serves: makes 4 quarts of base
I can still hear the staccato clack-clack-clack of my grandmother's cleaver on a wooden board as she chopped the pestata, the fine paste of pork fat, garlic, and rosemary, that gave so much flavor to her rich minestra. Occasionally, she would pause and hand me the cleaver: I'd dip it in the boiling soup pot, already full of beans and potatoes, and watch the tiny specks of fat whirl into the broth. After a few moments I'd hand the cleaver back to my nonna, and instantly she'd be chopping again, the hot blade literally melting the thick fat, while the aroma of garlic and pork and beans and rosemary filled the kitchen.... Precious memories! But today I make pestata in the food processor in about 10 seconds! In most ways, however, this minestra is just like my grandmother's. It cooks for a long time-give it 3 full hours if you can-steadily drawing flavor from pork bones and a soffritto of onion and tomato, and slowly reducing in the soup pot. You'll have 4 quarts of minestra base, to finish with any of the additions I suggest here, or with other vegetables or grains. Long-grain white rice or small pasta can be added to almost any variation for a denser minestra. For a thicker, smooth consistency, remove some of the beans (1/3 to 1/2) before adding the finishing vegetables; purée them and stir back into the pot for the final cooking.
1½ cups dried cranberry beans, soaked overnight or quick-soaked
2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
5 quarts water, cold
3 bay leaves
½ teaspoon peperoncino, or to taste
For the Pestata
3 ounces smoked bacon, cut in 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, stripped from the stem
8 garlic cloves, peeled
Meat for Flavoring
1 pound pork spare ribs
For the Soffritto
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup canned San Marzano tomatoes and juices
2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
Drain the soaked beans and put them in the pot with the water, potatoes, bay leaves and peperoncino. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally so nothing scorches on the bottom of the pot.
While the water is heating, make the pestata in the food processor, chopping the bacon, rosemary and garlic to a fine paste. Scrape every bit into the soup pot. Rinse the spare ribs, and add it to the pot, too.
When the water is at a full boil, set the cover on ajar; adjust the heat to maintain a steady gentle boiling, and cook for an hour to 1-1/2 hours, until the beans and the potatoes are tender and are beginning to break apart. Skim the fat or residue from the pork now and then, as it collects on the surface.
Meanwhile, prepare the soffritto: pour the oil into a small skillet, stir in the onions, and set over medium heat. Cook the onions, stirring, until wilted, about 6 minutes. Crush the tomatoes into bits with your hands and pour them with all the juices into the skillet. Stir in the 2 teaspoons salt, and simmer rapidly for about 5 minutes, until the juices have reduced a bit . When the beans are tender, pour the tomato mixture into them, dipping the skillet into the soup pot to slosh out every bit, and keep the minestra boiling.
Cook the minestra for another hour or more, 2-1/2 to 3 hours total, until the volume has reduced to about 4 quarts (about midway up an 8-quart pot, when you take out any bones and meat). If there's too much broth, raise the heat and cook uncovered, but stir frequently to prevent burning. Taste the soup when reduced, and correct seasoning.
Take some of the base for a finished soup now if you want or let the whole pot cool. Before using or storing, lift out the pork bones, pick off all the meat, shred it and stir into the base; pick out the bay leaves and discard. Keep the soup refrigerated for 3 or 4 days or freeze, in filled and tightly sealed containers, for 4 to 6 months.