soup du jour

Lista’s Italian Cuisine had many memorable items on their menu. Most customers had their personal favorites, whether it was Spaghetti with Meatballs, Lasagna Bolognese, Eggplant Parmigiana, or the fabulous Rigatoni fra Diavalo — everything was well crafted, satisfying and delicious! Still, there was one unsung hero on the menu that truly showed my Dad’s culinary passion: the soup du jour.

Dad was a soup connoisseur… and a Soup Master. He personally created and prepared a variety of soups that had a perfect balance of broth, substance, texture and most importantly flavor. And whenever Dad dined in another restaurant he always ordered soup. Partly to see what the competition was doing, but primarily because he simply loved a good bowl of soup. If the soup was good, Dad was sure to compliment the chef — but if it was not so good, he wasn’t afraid to comment on that.

One soup lesson I remember Dad teaching me when I worked at Lista’s: You need to always serve soup from the bottom of the pot, in other words, don’t just scoop the broth off the top but reach the ladle down and bring up all the ingredients so each customer would have a full bowl of soup goodness. And this was a lesson he freely shared with the waitstaff in other establishments whenever he ordered soup.

One of the notable members of Dad’s soup repertoire was Lista’s Minestrone.

Minestrone (pronounced “min eh stron ee”) is the quintessential Italian vegetable soup and its name literally means “soup” so to say minestrone soup is truly redundant. Lista’s served minestrone every day… and for many years served it as a complimentary appetizer with every meal.

In a busy restaurant, chef’s often turn to certain specialty or convenience food items to make prep time shorter, and such is the case with Lista’s. To make his minestrone Dad always used a frozen “Italian Vegetable Blend” with zuchini, cauliflower, carrots, Italian green beans, and red peppers. And since the soup was made almost daily the use of frozen vegetables didn’t detract from the fresh taste or texture. The soup also included ditalini pasta, ceci beans (garbanzo), and of course a generous amount of Pecorino Romano cheese.

And although minestrone is a vegetable soup it was always made with chicken stock (in those days vegans weren’t a big demographic). Chicken stock was generally the basis for all soups with the exception of those with beef in the name (i.e beef barley). You can easily use one of the many boxed chicken broths/stocks available today (or substitute a vegetable broth) or even use a jar of chicken base — but for an authentic soup making experience making your own homemade chicken stock is quite simple.

Here is my method of making homemade chicken stock. I have found using inexpensive bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs works well but chicken quarters, drumsticks, or even the whole bird is equally good. And if I have 1 or 2 leftover rotisserie chicken carcasses in the freezer I add those. I typically only add bay leaf but will throw in a sprig of thyme or parsley if I have it around. Sometimes I add some ground turmeric (good antioxidant) which gives the stock a rich yellow color that is especially nice when making rice with the stock. And unlike packaged products, this stock is free of sugars, yeasts, MSG, soy, gluten/wheat, mushrooms, and tons of salt. It takes some time but is well worth it from a healthy eating perspective.

Homemade Chicken Stock

Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1-2 hours
Yield: about 2 quarts stock

4-6 Bone-in Chicken Thighs with Skin
1-2 Leftover Roasted Chicken Carcasses (if available)
Salt and Black Pepper – to season chicken

2 stalks Celery (with leaves) – cut in quarters
2 large Carrots (unpeeled) – cut in quarters
1 large Yellow Onion (unpeeled) – cut in quarters
3-4 cloves Garlic (unpeeled)
1 tsp Whole Black Peppercorns
1-2 large Bay Leaves
1 sprig Thyme or Parsley (optional)
1 tsp Salt (or to taste)
1/2 tsp Turmeric (optional)

10 cups Cold Water

1. You will need a large stock pot or dutch oven that has a lid. Place pot on the stove and turn the burner on med-high. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and place skin side down on bottom of heated pot. Allow to sear and cook for 10 minutes, turn over so skin side is up. Add broken up chicken carcasses if using.
2. Add celery, carrots, onion, garlic, 
peppercorns, bay leaves, and thyme (if using), salt and turmeric (if using) — cover pot and allow to sweat for 10 minutes. Add 10 cups cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover pot and allow to simmer for at least 1 hour. Occasionally skim off any foam that accumulates at top (if desired).
3. When done cooking, use tongs to remove the chicken pieces (reserve meat for the soup or another use). Remove and discard the vegetables and bones — then strain stock through a wire mesh strainer into a suitable container. Discard anything left in strainer.
4. If using right away to make soup, allow the stock to sit for 15 minutes and use a kitchen spoon to skim accumulated fat from the top — or if using later pour into small containers (about 2-3 cups) and refrigerate overnight allowing the fat to solidify on top. Then simply remove and discard fat before using in recipes.
5. This homemade chicken stock, if properly cooled, will last 3-5 days in the refrigerator or can be frozen up to a month.

Lista’s Minestrone

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30-45 minutes
Serves: 4-6

1 TBSP Olive Oil
2 stalks Celery – sliced 1/2 inch pieces
1 med Onion – chopped
2 cloves Garlic – minced
7 cups Prepared Chicken Stock
1 bag (16 oz) Frozen Italian Blend Vegetables
1 can (15 oz) Garbanzo Beans – rinsed
1 can (15 oz) Diced Tomatoes with juice
1 tsp Dry Parsley Flakes
1/2 tsp Dry Basil
1/2 tsp Salt – or to taste
1/2 tsp Black Pepper – or to taste
1 cup Ditalini Pasta
1/2 cup Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese

1. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy stock pot over medium heat. Add celery, onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent.
2. Add chicken stock to pot, turn heat to high and bring to a boil. Add frozen vegetables, garbanzo beans, canned tomatoes, parsley, basil, salt and pepper. Return to a boil — reduce heat to med-low and allow to simmer until vegetables are cooked through — about 15-20 minutes.
3. In a separate small pan, cook pasta according to package directions to al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water. Set aside.
4. Just before serving, stir pasta to soup and allow to heat through — about 5 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano and ladle soup into individual bowls. Serve immediately.

There you have it, a good basic chicken stock and Lista’s Minestrone just like Dad made in the restaurant. If you can’t find the Italian Blend Vegetables (Wegmans, Tops, Walmart and Target all have a version) then feel free to use equivalent amounts of fresh vegetables. The flat Italian green beans and cauliflower are a nice touch so you have that green-white-red Italian flag look. If you won’t finish the soup in one sitting then keep the pasta on the side and add it to the individual bowls when serving (to avoid pasta getting mushy). You can freeze the leftovers (without pasta) for up to a month in a sealed container.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

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