Minesta in Italian means soup. But it does not stop there – minestrone is a thick soup and minestrina is a more delicate or thin soup. All minestre (plural) may or may not have pasta (or pastina) or rice or grains added to thicken them.
Then there is zuppa and this Italian word shares the common root with soupe (French), suppe (German) and sopa (Spanish and Portuguese). These days the differences between a minestra and a zuppa are probably interchangeable and there are always regional and cultural variations (as the Calabrese minestra below), but a zuppa relies on an accompaniment of a slice of bread; usually this is placed in the bowl and the zuppa is ladled on top. The bread soaks up the juice and therefore no pasta, or rice, or grains (barley, wheat) are needed. Traditionally, a zuppa has a broth base, whereas the liquid in a minesta is more likely to be water and relies on the vegetables, pulses, fish, meat (or smoked meat) for flavour. In modern times, recipes for minestra may include the addition of water, stock or broth as the liquid base .
So why am I taking such an interest in the specific Calabrese minestra?
I was recently in Adelaide and ate at Minestra, a small home style eatery in Prospect and ordered minestra with my pork and veal and eggplant polpette – the minestra in this case was presented less soupy and more like a side for the polpette, but it could also be ordered unaccompanied as a one course dish – with a little more liquid and more a like soup. It is not only the food that I like at this eatery where the daily menu is chalked on a black board, and when they run out of a dish, they erase it. The other exciting change to the menu is that it can feature produce the locals bring in … YES, like the sign below says: locals are invited to bring in their produce.
Minestra’s owner and head chef is Sandy Cenin (as you can see by the surname there is a bit of northern Italian in him) and his grandmother is Calabrese.
Inspired by Sandy’s minestra, once home in Melbourne, I was determined to conduct some research and to make it.
Minestra in Calabria takes on a different significance and is a traditional, peasant dish suited to the people who were used to working very hard on the land. And it does not use pasta in this dish … the Calabrese have a reputation for being different (I say this as a pun). This Calabrese minestra has a certain degree of austerity about it, it is not sophisticated or complicated and it is made from simple frugal ingredients – wild greens if possible, and if one was lucky, perhaps a little pork. It also contains beans – dried broad beans or borlotti or cannellini. Hence the description of this minestra being maritata (married in Calabrese dialect) – several green vegetables and the beans (and bits of pork) are ‘married’ or combined to produce a very thick, stew like soup. Some variations include potatoes and as for the pork, it can be fresh meat ribs or rind. I have also seen a recipe that includes the rind of grating cheese (pecorino) for flavourings.
In Calabria, as in Sicily, wild foraged greens are much appreciated and not just due to necessity (as they once were). In Australia we may not be familiar with the range of edible plants available or have access to as many, but we do have some very good, green, leafy vegetables that provide contrasting and strong flavours.
A mixture of three or four of seasonal, green, leafy vegetables, is sufficient – I am using endives (or escarole) and chicory, that are both bitter, cime di rapa (a brassica) for the mustard taste and sow thistle that was sold to me as milk thistle and tastes mild and grassy.
I bought this mixture of greens from my regular fruttivendolo at the Queen Victoria Market (see photo below). If I had foraged for dandelions (bitter taste) or wild broccoletii (wild brassica) I would have used these instead of the more conventional chicory, escarole (bitter) or cime di rapa (mustard).
There are many brassicas that could be suitable – kohlrabi (root and leaves), cabbage, kale (not Italian, but who cares!), cavolo nero, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts (not a Calabrese vegetable)and cabbage.
Wild fennel, amaranth, nettles are also wild greens that could be accessible to you or you may be growing borage in your garden (photo below).
I am going to be Italian when I write this recipe. There are no measurements for the ingredients but my photos can give you an indication and it is ‘cucina povera‘- peasant cooking – that is, use what you can get, make it to your taste, add as much liquid as you wish, but keep it thick.
Use a variety of green leafy seasonal vegetables – whatever you can get – go for combinations of taste – bitter, sweet, peppery, grassy, aniseed taste (as in fennel).
RECIPE for minestra
Soak, cook pulses (borlotti, cannellini, dried broad beans) … or buy tinned beans if that is what you do. In my photo you will see that i have used black-eyed beans – this is not an Italian bean, but it is what I had on hand at the time and I do not think that my breaking of tradition mattered. Drain the pulses you intend to use. Keep the liquid (broth) in case you want to add it as the liquid for the minestra.
Clean the greens, separate them from any tough stems but keep the softer ones.
Soften the greens – boil them in as much or as little salted water as you cook all your green leafy vegetables. Drain them but reserve some liquid for the minestra. I did not have to discard any because I did not use much water to cook my greens.
Chop garlic ( I used quite a bit), sauté the drained greens, add beans. My ratio was about 2/3 greens and 1/3 beans.
Add chopped chilli at the same time as the garlic if you wish or serve chopped chilli or chilli paste separately (Calabresi a fond of pepper paste).
Add as much liquid as you wish, dish it up, drizzle some extra virgin oil on it and eat it with some good bread.
See recipe for the Sicilian Maccu – another of those peasant soups and this one has even more traditions than the Calabrese minestra.