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Eric Akis: Summer minestrone packed with farm fresh vegetables

When you overdo it at the farmers market, it's a fine time to make vegetable soup
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Minestrone soup is stocked with vegetables from the farm market, pasta and cannellini beans. ERIC AKIS

I love going to farm markets as my purchases always lead to me to create some wonderful, local-produce-rich, summer meals. The only problem with my adoration of that activity is that I’ll often find so many appealing things to buy I’ll sometimes come home with too much stuff.

Such was the case last week, when I made an unplanned stop at a farm market and couldn’t resist buying the fine looking carrots, shelling peas, basil, spinach and tomatoes being offered. And when I got home and stored some of those items in my fridge, I found produce from my last shopping excursion still waiting to be used.

Not long after that I decided this would be a fine time to make a nice pot of vegetable soup. I chose minestrone, as I thought my cache of vegetables would work well in it and they did.

According to John Mariani’s book, The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink, minestrone, pronounced “mee-neh-STROH-neh,” is a hearty vegetable soup whose ingredients can vary from region to region in Italy. My version of the soup simmered together the produce I had just bought and some of the ones I already had on hand.

Beyond vegetables, in Italy, again depending on the region, minestrone is also sometimes fortified with rice, beans and/or pasta, and I added the latter two to my soup.

The beans I used were canned cannellini (white kidney) beans and the pasta, elbow macaroni; non-perishable goods I had in my pantry ready for an occasion like this.

With regard to the macaroni, I like to cook it separately and then added it to the soup near the end of cooking. If you cook the raw pasta right in the soup, it can over cook and become bloated and unappealing when the soup is ready to be served.

To make a more filling meal, I served bowls of the soup with pesto Parmesan rolls. They are made with yeast dough that you flatten, spread with pesto and sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan, not the dried powdered type. The dough is then rolled up, sliced into individual rolls, set on a baking sheet, allowed to rise, sprinkled with more cheese and some sea salt, and then baked until golden, aromatic and very flavourful.

My recipes make 12 pesto Parmesan rolls and six servings of soup. If that’s too many for you, both items will freeze well, to thaw, reheat and enjoy the next time you desire them.

Summer Minestrone Soup

Local vegetables shine in this summery version of minestrone soup that’s also stocked with pasta and cannellini (white kidney) beans.

Preparation time: 45 minutes

Cooking time: about 30 minutes

Makes: six (about 1 1/2 cups each) servings

2 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 cup diced onion (see Note)

1/2 cup diced green bell pepper

1/2 cup sliced snap-top carrots

1/2 cup diced zucchini

3 Tbsp tomato paste

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 tsp dried oregano

• a few pinches red pepper flakes

6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 (19 oz./540 mL) can cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained well, rinsed in cold water, and drained again

2 medium, ripe, red on-the-vine tomatoes, diced

1/2 cup green beans, cut, widthwise, 3/4-inch pieces (about 8 to 10 beans)

1/2 cup elbow macaroni, simmered until tender, cooled in cold water, and then drained well

1/2 cups fresh peas (see Note)

2 cup loosely packed, stemmed spinach, sliced

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pour oil into a medium to large pot set over medium, medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the onion, bell pepper, carrot and zucchini and cook and stir until softened, about four to five minutes. Mix in the tomato paste, garlic, oregano and pepper flakes and cook and stir two minutes more.

Add the stock, cannellini beans and diced tomatoes to the pot and bring soup to a gentle simmer, adjusting the heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer soup 10 minutes. Mix in the green beans and simmer three minutes more. Add the macaroni, peas and spinach, return soup to a simmer, and simmer about three minutes more, or until the peas are bright green, the spinach has wilted and the macaroni is hot. Season soup with salt and pepper and it’s ready to enjoy.

Note: Diced in this recipe means to cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes. 20 to 24 fresh shelling peas, when shelled, should yield the 1/2 cup of fresh peas needed here.

Pesto Parmesan Rolls

Golden rolls with a swirl of pesto and freshly grated Parmesan cheese baked into them.

Preparation time: 30 minutes, plus rising time

Cooking time: 18 to 20 minutes

Makes: 12 rolls

2/3 cup lukewarm (not hot) water

1 packet (2 1/4 tsp) traditional (active dry) yeast

1 tsp granulated sugar

1 large egg

2 Tbsp olive oil, plus some for the bowl

2 to 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus some for working the dough

1/4 tsp fine salt

1/2 cup pesto (see recipe below)

2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for sprinkling

• coarse or flaked sea salt, to taste

Place water in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Sprinkle in the yeast and sugar. Let stand five minutes, until yeast is dissolved, and then mix in the egg and 2 Tbsp olive oil.

Add 1 3/4 cups of flour and 1/4 tsp fine salt to the bowl and mix to combine. Now, gradually add and mix in some or all of the remaining flour until dough forms that just starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. (The dough should be fairly soft and a little bit sticky). Knead dough on medium speed five to six minutes.

Transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover and let rise at warm room temperature until doubled in size, about 60 to 75 minutes.

When dough has risen, line a sided baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly flour a work surface and set dough on it. Press dough into a square shape. Now, with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a 12-inch square. Spread the top of dough with pesto, and then sprinkle with the 2/3 cup Parmesan cheese. Carefully roll the dough into a tight cylinder. Now, with a floured, sharp knife, cut that cylinder, widthwise, into 12 roughly equal-sized rolls.

Set those rolls, cut side up, on the baking sheet, spacing them about two inches apart. Let rolls rise at warm room temperature 45 to 60 minutes, until about doubled in size. It’s OK if the rolls touch as they rise.

When the rolls have risen, preheat oven to 375 F. Sprinkle the top of each roll with a little freshly grated Parmesan cheese and sea salt. Bake the rolls in the middle of the oven 18 to 20 minutes, until puffed and golden. Serve rolls warm or at room temperature.

Pesto

Although you could use store-bought pesto in the rolls above, homemade will make them the most flavourful. This recipe makes about one cup of pesto. Use what you need for the rolls, and save the rest for another time (see method for details).

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: About one cup

4 cups fresh basil leaves, loosely packed (see Note)

3 large garlic cloves, sliced

1/3 cup pine nuts, slivered almonds or walnuts pieces

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

3/4 cup olive oil, plus more, if needed

Place ingredients, except oil, in a food processor and pulse until chopped. Add the oil and process until well blended. Add a bit more oil if you find the pesto too thick. Refrigerate the pesto in a tightly sealed jar with a skim of olive oil on top. It will keep at least a week. The pesto could also be frozen in ice-cube trays, unmoulded and kept frozen in freezer bags or containers until needed.

Note: When measuring the basil, I pressed down on the leaves, loosely packing them.

eakis@timescolonist.com

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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