns out the soup was still good—flavorful, filling, and lava hot after bubbling away on a low burner for much of the afternoon. But all that burner time also meant it had thickened before even becoming a leftover. People ate bowlfuls and went back for seconds (there was also a meat chili for the carnivores) but at the end of the night we still had gallons left. We transferred it into one of our largest Tupperware and rearranged the fridge to accommodate the wide load. We ate it again on Christmas—referring to it exclusively as “stew”—and maybe one other time and then I walked the rest up to the compost bin.
“Here you go, bugs,” I said, dumping the heavy glop onto the leafy, loamy pile. “Happy New Year!”