I love shopping at markets - yes, even after all these years. Nothing beats the charm of a bundle of beets with earth still clinging to its roots or a head of frisée with leaves like an unruly wig (it's now or never if you love this bitter green, as a stallholder selling nothing but salad and citrus fruits pointed out yesterday). By the time I have admired the week's produce, chatted with my favorite farmers and sipped coffee on a sunny terrace with the friends whose paths inevitably cross mine, I often find that there is no time left to cook lunch.
In Paris I usually anticipated this problem by picking up a free-range chicken from a rôtisserie, its juices dripping temptingly onto small peeled potatoes. But since coming to Nice I have adopted another instant meal, one that makes the most of the fresh vegetables available at the market. It's traditional here and in nearby Liguria, across the border in Italy, for farmers to prepare their own minestrone mix right at the market with seasonal produce and sell it for a token sum. The mix pictured here cost €2.50 at the Libération market in Nice and on close inspection I found leek, pumpkin, celery, chard, zucchini and carrot. All I had to do was plop the diced vegetables in a pot with olive oil, sea salt, herbs, water and some beautiful purply-pink beans from the Ventimiglia market for extra substance and I had a simple meal for four: who says it's always expensive to eat fresh food?
Now, knowing that most of my readers live outside France, I can hear you protesting that your farmers don't provide this service. The beauty of this soup, though, is how easy it is to reproduce with any vegetables you might have lurking in your refrigerator - including parts that you might ordinarily throw away. I would bet that not many of you are in the habit of using the dark green part of the leek, the leafy tops of the celery or even chard stems, yet all of these melt happily into the broth. To this soup I added a broccoli stem left over from this 101 Cookbooks recipe, which I peeled and cut into small dice: cooked in the soup, it became sweet and almost buttery. A beautiful addition if you have it is parmesan rind, which brings a deeper, savory flavor to the broth that the Japanese call umami. If you eat meat some diced pancetta or free-range bacon, sautéed in the olive oil at the beginning, would not go amiss.
So this is what I would like you to do: keep a sealed container or bag in your refrigerator to which you add any vegetable bits and pieces that need using. You will have to dice them yourself (or find an eager volunteer in your house; children can be good for this with a little persuasion and supervision), but beyond that point the soup is almost no work to make. In Italy the mixes often include chickpeas or beans, so don't hesitate to add these, even if you need to open a can rather than soak and cook them yourself. You might also throw in bulgur, cooked spelt or small pasta to make the soup more filling. When spring comes (I can't wait), peas and broad beans will sweeten the broth. And, if you stir in a big spoonful of pesto at the end, you will have the Niçoise classic soupe au pistou.
Instant minestrone (winter version)
Water is fine for this soup as the vegetables will bring good flavor to the broth, but today I did add a little concentrated vegetable stock from the frozen food shop Picard, which I like to keep on hand. I am also in love with Marigold bouillon powder from Britain but have run out since it's difficult to find in France.
2 tbsp olive oil
4 cups mixed diced vegetables, such as leeks (white and green parts), carrots, celery stalks and leaves, fennel, pumpkin, sweet potato, zucchini, chard, kale, cabbage and potato
A large pinch of sea salt
2 cups cooked beans or chickpeas
Enough water or vegetable stock to cover
Fresh or dried thyme, dried oregano or herbes de Provence, to taste
A parmesan rind (optional)
Freshly ground pepper
Good-quality olive oil and fresh parmesan, for serving
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the vegetables and sea salt and sweat over medium-low heat for a few minutes. Add the beans, enough water or stock just to cover the vegetables and the parmesan rind if using. Bring to a boil, lower the heat until the soup is just bubbling and cook for 15-20 minutes, until all the vegetables are soft. Season with pepper and serve with a drizzling of good olive oil and a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan if you like.