The Foodcommander is a big champion of simplicity when it comes to food. The eternal lightness of being -- in the kitchen -- is a delightful invention of the 20th century, and it works -- for people with savoir-faire.
Every now and then, however, comes a time to overdo it, for extra stimulation. Seeing that it has been one of the Foodcommander's principles to simplify and lighten up elaborate, old-fashioned dishes, it is only logical that he should pick an unpretentious peasant dish when he decides to get all fussy. Behold the Italian Minestrone, a deceptively simple vegetable soup that benefits from minutely detailed technique and the modern approach of cooking vegetables only lightly so they retain their sweetness, color and crisp texture.
While modernity has also brought forth a propensity for shortcuts such as using canned beans and pre-made chicken broth, none of these shall be tolerated here. It is in everybody's interest to experience this dish in all its transcendent sophistication, which can only be achieved by foregoing any processed foods.
This being not a recipe but merely a tutorial, no measurements whatsoever shall be given. The ability to use common sense (by which measurements can be easily determined, depending on how many people you want to cook this dish for) is not only a generally welcome but in this case necessary precondition for all applicants. Still, here is a hint: this being a vegetable soup that is merely fortified by starch and protein, keep the ratio of beans and potatoes below the vegetable ratio. Put differently: you may use about the same volume of each ingredient, considering that you have a minimum of five vegetables versus one starch and one protein. This is not as complicated as it sounds; just think it through. Be aware that, while any cohabitants will surely appreciate any leftovers the next day, this dish is best eaten immediately upon completion.
Italian Cannellini beans are to be favored over other varieties. Carefully inspect your batch to remove any stone pebbles or damaged beans. Toss them into a non-reactive cooking pot (that is, neither aluminum or copper), cover generously with cold water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat off immediately, cover and let stand for an hour. By that time, the beans should be evenly reconstituted. Discard any beans that float on the surface or still look shriveled. Add enough water to cover by about half an inch and bring to a light simmer. Be aware that the cooking time of dried beans varies greatly -- it could take up to two hours. Keep skimming off any rising foam, adding just enough hot water to keep the beans submerged in cooking liquid, and make sure the water temperature never exceeds a gentle simmer -- or you'll end up with unsightly burst and mushy beans. Once they are about halfway done, add a generous amount of kosher salt and basic aromatics: bay leaf, half an onion, a celery stalk. When the beans are nearly completely tender through and through, turn the heat off, cover the pot and let them rest until ready to use. If you are cooking the beans way ahead of time, keep them in their cooking liquid until they are completely cooled down, by the time of which you may drain them. In other words, do not store them in their liquid for an extended time.
Use boney chicken parts such as wings, (chopped into thirds), backs, or necks -- whatever is available. For a more robust flavor, roast the chicken parts first -- but you may also omit this step if time is an issue. If you decide to roast them, scatter chicken parts in one layer on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan, toss them with a tablespoon of flavorless oil or spray them lightly with a cooking oil spray (this helps the browning), and roast at a blazing 450º F until dark golden brown.
Toss the raw or roasted chicken parts into a large stockpot, cover by several inches with cold water, then add an inverted ovenproof, heavy plate, small enough to fit inside the pot, to keep the chicken parts submerged under water (the plate will also function like a magnet that attracts floating protein particles which would otherwise make your broth murky). Bring to a gentle simmer. Assiduously skim off rising foam and scum. When the liquid is clear, carefully lift the plate out and rinse it well. Add aromatics -- a peeled carrot, cut up lengthwise, a split celery stalk, a halved, medium-size yellow onion with its skin (for color), a couple of parsley stems (the leaves tend to discolor the broth), bay leaf, clove, star anise, whole peppercorns and cinnamon stick to taste. Then add once again the plate to keep everything submerged. Keep the broth at a gentle simmer for about another hour, making sure that it never comes to a rolling boil and occasionally skimming off rising fat. Finally, using a dishtowel to not burn your hands and a lid to hold back the plate and solids, pour broth through a cheese-cloth-lined sieve, into a large cooking pot. If you have followed the advice to never ever let it come to a rolling boil, the broth will be a delightful, shiny clear blond. Which is just another way of saying that you ought to have taken this advice seriously. Season with salt and finely ground white pepper.
While the broth is still simmering, prep your vegetables.
Choose Yukon Gold over bland Idaho Potatoes. Peel and dice them into cubes of about ¼ inch.
[NOTE: As with any vegetable that is not naturally square (name one!), cut a thin slice off its narrowest side first so it can lay flat and stable on your cutting board. Then proceed to cut it into even slices (choose the angle that will yield the largest slices possible). Re-stack the slices neatly and cut those into strips. Then gather the strips and cut them into dice. Apply this to all bulky vegetables. For easier handling, split long vegetables into lengths of about four inches before cutting them into slices and strips.]
Place potato dice in a small pot, cover with cold water, add a generous dash of kosher salt and bring to a simmer. Monitor them carefully, they will be done in a matter of minutes and you don't want mashed potatoes. When they're nearly completely done, drain the dice into a colander and run cold water over them lest they continue cooking and turn to mush. Place them in a bowl with salted ice water until ready to use.
The basics are carrot, celery, turnip and string beans, but the more variety, the merrier. The Foodcommander recommends fennel bulb, sugar snaps, leeks, scallions, and broccoli. Tomatoes and bell peppers however are to be avoided -- they are too overpowering for this subtle dish. Peel and trim carrots and turnips, trim celery stalks, and dice all as described above. Keep the diced vegetables separate as you will not necessarily add them to the broth at the same time. Snap off the tips of string beans and sugar snaps and slice them into ¼ pieces. Cut off the florets of the broccoli, close enough so they break up into tiny pieces. Keep the broccoli stems for another use -- they're delicious peeled, cut them into thick slices and pan-fried with olive oil, halved garlic cloves, and sliced jalapeños.
Procure yourself with the best crusty bread your local bakery has to offer. Slice fairly thin, less than half an inch in any case. If using baguette, leave slices whole; if using larger bread, cut the slices into smaller pieces. Spread them on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet, drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil, season lightly with salt and toast in the oven at 375º until dark golden.
No matter if you prefer the regal Parmiggiano Reggiano or the more populist Grana Padano, never buy Parmesan pre-grated, and get it at a reputable cheese store. Chunks should look brittle and dry, not oily or waxy, and you'd be well advised to find a piece that is not 50 percent rind, such as The Foodcommander has been known to toss aside with disdain. Any respectable cheese store ought to know that the correct way to portion Parmesan from a big ol' wheel is by breaking off chunks, not by slicing it. In other words, if the offered chunks appear to have been sliced off with a knife, find a better cheese store. Likewise, the correct texture for Parmesan as a sprinkling condiment is fine crumbs, not shreds. The way to achieve this at home is by throwing golf-ball-size Parmesan chunks into a food processor and run the machine until you have medium-fine, airy crumbs.
While the Foodcommander is very tempted to advise you to also make your own chili flakes from a variety of fresh hot chilies, such as Habañero and Cayenne (slice them in half lengthwise and dry them on a tray in a warm place such as a pilot-light-equipped oven until completely dry and brittle, break into pieces and store in a glass container) he'll accept it if you use store-bought chili flakes.
Finally, carefully rinse and pat dry some leaves of fresh basil, shred a handful but leave a few small sprigs whole for garnish. Place basket with croutons, a small serving bowl with grated parmesan and a little bowl with chili flakes on the set dining table -- everybody will help themselves to them according to taste.
You are now ready to assemble and serve. Make sure all vegetables are at room temperature lest they drop the temperature of the broth considerably when you add them. Bring the broth to a simmer. Add the drained beans and potatoes first. Once the broth is simmering again, add any cruciferous vegetables (carrots, celery, turnip, fennel bulb). Wait once again until the broth is back to simmering. Now add cut-up string beans, leeks and sugar snaps, bring back to a simmer, wait a quick minute, add scallions and shredded basil and wait no longer than another minute before serving. Ladle into preheated deep soup bowls, taking care that each portion contains beans and potatoes, which will have sunk to the bottom of the pot. Drizzle with the slightest amount of olive oil, garnish with basil sprig and serve immediately.
This is spring incarnate -- a feast for your eyes as well as for your sense of smell, taste and pride -- well worth the effort for all people with a discerning palate. Or do you think nature ever had an easy game of making spring happen?