No two bowls of minestrone are ever the same and every family in Italy has their own preferences. What is added to minestrone very much depends on individual taste, seasonality and location. Across the arc of the Alps, ingredients such as chestnuts and faro are commonly used. White wine and cheese are used in the cooking, giving the soup an almost fondue-like quality. Such soups are often served over dark rye breads.
On the plains, particularly in Lombardy, pumpkin is the preferred ingredient. Along the spine of the Apennines, where the terrain is less suited to traditional agriculture, it is common to use seasonal ingredients such as mushrooms, chestnuts and wild herbs and greens. Broad beans are highly favoured in Tuscany as is chicory [scarola] in Lazio.
Pulses, grains, cereals, pasta and rice were traditionally added to a minestra to give the dish greater bulk and sustenance. By doing so it would have been eaten as a piatto unico (a plate in its own right). In the north rice is commonly used whereas further south, dried or fresh pasta is more commonplace, as in minestrone alla napoletana. Pulses and grains are especially evident in mountainous regions. Naturally, along the coast, there are countless takes on zuppa di pesce.
In the following recipe I have used a combination of rice, faro and pearl barley. The red radicchio, which is more commonly added to a risotto, gives the soup a strong and distinctive flavour. It’s a highly versatile and popular vegetable, and is excellent both in salads or grilled with a sprinkling of cheese and finished with a healthy drizzle of olive oil. When picking radicchio avoid heads with droopy or tired looking leaves. The head should be firm and crisp, pungent with a clean white central nerve.
Minestra with red radicchio
Minestra di radicchio rosso
50g pearl barley
50g white rice
1.5 litres chicken or vegetable stock
100g diced smoked pancetta
1 large head of radicchio rosso
1 onion chopped
4 thick slices of bruschetta
Grated Parmesan cheese to serve
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and back pepper
Finely chop the onion. Add to a large sauce pan with the olive oil and sauté gently over a low heat until the onions begin to soften. Add the diced pancetta and roughly chopped radicchio to the pan and fry gently for a further 5 minutes until the pancetta has browned slightly and the radicchio softened. Then add the rice, pearly barley and faro. Give it a good stir and pour the stock into the pan. Bring to the boil and continue to simmer gently for between 20 to 25 minutes until the rice and pulses are cooked. Taste for seasoning and then ladle over slices of toasted bruschetta. Serve with a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.