Minestra is neither soup nor stew. It has nothing to do with minestrone or ribolita, and can be eaten both hot and cold. Minestra is a "zuppa" in its original sense. The term zuppa has now come to be a generic term encompassing all types of soup, but its original meaning was quite distinct. The word Zuppa derives from the verb, inzuppare, which means to absorb or soak up. Bread in a variety of forms, was, and still is used to soak up liquid. It was a good way of making thrifty meals more gratifying as well as a novel way to use up old bread. No doubt born from necessity, the use of bread as an absorber is still used throughout all of Italy in a variety of ways.
In Italian, Minestrare is a verb meaning to "hand out" or "to distribute." A patriarchal custom whereby the head of the family would hand out the first course of the meal. A staple of cucina povera, minestra is a dish known through out all of Italy. The ingredients are not set in stone but the fundamentals are the same. Take a bunch of leafy greens, mix with some beans, serve it atop some old bread, bring it all together and you’ve got a classic minestra. Italians love to eat left over minestra cold, right out of the fridge; I’m not one of them. The fundamentals of the traditional recipe are respected but the addition of meat, and employment of classic cooking techniques enhances the flavour exponentially.
Minestra Con Carne
- 2 bunches of swiss chard, stems discarded and coarsely chopped
- 2 cans white kidney beans
- 2 large carrots, chopped
- 2 large potatoes, cubed
- 1 lbs veal stewing meat with bone
- 2 onions, sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, smashed whole
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 3 to 31/2 cups of chicken stock
- some old bread
Heat the olive oil in a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat and add the onions and garlic. Cook until translucent. Create a hot spot by pushing the onions to the sides and add the meat to the center of the pot. Brown meat on both sides. Deglaze all of the brown goodness stuck to bottom of the pan with 1 cup of chicken stock. Scrape the bottom of the pot with your wooden spoon. Add the rest of the chicken stock (2 cups) and bring to a boil. When the stock comes to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and let it simmer for 30 minutes. Add the potatoes and carrots, cover and continue and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the swiss chard (stuff your pot, don't be afraid the swiss chard will shrink considerably but it will also release some water, I hope you listened and got a large pot) and cover until wilted. Stir it occasionally. Add the beans, liquid and all, don't rinse them, this is one recipe where the goop is good, providing the right consistency for the dish. (If you're a purist and insist on using dried white kidney beans then you must create the goop by boiling the beans in just the right amount of water so it thickens properly, but I'll save it for another article.) Stir well and heat through. Your Minestra should not be too watery, (if it is, simmer uncovered for awhile until it thickens up a bit. Stir it frequently making sure the bottom doesn't burn.) When the minestra has a consistency like that of oatmeal, its perfect. Remove from the heat. Serve it on top of some sliced day old bread. I like to lightly toast the bread, then I rub it with garlic and drizzle some olive oil over top. Ladle a heaping of minestra over the bread, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with grated Parmigiano.
Note: Minestra, like many stewing meals, is better the next day. Just bring it back to a gentle simmer while stirring frequently. It also freezes well in freezer bags.