A few weeks ago I had a cooking night with one of my private students, at an ex-student's house. Since I had never been there before, I was worried that they might not have some tools, pots or spices, so I packed up a big box with everything from extra-virgin olive oil, to knives, even bringing my pretty scarred-up but serviceable cutting board. The kitchen turned out to be modern and well-equipped, but when you're cooking and want things to go right, it's comforting to have your own tools.
I also brought a big stainless soup pot that I had bought awhile back, since I love making homemade soups but hate the idea of cooking in the aluminum pots that seem to be the standard here. Since I had been cooking on a gas flame, it was a little black around the edges, so to make it presentable I had to spend about an hour buffing off the black spots and shining it up. It ended up looking almost new, though, so that was nice. Nothing like a shiny pot to get you in the mood for cooking.
I started off the preparation by teaching them to make pesto with fresh basil. It was a new taste for them. Though Italian influenced food here is probably the most popular and ubiquitous in the country, most people never cook it at home, and they eat a food tailored to "Japanese tastes", which means heavy on the oil and garlic, but light on the vegetables and real cheeses. Out here in the country cheese is a recently new import and the quality has tended more toward the processed (those cardboard shakers of parmesan dandruff) and pre-shredded mozzarella, along with those little triangles of mystery cheese from somewhere in Europe. Cheddar has been difficult to find, if not impossible. Reggiano is not easy to get, but in the last year a local supermarket started to carry it.
Anyway, I brought everything, including my new Cuisinart Smartstick, which turned out to be great for chopping and making the pesto, but because the top had to be removed by hand (there's no feed tube on this little baby) was a little fiddly. But it worked very well and made a beautifully textured sauce. It also grated fresh parmesano reggiano with no trouble at all.
The women got to work chopping and slicing the vegetables while I carmelized the garlic and then the onions in the oil. We used organic carrots, potatoes, and small white turnips for this soup, along with a handful of white beans, a stalk of celery, and some parsley.
A small carrot, the celery stalk including the leaves and a small bunch of parsley, were chopped to make a mirepoix and added to the pot with the onions and garlic to sweat. Next the chopped fresh tomatoes went in under cover so they could cook down a bit and release their juices. After adding the other vegetables, and a few stirs, we covered them with water, added a bayleaf, salt, and pepper and covered the pot, bringing it just to a simmer. Then we removed the cover and let it cook until the vegetables and beans were almost tender.
At this point I boosted the flavour with a vegan German vegetable stock cube, a completely optional choice, but I happened to have part of a package on hand. You could use any bouillon you like, or none if you prefer a lighter taste. At the end we added several spoons of the fresh pesto and allowed the soup to finish cooking, then tasted for and added more salt and pepper until it bounced on the tongue.
While this was happening, I showed the women how to make simple bruschetta with fresh garlic and a good olive oil, and I made myself some toasted brown rice mochi as a gluten-free choice. (How-tos in the recipe section.)
I tried out a white bean topping with lemon for the bruscetta from Epicurious but with the beans we had available, cooked soybeans, it was pretty bland. We improved it a bit by topping it with more fresh pesto.
Relaxing in C.'s huge white living room around her small table, sitting on the floor, as is the custom here, with one eye on a huge flat-screen high definition TV, we enjoyed the hot food and an early Christmas, as the TV competed with blinking Christmas lights.
Try this soup for warming up as the cold weather rushes in. It makes a big pot to share with friends or family, or if you're cooking for yourself, it will easily keep and improve in flavour for a few days. It's not too easy to get tired of this even if you eat it for a few meals, and all the vegetables will give you a bit of inoculation against 'flus making the rounds. But the best reason to cook this soup is that you can vary it a lot with almost any vegetables you have on hand, it doesn't take long to make, and it's a meal I would serve to a Queen without apology. One of the classics of Italian country cooking, and a great gift to give yourself (Queen of your own kitchen).
Minestrone with Fresh Pesto
Enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot generously
3-5 cloves of fresh garlic
1 medium onion, chopped small
For the mirepoix:
Combine and chop finely, or food process finely:
1/2 medium carrot in chunks
1 stalk celery, in chunks
5 fresh tomatoes, chopped (or 1 can Italian tomatoes, chopped)
3-5 very small potatoes or 2 larger ones
1 carrot sliced in half or quarter rounds
1-2 small white turnips, peeled and sliced, cut in half or quarters
the tops of the turnips if available, chopped
1 handful white beans or lentils, any kind
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
1 cube German vegan bouillon or other bouillon (optional)
Fresh Basil Pesto:
1/2 small white onion
5 cloves fresh garlic
a cup or so of fresh basil leaves, washed and dried (not too wet)
The best quality extra virgin olive oil you can get, about 1/2 cup
1/4-1/2 cup parmesano reggiano, fresh
handful of toasted pine nuts (I have substituted freshly-shelled pistachio nuts with good results)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
dash of tobasco sauce (optional)
Chop the garlic, parsley, and onion in a food processor. Add the pine nuts and chop. Add the fresh basil in batches, depending on the size of your food processor and pulse until chopped, adding a small splash of the oil if necessary to get it moving. Drizzle in the rest of the oil and combine. Add enough oil so it is the consistency of a thick soup. Don't overprocess it; you want it to keep some texture. Add the cheese which you have previously processed or grated and combine briefly. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add a dash of tobasco if you want a bit of heat.
Winter Pesto (when you can't get fresh basil)
1/2 white onion
5 cloves fresh garlic
1 bunch of fresh parsley
1/4 cup or more of dried basil (to your taste)
1/4 cup or more extra virgin olive oil ( adjust to get consistency right--see picture)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
handful of toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup or more fresh parmesano reggiano cheese
dash of tobasco ( optional)
Chop the garlic, parsley, and onion in a food processor. Add the dried basil and pulse a few times. Add the nuts and chop, then drizzle in the oil and combine. Don't overprocess it; you want it to keep some texture. Add the cheese which you have previously processed or grated and combine briefly. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add a dash of tobasco if you wish.
If you cover these sauces they will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator (longer if your freeze them) but please be careful with cleanliness and if in doubt, throw it out.
Although this recipe contains a small amount of dairy, you can make the pestos without the cheese. They are still good!