Since receiving a gift of Five Quarters, Guardian food writer Rachel Roddy’s Italian cookbook, I have enjoyed exploring the beautiful simplicity of traditional Roman cuisine. The detail and knowledge in her sensual prose draws you into her kitchen in Testaccio, colourfully opening up the foundations of Italian cooking. Nourishing soups make it effortless to be both seasonal and healthy; simple recurring ingredients make her recipes both cheap and easy to plan; detailed descriptions of techniques fill the book, perfectly fitting the bill for my mantra for healthy home cooking.
Having read Roddy’s chapter on soups, an interpretation of a minestre (a beany, brothy, soupy dish made with vegetables and pasta) simmered away in my kitchen. Beginning with a soffritto (finely chopped aromatic vegetables, which sizzle unhurriedly in a generous amount of olive oil), you are rewarded immediately with wonderful smells. This soup is inspired by Cavolo Nero, a dark leafy cross between kale and cabbage: packed with anti oxidants and vitamins, and serving as a deliciously crunchy contrast to the soft texture of the beans and soffritto. Traditionally a minestre includes pasta, I haven’t added any in mine but I will involve it in the recipe.
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 small red onions
3 sticks of celery
3 cloves of garlic
1/2 a red chilli
1/2 tsp of fennel seeds
2 bay leaves
1 400g can of cooked cannellini beans (undrained)
1 400g can plum tomatoes
1 bag/bunch of cavolo nero (roughly 300g)
200g of small tubes of pasta or broken tagliatelle (optional)
a Parmesan rind (optional)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan to serve
Finely dice the onions, carrots and celery. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based pan and add the chopped vegetables, gently cooking them over a low heat for 10 minutes. Take care not to let the soffritto catch, it should be cooked slowly and stirred carefully. Finely chop the chilli and crush the garlic with the blade of your knife, adding these to the pan with the bay leaves and fennel seeds. Cook for another few minutes until the soffritto is soft and fragrant.
Add the tin of tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon and turn the heat up slightly to get the pan bubbling. Add about 250ml of hot water and the Parmesan rind (if using) and simmer, covered on a low heat for 20 minutes. Remove the tougher part of the stalks from the cavolo nero and roughly shred. Add to the pan the cooked cannellini beans, along with some of the water from their tin. At this point I remove the Parmesan and use a stick blender to blend about 1/5 of the soup in the pan, giving it a more dense consistency. Season well with salt and black pepper.
Add the cavolo nero and simmer, covered for another 10 minutes. 8 minutes before the soup is ready add the pasta to the pan, adding more water if the soup looks too dry. Check the seasoning and serve the soup with a few gratings of Parmesan on top, a drizzle of olive oil and a chunky slice of sourdough bread.