It is soup weather, with a vengeance. The days are dark and clouded over, and even here in seasonless California the rain is blowing in. I can smell the damp on the sidewalks, hear the squeaking of wet shoes on marble lobby floors, feel the cold tickle of raindrops in my hair. We need the rain, I keep reminding myself. But it’s easy to resent it. And even when it’s clear, the air is cold and sharp.
This is the time of year when it suddenly becomes easy to sink. I’ve been bouncing along on sunny days and long walks, and now suddenly I’m back to sitting indoors, feeling myself go limp. Even as I type this, I’m fighting a powerful urge to crawl into bed and sleep–not because I need to, but because it’d be so much easier than anything else I could be doing. This is the time of year when sweets are everywhere, and more tempting than ever, an easy way to keep electricity running in my veins without actually nourishing myself at all. I could keep exercising, and watching what I eat, and using valuable energy on staying conscious of my well-being. Or I could put myself into a sugar coma and sleep through the winter.
Now is the time when I need other kinds of comfort, fortifying kinds. So, soup. I’ve been craving brothy, vegetable-filled bowls lately, and nothing fits that bill better than minestrone. I almost feel embarrassed putting a recipe up here–minestrone is best when it’s cobbled together from whatever bits and pieces seem appealing. There are a few non-negotiables: tomatoes, garlic, some kind of beans, some kind of pasta, a drizzle of olive oil and a shower of fluffy Parmesan. But the substance of it changes with the seasons. In summer, I love a water-based minestrone, with corn kernels and fresh tomatoes; in winter, I want something heartier, with broth and greens and tomatoes from a can.
This recipe is the best approximation I can give of a pot of soup I made last weekend, as the prelude to a dessert party. I had a perky bunch of Swiss chard, and it seemed a shame to set the stems aside. So I diced them and tossed them in with the mirepoix, where they stained everything a delicate pinky-red. The finished soup was deeper and sweeter than usual, but still with that same tomato-beany-cheesy minestrone soul. Even with all manner of baked goods waiting to be sampled, the pot of minestrone got cleared out in record time. Clearly I wasn’t the only one needing winter nourishment.
December Minestrone (serves 6-8)
1 bunch Swiss chard, washed and patted dry
2 tbsp olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
Salt to taste
2 large or 4 small garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of crushed red chili flake
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
1 1/2 cups cooked kidney beans OR 1 (15 oz) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
Parmesan rind (optional)
4 cups (1 quart) chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups water, plus more as needed
1/4 lb (4 oz) green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
3/4 cup ditalini or other short pasta (I used orecchiette)
Finely grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
Cut the stems of the Swiss chard away from the leaves. Finely dice the stems, and cut the leaves into 1-inch ribbons. Set aside.
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, celery, carrot, and diced Swiss chard stalks, along with a pinch of salt. Sweat for about 5 minutes, or until the onions are beginning to turn translucent. Add garlic, chili flake, basil, and oregano, and cook for another 1-2 minutes, or until fragrant. Add kidney beans, crushed tomatoes, bay leaf, Parmesan rind (if using), broth, and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, or until the soup is starting to coalesce. If the soup starts to get too thick, add another splash of water.
Add green beans and Swiss chard leaves, and continue simmering for another 15 minutes, or until the green beans are just starting to get tender. Add pasta, increase heat to medium-high, and boil for 10-15 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Remove bay leaf and Parmesan rind, and discard them.
Ladle the soup into bowls, and top each bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan. Serve immediately. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days, or in the freezer for 4-6 months.