All of us who cook have recipes in our heads, the ones we could make in our sleep. They're the well we return to again and again, the flavors that go into making our favorite comfort foods. One of mine is a fruit crisp, based on a recipe from my grandmother's family that I've adapted to my own tastes. Another is a marinara that takes all of 20 minutes to put together but is best after simmering for several hours (and is even better the next day). It's a fantastic base for a meat sauce or layering with cheese and pasta for lasagne, and makes a pot roast that is to die for.
I learned to make soups in college when I ran a coffeehouse at the U of O where I fell in love with minestrone. So when I'm feeling like a pot of something deeply warm and delicious, I start pulling things out of the cupboards and emptying the vegetable bin. You can use beef stock or chicken, potatoes or pasta, chard or green beans. Or none of those. The basics revolve around onion, carrots, celery and tomatoes; the rest is pretty much up to you. It's nice to have a starch, so turnips, potatoes, pasta or white beans are good. And something green for color is nice, and I'll often throw in kale or peas or even favas when they're in season.
After all, it's all about the comfort!
1 onion, chopped fine
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1-2 c. potatoes, diced
1-2 c. diced zucchini or other vegetables
1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes, crushed
6-8 c. stock
2 c. cooked cannelini beans
1-2 c. chopped kale or other greens
1-2 c. chicken, sausage or meat, shredded (optional)
Salt to taste
1/2 c. parmesan, plus more for serving
Saute onions and garlic for 2-3 min. until golden. Add carrots and celery, saute 2-3 min. This is the base that Marcella Hazan refers to as soffritto (the raw, diced vegetables are the battuto). Then the final stage is the insaporire, or sauteing the rest of vegetables in that base. Who knew? In any case, add potatoes and saute for another 2-3 min., then add the chopped zucchini and saute for 2-3 min. Then add the rest of the ingredients except for the cheese (I like to crush the tomatoes by hand) and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 2-3 hrs. Just before serving, stir in parmesan.