It looks to me like Punxsutawney Phil might just be right about winter lasting six more weeks. Although I would have enjoyed the idea of spring being on the horizon I think I can live with a little more snow. Fortunately for me that just means more soups, stews and other such things will be brewing in my kitchen.
Experimenting with making new soups is something I enjoy doing, especially being that they are a great way to fill growling bellies, put smiles on chilly faces and stock my fridge with leftovers. The key to making a good soup, sauce or stock is the base. This is called mirepoix.
I’m sure some of you have heard of this kitchen term before; for those of you who haven’t, listen up because it’s time to get to know some basics. Pronounced ‘Meer-pwah’, mirepoix is the French name for the combination of onions, carrots and celery. The combination of these ingredients sweating it out in the bottom of your stock pot create an aromatic base that is the first impression when making a soup or stock and first impressions are always important, right?
The most common combination of mirepoix used is onions, carrots and celery using a 2:1:1 ratio. If you are planning on making a basic stock you would use eight ounces of onions, four ounces of carrots and four ounces of celery to make a gallon batch — but in some recipes or kitchens chefs will switch things up. For instance, if you are cooking up a soup, such as a cream of leek, which should finish with a pale ivory or white color, then you can replace the onion and carrot with leeks and parsnips. Or perhaps you are getting in touch with your Southern roots and are cooking up a gumbo, in this scenario you would use onions, celery and green peppers which is sometimes referred to as the Cajun trinity.
Mirepoix comes in many different shapes and sizes. Typically when making a soup that you are not going to strain or puree, you would cut your mirepoix into a small dice, peeling all vegetables and dicing them as close to the same size as possible. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are making a stock, a rough chop for the mirepoix would be just fine. Even in some situations the vegetables are not peeled when making a stock, although if the outer skin of the onion is left it can turn the stock a dingy yellow tone which in some cases is not always desirable looking but it really depends on which direction you are trying to go.
So I’m not sure about you but I have many friends in the kitchen, that’s normal, isn’t it? Well, so does mirepoix. Mirepoix is most commonly combined with some tomato puree or sauce; this is typically added after the mirepoix has been sweating it out for a while. The tomato puree is added to give a full richness and earthy flavor to the base, eventually taking on a rusty red color.
Most recently I made a family favorite dish, braised short ribs, which calls for mirepoix and tomato puree. The aromatics of a good base is what gives this dish its fullness of flavor, along with a cooking time of three hours and half a bottle of delicious red wine (don’t ask where the other half went), but the depths of flavor all starts in the beginning. The combination of mirepoix with the touch of sweetness you get from the tomato puree and the layers of flavor you begin to build on top of your base can take you to so many different places; your taste buds start jumping for joy before you’ve even finished cooking.
Starting off on the right foot is even more important when it comes to soups. The process of cooking the mirepoix can make or break it. By letting those onions sweat it out for a good 10 minutes before adding the carrots and celery can bring the aroma and flavor to a whole other level. When making a soup you want the flavors to be rich and well-rounded throughout the whole batch, being patient with your base is important to reach that intensity.
If you’re looking for a soup that is going to fill your house all day long with a delicious aroma and help warm you up on a chilly winter night then I have got the perfect recipe for you, my version of Pasta Fagioli (meaning pasta and beans in Italian). The only suggestion I have is to please use the rind of Parmigiano Reggiano, some recipes say this is optional; I on the other hand am not going to give you that option. I feel this is the only way to make this true Italian rustic soup. You can use canned beans for this soup too but I find it does not give the soup enough time to cook and get that fullness of flavor.
1 16 oz package of dried pinto beans
10 cups water
½ cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 medium onions, medium diced
2 teaspoons salt, divided
2 medium carrots, medium diced
2 celery stalks, medium diced
5 garlic cloves, smashed and rough chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 piece of Parmigiano Reggiano (approx. 2 x 3 in)
2 cups dried ditalini or elbow pasta, cooked and tossed with olive oil
• Place the package of dried beans and the 10 cups of water in a large pot. Bring to a boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let sit for 2 hours. Do not drain.
• Heat half of the olive oil, ¼ cup, in a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add onions and ½ teaspoon of salt; sauté for 8 minutes. Add carrots, celery, garlic, parsley and dried rosemary; sauté for 5 minutes.
• Add in the beans along with the soaking liquid and cheese rind; simmer, covered for about 2 hours or until the beans are tender. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ¼ cup of olive oil and the remaining 1 ½ teaspoons of salt. Let cool
• Remove and discard cheese rind. Reserve about 3 cups of soup on the side, take the rest of the soup and puree in a food processor or blender or by using an immersion blender. Add back in the reserved 3 cups of soup. Reheat over medium low heat, stirring frequently.
• Ladle soup into bowls and top with cooked pasta, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano.