Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Frugal food that's fit for an emperor

With everyone watching the pennies, the question of ‘frugal food’ has reared its head, and launched almost as many articles as Helen of Troy launched ships.

But ‘frugal food’ is hardly a new idea – and it doesn’t just refer to cost, but to culinary simplicity too.

And not only that, but it doesn't mean ignoring flavour either – there’s no way that it would get any mention here if it did!

So bearing all this in mind, a perfect example of frugal food is that classic of Italian cuisine, minestrone.

It’s believed that the origins of minestrone predate the Roman Empire, while the Roman army is said to have marched on minestrone and pasta e ceci (a sort of beans and pasta).

Marcus Apicius's ancient cookbook De Re Coquinaria described polus, which was a Roman soup dating back to 30AD and made from faro (a wheat-based food), chickpeas and broad beans, with onions, garlic, lard, and greens thrown in.

Just as with the cassoulet I was exploring at the weekend, there is no one recipe for minestrone – no right or wrong way to make it. Much depends on seasonality and even what’s in the cupboard or fridge, which of course makes it idea frugal food, since it’s the perfect way to use up leftovers.

The only real certainty is the beans – and they should, ideally, be borlotti (or Roman) beans.

Minestrone alla Genovese is a version that’s typical of Liguria, and contains a greater use of herbs than other versions, plus pesto.

And this is the one I decided to use as my own guide, using The Food of Italy.

The first attempt was chock full of taste – but The Other Half was not overwhelmed because he has decided that he would prefer something that was not as chunky and had more broth going on in the bowl.

So, bearing in mind that a quiet life is worth making a certain number of adjustments for, I tried again today.

Whatever you’re going to put in your minestrone, the sofritto is crucial.

This is how any minestrone begins.

Chop an onion and garlic. In the meantime, melt around 40g of lard in a big, heavy pan. What you want to do is cook the vegetables, plus a couple of chopped leaves of sage and some pancetta very gently in the fat for at least 10 minutes. They need to be well softened, but most certainly not browned.

Once that's done, add a couple of medium-sized potatoes - peeled but not cut up - plus sliced carrot and celery, and cook for a further five minutes.

Add a good squeeze of tomato purée, a tinned of chopped tomatoes and some chopped basil leaves - be generous with the freshly ground black pepper, and then add stock and bring gently to the boil.

Turn the heat down, cover and cook for two hours, stirring a couple of times. The big test is when the potatoes have started collapsing on their own and can easily be crushed into the soup.

Test the seasoning.

Then add your rinsed borlotti beans - if from a tin; otherwise, add soaked beans with the tomatoes.

Now at this point, I added a sliced courgette, plus some broken pasta - spaghetti is ideal, but it could be anything, frankly. Keep the broken pasta from the bottom of a bag and save to chuck into a minestrone. And then carry on cooking until the pasta and green vegetables are cooked through.

Serve with a dollop of pesto – which gives it a lovely zing – and some grated parmesan.

According to Janet Clarkson's Soup: A Global History, various texts refer to something called 'Italian wedding soup', but something has got rather confused in the translation.

No such soup has ever existed. But one of the words for soup in Italian is minestra (zuppa is the other). Thin - or 'little' - soup is minestrina and thick - or 'big' - soup is minestrone. When ingredients in a soup are happily combined, they're referred to as maritati or 'married'.

It's not difficult to see where the mistake occurred.

But it's also easy to see why this classic soup is such a fine example of 'frugal food'. Forget the tinned version - it's a travesty. Cooked freshly, this is food fit for a Roman emperor. And given the number of ingredients, there'll be no stinging on portions - mine has done enough for lunch for The Other Half and me tomorrow.

And if all that wasn't enough to get you excited, it's healthy too!

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