Good soup is one of the prime ingredients of good living.  For soup can do more to lift the spirits and stimulate the appetite than any other one dish.
– Louis P. De Gouy, ‘The Soup Book’ (1949)

I have found myself in the kitchen more these past few weeks than I had been all summer.  Simple summertime cooking has been replaced with more labor intensive productions and long hours of standing on my feet.  With this also comes piles of dishes and major clean-up operations as every kitchen tool and gadget comes to life with these creative culinary bursts.

The cooler mornings of fall are when I am drawn to the kitchen.  The thoughts of the warmth of the oven from baking and a simmering pot on the stove are enticing.  I crave heartier dishes that are rich and complex in flavors that nourish the soul.  Soups and stews are usually what seem to satisfy that urge and what I prepare most often this time of year.

I spent this past weekend making a number of dishes that were arduous with many steps and days of preparation, but I know this is how to create layers of intense flavor, so it should be worth it.  The house was filled with the intoxicating aromas of braised beef, sautéed vegetables, simmering sauces, red wine, and accompanying side dishes.  Recipes that I had not made before, but I had hoped would be successful so that I could share them with you here.

It is always risky business when trying new recipes.  Sometimes they work and sometimes they just do not.  (I discuss this topic in What is a Good Recipe?)  While they may seem to make sense on paper with enough direction, complexity, proper seasonings, and beautiful ingredients, they can still fall flat and the desired flavors are not in the final dish; the sauces are lacking in depth or there is something missing that you can’t quite put your finger on.  Nothing you add seems to make it quite good enough.  Those are the dishes that we eat, reluctantly, lamenting the expense of all of the ingredients and time spent with a lackluster outcome.  Those are the ones I will not post here.

Hearty soups and stews are what I crave in the fall and winter

On the other hand, when I want to try new recipes that I know I can count on, that will work and will require minimal tweaking, if any at all, I refer to a handful of cookbooks; in particular, one of Ina Garten’s cookbooks.  I have all of them and recently added her latest book, Foolproof, Recipes You Can Trust.  You can bet that any recipe in that book will be just that.  Foolproof.  In fact, on a number of occasions I have been confident enough to serve her dishes to company, trying them out for the very first time that evening.  I have never been disappointed.  Nor have my guests.

Ina’s Winter Minestrone and Garlic Bruschetta was no exception.  This gorgeous soup with more of a stew-like consistency was hearty and chock full of satisfying chunky vegetables and pasta.  The flavor of the sweet and fatty pancetta that was used to sauté the vegetables came through in the lusciousness of the finished soup.  I used store bought chicken broth, but can only imagine how much bolder and intense the flavors would be with a good, rich, homemade chicken stock.

Simple and rustic, the flavors in this soup are complex enough to serve without cheese

I used my own pesto (although the recipe calls for store-bought).  Added right before serving, it elevated the flavors with the infusion of pine nuts, parsley, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil.  The soup needed no additional seasoning.  It was spot on.  In fact, there were so many interesting textures and elements to the soup that topping it with Parmesan cheese was not really necessary.

The garlic brushetta served with the soup was excellent when dipped into the hot, tomatoey broth.  We enjoyed the subtlety of the additional garlic and oil with the soup.

This is the type of recipe that I will return to again and again, especially as we prefer lighter meals in the evenings and are trying to reduce the amount of red meat in our diet.  The Minestrone was healthy, completely satisfying, and offered a level of complexity in flavors that was intriguing.  Once again, Ina got it right.

Paired with a fall salad and a nice bottle of Pinot on a chilly evening, this soup will not disappoint.

The Parmesan cheese and bruschetta are elegant additions to the Minestrone

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Winter Minestrone and Garlic Bruschetta

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Ingredients:

Four soup:
Good olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, 1/2-inch-diced
1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onions
2 cups (1/2-inch) diced carrots (3 carrots)
2 cups (1/2-inch) diced celery (3 stalks)
2 1/2 cups (1/2-inch) diced peeled butternut squash
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic (4 cloves)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
26 ounces canned or boxed chopped tomatoes, such as Pomi
6 to 8 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade (I used Swanson's organic chicken broth)
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups cooked small pasta, such as tubetti (note below)
8 to 10 ounces fresh baby spinach leaves
1/2 cup good dry white wine
2 tablespoons store-bought pesto (I used homemade)
Garlic Bruschetta (recipe follows)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

For bruschetta:
1 baguette (I used a rustic country bread and cut the slices in half)
Good olive oil
1 garlic clove, cut in half lengthwise

Directions:

For soup:
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven. Add the pancetta and cook over medium-low heat for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned. Add the onions, carrots, celery, squash, garlic, and thyme and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables begin to soften.

2. Add the tomatoes, 6 cups of the chicken stock, the bay leaf, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 ½ teaspoons pepper to the pot. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

3. Discard the bay leaf. Add the beans and cooked pasta and heat through. The soup should be quite thick but if it’s too thick, add more chicken stock. Just before serving, reheat the soup, add the spinach, and toss with 2 big spoons (like tossing a salad). Cook just until the leaves are wilted. Stir in the white wine and pesto. Depending on the saltiness of the chicken stock, add another teaspoon or two of salt to taste.

4. Serve large shallow bowls of soup with a bruschetta on top. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, drizzle with olive oil, and serve hot.

For bruscetta:
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

2. Slice the baguette at a 45-degree angle in inch-thick slices. Brush both sides of the bread with olive oil and bake for 6 minutes, until lightly toasted. Take the slices out of the oven and rub the surface of each one with the cut clove of garlic.

NOTE: To cook the pasta, put 1 cup of pasta into a large pot of boiling salted water. Cook according to the directions on the package, drain, and set aside. You can make this soup ahead and reheat it before serving. It will need to be reseasoned.

Ina Garten
Barefoot Contessa: Foolproof, Recipes You Can Trust