Easy supper menu

Bread and cheese
Panna cotta or affogato


My friends Sue and Steve have been to stay and I was looking for an easy and sustaining dish for an early supper before they headed off to the ferry back to France. I had some lovely Cavolo Nero from the People’s Supermarket, pancetta, carrots and celery in the fridge, and tins of cannellini beans and tomatoes in the cupboard, so a big pan of minestrone seemed like the answer.

I served this hearty soup with sourdough toast and some blue cheese and Rond du Cher goat’s cheese. Afterwards we ate clementines, making the room smell of Christmas. The minestrone was really substantial, so we didn’t have room for anything more than fruit – apples or pears served with the cheese (especially if one was serving a hard cheese) would have been a good alternative. If you wanted to serve something sweet, panna cotta or ice cream would be suitably Italian options and, if eating this at lunch time, an affogato would be the perfect finish (I find drinking coffee in the evening keeps me awake, alas).

Nigella Lawson suggests Minestrone followed by Baked Sauternes Custard as a weekend lunch menu in How to Eat, but to my mind the custard, however delicious, seems a bit too delicate after the rustic heft of the soup. One of the things I really like about that cookbook, though, is the way it puts recipes together as menus, which have given me lots of ideas about how to combine courses – even though I’ve cooked relatively few of the menus exactly as written. So I thought I would follow Nigella’s lead and try to suggest menus – whether for full dinner or easy weeknight supper – when I post recipes.

This minestrone started with the Minestrone alla Milanese  in Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy, which I prefer to Nigella’s recipe as it uses rice rather than pasta, though the recipes are otherwise similar. However, I have used different vegetables and cooked the soup for much less time than the 2-2½ hours they suggest. Both Roden and Lawson use potatoes and courgettes in the soup. Following Roden, I added basil at the end, but it didn’t seem quite right in such a wintry dish, so I might omit it next time – though I think it essential to a more summery minestrone. The result was a heartwarming winter soup, which sent my friends on their way ready to face the rigours of their journey. Serves 4-6.

150g pancetta, diced
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 can Italian plum tomatoes
1 can cannelloni beans
125g french beans
125g frozen peas
100g arborio rice
150-200g cavolo nero (or other cabbage)
Small bunch of basil, cut in strips (optional)
Freshly grated parmesan to serve

Heat the pancetta in a large pan until the fat starts to melt, then add the chopped onion and fry until it softens and starts to colour. Add the finely chopped parsley and garlic and stir until the smell rises from the pan. Add the celery, carrots and the tin of tomatoes, and two cans full of water. Cover the pan, bring to the boil and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the carrots are tender. (If you want to make the soup using dried beans, soak them overnight beforehand, rinse, then add with the carrots, and simmer for around 2 hours or until the beans are tender).

Top and tail the french beans and cut into 2cm lengths. Drain the can of beans and add to the pan with the french beans and frozen peas. Add more water if the soup has become too thick, and simmer for another 10 minutes. I prepared the soup ahead to this point, then reheated it to simmering point before continuing half an hour before we wanted to eat the next day.

MinestroneAdd the rice and simmer for 10 minutes. Shred the cavolo nero, add it to the pan and cook for a further 10-15 minutes (if using white or Savoy cabbage you might need to add it at the same time as the rice to ensure it is tender). Scatter over the basil. Put some freshly grated parmesan on the table for people to help themselves.


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