On Monday a friend made me a pot of minestrone, for Passover (a custom in her definitely gentile family; my definitely gentile family did gefilte fish for the holiday; who knows how these things got started) and because she knew it’s a favorite comfort food of mine (simple, warm, homey, and hearty).
Unaccountably, I seem not to have posted about minestrone before, so I’ll start with that. And then move to an actual Italian Passover soup, minestra dayenu.
From an exceptionally detailed Wikipedia article on minestrone:
Minestrone … is a thick soup of Italian origin made with vegetables, often with the addition of pasta or rice. Common ingredients include beans, onions, celery, carrots, stock, and tomatoes.
There is no set recipe for minestrone, since it is usually made out of whatever vegetables are in season. It can be vegetarian, contain meat, or contain a meat-based broth (such as chicken stock). Angelo Pellegrini, however, argued that the base of minestrone is bean broth, and that borlotti beans (also called Roman beans) “are the beans to use for genuine minestrone”.
Some of the earliest origins of minestrone soup pre-date the expansion of the Latin tribes of Rome into what became the Roman Republic and later Roman Empire, when the local diet was “vegetarian by necessity” and consisted mostly of vegetables, such as onions, lentils, cabbage, garlic, broad beans, mushrooms, carrots, asparagus, and turnips.
During this time, the main dish of a meal would have been pulte, a simple but filling porridge of spelt flour cooked in salt water, to which whatever vegetables that were available would have been added.
It was not until the 2nd century B.C., when Rome had conquered Italy and monopolized the commercial and road networks, that a huge diversity of products flooded the capital and began to change their diet, and by association, the diet of Italy most notably with the more frequent inclusion of meats, including as a stock for soups.
Spelt flour was also removed from soups, as bread had been introduced into the Roman diet by the Greeks, and pulte became a meal largely for the poor.
The ancient Romans recognized the health benefits of a simple or “frugal” diet (from the Latin fruges, the common name given to cereals, vegetables and legumes) and thick vegetable soups and vegetables remained a staple.
Marcus Apicius’s ancient cookbook De Re Coquinaria described polus, a Roman soup dating back to 30 AD made up of farro, chickpeas, and fava beans, with onions, garlic, lard, and greens thrown in.
As eating habits and ingredients changed in Italy, so did minestrone. Apicius updates the pultes and pulticulae with fancy trimmings such as cooked brains and wine.
The introduction of tomatoes and potatoes from the Americas in the mid-16th century changed the soup by making available two ingredients which have since become staples.
From a foodie site, this caveat:
You don’t need a recipe for minestrone, just like you don’t need a recipe for a great sandwich, or an epic salad. To make minestrone soup precisely same way every time, using a very specific list of ingredients and amounts, is to trample on the soul of this Italian classic.
The site goes on to give a specific recipe, for one particularly satisfying version of minestrone:
This minestrone is non-kosher in two different ways, one easily fixable, the other requiring a bit of work. First thing: it has pancetta in it; pancetta is essentially Italian bacon, cured but not smoked, so it’s pork and massively treif — but it can be just left out. Second thing: it has pasta made from wheat flour in it — leavened and therefore not kosher. Matzo meal can replace the wheat flour, or potato flour made into pasta under rabbinical supervision.
The background ingredients: pancetta, onion, celery, garlic, Italian herbs, red pepper flakes; and chicken broth.
The main ingredients: crushed plum tomatoes, shelling beans, chopped cabbage, garbanzo beans, chopped swiss chard, ditalini pasta.
Garnish: grated or flaked Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, chopped Italian (flat) parsley.
On ditalini, from Wikipedia:
Ditalini (Italian: “small thimbles”, also referred to as tubettini) is a type of pasta that is shaped like small tubes. The literal translation from the Italian language to English is “small thimbles”. It has been described as “thimble-sized” and as “very short macaroni”. In some areas it may also be called “salad macaroni.” During the industrial age in Apulia, Italy, increased development of ditali and other short-cut pastas occurred. In contemporary times, it is a mass-produced pasta. It is used in several dishes, and is commonly used throughout Sicily.
This week’s home minestrone had chicken broth, ditalini, tomatoes, kidney beans, garbanzos, and an assortment of vegetables, but no potatoes, swiss chard, or cabbage.
Italian Passover soup. On Jennifer Abadi’s site Too Good to Passover: Sephardic Passover Dishes From Italy to India on 1/6/14, “Minestra Dayenu: It should have been enough”:
When I first read about this traditional Italian Passover soup it was really the name that captured my attention. (What a great name!) It conveyed that it was both a filling Italian soup, as well as one sufficient for Passover. So as usual, I began looking into the meaning of the words themselves. Minestra (a general term for hearty vegetable soups cooked with dried pasta) is rooted in the Italian/Latin word minestrare, meaning “to administer,” or “to serve.” It was originally a one-pot dish (most likely first prepared by the poor) that cooked leftover vegetables, potatoes, beans, and pasta or rice in a broth and was served at the table as the main or only course for the meal (the popular minestrone known in the USA is a type of minestra). The word dayenu in Hebrew literally means, “enough for us,” a phrase we are all familiar with either chanting or singing at the end of our Sedermeal as a way of showing our endless gratitude to God for having saved us from eternal slavery (“If he had brought us out of Egypt, and had not carried out judgements against them — Dayenu, that would have been enough… If he had fed us the manna and had not given us Shabbat — Dayenu, that would have been enough.”)
In Claudia Roden’s, “The Book of Jewish Food,” (Knopf, 2007) Ms. Roden describes her recipe as having been personally mailed to her from a woman in Turin, Italy. In doing a search online I came across a few others that mentioned this specific soup as well. It seems that this particular minestra captures the spirit of the traditional Roman or Italian soup in that it utilizes a broth (chicken) as the base to cook down leftover pieces of matzah to create a thick pasta-like soup. The addition of cinnamon as well as beaten egg yolks reflects the Sephardic/Eastern touch, however, and turns it into a perfect Passover-friendly dish. While preparing this soup I quickly texted an Italian friend of mine in New York to ask her the following: “Is Minestra Dayenu something that you and your family prepared for Passover in Italy, and if so, is it simply chicken broth, egg yolks, cinnamon, and matzah pieces?” She instantly replied, “Yes, we did do this but you cannot make it using the Israeli or American style matzah because they are too thin and completely fall apart — it’s like using lentils instead of rice to make risotto! Every Passover my mother sends me the French kind to use because they hold together more like pasta. You have to use the French kind or it’s not worth it.”