Minestrone soup

Tonight was another practice night from Rouxbe. Today’s lesson: minestrone soup. Ostensibly, this was more knife skills practice, the last of the knife skills lessons before moving on to other stuff. (Next up: pan frying.)

The short version: Very tasty, but too finicky and long for me to make again. The long version is behind the cut.

This recipe was supposed to take an hour and ten minutes, according to the site. In fact, it took me slightly over two hours. This was due partly to the large amount of prep work for the mise en place (about 50 minutes to get everything chopped, etc.), and in part because it took the stock a really long time to come to a simmer.

Before I started, I watched the video on the Rouxbe site and checked out the written recipe. I found it very convoluted, with lots of blocks of text that could be confusing when you’re actually cooking. So, me being me, I turned it into a spreadsheet with each step on a different row. Hello, my name is Julie, and I’m a nerd. Then, because I’m still a nerd when I’m in the process of cooking, I decided to time-stamp each step as I went, to see what took me the longest time. So here we go. I’m gonna do the abridged version and annotate as I go.

Step 1: Prepare mise en place

Finely dice 2 oz of pancetta — 7 minutes
My grocery store deli counter sliced the pancetta thin. Really thin. Deli meat thin. (Go figure.) Which meant that even stacking all six or seven slices on top of each other, it was still barely a half-inch high. It did mean, however, that slicing it was a pain and made me wonder whether my knife was actually sharp. (It was.)

Émincé 3 large cloves of garlic — 7 minutes
The longest part of doing this was peeling the garlic. I know there are all sorts of tricks out there that I’ve seen, but I can never remember them when it comes time for me to do it myself.

Medium dice 1/2 cup carrots, 1/2 cup celery, and 1 1/2 cup onion — 13 minutes
In the end, this wound up being two carrots, three stalks of celery, and two medium yellow onions. It might have gone faster if I’d known those amounts of whole vegetables instead of having to measure as I went, but it probably wouldn’t have speeded it up too much. My “medium dice” may actually have been a large dice, all things considered.

Drain, seed, and chop a 15-oz can of whole tomatoes — 12 minutes
Okay, this was a pain. First, it seems like it’s impossible to find a 15-oz can of tomatoes in Montreal. Everything here is 28 oz. I wound up getting a can of organic tomatoes from a local specialty store, so I was happy about that. I was less happy about the process of draining, seeding, and chopping. Most notably, seeding. The recipe says it’s not necessary but “highly recommended,” as the seeds can give a bitter flavor to the soup. It’s apparently quite easy to seed tomatoes with a food mill, but I don’t have one of those. The video for the recipe notes that it’s possible to seed tomatoes by pressing them against a sieve held over a bowl. The problem: I was also supposed to drain them, so I didn’t want all the tomato flesh going into the juice.

In the end, I wound up holding the tomatoes over a sieve, which in turn was over a bowl (but not very well, because the lip of the bowl is bigger than my sieve’s handles), rubbing the seeds out with my fingers, and dumping the seeded tomatoes into another bowl. Even though I was trying not to be too obsessive about it, it still took a really long time. I wound up saving half the flesh and all the juice in the fridge, but I don’t really have any idea what to do with it.

On the other hand, chopping the tomatoes with my kitchen shears was a brilliant idea. One of the better take-aways from this lesson.

Cut off the rind of some parmesan cheese, drain a 15-oz can of cannellini beans, and prepare a bouquet garni of 3 large sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf — 9 minutes
Just a bunch of random prep work that had me running back and forth, trying to find the right containers and suchlike. I wound up putting the thyme and bay leaf into an empty tea-bag so that I’d be able to find them when the soup was finished. (The number of times I’ve looked for a bay leaf in a huge pot of soup, never to find it, are pretty much uncountable.)


Step 2: Starting the soup

Heat a large pot on medium-high heat — 5 minutes
I’m really, really glad I have a big pot for this recipe. It’s pretty huge. My 8-quart pot was just about right. It’s fairly short and squat, with a non-stick coating, and it’s a workhorse for big batch recipes like this. Took a while to heat up, though, given how big it is and how (moderately) small my burner is.

Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil and cook the pancetta until light golden — 4 minutes
I used a bit more oil, because 1 tbsp wouldn’t coat the bottom of my pan. Cooking the pancetta was… fast. As I said, it was sliced very thin, which meant the fat turned white almost immediately and it took very little time to get to the golden stage. I really think I’d like to try the pancetta if it were more thickly sliced, so I could get little cubes instead of little strips.

Add carrots, celery, onion, and a pinch of salt, and cook 8-10 minutes until the vegetables soften but don’t brown — 8 minutes
Nothing much to add here. They cooked for a while but didn’t brown. Though I did need to play with the heat on my element for a while. One day, I’d like to try cooking with gas, but for now I have electric.

Meanwhile, cut 1 zucchini into a medium dice, about 1 cup — 4 minutes (done while vegetables were sweating)
I actually cut up two zucchini because I didn’t know how much would make 1 cup. I have a lot of vegetable leftovers from this recipe. This task was supposed to be part of step 3, but I had a bit of spare time and while the vegetables were sweating and decided to do it early.

Add garlic, cook until it softens and releases its aroma — 4 minutes
Okay, here’s a confession: I have a really bad sense of smell. It’s gotten a bit better since I haven’t been around cats for a while, but unless I have surgery or come up with some better way to deal with my cat allergies, it’s always gonna be an issue for me — just the hair on people’s clothes in the metro is enough to make me lose my sense of smell. So I have no idea when the garlic released its aroma. I just went by the visual clues of softening.

Add tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf, parmesan rind, and 12 cups of chicken or vegetable sock; bring to a simmer — 15 minutes
Yes, really: 12 cups of stock. I used a no-salt-added vegetable stock from Kitchen Basics that was quite tasty. I liked it because it didn’t have any additives. I’m not yet at the point of making my own stock, and I’d have nowhere to put it even if I was. However, bringing 12 cups of stock to a simmer took a long time. I realized only much too late that I should have put the lid on for this part. Oops.


Step 3: Preparing the other vegetables and pasta (while the soup is simmering)

Peel two medium Yukon gold potatoes, cut into medium dice, and put into a bowl of cold water — 12 minutes
The long-ish time is mostly because I started trying to do this while the vegetables were sweating and I realized this would be a bad idea, because I’d need to focus my attention on both things at once. Also, it’s time for another confession: I hate, hate, HATE peeling vegetables. I don’t know what it is with me and vegetable peelers, but I never seem able to use them properly. The blades catch on the food and skip, or food gets stuck between the blades so that I’m essentially trying to peel with other pieces of peel, or even if everything else goes right, the peel gets everywhere… I hate it. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had crappy peelers, maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. All I know is that I hate it.

Trim 4 cups of kale from their stems, tear into bite-size pieces, wash, and spin dry — 6 minutes
Yes, I actually got to use my salad spinner for the first time in… maybe ever, really. Also, it turns out that 4 cups of kale is about half the bunch I bought at the supermarket, so I’ve got 4 cups of kale left over and no idea what to do with it. Any thoughts?


Step 4: Finishing the soup

After the soup has simmered about 15 minutes, cook 2 oz or 1/3 cup of tubetti pasta (or other small, dried pasta) until al dente — 13 minutes
Most of this time was spent waiting for the pasta water to boil. It took about 7 minutes for less than a liter of water. (Again, should have put the lid on. Sigh.) On the other hand, at least I salted the pasta water properly this time. I do learn, albeit slowly.

Add the potatoes to the soup and simmer for 5 minutes — 8 minutes
I went a little long as I was waiting for the pasta to cook. So be it.

Add the zucchini, beans, and drained pasta, and season to taste — 2 minutes
What can I say? It seems that things always take longer than I’m planning on them taking. You’d think something as simple as “dump these things you’ve already prepared into the soup” wouldn’t take that long, but somehow it took two minutes. I’m as baffled as you are.

Add the kale, simmer 5-10 more minutes — 15 minutes
The longer time here is partly due to the fact that I chose this moment to clean up the kitchen, and partly because the potatoes and zucchini weren’t quite done yet. Another odd fact: the celery started out quite soft, but never actually lost its crunch. It was one of the firmest things in the soup. (The reason it started out soft: my fridge and freezer are on the same thermostat dial. For my freezer to be in the proper temperature range, my fridge is below freezing, which is not kind on my vegetables.)

I think I left the soup just below simmering for another 15 minutes or so beyond this, because Marc was on his way home and I wanted it to be nice and hot for him.


Step 5: Garnishing and serving the soup

Season with salt and pepper to taste, ladle into warm bowls, and garnish with pesto, grated parmesan cheese, and olive oil
I don’t do the whole “warmed bowls” thing. Honestly, I don’t know anyone who does for regular weekday meals. (Maybe, maybe for dinner parties, but even then…) Still, the pesto and parmesan were nice touches. So was the home-made anadama bread we had with it: the sweetness of the bread was a nice contrast to the very earthy flavors of the soup.

Total time spent: 2 hours and 15 minutes


What I learned
Here are my take-aways from this lesson:

This recipe takes a long time, and it’s almost all hands-on time
Unlike, say, the Osso “Buko” from Tim Ferriss, which took a long time but was mostly unattended, this soup needed you to be in the kitchen pretty much the whole time. I didn’t even check my email for two hours, which is nigh on unheard of for me. I really don’t like spending that much time in the kitchen. The bulk of the extra time was spent doing all the chopping prep-work (about 45-50 minutes), waiting for the soup to come to a simmer (about 15 minutes), and spending some extra time simmering at the end (about 10 minutes). Honestly, just the time commitment is enough that I probably won’t make this recipe again, despite the massive amount of leftovers.

This recipe makes a lot of leftovers
Even after Marc and I had dinner, I had about four 4-cup tupperwares full of leftovers (about a gallon overall). That’s a lotta leftovers. The new parents of the family are definitely reaping the bounty of my cooking practice this week.

This recipe uses a lot of dishes, but could probably use less
One of the things that slowed me down was I was constantly trying to find another bowl or measuring cup or whatnot. I believe in cleaning as I go, so I was reusing quite a lot of the bowls, but I imagine if I really knew that “1/2 cup of diced carrots” was the same as “2 carrots, diced,” I wouldn’t have needed the measuring cup and could just have put the cut celery directly into the bowl.

Seeding tomatoes is still a pain
As I established on Sunday, me and tomatoes, we don’t get along so well. Next time, instead of trying to drain, deseed, and chop a can of whole tomatoes, I’ll just use a can of diced tomatoes. I honestly can’t tell the difference in taste, and it’s not worth 12 minutes of frustration to try deseeding the whole tomatoes.

My knife skills still need work
My technique isn’t good. For the most part, I’m keeping my guide hand well back from the knife. And while I do generally get into the rolling motion eventually, it’s not always a sure thing. Especially when I’m on the “cut into strips” part of dicing and the food is trying to stick to my blade, making it hard to turn it around to the “cut the strips into cubes” part of dicing. This may be one of the reasons the prep work took me so damn long.

I still need to work on seasoning to taste
One little pinch of salt doesn’t do much when you’re talking about 12 cups of stock, plus all the assembled other stuff. And while I was okay about seasoning as I went, I probably should have seasoned the individual components, especially the potatoes. I found them bland. The overall soup was pretty good, though. At least, I think it was.

Marc needs meat
When I asked Marc how he found dinner, he said that it needed to grow on him. (Which, thankfully, it had by the end of his bowl.) What he meant by that was that it tasted very “vegetable-y.” Which I can’t argue with, given that it was pretty much a vegetable soup with a tiny bit of pasta and a tiny bit of pancetta. On the up-side, the next two cooking lessons are gonna be meat lessons, so he should be happy about that. On the down-side, there are a lot of leftover vegetables in my fridge right now.

I have no idea what to do with leftover vegetables
I’ve got a lot of leftover vegetables. Between today’s soup and the weekend’s couscous and salsa, I’ve got most of a bag of carrots, half a bunch of celery (that I’ll probably throw out; it’s very soft), a cup of cut-up zucchini, about four cups of kale, half a can of seeded whole tomatoes, quite a lot of tomato juice, and a large bunch of thyme. I generally try to keep a bag of yellow onions and a bunch of garlic around, but in addition to that I’ve got a bag of red onions and a small box of shallots. I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing with any of this stuff. Tomato sauce? Salad? Crudités? No clue.

Framing cooking time as an at-home course helps keep me sane
I admit, I was getting really annoyed that the soup was taking so long. It bugged me that recipes always seem to take me twice as long as they should. However, I managed to reframe the issue for myself. What if, I thought, I were taking night classes? I’d be in school for 2-3 hours a night, several nights a week. Well, Rouxbe is effectively just a night class that I’m doing at home and for which I get to eat the homework. Reframing it in this way made me calmer about the whole thing.


Bonus #1: Knife honing practice
When I was out with my mom this weekend, she gifted me one of her honing steels. I’d previously been using a gadget that has a slot in it — you rest it on the counter and draw the knife through the slot a few times to hone it. But I’ve been told that gadgets like mine cut away a lot at the blade, and that it’s better to use a steel. So I tried it out today. I’m happy to report that I still have all my fingers and there was no puddle of blood on my new kitchen floor. I may even have succeeded in honing the knife. It certainly made a nice “pinging” sound.


Bonus #2: Buying a stainless steel frying pan
For most of today, I was hemming and hawing about buying a stainless steel frying pan. The next lesson on Rouxbe is about pan frying, and while I could do it in the non-stick pans I have now, I know that eventually I’m gonna start wanting to make pan sauces, and for that you really should have a stainless steel pan. I was contemplating buying an All-Clad pan, because even though they’re expensive, they’re generally considered to be the best, and I’ll be able to keep it my entire life. And, to be fair, I can afford it right now and may not be able to afford it in the future.

I’d finally decided that I was gonna go with the All-Clad pan and went to The Bay to pick one up, only to realize I wasn’t quite as decided as I thought I was. I knew I wanted All-Clad, but which one? My choice ultimately came down to a 12″ fry pan for $175 (no lid), or a 3-quart sauté pan with a lid for $255. While I was prepared to pay up to $200, the idea of paying $255 was a bit much for me. I spent a long time trying to figure out whether a lid was worth $80 to me… indeed, trying to figure out whether I would need a lid for my pan at all! I have lids that fit the smaller pans I already own, but nothing that would fit a 12″ pan if I wanted to cover it. On the other hand, how often are you gonna be covering a pan like this, when its primary purpose is for things like pan frying and sautéing?

In the end, I decided to sleep on it. I’ll probably go with the fry pan, not the sauté pan. It’s very heavy, very well built, and will do me very well, I think. I can’t justify spending $80 on a lid.

Oh, and a fun fact: All-Clad is the one brand that doesn’t have any boxes out in the main part of the store. They only have the display pieces, and you need to ask a salesperson to go get the ones you want from the back. Is it because they’re so expensive? I don’t know. The stuff from Le Crueset is out in the open, and they’re equally as expensive (maybe even moreso)… but they’re also heavier, so maybe people won’t run off with them as easily. Honestly, I have no idea.

So that’s it. Next time… pan frying!


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