My proudest culinary achievements aren’t the ones where I followed a recipe really well or repeated a specific technique demonstrated by a chef, they’re the ones where on a freezing cold night, instead of ordering a pizza or Thai food (side-note: we still haven’t found good take-out in the West Village; anyone?) I whip up something delicious with what I have on hand.
Last week, I was excited to use a stock I’d made from a leftover Thomas Keller Ad Hoc chicken. What happened was, usually when we finish a roast chicken I put the bones in a freezer bag, pop it in a freezer and never really use them.
This time, with the chicken bones still warm from our dinner, I broke up the carcass into bits (exposing more bone), dropped them into a pot along with a whole unpeeled onion, a whole unpeeled carrot, a stalk of celery and a few peppercorns. I covered with water (three or four cups) and brought to a gentle simmer then let it quietly bubble for three hours while we watched “American Idol” on the DVR. Three hours later, it was a nice light yellow color–not the most intense stock of your life (for that, use the Barefoot Contessa’s crazy wasteful stock recipe (she calls for three whole chickens which you discard!))–but it was lovely nonetheless and smelled great. I immediately strained it into a bowl which I covered with plastic and placed in the refrigerator so the fat could rise. The next morning I skimmed the fat off the top and poured my spontaneous stock into a soup container which I stored in the freezer.
Fast forward to this bitter cold night; I knew I had that stock and wanted to use it. So here’s what I did. I defrosted the soup in the same pot I made it, and brought it to a simmer.
In my Dutch Oven, I sauteed onions and celery in butter (I didn’t have carrots, but if I did I would’ve used them) with a little salt and pepper. I did this on low heat and let it go for about 20 minutes so it’d get really soft and mellow. I didn’t know at this point what kind of soup I was making, but after finding an article online while the onions and celery were cooking, I decided I would make minestrone. (At which point I added a splash of olive oil, to transfer the fat from France to Italy.)
I also had some cabbage so I sliced that thin (about 1/4 of a whole cabbage) and added that to the onions and celery, stirring and cooking until the cabbage was soft. Then I added 2 cloves of chopped garlic and a squeeze of tomato paste (I buy tomato paste in a tube). Once those were stirred in, I added all my chicken stock (about 3 to 4 cups), a can of cannellini beans (drained), and–the best part–a big handful (or two) of Arborio rice. I also seasoned the whole mix once again.
I cooked it at a fairly active simmer until the rice was cooked and then tasted, tasted, tasted–adjusting the salt and adding a few red chile flakes for good measure.
And, wary readers, this was a real achievement; a culinary coup–topped with a drizzle of good olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan cheese–maybe one of my favorite things I’ve ever whipped up, spur of the moment. It was hearty and flavorful and really satisfying on a cold night. Was it as good as our winning soup from The Great Soup battle? Or for that matter, the minestrone from that battle that came in second place?
No, but the ingredients weren’t as esoteric (except for the cabbage). Everything else–onions, celery, garlic, beans, tomato paste and rice–are ingredients you should have on hand anyway. And it was really rewarding to use the stock from the leftover chicken.
So that’s my made-up minestrone for you. Feel free to improvise; it’s the improvising that gives made-up minestrone its name.