I love Minestrone soup! We went to the Olive Garden on our way to Arizona for dinner. I ordered Minestrone soup, of course, and salad to start off with. As I was eating I wondered why I don't make Minestrone at home more often? Then I remembered it's because every time I have made this particular soup, it turns out somewhat bland. Minestrone is primarily made up of fresh vegetables and vegetable stock with some beans and pasta. All that is great, but it could use a little help in the flavor department if you know what I mean. Some complexity and depth to it would be nice too. If the Olive Garden could accomplish that then I decided I could too, dang it!
I googled about a dozen different recipes and analyzed each one. Most of the soups are very similar. They differ in the varieties of vegetables used and call for different stocks. Some use beef stock, although I read that vegetable stock is "correct." We avoid a lot of meat product over here so veggie stock sounded good to me. Most of the recipes called for salt and pepper to be used to flavor the broth. That's it. That was not going to work for me. At Olive Garden, there is definite Italian flavors going on in the soup that you just cannot achieve from salt and pepper alone. There is also this complexity going on in it that doesn't come from just stock. There is something else to it. I researched and came up with my own recipe relying on one more heavily than the others for an outline of right quantities to use and so forth. I will give credit to Todd Wilbur for the recipe which is actually based on a knock off of the Olive Garden's. It is similar, but not exactly spot on. Olive Garden's tastes like they put a Parmesan cheese rind in their soup. It's something Giada De Laurentiis does a lot. I can't guarantee they do, but it tastes like it to me. I didn't add that in to my recipe because I didn't have any rinds on hand. If you do, throw one or two in. It would be heavenly. If you don't know what I'm talking about I'll explain. Next time you buy a wedge of Parmesan, use it all until only the end remains. There will sill be some cheese left on the end. That is great. Then, throw it in a plastic bag and store in the freezer to toss into soups when needed. The rind will soften and impart a Parmesan flavor to the pot.
I decided to add both tomato paste and red wine to my veggies before adding the stock to boost flavor. The red wine is optional, but add it if you can. There are a lot of seasonings in this soup. Sorry bout that, but it's the right seasonings that will make this soup shine instead of tasting like every other vegetable soup you have ever made in your life and will keep it far from the dreaded bland zone. I used dried oregano, basil and thyme, then added pepper, onion salt, Lawrys salt, garlic powder, and finally celery salt. Onion salt is perfect for this. If you don't have Lawrys salt, sub for more onion salt. Same for celery salt. However, If you can get all of them in there they work together really great. Dried herbs work better than fresh in this case.
This a hearty soup, chock full of ingredients.
Copycat Olive Garden Minestrone Soup
adapted from Todd Wilbur
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, minced
1/2 cup chopped zucchini (about 1 small)
1 cup fresh green beans, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 stalk celery, minced
4 teaspoons minced garlic (about 4 cloves)
4 cups vegetable stock (do not use chicken broth)
2 (15 ounce) cans red kidney beans, drained
2 (15 ounce) cans white beans (great northern or cannelini), drained
1 (14 ounce) can diced tomatoes, left un-drained
1 medium carrot, chopped finely
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 a small can of tomato paste (eyeball it)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion salt
1/2 teaspoon Lawrys salt
1/4 teaspoon celery salt
3 cups hot water (if not using wine, add another 1/2 cup)
4 cups fresh baby spinach
3/4 cup small or medium shell pasta (I used whole wheat)
*Parmesan cheese rind, optional
Heat three tablespoons olive oil over medium heat in a large soup pot. Saute onion, celery, green beans, zucchini, and carrots in the oil for 5 minutes or until onions are translucent. Add garlic and cook another minute, stirring.
Add the 1/2 can of tomato paste and stir in with the vegetables. Add the vegetable stock to the pot, then add the red wine, hot water, tomatoes, beans, spices and Parmesan cheese rind if using. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce heat and allow to simmer with the top on for 30 minutes.
Add spinach leaves and pasta and cook for an additional 20 minutes or until desired consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly. It may need more salt or herbs depending on your preferences.
Olive Garden has the added luxury of being able to let their soup sit together for a while before serving. This gives time for all the ingredients to soak up the broth and really take on its flavor. Instead of tasting like seasoned broth and a chunk of tomato, the tomato tastes like the broth when allowed to sit. It makes a difference. That's why I recommend letting the soup bubble gently after most of the ingredients are in for a while before adding the spinach and pasta. If desired you can stop at this step, cover and refrigerate. Add the pasta and spinach just before serving and allow to cook together. Try to cut all your veggies the same size. It makes a big difference for the final product in my opinion.
If you have leftovers, keep in mind that the pasta will swell up so you might need to add extra vegetable stock the next day.
Just a side note: I didn't use zucchini because they were out at my store. I just added more green beans to make up for the amount of zucchini called for. Minestrone soup doesn't have set vegetables that are supposed to be used. It is what ever is in season, but the combination above seems to be the most consistently used.