Taking Stock: Vegan Minestrone with Umami to Spare

Taking Stock: is a series focusing on soups and stews. Look for others coming soon: Chinese Black Chicken Soup; Curried Kuri Squash Bisque; Karwendel (Lentil & Kielbasa) Soup. Basics of making stock will also be covered and don't forget this tip sheet on buying a stock pot from my Essential Kitchen Equipment Series. 

 

This week in Taking Stock I'm going to talk about Minestrone. Minestrone or “big soup” in Italian, like many of my favorite dishes, was most likely borne of frugality. Humble cooks in any culture know how to make a delicious meal from whatever is on hand. An admirable skill, in my opinion.

I am working at developing a new habit: weekly meal planning. One of my goals is to bolster our newish habit of at least one meatless meal per week. Another goal is to incorporate whole grains at least twice a week. For Monday's Meatless Meal, I decided a big pot of Minestrone would be great. I had some wheatberries to use, some great beans. I began looking for a recipe that looked good even without the seemingly critical ingredient: Parmigiano Reggiano.

After searching all over I found a startling paucity of options. Recipes which I could tell by reading would taste like a bowl of veggies in water. Or, recipes that came up in a search for “vegan” turned out to be “vegetarian” which is fine for most of us, but not if you’re allergic to dairy, as I am. The challenge is to make a vegan soup that packs the same umami flavor, savory, satisfying flavor without the Parmigiano Reggiano, bacon or pancetta.

Vegan Minestrone Soup

I knew the secret to my vegan version of this favorite soup would be building layers of flavor and relying on umami from non-meat sources. Two things are commonly found in the base of Minestrone: bacon or pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano. Both are umami rich foods. My goal was to create a rich and satisfying soup without these easy shortcuts - the fat, salt, & umami that comes with meat or cheese.

There are two main ways to build umami in your cooking: one is selecting umami rich ingredients, the other is to use umami building technique.

One of the reasons many meatless meals can be found lacking is that meat is one of the prime sources of umami. Umami is that mouth-coating, savoriness, the “fifth taste” discovered by Dr. Ikeda in the 1920s. It is a flavor we are hard-wired to crave. This is not to say that things like vegetables are lacking in umami. To learn how to create umami without animal sources is not hard. Let’s take a look at our umami arsenal. You’ve probably got it in your cabinets, fridge or pantry already and you may not even know it.

 

My Plan: 

  1. Building flavor by sautéeing vegetables first to develop fond (“foundation”) those browned-bits on the bottom of the pot created by Maillard reaction - browning that creates flavors - think of browning bread, or searing meat. (This process is often confused with "caramelization" which is something that develops the sugars but not the amino acids of Maillard, and caramelization happens at a much lower temp.)
  2. Knowing what common kitchen items contain umami and how to pick the ones that fit the flavor profile of the dish you are making, is important. In this case, umami rich foods appropriate for an Italian soup would include: Parmigiano Reggiano (not for dairy-free) , maybe anchovy (not for a vegan version), roasted, ripe tomatoes, spinach, kidney beans.
  3. Soy sauce, miso, nutritional yeast, porcinis - all of these help build a strong umami profile.

 

Umami Rich Vegan Minestrone

This "big soup" does indeed have a lot of ingredients. It's also good with fewer, so don't let a missing ingredient or two stop you from starting.

Grains: wheat berries are nutritious and delicious. They lend a toothsome pop and add heft to the soup. You can cook them ahead of time in water or vegetable stock then freeze in 1 C quantities. I soaked what I had on hand the night before, then boiled in stock while I chopped veggies. To quick-soak, pour boiling water over dried wheat berries and let soak for an hour.

Pasta: I par-boiled shells for this batch while I prepped veggies.

Chop veggies in dice roughly 1/4" so that you can get a good variety in each bite, but they're large enough to be distinguishable.Feel free to use different seasonal vegetables throughout the year. Zucchini, eggplant in summer, peas in spring, cabbage in winter. It's a template more than an exact recipe.

❤ items that include a good dose of umami

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 C diced carrots, diced
  • 1/2 C diced celery, diced
  • 3/4 C diced onion, diced
  • 1/2 C leeks sliced thinly
  • 2 TBSP olive oil
  •  1-2 TBSP minced fresh garlic
  • 1-2 tsp oregano
  • Heavy pinch rosemary
  • 1 lge allspice berry
  • 2 dried chilies
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • Pinch fennel seeds
  • 1 C white wine, vermouth or water
  • 1 TBSP soy sauce ❤
  •  1/3 C sun-dried tomato ❤ (pour very hot water over, to rehydrate, then chop and reserve liquid for soup)
  • 1/3 C dried porcini ❤ (pour very hot water over, to rehydrate, then chop and reserve liquid for soup)
  •  13.4 oz carton of kidney beans drained and rinsed ❤
  • 13.4 oz carton of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
  •  1 C (or more) chopped tomatoes ❤ (I like Pomi, or maybe you've got some you canned last summer, lucky you)
  • 1 C wheat berries, pre-cooked  ❤
  • Small pasta, 1/2 box, small shapes such as ditalini, elbows, or small shells, par-boiled
  • 4C veggie stock, I  ❤ Magic Mineral Broth (made with kombu, rich in vitamins, mineral and umami)
  • 4 C water or more
  • Three or four large rainbow chard leaves, stems minced and set aside with celery and carrots, leaves sliced in half, then rolled and sliced cross-wise
  • Handful of fresh spinach ❤
  • Parsley, minced.

 Directions:

  1. Parboil wheat berries and pasta separately, set aside.
  2. While grains and pasta are boiling, chop carrots, celery, onions, leeks, and chopped chard stems.
  3. Mince parsley and garlic.
  4. Measure spices
  5. Rinse beans.
  6. Clean and slice chard, spinach.
  7. Sauté mirepoix (carrots, celery, onion) and leeks in 2 TBSP olive oil. As they begin to soften add garlic.
  8. Add spices, sun-dried tomatoes, porcini.
  9. When the veggies begin to brown, deglaze the pot by adding the wine (or water).
  10. Add chopped tomatoes, beans, soaking liquids from the sun-dried tomatoes and porcini.
  11. Add the stock, soy sauce, water, chard ribbons, pasta and wheat berries.
  12. Cook for about half an hour till veggies become soft.
  13. Add spinach, parsley.
  14. Taste - adjust seasoning as you like with salt, pepper, chili flakes.

Garnishing & Options:

  • Adding faux parmesan - keeps it vegan and adds umami from Nutritional Yeast and Miso.
  • Adding pistou, pesto or even chimichurri you had in the freezer is nice.
  • If you are not concerned about this being vegan, starting with chopped bacon or pancetta is great. Adding a rind of parmigiano reggiano lends great umami, and salt to the pot. If using it, don't add additional salt without tasting first.
  • Wheat berries, spelt and farro are kissing cousins. (Here's a great chart about all sorts of grains.) And a great breakfast of wheatberries. Tuscans make a zuppa di farro, similar to this one. According to Cesare Casella, "locals say one hundred kernels of farro give you all the energy you need for a day and Romans paid their soldiers in spelt.

 

Vegan Minestrone