For my father, a meal was never a meal without soup.
It didn't matter if my mother started our lunch or dinner with a wonderful salad or maybe some thin slices of delicious sausage or ham.
If there wasn't also soup on the table, he didn't feel he had really dined.
That's not surprising, considering the wonderful vegetable soups my mother produced from her small garden. And vegetable soup was always my father's favorite, since in his younger years he'd been a gymnast and amateur boxer and was always interested in eating healthy foods.
Where we lived in southern Austria, winter seemed to last for six months of the year, so we couldn't wait to go outside to gather our vegetables in springtime. My mother got them started in early March in a low cement-walled hothouse covered with glass doors that let in and held the sun's warmth; and at night she'd cover those doors with old blankets to keep the frost away.
So, by this time of year, there would be plenty of fresh produce ready for her soup pot, including yellow and green beans, leeks, and the first thin-skinned summer squashes. Whatever she picked, she'd combine them with other staples to produce simple yet extraordinary soups.
Her strategy, which you'll find in the recipe I share from my Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, is easy for you to follow.
She would begin with good olive oil, in which she gently cooked onions, leeks, garlic, and sometimes some fennel bulb to start the soup off with a good flavor base. To this, she added pureed tomatoes or tomato juice and water, taking care not to add so much water that it would dilute the vegetables' natural flavors. (You could use canned chicken vegetable broth instead.)
Once the liquid was simmering, she added most of the vegetables, cut to uniform dice that would cook evenly.
The soup was done when the vegetables were tender but still had some bite, what the Italians call al dente.
If she had any extra-delicate vegetables, such as fresh baby peas or pencil-thin asparagus, they went into the pot just a minute or two before the end-along with small pasta tubes that had also been cooked al dente, to give the soup more body.
At serving time, my mother added two other important touches--a drizzle of fragrant extra-virgin olive oil and some fresh basil leaves--which made each bowlful explode with fragrant flavor. (She also sometimes added a little grated Parmesan.)
Ah! Just thinking about that soup, I can still smell it and taste it right now. For me, it will always capture the essence of spring.
Spring Vegetable Minestrone Soup Recipe
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- 1 cup chopped yellow onion
- 1/2 cup fennel bulb, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1/2 cup leeks, white and pale green parts only, halved lengthwise, thoroughly rinsed & cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 quarts good quality canned chicken broth or vegetable broth (optional) or water
- 2 cups good quality canned tomato juice
- 1 large sprig fresh basil, plus extra basil leaves for garnish
- 1 large sprig fresh parsley
- 1/2 cup yellow summer squash, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1/2 cup zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1/2 cup celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1/2 cup green beans, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup yellow wax beans, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup) red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1/2 cup quartered mushrooms
- 2/3 cup uncooked ditalini pasta or other small dried pasta tubes
Heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil in a medium-sized pot over medium heat. Add the onion, fennel, leeks, and garlic and saute, stirring frequently, until they begin to soften but not yet color, about 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Stir in the broth, tomato juice, and parsley and basil sprigs. Bring the mixture to a simmer.
Meanwhile, in another pot, bring salted water to a boil over high heat.
Stir into the broth-and-juice mixture the squash, zucchini, celery, green beans, wax beans, bell pepper, and mushrooms. Simmer until the vegetables are al dente, tender but still slightly firm to the bite, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, add the pasta to the pot of boiling salted water. Cook until al dente, tender but still slightly chewy, following the manufacturer's suggested cooking time. Drain well and set aside.
When the soup vegetables are done, remove the parsley and basil sprigs and stir in the cooked pasta. Adjust the seasonings to taste with more salt and pepper and a little sugar.
To serve, ladle the soup into individual bowls. Garnish each bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and some torn fresh basil leaves.
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