I truly believe I was Italian in my former life. I love everything about the country — the people, the wide-ranging and often awe-inspiring scenery, the rustic architecture and particularly the fresh, local food. To date I have traveled there on four separate occasions and I certainly intend to return. Every dining experience I’ve had in this beautiful country has been sublime – save one. My then college age son was spending a semester in Rome and my sister-in-law and I traveled over for a ten day stay. We didn’t realize that Monday is often the day of the week that smaller local restaurants are closed. Shelli and I ended up at a large hotel dining room in Florence, and the food was just so-so – the spaghettini was no different than what I can get in Seattle and didn’t taste half as wonderful as the other pastas we ate during our trip.
I first saw a slice of Italy on my honeymoon 39 years ago and it was not love at first sight. I was too young, too rushed, and the trip was too structured. My fiftieth birthday took me back to Italy – when I truly fell in love with the country. My hubby and I planned a trip that included a brief stopover in Milan, several days of hiking along the Cinque Terra trail, and the city of Florence — with stops between. We began in Milan and flew out of Florence, and the rest of the time we were transported by train or on foot. The rail cars were not full at all as we vacationed in the “off” or non-tourist season in the fall.
Cinque Terra, translated, means five lands. This foot trail winds along the Italian Riviera and vistas of the sea loom around each corner. While hiking, we observed loads of trees laden with bright yellow lemons, olive trees draped with netting for the harvest, and other local crops I couldn’t quite identify. It was interesting to visit the hillside mausoleums, too. Many of these monuments were hundreds of years old, yet were still lovingly tended to by generations of families. Not surprisingly each town along the trail boasted tiny eateries with fresh seafood on the menu. Also not surprising, these charming “trattorias” were my favorite places to hang out. It was in one of these delightful restaurants that I first spotted Pepperonata – a sumptuous vegetable dish that would become part of my own Global repertoire.
As expected, different regions of Italy offer foods that are local to the area. Shellfish and fish by the sea, meats and cheeses farther inland. The evening dinner prior to our hike we selected a small place in Santa Marguerita and experienced warming minestrone soup, homemade pesto (a specialty of the Liguria region) and heavenly focaccia bread. Of course the meal ended on a sweet note with a scoop of Nutella gelatto.
While at the tiny local eatery I jotted on a napkin the items I could see and taste in the minestrone: broth, orzo pasta, fresh shelled peas, carrots, onion…and when I returned to MY global kitchen I tried to replicate the taste and flavor of Italy. Surprisingly I hit it the first time and I have been making my easy version ever since. The crisp, fresh vegetables pair beautifully with the tender beans and pasta. It can be a meal in itself – though I like to accompany it with good, crusty bread. And I can’t help but dust a touch of Parmigiano-Reggiano on top!
- ½ medium yellow onion, peeled and diced ½ inch
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 small yellow zucchini, diced ½ inch
- 2 large carrot, peeled and sliced ¼ inch
- 1 small parsnip, peeled and sliced ¼ inch
- 2 celery, sliced ½ inch
- 1 cup cabbage, thinly sliced
- ¼ cup fennel root, diced ¼ inch
- 1 medium yukon gold potato, peeled and cubed ½ inch pieces
- 1 ear corn, kernels cut from the cob
- 8 cups chicken broth (or water)
- 2 cups fresh spinach, chiffonaded
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- ½ cup frozen or fresh shelled peas
- ½ cup orzo pasta uncooked
- ½ cup cooked fresh beans if available, or canned beans (I often use garbanzo beans or white beans)
In a large, heavy pot, sauté onion until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables (except spinach, peas and beans) and sauté an additional 5 minutes.
Add broth or water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook 15 minutes.
Add spinach, tomato pasta, peas, pasta and beans.
Cook briefly until orzo is done. Serve with fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top and some slivers of fresh basil (if it is summer).
A couple of cook’s notes:
- I often add a bit of tomato paste to soups to deepen the flavor and so I buy a tube of tomato paste at the supermarket in lieu of a can. Napoleon makes a fairly generic version.
- Sautéing the vegetables rather than just simmering them raw imparts a deep, sweet flavor.
- Feel free to add vegetables such as green beans or parsnips when they are in season.