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Alice Waters' Minestrone

The difference between a can of soup and what is produced with this recipe can not be described in words. You just have to make it yourself!

Who among us does not dream of cooking like Alice Waters? The legendary San Francisco chef almost single-handedly changed the reputation of healthy eating by creating food at Chez Panisse that was local, organic, good for you, and tasted sensational.
In her cookbook The Art of Simple Food, Waters seeks to spread her gospel of great eating to those who don't have cooking degrees. And most of the recipes are eminently doable, even for beginners. But she does insist on doing things the right way.
For instance, she would never offer canned beans as an alternative in her minestrone soup recipe. (Even though I did suggest it as a time saver in the recipe below.)
I did take the time to soak the dried beans the night before and boil them for this soup, and there is no debate that the results are immeasurably better than canned.
But I am also a realist. Making this soup with fresh vegetables and canned beans is still a huge improvement over opening a supermarket can of minestrone soup. If you've never made your own before, you will not believe the difference. This soup is fabulous! (And honestly, for eight servings, it does not cost much more to make than buying it canned, about $10, or less if you already have the carrots and onion.)
I feel a little guilty that I did not make Waters' winter minestrone, with cold weather vegetables of turnips, potatoes, and cabbage. But I didn't feel like eating those heavy vegetables, so I went with her basic recipe, using green beans, carrots, grape tomatoes, and zucchini. Not the best of the local offerings, but with the weather unseasonably mild, it just doesn't feel like turnip-eating time!

Alice Waters' Minestrone Soup 
 Makes 8 servings
 1 cup dried cannellini or borlotti beans (or 21/2 to 3 cups canned)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
5 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups water
1 small leek, diced
1/2 pound green beans, cut into 1-inch lengths
1 medium zucchini, cut into small dice
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped, or 1 small can diced tomatoes (I used 1 cup of grape tomatoes cut in half)
2 cups chard, coarsely chopped
1 cup bean cooking liquid
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

1. Prepare the beans by soaking them overnight and then simmering them for two hours or until tender. Reserve cooking liquid. (Or use canned beans, drain and reserve liquid.)
2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots, and cook for 15 minutes, or until onion is translucent.
3. Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and salt, and cook for 5 minutes longer.
4. Add water and bring to a boil. When boiling, add the leek and green beans. Cook for 5 minutes.
5. Add zucchini, tomatoes, and chard. Cook for 15 minutes. Taste for salt and adjust as necessary.
6. Add the cooked/canned beans, along with 1 cup bean cooking liquid, or liquid from canned beans and enough water to make 1 cup.
7. Cook for 5 minutes. If the soup is too thick, add water. (I added another two cups of water at this point.)
8. Remove the bay leaf. Serve in bowls, each garnished with grated Parmesan cheese.
 Adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter, 2007)
Per serving: 256 calories, 12 grams protein, 37 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, no cholesterol, 634 milligrams sodium, 14 grams dietary fiber.