When I have to feed a bunch of people on a cold winter weeknight, my thoughts turn to soup.
This slow cooker minestrone took shape when I offered dinner on the spur of the moment to folks coming to my house for an early evening meeting. A quick look into the pantry and the refrigerator revealed that I had fresh vegetables, beans, and several types of pasta. I realized that the best way to prepare the soup and not have to babysit it would be in the slow cooker, so out it came from the depths of my kitchen storage.
I should be ashamed of how infrequently I use my (crock pot) slow cooker. I got it over 3 years ago and have only used it a handful of times. In the beginning I had what we jokingly called a “slow cooker support group” with my friends Aviva and Colleen and have barely progressed beyond the few dishes we prepared together. So this was an opportunity to overcome my hesitancy.
For inspiration, I used Kalyn Denny’s Vegetarian Pasta e Fagioli Soup. But by the time I was done, my version was minestrone rather than pasta e fagioli. (According to several sources I consulted, pasta e fagioli is the plainer soup of the two. It is made primarily of pasta and beans, with onions and spices in a broth that includes tomatoes or tomato paste; minestrone typically includes more varied vegetables.) If you don’t know Kalyn and her site, Kalyn’s Kitchen, check them out. She’s a wonderful person and a slow cooker guru to me and many others.
Whatever you call it, this soup is filling without being heavy. It has a bit of a kick from red pepper flakes; I like that, but you can tone down or eliminate the red pepper if you prefer less spicy soup.
The beauty of this recipe is its versatility. For the hard vegetables I used 1 cup each of fennel, celery, onions and carrots. I love fennel and when cooked, its taste is mild. But if you don’t have fennel or don’t like it, just use another hard vegetable (parsnips maybe?) or add more celery, onions, and carrots.
Although there is a fair amount of chopping to create the vegetable medley, creating thin strips of each vegetable and cutting them cross-wise makes that part go quickly. And if pull together the diced vegetables by the stove (mise en place or “everything in its place”), pre-cooking them in the pan goes quickly and adds immeasurably to the tastiness of the soup. You cook them in order from the hardest vegetables to the softest.
As Kalyn suggested, adding a hunk of parmesan cheese rind while the soup cooks gives it a lovely extra “bump” of flavor. I didn’t have rind on hand and thought some guests might be avoiding dairy (without the cheese the soup is vegan), so I substituted grated parmesan cheese on the side.
The recipe calls for 2 cans of white beans. I used one of unspecified “small white” and the other of cannellini because that’s what I had on hand. They weren’t so different in size, but I’d prefer to use all cannellini if I had a choice. Of course, you’re welcome to cook dry beans and add them cooked, which is what Joe Yonan and Pati Jinich would tell you to do.
You’ll notice in the photo of the ingredients below that I used broth previously frozen in ice cube trays. It’s a great way to store broth once you’ve opened a box or can (or for homemade) if you have extra that you can’t use within a few days. Frozen, the broth keeps almost indefinitely.
If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can make this recipe in a large pot. In that event, after you add the tomato sauce and broth, bring the soup to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer covered for 2-3 hours.
Slow Cooker Vegetarian Minestrone Soup
Servings – 8 or more Cost – $8-10
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 cups “hard” vegetables such as fennel, celery, onions and carrots, diced into ½ – ¾ -inch pieces
- 2 cloves of garlic, diced small or crushed
- 2 yellow potatoes, chopped into small (¾ -1-inch) cubes – about 1-1½ cups
- 1 zucchini, chopped into small (¾ -1-inch) pieces – about 1 ½ cups
- 2 cans (15 ounces each) of white beans, rinsed
- ½ teaspoon crushed fennel seeds or slightly less of ground fennel (the latter is more concentrated)
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2-3 teaspoons dried oregano and/or basil (I used about 1½ teaspoons of each.)
- 1-28 ounce can of tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, or puree (or the same size can of tomatoes with their juice, chopping the tomatoes into at least 6-8 pieces)
- 5 cups vegetable broth + more for re-heating (after pasta absorbs liquid)
- ¾ cup orzo (small rice-shaped pasta) or tiny elbow macaroni
- About 2 cups of spinach, rinsed and torn or cut into small pieces
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Grated parmesan cheese (on the side)
- Slow cooker
- Cutting board
- Strainer or colander (to rinse the beans)
- Medium-large pan
- Large spoon
- Heat 1½ tablespoons of oil in the pan. Cook the fennel and celery for about 4 minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the carrots and onions and cook another 4 minutes. Finally add the garlic, herbs and red pepper flakes and cook another 45 seconds – 1 minute more, just until the garlic is slightly softened. Pour those ingredients into the slow cooker. Add the remaining 1½ tablespoons of oil to the pan, then the potatoes and zucchini, and cook that mixture about 4-5 minutes. Add it to the slow cooker, along with the tomato sauce and broth.
- Cook the soup on high for 3-4 hours. Add the orzo and cook for another 15 minutes, then add the spinach and cook an additional 15 minutes. Total cooking time 3½ – 4½ hours.
- Serve with grated parmesan cheese. Salt and pepper are optional. (Parmesan cheese tends to be salty and the addition of the red pepper flakes makes black pepper unnecessary in my view, but that’s just personal taste.)
As the soup sits (or in the refrigerator), the orzo or elbow macaroni will absorb liquid and it becomes more stew-like than soup. To turn it back into soup, add more broth or water.