To Your Health
The national conversation about healthy food in the United States seems to be heating up lately, which may be a case of too little, too late. As we see it from half a world away, Americans are waking up to the insidious infiltration of toxicity in the food supply. Yet the horse has clearly left the barn some time ago and we’re all still debating about whether or not we should close the barn door. It’s possible that collective outrage will move decision makers to action, albeit belatedly, but there are so many national distractions that nutrition and the future of food often seem like abstract concepts.
Meanwhile, European nations are trying to hold the line. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are present in some food products here, products that are almost exclusively engineered and brought to market by multinationals. There is significant, vocal popular resistance to a wholesale invasion of genetically modified seeds, however, unlike the recent experience in the U.S. Happily, it’s still possible to procure fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meats, poultry, grains and legumes that are both GMO free and organically cultivated in Italy. You can even source these seeds in the U.S.
There has always been widespread suspicion about “foreign” foods here, which has served Italy’s people well in recent times. Yet supermarkets and discount food stores are making their way into every corner of the Italian peninsula and with them, a confusing array of prepared foods that are no better than the chemically-infused offerings that are making Americans fatter and sicker. It’s an open question whether or not the next generation of Italians will hold the line, opting to preserve traditional, hormone and chemical-free cultivation practices on a local scale.
So we’re opting to follow an old-fashioned approach here, choosing to purchase most of our food in the weekly market from local farmers we know and trust. We also venture out to the country—about three or four miles away from our house in Martina Franca—to buy cheese, meat, bread, eggs and wine from a farmer who’s related to our olive miller. The cheese we buy is made from the milk of three pastured cows, the eggs come from free-range chickens that don’t eat prepared chicken feed and the wine is made from the farmer’s pesticide-free grapes. Unlike the farmer’s market approach in the U.S., this strategy is also the cheapest way to go. For a variety of reasons (reduced land and labor costs, for example) we pay 30-40% less for these vastly superior products than we would if we purchased them in the supermarket.
Today we made a zuppa di verdure, a regular feature in the meal rotation at our house here. Here’s why: vegetable vendors here have developed a brilliant strategy to salvage the bits and pieces of vegetables they have, offering their customers a healthy, thrifty time-saving intervention. All of the vegetable market vendors sell “minestrone,” a one half or full kilo of chopped vegetables to serve as the base for minestrone, a vegetable-based soup that varies seasonally. Our last batch included about ten different kinds of vegetables: onions, peppers, fennel, eggplant, mushrooms, cauliflower, chard, celery, zucchini and carrots. For about $2.50, we bring home a bag full of perfectly prepped vegetables suitable for dropping into a soup pot. Add broth, cooked beans and a small pasta shape like tubetti and you have a hearty, healthy soup that sustains the whole family over several days.
Maybe you can’t find a great source of ready-to-go minestrone vegetables from your local vegetable source. But you can do exactly the same thing by siphoning off bits and pieces of vegetables you use for other meals, chopping them at the same time you’re prepping vegetables for other things and storing them in a airtight container in your refrigerator. In a few days, you’ll have a good variety saved for a minestrone of your own without having to repeat the chopping chore.
This soup can be pureed to elevate it to bisque status disguising the vegetable component for suspicious eaters. You can add while or brown rice instead of pasta and fiddle around with bean varieties to change the character and flavor of the soup considerably. Do you like leafy brassicas? Add more kale, chard or spinach. For heat, add peperoncini (little dried red peppers) during the vegetable saute’. More substance? Potatoes or winter squash add dimension. And in the summer when you’re too hot to move, serve a lighter, brothier version of this soup at room temperature with a dollop of pesto on top. It’s unbelievably restorative no matter what the season or how it’s made. And if you’re careful when choosing your vegetables, you can be sure that it delivers all of the powerful antioxidants you need and none of the chemicals you don’t.
How we choose to shop and eat is fundamental in determining how our food system responds. Everybody is busy, money is tight and children can be incredibly challenging diners. But there is little else more important that nourishing ourselves, particularly when considering that the diseases that are most likely to kill us are food-borne. Heart disease, diabetes and some cancers are preventable and unadulterated food is the most effective medicine we’ve got. Here’s to fostering a culture that values its sustainable cultivation.
Zuppa di Verdura or Minestrone
1 onion, chopped
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup Italian parsley leaves, chopped
1 lb. (4-5 cups) chopped fresh vegetables (a colorful mix of various textures that could include carrots, celery, mushrooms, greens of all kinds, winter squash, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, etc.)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6-7 cups vegetable broth (you could also use chicken broth, but if you use prepared broth cubes, be sure to find an organic option and check the label carefully to avoid MSG and other GMO-based additives)
2 cups cooked beans and their liquid (if using canned beans, drain the liquid and rinse the beans); try chickpeas, cannellini beans or borlotti beans for an authentic Italian minestrone or experiment with adzuki, black-eyed peas or others for something different
1/2 cup brown rice or whole grain pasta
Heat the olive oil in a soup pot (cast iron, Le Creuset or another pot that has a thick or insulated bottom) over medium heat, then add the chopped onion. Reduce the heat a little, cover, and sweat the onions until they are translucent and soft—don’t let them brown. Add the chopped Italian parsley and stir.
Add the chopped, mixed vegetables. Stir, and allow sauté, watching carefully as the vegetables reduce in volume. Add Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, but remember that the stock may be salty, so err on the side of minimalism here.
Add the stock, stir to incorporate, bring to a simmer and cook for about 15-20 minutes partially covered. Add the cooked beans, stir, and continue to simmer. If using brown rice, add it and cook the soup for about 40 minutes. Taste a grain of rice to determine if the rice is cooked, then serve. If using pasta, add and let cook according to package directions. It will take a little longer than if you were boiling it in water alone.
Depending upon the consistency you prefer, add a little more stock or leave the soup as is. You can puree some or all of the soup in a blender or pass it through a food mill for a creamier consistency, or eat it the way it is. Serve with a drizzle of best quality extra virgin olive oil, add a dollop of hot pepper paste if you like heat or sprinkle some grated Parmigiano over the top. If you have any pesto, a spoonful on top of your soup is sublime. You can also submerge a grilled piece of artisan bread that has been rubbed with a cut garlic clove in the soup for a texture and flavor contrast. The variations are endless, just like the ingredients—minestrone is incredibly forgiving.
Serves 12 . . . or four for several days.