Towards the end of the week the vegetable compartment of my fridge resembles the trodden remnants and sweepings which litter a market stall at day’s end. Stalks of limp celery, soft carrots, forgotten bits of onion which almost made it into a weekday dish co-mingle wait for their coup de grace. Broccoli is there too of course: bought because it looked crisp, green and virtuous, it lingers sits developing a malevolent appearance, mocking with its slowly decaying presence all week. Thankfully, there is a dignified way out for all these once proud bits of veg, what I call my Bottom of the Veg Drawer Soup.
Loosely based on a minestrone or Ribolllita, there is no precise recipe for this: it is just a basic method which can be adapted to include whatever you have to hand. It consists of dragging all the past it vegetables out of the fridge, plonking them down onto your kitchen bench, and surgically amputating the bits that are really too far gone to provide any nourishment. They are then ready to be magically transformed into something which is not only fit for human consumption, but actually rather delicious. This transformation could be called serendipity: I call it good cooking and good economy.
Bottom of the veg drawer soup
- as much sad and lonely scraps of veg you have available, plus whatever fresh and green stuff you want to add too (mine usually consists of some or all of: onions, carrots, leek, celery, broccoli, green beans, courgettes, pumpkin, kumara, silverbeet, spinach)
- garlic – as much as you like, but at least 2 cloves, roughly chopped
- tinned chopped Italian tomatoes, plain please not flavoured (I use roughly 1 tin per kilo of vegetables)
- veg stock or water
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- small bunch fresh thyme (I keep it on the stalk – removing stalks from the soup adds to its rustic quality, but feel free to pick the leaves if you so wish)
- your choice of tinned white beans, chick peas, tiny pasta or pieces of broken spaghetti
- salt and pepper
- chopped parsley (Italian preferably)
- 3-4 tbsp. vegetable oil for cooking
- good extra virgin olive oil for finishing
- Parmesan cheese
- prepare the mirepoix vegetables first (i.e. onions, carrots, celery and leek) by peeling, cleaning and roughly dicing: a ½ cm dice will do.
- heat the vegetable oil in a heavy based saucepan over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, toss in the bay leaf and the thyme, but be careful as they have a tendency to spit a little. Fry gently for 2 minutes to release the natural aromas into the oil, which will then perfume the remaining ingredients.
- add your chopped mirepoix vegetables and garlic and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally until well softened. The idea here is to almost melt the vegetables without browning them, releasing their flavour and sweetness into the soup. This may take 10 minutes or longer, but it is the heart of the dish and worth the wait.
- while this is happening, prepare all the remaining vegetables. Again, peel where necessary, removing the bad bits and cutting the rest into evenly-sized pieces. This is a rustic dish, so size and appearance is really up to you, but try to keep pieces roughly the same size so they cook at the same rate. Keep aside.
- prepare any leafy vegetables – wash and trim and roughly shred (silver beet, spinach, kale, cabbage etc.) Keep aside.
- add the tomatoes, salt and black pepper and increase the heat. Cook gently for a few minutes, until the tomatoes are starting to thicken and cling to the vegetables.
- add all other vegetables you have (except spinach – add this at the end) and cover with vegetable stock or water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes, until all the vegetables are thoroughly cooked and tender. Top up with water as necessary if it is getting too thick – it is a soup, not a stew.
- add your beans or chick peas or pasta and continue to simmer for another 10 or so minutes, until pasta (if using) is cooked.
- check the seasoning and adjust with salt and pepper as necessary.
- stir through the chopped parsley and spinach (if using) and remove from the heat.
- either serve immediately or cool and refrigerate: the soup will sit happily in the fridge for up to several days, and will actually improve in flavour. It can also be frozen at this point.
- to serve, heat through and ladle into big soup bowls. Trickle over a generous splash of extra virgin olive oil, grate over some Parmesan cheese and serve with crusty sourdough or French bread.
- eat with a self-satisfied grin, knowing you have given those scraps of vegetables a dignified reprieve from the compost heap.
Auckland-based chef, passionate foodie and dad.