She couldn't escape minestrone

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

As a child, my great-aunt Josephine despised her name. She thought it was old-fashioned, awkward, and way too long. But she was born on the eve of St. Joseph's Day - March 18, 1927 - the youngest of seven children in a traditional Sicilian Catholic family from Middletown, Conn. Her name was as inevitable as the minestrone her mother, Angela, traditionally served every year in honor of the saint's feast day.

Minestrone, which means "big soup" in Italian, is a universal dish, served and appreciated equally from store-bought tin cans and top restaurants.

In her well-regarded 1951 "Talisman Italian Cook Book," Ada Boni lists four distinct recipes for minestrone. One calls for a pound of spareribs, a whole shredded cabbage, white turnips, and sweet Italian sausage. Another requires little more than fresh peas, green beans, one stalk of celery, and two quarts of water.

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In her introduction, Ms. Boni warns readers that it is scandalous in Italy to serve minestrone and a macaroni dish at the same meal, dismissing the habit as a "favorite American illusion fostered by the Italian restaurants in our midst."

In Italy, minestrone also symbolizes two things: the arrival of spring and the generosity associated with Joseph, the Catholic patron saint of fathers, carpenters, and self-doubters. Starting with a base of dried beans, cooks throw in potatoes, zucchini, celery, carrots, and any other vegetables they might have handy.

In Sicilian villages, the tradition is to serve the soup and other potluck offerings in the public square on St. Joseph's Day. Everyone in town is welcome to partake, whether he contributes his own dish or shows up empty-handed.

My Aunt Josephine, meanwhile, always resented the soup and even its spring vegetable goodness, perhaps because of its inextricable link to her birth name.

She made everyone call her Jo until she met her future husband, Sal, a fellow Sicilian who rechristened her Peppina, the Italian translation of Josephine.

From then on, everyone in the family called her Pip or Peppi. She never looked back.

But there was still that soup to contend with. Eventually, after she started cooking and building her own collection of recipes, she realized she missed the dish that was truly her birthright.

Now she makes minestrone every year on her birthday, wherever she happens to be.

Once, in the true spirit of the day, she made it in a rented efficiency unit at a Hollywood, Fla., motel, and served it to all the guests gathered in the courtyard.

Within an hour, the pot was empty.

Recently, Pip recited the recipe by memory to me as we sat at her kitchen table, a plate of her homemade Italian macaroons between us. It came with a couple of hard and fast rules: No meat or Parmesan (in keeping with Lenten requirements) and use only the best first cold-press extra-virgin olive oil.

I was skeptical, but March arrived and I made it - out of loyalty and mild curiosity. It turned out to be comfort food at its finest - nourishing, flavorful, and very easy to put together.

It made me glad my great-great grandmother stuck to tradition when she named her youngest child.

Josephine's Minestrone

1 pound dried beans (a mix of dried lentils, chickpeas, and Roman beans; or you may substitute one kind of white beans, such as navy)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus a bit more for garnish, if desired
2 medium onions, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and cut in 1/4-inch rounds
Salt and pepper to taste
About 2 cups fresh spinach, washed and stems removed, if necessary
1/2 cup long-grain rice
Wash beans and discard stones and damaged beans. Place in a heavy soup pot and add 8 to 10 cups of water (to cover beans by 2 to 3 inches). Soak for 3 to 4 hours, or overnight.
If using lentils, add to the pot (red lentils make the most colorful soup) along with olive oil and 1 of the chopped onions, and bring to a boil. Cover.
Reduce heat and simmer for 1-1/2 to 2 hours, or until beans and lentils are almost tender. Stir occasionally, adding water as needed.
Add celery, carrots, the second chopped onion, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for another 15 minutes, then add spinach and cook for another 2 minutes, or until the spinach wilts.
Stir in rice, shut off heat (but leave pot on the burner), and let the pot sit, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until rice is cooked.
Serve immediately, garnishing each bowl with a drizzle of olive oil, if desired.
Serves 4 to 6.

Medieval tradition

Tradition has it that the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, began in the Middle Ages, when Sicily was facing severe drought. People asked St. Joseph to intervene and promised to honor him with a big feast if he did. Their prayers were answered with rain. In response, people set up banquet tables in public and invited the poor to come and eat.

Many villages in Italy still commemorate the feast of St. Joseph by contributing to a table spread in the public square.

A typical feast menu includes various types of lentils and dried beans. Often no meat is served, since the feast falls during Lent. Minestrone soup is the centerpiece.

Other menu items include spaghetti tossed with raisins, walnuts, and bread crumbs. Several fish dishes, such as smelts deep-fried in egg batter, are also served.

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