More than two decades ago, in the vibrant streets of east London, a house on Cassland Road would emanate the most enchanting cooking smells. Whether it was early morning, late afternoon, or evening, the alluring scents of baking, simmering, and roasting would waft through the kitchen window, enticing passersby on the pavement. The mystery deepened as no one was ever seen at the window or entering or leaving the house. Who was the culinary maestro responsible for these wonderful creations? Was it a large family, a host of friends, or perhaps a small catering company? The imagination ran wild, pondering whether they cooked with delight, exhaustion, or both. Nevertheless, their repertoire of fruit cakes, delectables wrapped in pastry, aromatic rice and peas, hearty roast dinners, and flavorful curries captivated the senses like low-flying aircraft, carried away by the gentle east London breeze.
Fast forward two decades to Rome, where the nostalgic smell of burnt jam and sizzling chicken sparks fond memories of Cassland Road. Cooking in a dressing gown at 9 am was an attempt to escape the relentless heat and stickiness that inevitably arrived by mid-morning, a state further accentuated by the watermelon’s adhesive properties. The burnt jam, escaping from a tart, and the chicken were all part of the preparation for this week’s recipe: minestrone estivo freddo, or cold summer minestrone.
The term “minestra” derives from a verb meaning “to distribute” or “to serve,” indicating a dish that requires spooning from a large vessel into smaller ones. With the suffix “-one” or “-oni” signifying largeness, a minestrone is a grand soup. The version we’ll explore hails from Milan, a particular favorite and a joy to create.
First, diced chicken is fried until cooked through, and just before removing it from the heat, minced garlic, rosemary, salt, and pepper are added, creating a tantalizing aroma. This delightful mixture is then set aside while an enticing onion, potato, courgette, bean, and red pepper soup is prepared. Rice is cooked in the soup, and once it’s nearly done, cooked beans and the chicken, along with any accumulated juices, are added. The minestrone is then left to rest.
Resting is crucial, allowing the rice to swell, and the flavors to meld. At this time of year, there’s no risk of the food going cold, making “room temperature” or “tepid” better descriptors than “cold,” as that’s how it’s meant to be enjoyed. Some recipes recommend transferring the soup into a dish or placing spoons upright in it, but this version remains soft and smooth, even at room temperature, best served straight from the pan or tureen. If desired, it can be reheated, releasing the captivating aroma that will fill the kitchen, a gentle reminder of the Cassland Road days, accompanied by hopes for a refreshing breeze.
Summer Minestrone with Rice
- Olive oil
- 200g boneless and skinless chicken breast, diced
- 1 small sprig of minced rosemary
- 1 minced garlic clove
- Salt and black pepper
- 2 onions, sliced
- 150g peeled and diced potatoes
- 150g trimmed and diced courgettes
- 150g diced red pepper
- 150g trimmed and cut green beans (3cm lengths)
- 180g arborio or carnaroli rice
- 200g cooked cannellini beans
- 1 handful of torn basil leaves
In a heavy-based pan or casserole, warm two teaspoons of the oil, then fry the chicken until it’s cooked through. In the last seconds of cooking, stir in the rosemary and garlic, and season to taste, then take off the heat, tip on to a plate and set aside.
In the same pan, gently fry the onion and a pinch of salt in six tablespoons of oil, until they start to turn soft and translucent. Add the potato, courgettes, peppers, green beans and a litre and a half of water. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.
Add the rice and raise the heat slightly so the soup simmers in a lively way for another 10 minutes, then, in the last few seconds, return the chicken (and any resting juices) to the pot and stir in the cannellini beans. Pull off the heat, add a handful of torn-up basil, season again, if you think it needs it, and leave to sit and rest for at least 15 minutes.