According to Chinese medicine, there are two forces that rule the universe – yin and yang.
Although sometimes depicted as being in opposition, in reality they are meant to complement one another. Depending on the context, yin refers to the feminine, darker, cooling forces, while yang represents the masculine, lighter, hot forces.
As we head into the cooler months of fall and winter, it’s important to bring proper balance to your body. The Chinese believe illness is a signal that the two forces are out of balance. For example, if you have a cold it is because there is too much yin in your body. A Chinese herbalist might prescribe a soup designed to restore the yang forces. Similarly, a fever might be treated with a yin soup. I am not going to attempt to classify the soup below as yin or yang (I’m quite sure it’s a combination of both…how fitting) but I do know that this is a soup that can raise your spirits, warm your blood and nurture you for hours!
Enjoy! Mangia! (which means “Eat!”)
Minestra De Muro
(Sicilian-American vegetable soup, based on an old family recipe and an enormous amount of arguing)
Few things can bring a Sicilian family’s volume higher than a discussion of how to cook an old family recipe.
In my family, minestra (pronounced mih-nash-uh in our dialect) was the hands-down favorite for debate; if one can call half-English/half-Italian catcalls and epithets punctuated by many hand gestures both arcane and all-too familiar, a debate.
Here is the result of many, many generations of Greco (my Ma’s maiden name) and many, many De Muro family arguments.
2 medium to large yellow onions* (minced)
2 cloves garlic (minced) (you could use a lot more but I find it overpowers the vegetables too easily)
2 bunches green chard (remove particularly thick stalks and shred the rest or throw the thick stalks in and remove before serving)
2 bunches kale* (pull the leaves from the thick fibrous stalk – use the leaves, discard the stalk)
1 bunch broccolini* toss in the florets and diced stems – nothing goes to waste, it’s all good)
6 oz. baby spinach leaves* (as is)
8 oz. frozen french-style green beans (fresh is better if you have the patience)*
2 teaspoons chopped basil
2 teaspoons chopped parsley
4 large ripe Roma tomatoes (remove skins and seeds with “tomato press” or blanch, skin and press through a sieve)*
64 oz. vegetable stock (I used Trader Joe’s “Kitchen Basics Roasted Vegetable Stock”*
128 oz. water (a lot of water but I used an enormous pot and wanted to cook this a long while – uncharacteristic of vegetable soups perhaps but very characteristic of Sicilian-American cooking)
sea salt (far better than table salt – how much is entirely up to you but with this much liquid and virtually no fat of any kind I find the salt indispensable)
fresh ground pepper
3 tablespoons grated Asiago cheese*
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (olive oil is a must for this recipe and XV is really that much better) (How much to use? That all depends on your taste buds and how many onions you used – the onions need to “swim” in the oil)
All ingredients with an * have alternatives.
I listed the ingredients and quantities I used this time to produce 6 quarts of soup but here’s what might be different:
Onions – a hotly contested ingredient.
I prefer to use red onions and to sauté them in butter before I add the rest of the ingredients but it is not at all my family’s style to do so. Red onions can significantly sweeten things when well-cooked in the butter. For this recipe I chose yellow onions and used extra virgin olive oil to sauté them until they were extremely tender but barely golden
Kale – my mother despised kale and refused to use it in her recipe despite the fact that all her family used it all the time.
My only successful attempt to get anything that actually resembled a recipe was with my Aunt Katie and she used kale.
My kids and I came to love her version so I use kale. On the other hand, my mother put peas in her minestra and no one else in the family did.
We all like to use escarole but it’s hard to find here and I didn’t have time to get to Berkeley Bowl – the vegetable lover’s haven in the East Bay.
Spinach– a recent addition to my version of minestra since it has a sweetness compared to some of the other vegetables.
How much to use depends on your own taste buds – too much will overpower the other vegetables.
Broccolini – about as different from Ma’s recipe as you can get!
My Aunt Katie used broccoli florets in her recipe but I didn’t like the way they tasted and usually don’t add them.
Broccolini has such an interesting flavor that I started adding it a while ago and use it regularly now.
Cheese– a much tastier alternative – if you have it on hand – is several pieces of Pecorino Romano (the end pieces that you wouldn’t eat necessarily but they have tremendous flavor). Make sure you remove all wax and rind and just toss them into the soup with everything else.
Vegetable stock – absolute heresy in my family!
I would have used chicken stock or even veal stock in days gone by but a former girlfriend was a vegetarian and I learned my favorite vegetable dish could survive the alteration.
Vegetable stock is now my standard ingredient in this recipe and many others when stock is called for.
Even a carnivore can learn!
Tomatoes – my family always downplayed he role of tomatoes in this recipe and is was not uncommon to leave them out entirely.
However my version does use a small amount (in retrospect, I could have used 6, not 4 for this one)
Most of the prep is listed above.
For the leafy vegetables, be careful to get all the sand and grit out of them.
When sautéing the onions make sure they don’t brown quickly. I prefer to sauté them for a very long time over a lower temperature to make them sweeter.
If you do not mince the garlic, you can add whole cloves and remove them at the end of the cooking process or crush them with a fork and remove them at any time.
I prefer to mince them and add at the end of the sauté to get them fragrant, then I add the broth and vegetables.
If you choose to, you could construct this soup the way Chinese cooks construct a stir-fry – that is by paying attention to relative cooking times. Do I? No way… Many of my vegetarian friends feel the vegetables are too well-cooked but this is a Sicilian soup (or at least the way my family envisioned it), so it’s meant to be heavier, more complex and integrated than Northern Italian recipes would be.
So, basically you simply toss it all into the pot, add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and bring it to a quick but easy boil. Then partially cover it and reduce the heat very, very low and cook it gently… forever.
This soup cooked for 4 hours, once it came to a boil.
My family always put pasta into this soup as soon as it was finished cooking and let it sit for several hours to several days. I might or might not. If I do add pasta, I add it the day I’ll serve the soup, using typically ditalini (like ditali but smaller) or orzo. Any very small pasta works best.
Don’t add very much pasta – it will eat more soup than you do! If you can get fresh pasta that works the best – the flavor is absolutely wonderful.
Sprinkle the top of each bowl of soup with some fresh parsley, freshly grated pecorino-romano cheese and some freshly ground black or white pepper. It’s an “oily” soup so bread goes well with it.