How is This Genius Minestrone-ish Soup So Good, So Fast?

March  7, 2018

The first thing you’ll notice about this stew is that you can make it in about the time it would normally take for you to sauté greens. The reputation of stews and soups doesn't usually go this way—they simmer lazily; they develop flavor over time. But nope, not this one.

What gives? How does such a cozy, well-melded stew emerge from a pot in which the ingredients have barely met?

This brings us to the second thing you’ll notice about this stew: The broth is made from a second-string ingredient that other recipes tend to leave behind—the discarded juice from canned tomatoes.

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For perfectly good reasons, lots of recipes call for one can tomatoes, drained—some pastas don’t need saucier sauces; some soups want to be more chicken than tomato. And chef Missy Robbins is here to tell you to ignore those recipes. Or at least read between the lines a little.

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Top Comment:
“And if you want to make it taste *really* Italian, add a couple of chopped anchovies when you're sauteing the aromatics: they'll completely dissolve and add wonderful flavor to the finished product.”
— Lori C.

In her cookbook Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner… Life, Robbins uses the drained juice alone—no tagalong tomatoes—in a number of places: in saucy chickpeas with cauliflower and preserved lemon, in turkey bolognese, and in this quick beans and greens stew. And while it's not uncommon to see recipes that call for using whole cans of tomatoes, juice and all, this is the first time I’ve seen this half of the equation honored in its own right.

The juice that canned tomatoes swim in is typically the perfect thickness for becoming a hearty soup or stew right out of the gates (though brands can vary a bit, and some will need to be thinned with a little water). It comes from tomatoes that are canned ripe and in-season, so flavor doesn't need to be coaxed out slowly—it's already there. At times, the juice might be seasoned with a bit of salt and basil or the occasional fire-roasted or chile-spiked variation. None of these are unwelcome in soup.

If you’re irked right now that you want to make this stew and don’t have a stash of leftover juice on hand—don’t worry, Robbins and I thought of that! She also allows for tomato passata (also labelled strained tomatoes), a similarly thick, rich tomato puree sold by the bottle or box.

Or you can do as I’ve been doing lately: Buy the cans of tomatoes for the juice, then hang on to the tomatoes for dinner later in the week (or freeze them). Make it the excuse you needed to make pappa al pomodoro with those dead bread nubs in the freezer or Portuguese Cataplana or slow-cooked Scrambled Eggs Patia.

Either way, now we know: When the recipe says “can of tomatoes, drained,” what it’s really saying is “drained into a Tupperware and parked in the fridge or freezer until you can cook something good with it.”

Photos by Julia Gartland

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Peggy
  • Robin Kelleher Stamm
    Robin Kelleher Stamm
  • david
  • Kevin Kruger
    Kevin Kruger
  • AntoniaJames
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Peggy March 8, 2018
This soup was tremendous! I could not believe how flavorful it was - with so little effort. I did, however, go out and purchase Pom organic strained tomatoes for the next batch.
Robin K. March 8, 2018
For soup recipes like these, I've found the key to a broth that makes you swoon is about 1/2 c. butter and 1/2 cup parmesan cheese added toward the end of cooking. The flavors it introduces to the broth are surprising (I wouldn't have expected what I got until I tried it). With that in mind, I'd say the missing ingredient here is butter.
david March 7, 2018
Seems overly complicated. For one thing, the recipes that call for a drained cann of tomatoes work fine if you put in the whole tin and reduce it a little more. Who has the energy to store the strained juice of tomatoes in the freezer? And in this case you need to use two cans of tomatoes to get the juice. Why not just put some tomato paste in water if you want a light tomato broth? Or just dilute any tomato puree (which you could easily do by blitzing the whole can of tomatoes in a blender).
AntoniaJames March 7, 2018
david, you make many good points, but may I respectfully suggest that it takes me 15 - 20 seconds to drain off the juice into a small container, label it and pop it into the freezer . . . . and yes, i usually just throw the whole can in and reduce it, but there are times when it's best not to - case in point: I make a sweet potato and black bean vegetarian filling for tacos. When locally grown fresh tomatoes are not available, I add a few spoons of drained chopped tomatoes, to brighten it up. I tried once cooking down the juices and felt that the tomatoes' intensity hijacked (muddied, really) the flavor profile. Also, when making a quick sauce for pizza, it's much faster, and there's no real disadvantage, using drained tomatoes. ;o)
david March 7, 2018
Indeed point well taken. I think there are two kinds of people in the world: people who are systematic and use the stuff in their freezer, and people who throw stuff in there, forget about it, and throw it away when it is covered with ice crystals two years later. I'm afraid I'm one of the latter, so I try to avoid creating more things to put in the freezer. (Ah yes, how I was seduced by the idea of carefully freezing ice cubes of different types of broth....I think I need someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, " use your damn broth"!!!)
Kevin K. March 7, 2018
Really, this is ridiculous. Either use one can in its entirety, breaking up the tomatoes. or use a 14-oz can in its entirety either breaking up the tomatoes first or sticking a handblender in the can and making your own pasta. Is everyone at Food52 clueless? (Well, judging by the outrageous prices on the stuff they sell...)
AntoniaJames March 7, 2018
Like others here, I'm surprised that this is a revelation. What the heck are you going to do with all that flavorful juice (and in many brands of whole tomatoes, it includes a light puree)? Throw it out? Are you kidding? Mine goes into the freezer immediately, for use in the coming weeks, not just in minestrone -- admittedly, one of its best uses -- but also, to boost the braising liquid in a pot roast, or to use instead of water in no-boil-baked-pasta casseroles, or to "top up" the broth of any bean soup or to thin chili, the next day, after the beans have drunk what broth there was the night before, or to use in pasta fagioli, etc. That said, this looks like a great recipe - and is truly a pantry-ready (what I call a "Plan B" dinner) if you use some home-blanched-farmers'-market kale from your freezer (which will be indistinguishable from fresh in a dish like this. ;o) P.S. So many good ideas from the others who've commented. Thank you, everyone!
Gray F. March 7, 2018
Guess I don't understand why the tomatoes just don't go in with everything else as well. Seems like this would be better with the tomatoes than without.

I also agree with the addition of a bit of brown sugar and lemon, and perhaps a splash of balsamico.
meg March 7, 2018
I have never drained the tomatoes. What a waste that would be. Conversely, using the juice and not the tomatoes seems equally dumb.
Erin A. March 7, 2018
This is only an ingredient or two short (and they would be missed) from one of my family's favorite foods--Stewy Beans! Real Simple published this in 2006, and I'd recommend their addition of a tiny bit of brown sugar and some lemon juice. Otherwise, this is just a copy. We always make a huge batch, cooking our own beans and adding some of their brodo, as well. It freezes exceptionally well, too.
Lori C. March 7, 2018
And if you want to make it taste *really* Italian, add a couple of chopped anchovies when you're sauteing the aromatics: they'll completely dissolve and add wonderful flavor to the finished product.
Bkpesch March 7, 2018
My husband drink it with a little pepper cracked on top! But we never thrown away the juice if a recipe calls for drained tomatoes. Too many good uses! A wonderful addition to this soup would be a parmigiano rind!
Kevin K. March 7, 2018
The notion that one always or usually discards the juice (or that most recipes call for that) is utter nonsense.
FrugalCat March 7, 2018
So glad to see a recipe that uses the juice. I worked at a restaurant that would drain cans of tomatoes and discard the juice. Then they would buy tomato juice for Bloody Mary mix. I put a stop to that right away.
MBE March 7, 2018
I love that you are thoughtfully using the drained juice, but I am done with recipes that automatically specify beans, drained and rinsed!! That bean juice is a useful, natural thicker in many recipes and it's components (beans, water,salt(maybe) and calcium (sometimes) is not evil except perhaps in a bean salad.
Susanna March 7, 2018
It causes gastric distress, no? I used to use it in soups and stews all the time until I was advised not to for just that reason.
AntoniaJames March 7, 2018
Susanna, if you eat beans regularly, that juice in canned beans won't cause distress. The reason I drain most canned beans is that I don't care much for the way that liquid tastes . . . . ;o)
MBE March 8, 2018
Yes the juice will contain oligosaccharides (good fiber coming from the beans) that could cause problems if you don't eat enough fiber etc. on a regular basis. As for the way it tastes-it tastes mostly like the beans themselves, especially when added to soup etc. Do you also drain and throw away the pot liquor when you cook beans from dry? It's the same stuff that's in the can minus the calcium added to some beans to preserve texture and color.