It is cold today in Northern California, or at least as cold as November gets here. It’s cloudy, too, which always puts me in a mood for soup. For some reason I cannot now recall I’d developed a yearning for minestrone, and not just any minestrone: I wanted Nick Peirano’s minestrone. I grew up in New Jersey amongst Those Whose Names End in Vowels, so I have had my share of this hearty vegetable soup from the zias and mammas and nonnas of my friends. None beat Nick’s, which is an all-day love affair with the barest flicker of blue flame on my stovetop burner.
I’ve never met Nick, nor eaten in his cafe in Oregon’s wine country. I will provide my own version, which uses homemade guanciale instead of salt pork, as well as the addition of ground sun-dried tomatoes and chickpeas, if anyone wants it.
But I did not have everything I needed in the house to make this dish. This seems normal, but for me, it’s not. I am not used to having to buy ingredients other than at the weekly farmer’s market in Citrus Heights ot Davis. Walking into the supermarket — especially for produce — has become alien to me. But I needed celery and more carrots than I had on hand. So, with this odd feeling of failure following me, I wandered into SaveMart.
I was met by a young girl who was pushing some kind of cinnamon buns. “Would you like a cinnamon…” She paused, then continued, hesitantly: “You don’t look like you eat cinnamon buns. Do you?” As it happens, I don’t. Unless they are homemade. I detest store-bought pastry. But how did she know? I am certain I did not wrinkle my nose at her. Was it because I was walking straight into the produce section? I thought of the French chef Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who said, “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” It kinda weirded me out. My picture is on this site: Do I look like I hate manufactured pastry?
Once safely in the produce section, I decided to buy some apples. Again, that pang of guilt. Why didn’t I buy them the day before at the market? Then I saw that SaveMart had honeycrisp apples. No one at any of the farmer’s markets I have been to grows these treasures, which to my taste are the finest eating apples ever developed. They are a recent invention, coming out of the agriculture department of the University of Minnesota.
And there’s a reason they don’t appear in California farmer’s markets: Honeycrisp apples need cold winters to develop. Mine were from Washington state. I immediately felt better about my trip to the supermarket. These apples are the best reason I can think of to violate the locavores” 100-mile rule. And besides, they are still American.
Back at the kitchen, the day whiled away as the minestrone simmered. It’s done in several steps, each a few hours after the first. By sundown, it’s ready to serve — but not before you spoon a dollop of pesto into each bowl. My girlfriend made a big batch of pesto last summer she froze in little cups for the winter. Added right at the end, the pesto adds a smooth, salty, floral finish to what’s is the deepest-tasting vegetable soup I’ve ever eaten. It was exactly what I needed on this cold(ish) day.
This is not a quick and easy minestrone recipe, as it takes all day, but it is the best minestrone I've ever eaten. Make this dish on a cold, rainy or snowy day when you have all day to putter about the house. Building this soup isn't hard, but it requires a few specific steps to pull it off correctly. It makes a lot of soup, but it holds well for a week or so and can be frozen. If you want to improve it even more, drop a dollop of pesto into each bowl when you serve it. All this minestrone needs to go with it are crusty bread and a medium-bodied wine, like a Sangiovese.
- 1/2 peeled parsnip
- 2 large, peeled carrots
- 1 medium onion
- 2 celery stalks
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 cup chopped parsley
- 1/2 pound guanciale, pancetta or bacon
- 1 small can tomato paste
- 1 quart crushed tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 large peeled carrot, cut into coins
- 1 cup dry white beans (soaked overnight)
- 1 cup cauliflower florets
- 1 cup diced waxy potatoes (Yukon gold)
- 4 cups shredded turnip greens or kale
- 1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese
- Start by buzzing all the base ingredients (except the pork) in a food processor until small. You do not want a puree. Cut the pork into large pieces and put in a Dutch oven or other lidded pot. Add the chopped veggies and cover with water; you'll need at least a quart of water, maybe two. Cover and simmer for 3 to 4 hours. This can be done ahead of time.
- Meanwhile, slowly cook the white beans in another pot. Do not let the water boil or the beans will burst. Gently cook the beans and they will retain their shape and get creamy. Add some salt to the water after about 30 minutes. When they are done, remove from the water and set aside.
- After the base has simmered, fish out the pork and put it in the food processor. Blitz it until the meat becomes a puree; you might need to add some of the broth. Return that to the pot and mix well.
- Add the tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, thyme, oregano and rosemary. Stir well, and test for salt. Add some if needed. Cover and simmer for another hour. After this time, add the carrots and the potatoes, cover and let simmer for 30 minutes. Add the cauliflower and beans, cover and cook for another 30 minutes.
- Right at the end, add the turnip greens and most of the cheese (you want some cheese left over for garnish). Stir well and cook for a few more minutes, until the turnip greens are wilted.