Traditionally, this soup is made with whatever is growing in the garden, but it always includes beans and fregula, a toasted pebble-size semolina pasta that is popular in Sardinia. Fregula can be purchased at Italian markets or online. If you can’t find fregula, any tiny pasta, such as Israeli couscous or acini di pepe, will do. This version also takes a little time to cook; longer cooking time melds the flavors and enhances the bioavailability of more nutrients, such as the lycopene in tomatoes and carotenoids and other antioxidants. A shorter cooking time will make a tasty dish as well, but nutritionally inferior. Traditionally, the minestrone is accompanied with slices of pane carasau, or Sardinian flat bread.
Technique tip: Use the stalks and fronds that come off a fennel bulb for the most intense flavor. No feathery fronds on the bulb? Add a teaspoon of fennel seeds to the aromatic vegetables you sauté to begin the dish.
Swap option: You can vary the beans in the minestrone: pinto beans make a good substitute for cranberry beans; great northern or cannellini beans, for the favas. Add other fresh vegetables from the garden or market, such as zucchini, cabbage, green beans and cauliflower or broccoli florets. Want a stronger tomato taste? Stir in a tablespoon or two of tomato paste.
Warm 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven set over medium-high heat.2.
Add the onion, carrots and celery; cook, stirring often, until soft but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 20 seconds.3.
Stir in the tomatoes, potatoes, fennel, parsley and basil, as well as the drained beans and chickpeas. Add enough water (about 6 to 8 cups) so that everything is submerged by 1 inch.4.
Raise the heat to high and bring pot to a full boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer slowly, uncovered, until the beans are tender, adding more water as necessary if the mixture gets too thick, about 1½ hours. If using canned beans, simmer for only 10 minutes.5.
Stir in the pasta, salt and pepper. Add up to 2 cups of water if the soup seems too dry. Continue simmering, uncovered, until the pasta is tender, about 10 minutes.6.
Pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil into bowl before serving.