Sep 272009

I have been meaning to post this for a loooooonnnggg time. In fact, if the word “long” was as long as the length of time I’ve waited to post this recipe, it would be approximately sixty-three syllables long. But I digress.

Rancho Gordo borlotti beans

I’ve long had a soft spot for minestrone. It’s such great comfort food, and super-healthy to boot. I suppose that soup is normally a fall or winter endeavor, but here I’m going to give a Tucson summer (the fact that it’s late September is irrelevant – it’s in the upper nineties today) the finger and make this soup anyway. That’ll show the bloody weather!

There I go with my digressions again.

I’ve been through a lot of phases with this soup. I first got hooked on it at an Italian restaurant when I was a teenager, so when I started cooking a lot of vegetable soups after I moved to Alaska I decided to try this one out. To be honest, I hated my first attempt. I hadn’t yet started making my own chicken stock, and this was when I learned the hard way that using commercial chicken broth as the base for a soup is Officially a Bad Idea because it is Utterly Repugnant. However, at the time, I didn’t know that was the cause, so I just thought the recipe was a dud.

Many months later, something strange came over me and I decided to try it again – on unsuspecting dinner guests, no less. This time I was using homemade stock, and when I put the stuff in my mouth I had a foodgasm. It was that good. But because I am crazy, I am hardly ever 100 percent satisfied with a recipe, no matter how good it is. I decided that what this soup needed was an improvement in the bean department. Since then, I’ve tried all manner of beans: pinto, cannellini, kidney, great Northern whites, and heavenly borlottis. But all of these were canned and none of them were quite right.

Enter Rancho Gordo beans! These heavenly heirloom beans are as fresh as dried beans can get, especially when compared with lowly supermarket beans that are more than likely about five years old, which explains why those inferior beans cook slowly, unevenly, and blandly. This company carries many little-known and rare varieties of beans, including – look out for the squeeing – borlottis! I tried them for the first time when I was throwing together this soup, and finally, I have found my 100 percent satisfaction. These creamy, velvety, supremely flavorful beans add an entirely new level of flavor that ties minestrone together perfectly. It is definitely worth the time to find and cook the beans. And considering that I only just discovered the key to bean bliss, it was also worth the wait in posting this recipe!

Minestrone soup

Minestrone soup
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking (1997 edition)
Serves 8


  • If you are using dried borlotti or cranberry beans (and I highly recommend that you do!), make sure they are very fresh – i.e. within one year of harvesting – something you can only really guarantee by buying from a company such as Rancho Gordo. Borlotti and cranberry beans have fairly thick skins, so they may require somewhat longer cooking time than other dried high-quality beans.
  • If cooking your own beans, do not add salt or acidic ingredients (like tomatoes) until the beans are fully cooked since this can toughen the skins.

You will need:

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 4 ounces of pancetta or high-quality bacon, diced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, chopped
  • 2 medium celery stalks with leaves, chopped
  • 4 sprigs of fresh rosemary, whole
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, tightly packed
  • 1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley leaves, tightly packed
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 small head green cabbage (preferably savoy), chopped
  • 4 Swiss chard leaves, washed, dried, and chopped
  • One 14-ounce can of whole tomatoes, drained and broken into pieces
  • 3 cups home-cooked borlotti, cranberry, or cannellini beans (made from 1 cup dried beans), drained, cooking broth reserved, and half the beans mashed OR two 16-ounce cans of borlotti or cannellini beans (or pinto, if the other two are unavailable), drained and rinsed, half of them mashed
  • One Parmesan rind, about 3×3 inches (omit if dairy-free)
  • 10 cups chicken stock (less if using home-cooked beans)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 ounces orzo
  • Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for garnish

To prepare:

  1. In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat until fragrant. Add the pancetta and cook until the fat has rendered out and the meat is crispy. Add the onion, carrot, celery, herbs, garlic, and greens and cook, stirring, until the greens are beginning to wilt (5-10 minutes). Cover and cook until the vegetables are tender (about 10 minutes), reducing the heat if necessary.
  2. Add the tomatoes and cook over medium high heat, stirring, for about 3-5 minutes. Stir in the beans, stock, and salt (note: if using home-cooked beans, substitute the amount of cooking broth for part of the 10 cups of stock – i.e. if you have one cup of bean cooking broth, use it plus 9 cups of stock). Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, partly covered for 30 minutes.
  3. Remove the rosemary sprig. Stir in the orzo and allow to simmer for 15 minutes more. Ladle into warmed bowls and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and serve.

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