Low & Slow Minestrone

Canned soup has ruined an entire generation. Otherwise flavor-packed vegetable soups were made shelf-stable, low-sodium, and served up to babies of the 80’s as mushy penance for one too many grilled cheese indulgences. A creamy chowder with toothsome potatoes was transformed into an experiment that kept the shape of the can when opened. Instead of fresh seafood, each bowl was filled with rubbery clams that mimicked the experience of chewing old gum on an ocean pier. It’s no wonder when I see stuff like minestrone soup on a menu, I look the other way. But in the depths of winter, it’s hard to find comfort food that’s also vegetable-rich, so I decided to overcome my 8-year old aversions and give a homemade version a try. Since I don’t have hours to make soup, and likely neither do you (Obviously! Why do you think our parents bought it canned? Just to damage us?), I supplemented with a slow cooker to make things a little easier. Prep your veggies in advance and this will come together in about half an hour. Unlike any canned minestrone you’ve ever had, a bowl of this will actually buoy you with warmth, umami, and vegetables that will keep you from withering until spring hits.

½ lb dried cannellini beans, rinsed and picked over for wonky looking beans or stones

8 c water

2 c chicken stock

2 bay leaves

1 parmesan rind, approximately 5 inches wide

1 ½ Tbsp salt, plus ½ tsp, divided

4 slices of thick-cut bacon, chopped

1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 small onions, diced medium

3 celery ribs, diced medium

1 small celery root, peeled and diced medium

2 carrots, peeled and diced medium

1 medium zucchini, diced medium

½ small green cabbage, diced large

4 cloves of garlic, minced or grated

1 Tbsp Italian seasoning

½ tsp crushed red pepper

1 can diced tomatoes, strained

12 oz strained tomatoes

1 c chopped fresh basil leaves

Grated parmesan for serving

In the base of your slow cooker, combine beans, water, and 1 ½ Tbsp salt. Soak overnight, up to 24 hours. When ready to prepare, add chicken stock, bay leaves, and parmesan rind. Cook on low for 5 hours and check the beans for doneness. If they are still somewhat al dente, cook them on low for another 30 minutes and test again. Repeat until the beans are soft, but not mushy. Turn off heat. Remove parmesan rind and bay leaf.

Heat a large stock pot over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook until light brown and crispy, about 6-8 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add olive oil, onions, celery, celery root, and carrots. Cook and stir frequently until they are softened and slightly golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in the zucchini, cabbage, garlic, Italian seasoning, red pepper, and remaining ½ tsp of salt. Cook for 1-2 minutes, or until garlic is fragrant and the cabbage begins to wilt.

Transfer the beans and their liquid from the slow cooker to the stock pot. Again, make sure your stock pot is LARGE. Otherwise you may need to divide the soup between two pots. Add the diced and strained tomatoes and bring up to a light simmer. Cook for 15 minutes more.

Serve with basil leaves and a small mountain of parmesan.

Note: You might be tempted to dump your veggies in the slow cooker and call this one-n-done. Don't. Part of what makes a great soup is infusing fat and oil with the flavors of the aromatic vegetables you're adding. When you do that and then add liquid, the fat disperses throughout the soup, carrying teeny, microscopic bursts of flavor in each bite. A slow cooker can do a lot, but it can't do that.

Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen