Vegetarian: Hearty Winter Minestrone with Chili Oil, Lemon Zest and Parmesan


[Photographs: Lauren Rothman]

I came of age in the glory days of food television, back when Food Network stars like David Rosengarten and a significantly less bam-tastic Emeril Lagasse calmly and straightforwardly instructed viewers how to cook. I was positively addicted to the channel growing up, and am convinced that my culinary know-how is about 75% the result of the teachings of my mother (an excellent cook) and about 25% my absorption of TV knowledge.

But by the time I reached high school, the Food Network started to be dominated by preternaturally cheery women who seemed more interested in taking shortcuts in the kitchen, and less interested in imparting real knowledge (I'm sure you can imagine who I might be talking about). Even worse than these personalities was the sudden proliferation of contest-style shows, on which competitors vied for titles such as most spectacular cupcake (alright, fine), diviest dive (huh?), angriest chef (seriously?) and restaurant most in need of rescue (ugh). For a child of the 90s, this madness was akin to the slow decline of MTV, another once-stellar channel, a few years earlier.

I learned to seek solace in the familiar embrace of PBS, which, on Sunday afternoons, aired episode after episode of still-fantastic cooking shows, both classic and new, from Jacques and Julia to America's Test Kitchen. My personal favorite host, however, was Lidia Bastianich, the Italian-American maven at the helm of such New York City restaurants as Felidia and Esca. Lidia always had a quiet, rational manner, her recipes always looked delicious, and at the end of her show she usually brought on her adorable grandchildren or her (equally adorable) Italian mother to help her eat.

I haven't kept up with my Sunday afternoon blocks of PBS as I've gotten older—I guess I'm just not as cool as I was in high school—but last Sunday, I found myself with some extra time around 4 p.m. I switched on PBS and who was there to greet me but my dearest Lidia!

Ever conscious of seasonality, she had devoted her show to a lineup of filling winter soups, one of which was a minestrone absolutely loaded with vegetables. It looked fantastic, but I thought it could use a few flourishes. So I adapted Lidia's recipe to create this vegetable soup that's full of flavor from all the vegetables used to make it, plus given a kick with hot chili oil, bright lemon zest, and nutty Parmesan cheese. I guess you could say, per circa-2000 Emeril, that I kicked it up a notch.