Recipes

High-end Italian cheese stars in minestrone soup

A little Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese goes a long way in flavor in this hearty minestrone soup with celery leaves.
A little Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese goes a long way in flavor in this hearty minestrone soup with celery leaves. Detroit Free Press

A hearty bowl of minestrone soup may not sound fancy, but one ingredient in today’s recipe puts it over the top. It’s Parmigiano-Reggiano and it’s considered the ultimate and highest-end of Italian cheeses.

Made with a mix of whole and skim milks, Parmigiano-Reggiano has a sharper flavor than Parmesan and more of a granular or grainy texture. That grainy texture comes from aging. Parmigiano-Reggiano is sometimes aged for two years. If you see Parmigiano-Reggiano labeled “stravecchio,” it has been aged three years and ones labeled “stravecchiones” are aged four or more years.

Its rough, craggy texture also makes this cheese unique.

According to many cheese sources, Parmigiano-Reggiano is bound by its place of origin. Having Parmigiano-Reggiano stamped on the rind means it was produced in Bologna, Mantua, Modena or Parma, Italy.

Now about that price. Parmigiano-Reggiano can sell for upward of $20 a pound. It’s one of the priciest cheeses. It’s costly because of the long maturing process. But because of its intense, sharp, almost nutty flavor, a small amount of this cheese goes a long way. It’s also best bought in small chunks and freshly grated – so save your money and don’t buy pre-grated.

There are a lot of great cheese shops in the area where you can buy Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you want to save a few bucks on cheese, Grana Padano can be substituted. It’s similar, but made only with skim milk and costs about $13 a pound.

You might think spending that much on cheese is a lot for a soup. But this minestrone soup is well worth it and you don’t have to use a lot cheese. Part of the cheese is used to give the soup a bit of body and to thicken it. The remainder is used to serve on the side to sprinkle on top. Cheese tends to dry out, so wrap it tightly in heavy duty plastic wrap and refrigerate up to two weeks. You can freeze it if you like, but it’s best grated than frozen.

Another ingredient that makes this soup special is celery leaves. Sometimes celery leaves aren’t given any thought – except for maybe as a garnish for Bloody Mary’s. But when celery leaves are chopped and simmered a few minutes, they perk up the celery flavor in this soup. Small shaped pasta is a common ingredient in minestrone. In this recipe, orzo is used because it cooks quickly.

Hearty minestrone

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups diced celery plus 1/2 cup chopped celery leaves, divided

1/2 cup diced onion

1/2 cup diced carrot

1 large clove garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon celery seed

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth

1/2 cup orzo or other small pasta

1 can (15 ounces) Italian-style diced tomatoes

1 can (15 ounces) cannellini beans, rinsed

1/4 to 1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving

Heat oil in a large saucepan or wide shallow soup pot over medium heat. Add diced celery, onion, carrot, garlic, celery seed and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.

Add broth and bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook, uncovered, until tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, beans, half the celery leaves and 1/4 cup cheese. Cook over medium heat until steaming-hot, 3 to 5 minutes. Ladle into bowls and garnish with the remaining celery leaves and a light dusting of cheese, if desired.

Serves 4

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