It’s warming up in south-east Queensland. Our short “winter” has passed, but I took one final opportunity last week to make a big pot of soup before it gets too hot to enjoy it properly. After all, no one wants to be eating soup during a sultry Brisbane summer.
When I lived in Melbourne, one of my very dear friends was Cathy. She’s a fellow soprano, and we’re both somewhat foodies as well (she probably more than me, but we do both love cooking). She also moved to Brisbane for a while shortly after I did, but these days she’s off having adventures in Japan. While we were both down south, however, Cathy and I used to meet at my place for ‘sing and bake’ days. Or sometimes ‘sing and soup’ days. Basically we would cook something together and while it was in the oven or on the stove smelling more and more delicious we would pull out a pile of music and sing through whatever we felt like, just for fun. Mostly duets of whatever we could find in the public domain – Bach, Vivaldi, Monteverdi and so on. We’re both reasonably competent sight-readers, and it was great fun to note-bash our way through something fast and sprightly, with the added challenge of getting our heads around Italian or German. Then we would reward ourselves with the results of our culinary efforts. And tea; there was always tea.
It was Cathy who introduced me to what is now one of my all-time favourite classical CDs, Teatro d’Amore. It’s an album of instrumental and vocal music by Claudio Monteverdi, by the excellent and sometimes blissfully unconventional ensemble L’Arpeggiata. Several tracks feature soprano Nuria Rial, and current darling of the countertenor world Philippe Jaroussky – who are just fabulous, there really are no other words to describe them. Cathy and I attempted a few of the tracks, like Pur ti Miro (which we later ended up performing for friends and family in a small, informal lounge room soiree last year) and Chiome d’oro, which we found a duet setting of instead of the solo version on the album. But the one which I will always associate with Cathy and ‘sing and soup’ days is the final track, Zefiro Torna (literally ‘Zephyr Returns’, Zephyr being the Greek god of the west wind):
“Zephyr returns and fills the air with good scents, and warms the waters, and, whispering in the green branches, gets the flowers to dance in the meadow.”
Very appropriate for the second day of spring! This music makes me all kinds of happy. And whenever I hear someone say that classical music is slow and/or boring, this is what I want to play them. I wish I could sing it even half as well as Nuria Rial! But I can continue to dream (and practice).
Anyway, I’m sure that on at least one occasion Cathy and I made the recipe below. I thought I would share it here so that you can also have the complete Monteverdi & Minestrone experience!
What you need
Carrots (2-3 depending on size)
Celery (probably 2 sticks, I usually match the amount of carrot)
A handful of green beans (or more if you have small hands or really like beans)
Stock (chicken or vegetable, cubes or liquid, they’re both fine – you’ll want about a litre, maybe slightly more)
Tin of tomatoes*
Tin of kidney beans (butter beans, cannellini beans or a bean mix also work)
Small pasta like macaroni, shells or spirals (about a cup, uncooked)
Garlic (2-3 cloves)
Herbs (fresh if you have them, but dried will do – I try to use fresh basil and Italian parsley, and supplement with dried oregano or thyme. Whatever is in your pantry that is vaguely Italian is fine.)
Grated parmesan cheese (the actual cheese, not that strange powder that is supposed to pass for cheese which people put on bolognese)
A good olive oil
How to turn it into the most amazing minestrone ever
- Go to iTunes or the album’s website and buy Teatro d’Amore. Play it loudly somewhere near the kitchen.
- Joyfully chop all your vegetables. I dice everything fairly finely, but it really depends on how chunky your like your soup. I chop the beans into 3-4cm pieces.
- Heat a little oil in a large soup pot, and sautee the onion, carrot and celery for about 5 minutes.
- Add the stock, leek, beans and tomatoes and bring to the boil.
- Reduce the heat, add enough water to make sure the vegetables are covered, and then leave on the stove simmering for about the length of time that it takes to listen to Zefiro Torna eight times. (That’s approximately an hour for the party poopers who don’t think they could handle quite that much Monteverdi. Oh, and a note about adding water… better to add a little too much but let it reduce down than to not add enough initially and have to add more later, which will make it more watery and less flavoursome.)
- While you’re listening to Nuria & Philippe serenade you, finely chop your herbs and garlic, and mix them together in a small separate bowl with the grated parmesan, 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, and some salt and pepper (and any dried herbs you’re using). You want to make a thick pesto-like paste, so just add as much oil as you need for it to hold together.
- After about the sixth time through Zefiro Torna, cook and drain the macaroni.
- When the soup has had about an hour of simmering (timing is not crucial, give it longer if you like), add the cooked macaroni, kidney beans and the pesto. Stir and increase heat again until just starting to boil.
- Serve with a little extra parmesan sprinkled on top, and with your favourite bread. (If you’re looking for something simple to make yourself that requires no yeast or rising time, I heartily recommend this sour skon.)
*At some point in the cooking process I was momentarily distracted by the music and inadvertently added the tin of tomatoes which also included sliced green olives, thus creating a sort of Spanish-influenced Italian soup. But Nuria Rial is from Catalonia, so it’s all OK… and it still tasted great!