Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Making Minestrone with Monkeys

Warm the oil. Wait for that faint, sweet-hot smell of gently heated olive oil and then, deep breath, begin. First come the fruits from deep within the earth. The strong and the flavorful, heavily scented and full of their own magic oils - the onion and the garlic. Sizzle, stir and wait. Not too long, mere seconds... there it is. The garlic. Quickly now, the next layer. The hearty and the strong, roots and stalks - bright carrots and elusive but distinct celery. These are your work horses. They hold up to the heat, the longest simmerers, the taste of comfort. Throw in some salt to make them shine. Snipped oregano from the yard: pungent, peppery, furry little leaves to draw out the celery and make her dance. Cover and wait. Let the salt work its crystalline magic and coax the flavors, rooty and earthy, from these foundational elements.

A good minestrone is made in layers. When the corners are softened, it's time for the gentle greens of the fruits that grow from flowers: peppers, zucchini, green beans. These are more delicate bits, full of their own tears of joy. They need a warm bath to ease their company with the heartier roots. The stock, some tomato puree, a splash of red wine for its decadence and a little more salt. The pot is filling, these layers of flavor need time to mingle and sort themselves out. A gentle simmer and the lid goes on. Longer this time, leaving plenty of time for all to get acquainted. We wait. We wipe the counters, knead the bread. Tiny fingers dimple the surface to create divots that will catch melted butter and hold the crunch of sea salt. The focaccia goes in the oven and we dance a moment while we wait.

With a savory billow of steam, we lift the cover and check our soup so far. A sip of the broth and a sprinkle of black pepper, a pinch more salt, but not too much. These roots and fruits can speak for themselves and they are slowly assembling into a powerful chorus. We add the temperamental sopranos - fresh diced tomatoes and some baby spinach. The bass notes of cannellini beans and a handful of pasta. They rehearse together in the pot with burbles and a steady, thumping rhythm of a slow boil. The bread is done, fresh and steaming from the oven, wrapped in fresh white towels to keep the heat and the chewy, dense crust. My maestros of minestrone let it tend to itself after taking a tiny taste of its harmony and declaring it perfect.

Attention is turned to the sweets. Little, rich, decadent balls of batter - chocolate within chocolate - are carefully rolled in stark, white powdered sugar and carefully lined up on parchment paper. These little, gooey chocolate soldiers in ranks are cautiously directed to the oven where they will harden and crackle on the outside, while staying soft and yielding within. Tiny patient fingers and tongues wait until all the rolling and lining is done before they lick their sweet reward - remnants of sugar and chocolate dough. Again we wait. We smell and we linger, peeking in the oven's window through dish towel curtains, counting down the minutes. The raw taste of batter and sugar was only a tease and whetted our appetites for more - warm and fresh from the oven.

And now for the very best part. We fill bowls with lids, bag up loaves and cookies, write love notes, and load them in the car. One friend has been sick. Another has lost a loved one. Both said they were fine. We want to make them finer. The monkeys ring doorbells and dance from foot to foot in the excitement of a job well done and anticipation of being able to surprise.

A good minestrone is made in layers. The hearty and the homely work together with the delicate and fragile, they meet in common space and become sublime. A good minestrone is the hearty warmth of a rich soup with the light and verdant promise of brightness to come. It can warm you when the air is still chilly and speak to you quietly of summer days. When paired with the conundrum of focaccia - both light and airy and firm and substantial - it becomes complete. The warm yeasty pockets that were made to sop up the last of the broth, the crunch of salt to add the sea to the summer vegetables, the toothsome and the tender. And to round it out, a touch of sweetness. The dark excess of chocolate on chocolate, dipped in the flightiest of sugars to powder your lips and your fingers. The ending note of the grand symphony started by garlic and oil.

These layers take patience, they take time. They take a little bit of magic and a lot of love. They are the very least we can give to our friends.

25 comments:

  1. I've never really appreciated Minestrone soup before. Gasp. I know! And now reading your post, I am put to shame and plan to begin appreciating what is placed in front of me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Don't feel bad. It is frequently underrated as far as soups go. As for the "appreciating what is placed in front of me" - that is a mindful practice I try to employ daily. Some days it's easier than others. It's pretty easy on a day I spend in the kitchen with my monkeys.

      Delete
  2. How do you do it? Make everything so beautiful?
    Thoughts and prayers with your friends, and so nice to hear you are making them "finer". (:

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the thoughts & prayers for my friends. They will appreciate that.
      And you know, I don't make minestrone beautiful. I just follow the recipe.

      Delete
  3. Wow, that's wonderful - to see the art in such a thing and to share it, beautiful.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Replies
    1. Thank you, and thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
  5. You make me understand why people like to cook. What a delightful post!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I loved this! You put into words what I feel when I cook, so beautifully! What a wonderful thing- to make people 'finer'. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. It's a transcendent art sometimes, isn't it? If I couldn't take joy in cooking, my life would be a drudgery indeed.

      Delete
  7. Beautiful post Lou (may I call you Lou?), I've never enjoyed reading about soup more. I've always said love is a warm bowl of potato soup.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, you may call me Lou. Many do. I'm so glad you enjoyed reading about our soup. Potato soup is one of my favorites.

      Delete
  8. Can we clone you? And perhaps move you to Chicago? With your cooking utensils? Wonderful post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I will put in an order for the Tangled Lou-bot 2013 with the special edition cooking software posthaste. :)

      Delete
  9. What a beautiful post, both the words and the sentiment behind them. Your writing is simply wonderful.

    ReplyDelete
  10. There are few things I do that give me greater joy than preparing a meal. As my children get older, they want to do more, and it's moved from a solitary chore to one I share with them. Some of the time. Because some of the time they make it more work than I'm willing to put into it. ;) Beautiful post, as usual.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Kelly! I love cooking with mine as well, but sometimes I have to boot them out because it's my me-time and also because sometimes I just want to cook it up and get it on the table without all the fiddly-farting around. I just don't write about those days much.

      Delete
  11. Wow. Now I want to learn to cook. Or just hang out with you and the monkeys.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I've been hanging around here for a while now, so you would think I would no longer find it surprising when you put together a post we not only can read, but can smell, taste, see and feel. Nicely done and I'm sure the gifts and thoughts were greatly appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. MM, I have almost the same reaction every time. You'd think I'd stop being surprised.

      Delete
    2. You are both very kind. Sometimes I even surprise myself. :)

      Delete

Thanks for reading and taking the time to say hello!