That’s Amore

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What is a comfort food? We have all have heard the term, and we usually associate it with hearty foods cooked in the cold winter months to warm us up and keep us satiated. Merriam-Webster defines comfort food as “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.”

The psychological aspect of foods that comfort us is interesting to me because it doesn’t really define foods based on taste, which is a sense, but rather on a feeling of nostalgia, which is emotive. What qualifies as comfort food to one person may have no personal or cultural attachment to another.

Most Americans would agree that pot roast, fried chicken or mashed potatoes and gravy are the ultimate down-home comfort foods. I like pot roast as much as the next chef, but for me the unrivaled comfort foods come from the family tables and rustic restaurants (trattoria) of northern Italy, specifically Tuscany. Lots of classic Italian dishes have peasant roots and I believe that humble beginnings produce great things. This recipe for minestrone soup is just that.

Similar to chili in the United States, minestrone can really mean a lot of different things, depending who you ask. The literal translation is “the big soup.” Minestrone got its modest start on the tables of poor families trying to make a pot of food out of vegetables and leftovers. The versatility of the ingredients lends itself to a wide variety of ways to enjoy this classic Italian fare.

I always start with fresh stock, usually made with roasted chicken bones. If you don’t have the time or space to make your own stock at home, Brook Harlan and the students at the Columbia Career Center make and sell frozen quarts of different kinds of stocks on their website. (www.caccculinary.blogspot.com).

Another great thing about this soup: it can be a tasty outlet for leftovers. That isn’t to say you should utilize it as a trash can, though!

Like many things in the kitchen, this recipe is just a start. Feel free to explore different vegetables, beans, meats and even different pastas in your soup. My kids go crazy over the cheese-stuffed tortellini in their bowls of soup. For the more adventurous at-home chefs out there, try this big soup with some homemade pasta. If you are making this recipe and some fresh noodles on a cold Saturday in January, it’s a great way to get the kids involved in the cooking process, which, to me, is the ultimate comfort. Buon appetito!

Minestrone

2 onions, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, washed and diced
½ cup minced garlic
3 tablespoons Italian seasoning
½ gallon chicken stock (bullion will work but the end result will not be as rich)
24 ounces canned diced tomatoes (or fresh, if peeled and seeded)
1 pound Italian sausage, cooked (I make little meatballs and cook them through before floating them in the soup)
1 bunch kale, cut, blanched and shocked (to cook the bitter out before adding to the soup)
2 cans beans, your choice, drained and rinsed until water runs clear
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
3 cups cooked pasta, your choice (I like smaller shaped pastas like radiatore or campanelli)
Extra virgin olive oil
½ cup ground Parmesan cheese
1 French baguette loaf, cut into large slices and toasted

In a large pot on medium heat, sauté the onions, carrots, celery and garlic with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. When the vegetables become translucent, add Italian seasoning and sauté for 1 or 2 minutes longer. Add the chicken stock and tomatoes, and bring to a simmer. Once the soup is hot, add the sausage, kale, beans, Worcestershire, soy sauce, vinegar, salt and pepper. Allow the soup to simmer for 20 minutes.

Just before serving, stir in fresh parsley and cooked pasta. Ladle into bowls and serve immediately, garnished with extra virgin olive oil, Parmesan cheese and a toasted French baguette.

Minestrone’s rustic tradition stems from thecucina povera (“poor kitchen”) style of Italian cooking.

Dennis Clay is the executive chef at Inside Columbia’s Culinary Adventures. Learn more about Chef Clay and upcoming Culinary Adventures classes at www.ComoCulinaryAdventures.com.

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