The first summer I spent au pairing was, in many ways, torturous. For two months I was trapped behind a façade of my own design: I was in love with Italy, I was the perfect nanny, I was happy. Except I wasn’t.
I don’t know whether my regret at the whole thing is visible through the irritatingly chipper blog posts from Summer 2010, but I like to think it is. Just take a look at gems such as this:
“On seeing a photo of David Cameron I experienced a completely unjustifiable surge of emotion – the kind of teary eyed patriotism you feel when listening to Jerusalem at The Last Night of the Proms.”
Right. Needless to say, I’m not encouraging anybody to delve into the backwaters of this blog (maybe like a revisionist historian of my own misinterpreted life I’ll one day pick through every falsehood I’ve written thus far, but until then, you’ve been warned). The point is that my first real encounter with Italy was tough and tedious and at times, really bloody disorientating. It was within the daily regime of breakfast, beach, lunch, sleep, puzzles, and bed, that I turned both insane and very, very hungry.
The children’s mother was cold and distant in equal measure, but she was an incredible cook. I knew it would be a good lunch when she sent me to the roadside fruttivendoli to buy cherry tomatoes for her spaghetti alle vongole. I spent the morning chasing very small children across a beach and wondering whether she might call out from her deck chair and send me away with a shopping list. I approached dinner with equal levels of joy. It was my job to lay out the mozzarella di bufala, bread, mortadella and if we were lucky, prosciutto crudo. Arranging a plate of fruit for dessert meant that I wasn’t reading The Lion King to a child for the fiftieth time, and for that, I was grateful. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy looking after the children, but there does come a time when 24 hour childcare duties can feel like punishment for something far graver than choosing to take a gap year.
To break up the monotony, sometimes I was even allowed to cook. The mother always dictated her instructions, but it still made me deliriously happy. I was usually entrusted with the cooking of a minestra soup – like a minestrone, but far simpler. “It’s for babies and old people”, she used to tell me. Of course I loved it. The only ingredients were risoni (orzo), broth, parmesan and olive oil – lots and lots of oil, poured over the finished soup.
It wasn’t until today, wondering whether a minestrone would be better with risotto rice or ditalini pasta (as one does on a Sunday when faced with piles of reading), that I remembered the glory of that risoni minestra. So here’s a recipe for the ultimate minestrone. I used homemade chicken stock because I’m far too good at procrastinating, but feel free to use vegetable. I remember being directed to chuck in a generous spoonful of bouillon powder whenever I made her soup, so let’s not feel too guilty.
This really is incredible. Despite my history of false optimism and glee, trust me on this one.
– 1.5 litres of chicken or vegetable stock
– 200g orzo/risoni
– A tin of borlotti beans
– 1 onion
– 1 clove of garlic
– 2 carrots
– 2 sticks of celery
– 1 courgette (this is all I used but feel free to go crazy: cavolo nero, peas, fennel etc. would be delicious)
– A good handful of parsley or basil
– extra virgin olive oil and grated parmesan to serve (if you have it, chuck in your parmesan rind when adding the stock. You absolutely won’t regret it)
- Chop all of your veg finely. Heat roughly three tbsp. of oil in a large, heavy based saucepan. Add onion, celery and carrot. Cook for five minutes.
- Add garlic, followed by courgette and whatever other vegetables you have.
- Add the stock and drained borlotti beans. Bring to a boil and cook for five minutes.
- Add the orzo and reduce to a simmer – the orzo should take about ten minutes to cook.
- Stir in the chopped parsley or basil and serve with a drizzle of olive oil and heaps of parmesan.