Sunday, February 17, 2013
Slovenian Dinner Week 45: Minestrone Makeover
Mineštra II, Minestone Makeover
It was the third Tuesday of November. Two days before Thanksgiving.
Not a week when I could spend a leisurely morning reading cookbooks, come up with a few options, and then stroll to the market to see what looked good.
It had to be relatively easy. Not too heavy. Something that could be made in advance and reheated, or started early and left to simmer. We would be eating early, since our Cajun band had a gig.
I went back to the early months of this cooking project, to find a likely dish that I hadn’t yet made over. There were a few contenders. Maybe a nice soup?
Finally, I had it. Mineštra, Slovenian minestrone. My first version of mineštra, back in June, had been delicious. Another one of those deceptively simple, familiar dishes that packs a lot of flavor. It struck me as particularly appealing. Soothing. My husband had mentioned that he had just bought a can of borlotti beans, too.
That first time, I had used some chicken-apple sausage we had in the fridge. It was a little too sweet. Next time, I resolved to use a more suitable sausage, with Italian or Mediterranean seasonings. Or maybe Polish sausage. Chicken or turkey, if I could find it. And instead of rice, I would try pasta, as some recipes suggested. Whole wheat, or even gluten free, to make it healthier.
And one more plus. We could have leftovers for a light lunch on Thanksgiving, to fill in that awkward need-to-eat-a-little-something gap before the big meal.
I couldn't resist doing a little searching in my cookbook collection. There seemed to be a few minestrone variations: with beans (fižol), like my original version. Without beans, or Primorska style. And eclectic.
Primorska mineštra skips the beans but has some creative vegetable additions (leeks, celery root, kohlrabi, cauliflower), along with bacon. I found virtually identical recipes on the Slovenian government website and in Slovenian Cookery, Slavko Adamlje's 1996 book.
Going beyond Slovenia, I found a couple of interesting versions in Olga Novak-Markovic’s Yugoslav Cookbook (1986.) Istra Minestrone has pork ribs, sweet corn, young tender beans, pasta, and unspecified soup vegetables. The Dubrovnik version has brussels sprouts, courgettes, pork and mutton, potatoes, French beans, and bacon.
I decided to keep it simple, with maybe just a few new vegetable choices, along with pasta and a spicier sausage.
When I went shopping, at eleven in the morning, the pre-holiday shopping frenzy had already begun, with Thanksgiving just two days away. Especially at the butcher shop, where folks were already lined up at the single checkout line.
So I decided to cross the butcher off my list and see what I could find at the cheese shop two doors down, one of my regular haunts, where they had started to carry a nice assortment of sausages. They had nothing in the way of chicken and turkey alternatives. But plenty of pork, which would make a Slovenian smile. I bought a package of lightly smoked savory herb pork sausage. Made right here in Berkeley. No antibiotics, hormones, gluten, MSG, nitrates, nitrites. All-vegetarian feeds. Couldn't go wrong with that.
The parking lot of the big produce market on the corner was like an obstacle course. But I didn’t need much, just a potato and a couple of the vegetable alternatives I wanted to try: a leek and a single, knobby celery root. While I was there, I bought some whole wheat pasta elbows. I was ready to go.
Mineštra II, Minestrone Makeover
2 T. olive oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 large leek, sliced
1 large clove garlic,chopped
1/2 head red cabbage, sliced
1 large carrot, sliced
1 medium potato, unpeeled, cubed
1 celery root, peeled and cubed
1/4 c. fresh parsley, minced
1 c. chopped tomatoes with juice
10 oz. smoked pork sausage (4 or 5), sliced
2 quarts water
1 c. peas, frozen or fresh
1/2 c. whole wheat pasta elbows
1 can borlotti beans
2 t. salt or to taste
freshly ground pepper
more fresh parsley
First prepare the vegetables. To prepare the leek, cut off most of the green end. Cut remaining bulb lengthwise and soak in water. Rinse well to remove grit, then slice thinly and set aside. Chop onion and garlic as usual. Slice the cabbage and carrot. Cube the potato. Peel and cube that knobby celery root. (That was a new experience for me!)
Heat olive oil in large Dutch oven. Add onion and garlic and brown. Add leek and continue to cook. Add cabbage and sausage and brown. Add remaining vegetables (except for beans and peas) and water. Cover and simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning. Toward the end, add pasta and simmer. Add peas. Stir in some white wine and top with more parsley. Serve with grated parmesan cheese.
The soup was simmering, the dishes were washed, and I was giving the counters a final swipe when my husband got home from work.
“That’s definitely the smell of Central Europe," he said approvingly.
He was right.
What is it that creates that smell? It is comforting, slightly musty. Both familiar and exotic. I connect it with paprika. But there was no paprika in this dish. Another part of it, I think, is a sauce that includes tomatoes, but is not tomato-based. Is it a flavor defined by absence? The surprise of tomato, without the near-ubiquitous Italian seasonings that are often the default flavor choice in American cooking? Tomato with parsley? Does it also require cabbage?
The soup simmered for a long time. I finally turned it off, fearing that the canned beans or the pasta might disintegrate.
We served the mineštra with some salad nicoise my husband had made for the previous night’s dinner.
The verdict: It was delicious. Better with the more flavorful sausage—and more of it, too, this time. But we could have managed with less.
I had never cooked with celery root before, although my husband informed me that he had served it grated, as part of his wonderful coleslaw creations. Raw, it had a strong celery flavor. Cooked, the flavor was mild and pleasant. The cubes were hard to distinguish from the potatoes—in fact, it might be a good, lower-carb potato alternative.
I noticed, when I went to take photos, that the soup looked a little monochromatic, compared to the first version. I added more parsley.
It was only the next day that I realize what I had missed: The green peas! So I added them. Better late than never.
Luckily, we still had enough left over to serve as a pre-dinner snack on Thanksgiving Day.