If You Cook It in Water It Will Taste Like Water

My Mom, like her Mom, had a great sense of humor. Telling her stories will for me and I hope for you, embrace her incredible humor. I can’t recall my Mom’s first cooking secret although having us taste everything was our first lesson about food. I can still see her with a twinkle in her eye saying, “If you cook it in water, it’ll taste like water!” Mom may not have used today’s culinary term ‘infusion’, but she knew well to season her waters, pasta water, polenta water, even to rinse cans of tomato paste for tomato water. She instructed us to rinse dried mushrooms, soak and save the mushroom water for the sauce. She said her Mom would boil apple peels to use the apple water for syrups, juices and fruit sauces. I surely applied her theory. Years later, at my deli, La Famiglia, people who ate my minestrone soup would often comment at its great flavor. If they only knew, I would reserve the outside dark leafy greens of the head lettuce, romaine lettuce and green cabbage and boil them in water, save the juice from the garbanzo beans and use the tomato water rinsed from cans of tomato paste. Guaranteed the ‘flavored’ water was the secret foundation for our minestrone soup. Here’s the recipe.


For Mom, Wednesdays were clean the fridge and soup day. We could always count on her soups, rich with the backbone of her cooking, flavored waters evolving into full-bodied, complex broths ready to embrace the vegetables, beans, meats and pasta.  What better meal to serve our family. Satisfied that she had not only accomplished the Wednesday soup and fridge ritual, but that she had also ’infused’ our growing bodies with vitamins and minerals. Ladle this soup into big bowls over thick crusts of day old Italian bread. Top with fresh grated cheeses, ours was equal parts dry jack and pecorino Romano.�

I advanced from the home refrigerator to the delicatessen’s two walk-ins. We saved the trimmings from our daily prep and made minestrone, sometimes with beef and sometimes vegetarian. 

For the vegetable broth
Collect the outer leaves of head lettuce, romaine lettuce, green cabbage, stems of parsley, spinach, the outer stalks of celery and tops as well as heart trimmed, outer layers of onions, carrot trimmings and peels, (but not too much as too many carrots will ’sweeten’ the water), stems and stalks of leeks, green onions, tips of shallots and garlic, tomato skins, tops and bottoms and their juices. Rinse and place in a large soup kettle, cover with water and simmer for at least 1 ½ to two hours. Taste, add salt. Reduce broth until the flavor emerges. Strain. 

For the beef broth
3-5 pounds beef soup bones, brisket, or boiling beef
2 bay leaves
4 stalks celery, including leaves, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 yellow onion, stuck with 4 cloves
1 large carrot
few sprigs fresh Italian parsley
salt and peppercorns

To make the soup broth, add the soup bones to a kettle, cover with water. Place on the stove and bring to a boil. Skim the water of any fat or scum. Reduce the heat to low, add the aromatic vegetables, herbs, carrot, celery, parsley, onion, garlic, bay leaf, salt and peppercorns. Simmer for 1 1/2 to two hours or until the beef is tender. Strain, reserving the broth to chill. Skim the fat. Trim and chop the beef. Reserve.

For the beans and broth
1 pound dried beans, pinto, kidney, garbonzo, white bean or other dried bean of your liking. Soak for two hours and drain. For a quick method, cover beans with water, bring to a boil, turn off flame and soak for one hour. Cook beans with onion, garlic, bay leaf, salt and pepper until tender. Cool and reserve including broth

For the soup
2 quarts vegetable broth
2 quarts beans and broth
2 quarts beef broth
1 cup sliced celery including the tops
1 cup sliced carrots
3 cups coarse chop green cabbage
1 cup sliced yellow onion
4 Tablespoon fresh chop parsley
8 cloves fresh chop garlic
1 cup diced zucchini
1 cup chopped fresh string beans
2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1 cup diced turnips and their greens trimmed and chopped
1 cup diced russet potatoes
1 head spinach, chopped
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
salt to taste and freshly ground pepper
meat, trimmed of fat and chopped
1 cup red wine
1/2 pound cooked al dente pasta

Combine the vegetable broth, beans and juices, beef broth in a soup kettle. Bring to a simmer and add the celery, cabbage, onion, parsley, garlic, turnips, turnip greens, potatoes and tomato paste. Simmer for approximately twenty minutes. Next add the beef, carrots, string beans, zucchini, red pepper flakes, spinach and fresh basil. Simmer uncovered until the vegetables are tender. Taste and correct for seasoning. Add the red wine.

The final addition will be the cooked pasta. Add and simmer the few minutes that it takes to reheat the pasta. Taste for final seasonings and correct if needed.

Think of my Mom when you eat this soup and enjoy! And let me know how you flavor the waters.

Love and Garlic, Nancy Vajretti


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