You don’t need to live along the French-Italian Mediterranean rim to enjoy a summer vegetable soup topped with parmesan and fresh basil. This version omits the beans and pasta but is otherwise rather similar to both Italy’s minestrone and Provence’s soupe au pistou. Oh, and did I mention that it also leaves out the tomatoes? It’s an improvisation I came up with one recent sultry day using the ingredients I had on hand in my Paris kitchen.
Minestrone à la française / Minestrone, French style
The result was a zingy, flavor-packed soup that had the people around my table calling for more. Instead of borlotti beans (Italy) or white beans (Provence), it features split peas. And instead of pancetta (Italy), I used a bit of bacon — although this may be omitted for a vegetarian/vegan version. The soup may be made with chicken broth, veggie broth, water or a combination. And the veggies? Well, that’s up to you.
In my case, what I had on hand was red onion, garlic, zucchini, finocchio and carrots. Other options include spinach, potato, celery, leeks, butternut, peas, green beans and the list goes on. The split peas add both substance and texture. And the fresh basil adds that little je ne sais quoi that gives this healthy, earthy soup its punch.
Minestrone has been around in one form or another since long before Caesar conquered Gaul. It began as a peasant soup, sans tomatoes, and has evolved over the centuries as it moved up the Mediterranean coast. Cooks in Genoa innovated by stirring pesto into the soup. In Provence, pistou — the local version of pesto, sans pine nuts — is used instead.
In my version, the basil is snipped over the soup just before serving — no need to make a separate sauce. Preparation is relatively quick. This is an advantage given the kind of heat wave we’ve been having here in Paris — the weather has had me heading for the swimming pool instead of the kitchen. The good news is that this soup may be made in advance, i.e. in the morning before it gets hot, and refrigerated until you’re ready to serve it.