Minestrone is an Italian soup made with fresh seasonal vegetables, often with the addition of pasta or rice. Common ingredients include beans, onions, celery, carrots, stock, and tomatoes. There is not a set recipe for minestrone, since it is usually made out of whatever vegetables are in season. It can be vegetarian, contain meat, or contain a meat-based soup base (such as chicken stock). In fact the word “minestrone” has become a synonym for “a mix of all things”.
The Italian soup, minestrone, is one of the cornerstones of Italian cuisine, and is probably more widely dispersed and eaten throughout Italy than pasta. Minestrone distinguishes itself by the large quantity of fresh vegetables used and its thick consistency.
The word minestrone is likely pre-roman – its Latin name points to its origins and function: minestrone is derived from “minus” or minor, and the modern suffix “-one”, which indicates largeness (eg cat “gatto” + “one” = gattone = huge cat). In other words, the soup was made from small things left over from previous meals together with whatever seasonal vegetables were available to create a large soup or soup one, in order to not waste food.
Minestrone originally was a very humble dish – again being made primarily with leftovers and more or less was intended for an everyday consumption with the idea of being filling, cheap and good, as opposed to being made for a special occasion such as marriage or a celebration. It would likely have been the main course of a meal.
Minestrone is part of what is known in Italy as “cucina povera” – literally “poor kitchen” meaning poorer people’s cuisine. Due to its unique origins, there is neither a fixed recipe, nor is it particularly similar across Italy, as it varies depending on traditional cooking times, ingredients, season, etc.
Minestrone ranges from a thick and dense texture with very boiled-down vegetables, to a more brothy soup with large quantities of diced and lightly cooked vegetables that may include meats. Like many Italian dishes, minestrone was probably originally not a dish made for its own sake, though this point is argued. In other words, whereas one might set about killing a rabbit, with the intention of then eating cooked rabbit; one did not gather the ingredients of minestrone with the intention of making minestrone.
The ingredients were pooled from ingredients of other dishes, often side dishes or “contorni” plus whatever was left over. As eating habits and ingredients changed in Italy, so did minestrone. The Roman army is said to have marched on minestrone and pasta faggioli (or beans and pasta), the former due to the long-life of dried goods, the latter making use of local and seasonal ingredients. In the 1300’s the word “minus” became a verb meaning “to serve” in the context of food and drink.
The name minestrone then literally came to mean, “that which is served”. The introduction of new ingredients from the Americas in the Middle Ages, including tomatoes and potatoes, also changed the soup to the point that tomatoes are now considered a staple ingredient (though the quantity used varies from northern to southern Italy).
There are two schools of thought on when the recipe for minestrone became more formalized. One argues that in the 1600’s and 1700’s minestrone emerged as a soup using exclusively fresh vegetables and was made for its own sake (meaning it no longer relied on left-overs), while the other school of thought argues that the dish had always been prepared exclusively with fresh vegetables for its own sake since pre-roman times, but the name minestrone which lost its meaning of being made with left-overs and came to be associated with the dish in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The earliest etymology of the modern use of minestrone dates to the 18th and 19th centuries. In the modern era, the ready availability and long storage life of canned stocks and broths means that most minestrone use stock or broth as a base, as opposed to the cheaper but still easier to find water.
The availability of newer more unusual vegetables from Americas (such as the many varieties of squash) or Asia mean some minestrone now includes non-European vegetables, though purists frown upon this. Either way, minestrone has evolved into becoming a dish made for its own sake and is now often consumed as a starter dish and not the main course.
It is worth noting that while in English, there is mainly one word for soup, in Italian, there are three: zuppa, which is used in the sense of tomato soup, or fish soup; minestra, which is used in the sense of a more substantial soup such as a vegetable soup and minestrone, which means a very substantial or large soup, though the meaning has now come to be associated with this particular dish. In current Italian the word minestrone is also used to mean a hodgepodge of things.