Minestrone is a spring rite of passage, but it continues into the summer. The first minestrone, with snap peas and asparagus, is beautifully simple. Then as more vegetables are available, the options increase. I'd never tried Genovese minestrone before, but the idea was intriguing: a dollop of pesto goes into the broth, which dissolves into the soup giving it a round, rich, basil-y flavor and an emerald color. The technique, which is also used in nearby regions of France under the moniker Soup au Pistou, is revelatory. A fragrant but subtly flavorful broth suddenly achieves precious, slurp-the-last drop status.
I think the risk with minestrone—or at least the past failures that I've ended up with—is a mush of soft vegetables that no longer taste like themselves. The key is to add them in stages, working backwards from when the soup will be ready. For example, zucchini only needs a few minutes before it turns soft and bitter, but leeks and carrots can stand a longer simmer, and should be cooked that long so they release its flavor into the broth.
The vegetables used are truly adaptable, but here's a basic outline. Go with what looks best at the market. Italians tend to add small pasta to thicken the soup; potatoes are another good way of stretching it with starch. White beans, a more French approach, are a nice way to also add protein.
- 4 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
- 1 small leek, cleaned, halved, and thinly sliced
- 1 rib celery, chopped
- 2 carrots, cut into half-moons
- 1 large tomato, seeded and chopped
- 1 cup fresh beans, such as fava beans
- 1 handful green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup green peas
- 3 small zucchini, cut into half-moons
- 1/4 cup pinenuts
- 1/2 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- 3 large handfuls basil leaves, chopped
- 1 small handful Parmesan cheese
- Olive oil as needed
Heat 4 to 5 cups water in a large soup pot over medium heat. Once hot, add a teaspoon of salt and the vegetables in order of cooking time: potatoes, leeks, celery, carrots, tomato, beans, peas, and zucchini, or any other vegetables you may be using. If using pasta, add it 7 to 10 minutes out, depending on the shape.
In the meantime, combine the garlic, basil, pine nuts, and a little olive oil in a food processor, blender, or mortar and pestle. Process into a smooth paste, adding olive oil as necessary to create a loose paste. Season to taste with salt. Remove to a bowl and stir in the cheese, adding more olive oil if necessary.
Serve the soup with a dollop of pesto.