When the world seems headed to hell in a hand-basket and life feels like some hopeless, crazy exercise in futility, we all need to turn to someone or something that we can depend on to make us feel safe and secure ( a laughable though laudable desire, life being the crapshoot that it is).
For some, it is religion or belief in a god who ultimately rewards the good and punishes the evil that gives them solace.
For others, it is the news networks and broadcasts whose "round the clock", "up to the minute" presence at the latest tragedy assures them that life in our society presses onward, forward despite the horrific and catastrophic nature of the networks' latest exploitation -- oops, I mean, what has befallen. Yes, somehow, with Oprah, Brian Williams, and Matt Lauer there endlessly probing every victim's and perpetrator's family & friends; and, repeatedly plying every crackpot psychiatrist, theorist, "expert panelist", lawyer, & politician they can use to fill the airwaves with inane often unanswerable questions for days on end, some people feel comforted.
Many others, seek the warmth and wordless reassurance of their nearest's arms whether that person be a spouse, parent or sibling. There is always something about the seeming sanctity and inviolability of one's home and family that offers asylum from an increasingly chaotic world.
I tend to fall more inline with the latter group's thinking. Hearth and home are the ultimate sanctuary for me during restless times, especially the hearth, or the modern day hearth--- the kitchen.
There is something about the preparation of a labor- intensive but simple meal that is therapeutic and relaxing. It could just be a purely visceral reflexive response to the familiar scents and repetitive nature of cooking: the sense-memories of happier times stirred up: memories of christmas in grandma's house, the chicken soup mom gave you to make you feel better, the fragrance worn by your first love.
It is said by those who make a study of neurotransmissions that the sense of smell activates more areas in the brain than any other of our senses. The memory centers of the cerebral cortex are instantaneously activated when we smell, well before other centers of the brain.
Some experts theorize that this occurs as an evolutionary autonomic defense mechanism, most likely to prevent us from ingesting poisonous substances by stirring our memories of other "bad" smells that we have experienced allowing us to compare and associate them as things to be avoided.
Whatever the reason the brain is the ultimate database & smell is the most efficient way to trigger it.
So on this and every other bad news day, let's turn the olfactory systems on, get our juices flowing, fill our homes with delicious aromas and remember happier days with a little dose of comfort from the people who live life so well: the Italians.
Italy has none of the arrogance and all of the zest of France. It is a cuisine that could make you devoutly religious because it is so pure and so divine that it could only have come from a higher being. Italian cuisine is the ultimate comfort food.
Each region (and there are many) with its own specialty of culinary artistry. I submit my own humble offering inspired by zuppa di minestre ; something warm and familiar to soothe the soul. Time has erased the class distinctions between the two categories of Italian soups, zuppa and minestra , but their respective names and characteristics reflect their markedly contrasting pedigrees. Zuppa refers to a broth which, with a few exceptions, has slices of bread in it but never rice or pasta. The Italian word - along with the French soupe , Portuguese and Spanish sopa and German suppe - derives from the Gothic suppa , meaning "soaked bread".
That slice of bread indicates the less exalted origins of this soup. In medieval times, the plates on the tables of the nobility took the form of trenchers of sliced bread. These "plates", which ended up saturated with the juices of meats and other foods placed on them, were subsequently cooked by the servants, in water or stock, for their own meal. Given its beginnings essentially as cooked dishwater, zuppa was obviously never seen on the tables of the rich. It was a dish eaten by their servants.
Minestre precedes zuppa by a few centuries. A derivation of the Latin ministrare , meaning "to administer", the word reflects the fact that minestra was served out from a central bowl or pot by the head of the household. Minestra was traditionally for the poor and the sole course of the meal. The word minestrone in modern times now connotes a hearty vegetable soup that is often a one-pot meal. We can still think of it as "that which is served or administered," because serve it does.
It never lets me down.
The pancetta can easily be replaced with bacon, italian sausage, prosciutto, ham or eliminated altogether if you're vegetarian-inclined. Same goes for the swiss chard: you can substitute any hearty green leafy vegetable. If you decide to use spinach or other tender green use it toward the end or it may disintegrate into the soup which, or course, wouldn't hurt the soup anyway. Also, use any small-shaped pasta if you don't have orecchiette ( my husband likes penne) or break larger pasta into pieces. I think by now I have made it clear: this recipe is like all recipes that don't involve pastry making (which is like chemistry, an exact science): it is just a guideline. You can freely substitute anything you don't like; consider it a clean-out the fridge soup!!! While it may subtly change the texture or flavor of my soup, it will be the perfect soup for you!!! Isn't that a comforting thought?
Minestrone w/ Pancetta and Orecchiette
- 1 slice of 1" thick pancetta ( about 4 ounces), cut into large dice
- 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 2 leeks, well rinsed & chopped, white part only
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed & minced
- 2 carrots, diced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 2 red potatoes, cut into small dice
- 1 bunch of swiss chard, discard tough ends & roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 1 28 oz. can of crushed italian- style tomatoes (preferably from San Marzano in Italy)
- 8 cups of low-sodium chicken stock
- 1 ounce of dried porcini mushrooms (optional)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 can fagioli bianchi di spagna (butter beans) or cannellini beans, drained
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon herbes de provence
- handful of fresh italian parsley, chopped
- sea salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
- handful of fresh basil, in chiffonade
- the rind of 1 wedge of parmigiano-reggiano
- 4 oz. dry orecchiette, uncooked
- 1/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano
Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat. Place dried porcinis in a small bowl, cover with the hot water & place kitchen towel over bowl to assist steeping. Set aside for 15 minutes.
Meantime, heat a large stockpot or dutch oven over medium-high heat. When hot, add pancetta & saute until brown (about 3 minutes) & the fat is rendered from the meat.
Next add half the olive oil to the pan, give a quick stir then add the next five vegetables ( leeks, onions, carrots, celery, & garlic) to the pan to form your "sofrito". Add a pinch of salt & a couple of grinds of black pepper & "sweat" the sofrito mixture stirring occasionally until vegetables are almost translucent (about 5 minutes).
When ready, stir oregano, herbes de provence, red pepper flakes & bay leaf into mixture & saute until the dried herbs release their volatile oils and are fragrant. Then add tomato paste, stirring well to incorporate it into the mixture. Add potatoes. Let mixture cook together for 2 minutes more.
While sauce cooks, carefully remove porcinis from bowl, giving them a quick brush with wet towel to remove any dirt. Chop porcinis & add to sauce, stirring briefly. Reserve steeping liquid.
Add wine to pot. Stir well, scraping any brown bits that may have stuck to bottom of pot (deglaze the pan). When wine has boiled down, add swiss chard & stir well. Then add beans, gently folding them in.
Next, completely cover small strainer with a paper towel; take reserved porcini liquid and pour liquid through strainer directly into soup. Stir mixture.
Add tomatoes & half the parsley. Stirring in & tasting. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Add chicken stock & parmagiano rind. Stir, bring to a simmer, lower heat to lowest setting & let cook 90 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add pasta, stir it in, & let cook over low heat 30 minutes more; stirring occasionally.
Heat soup bowls in microwave or oven. Add remaining parsley & basil to the pot.
Serve soup topping each bowl with drizzle of olive oil & tablespoon of grated parmigiano-reggiano.
A simple green salad and a side of warm grilled italian bread brushed with olive oil rounds out the meal nicely.
This is a dish that improves with age. So store leftovers in the refrigerator and enjoy another time. Buon Appetito!!