Southern and Italian cuisines have always gotten along well. My friend Liz and I decided to localize a classic minestrone in her Olive Branch, Mississippi, kitchen, and we were very happy with the result. We substituted black-eyed peas and kidney beans for cannellini, tossed in some green vegetables she just happened to have in her fridge, and served it with corn bread. Lightly frying the cooked pasta adds a little extra layer of nutty flavor. While the original recipe calls for sautéing a little chopped pancetta at the beginning we decided to go meatless and used vegetable stock, enhanced with a few glugs of red wine, and did not miss it a bit. To push the Southernness further, substitute collards or turnips greens for the spinach and adjust cooking time accordingly. A little bacon or country ham certainly wouldn’t hurt either.
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, thinly sliced
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 leek, white and tender green parts thinly sliced
1 cup dried black-eyed peas
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
One 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 quarts vegetable stock
½ cup dry red wine
3 parsley sprigs
3 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
One 15-ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 small zucchini, diced
1 cup penne pasta
5 ounces fresh baby spinach leaves
1/2 cup shredded basil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Corn bread for serving (optional)
1. In a large pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the onion, celery, garlic and leek; season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, until the vegetables are softened, 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the black-eyed peas, red wine, and vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Add parsley, thyme and bay leaf; cover the pot and reduce heat to low; simmer until the black-eyed peas are tender, 45 minutes. Discard the herbs. Add the kidney beans and zucchini and simmer for 10 minutes longer.
2. Meanwhile, in a pot of boiling salted water, cook the penne until al dente. Drain and cool under running water. In a nonstick skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the spinach. Add the penne in a single layer and cook over moderately high heat, turning once, until golden, 5 minutes. Drain the penne on paper towels.
3. Stir the pasta and basil into the soup. Taste for seasoning. Ladle the soup into bowls, sprinkle each with cheese and basil, and serve with corn bread, if desired.
Makes 6-8 servings.