Recipe, Swapped--An Improvisor's Minestrone

Somehow, my mother's soup's not the same when I make it

I'm like Sammy Hagar, who can't drive 55.

Me, though, I can't follow a recipe, at any speed. (No one's ever been inspired to sing about it.)

It's not entirely my fault. (Ah, the untold riches that would be mine were I awarded a dollar for each statement I make that starts with those words.) This is how these things happen:

A few weekends ago, my mom, who lives in my hometown of Williamsburg, Va., fixed us this wonderful minestrone, light on salt, long on flavor, before my sister and I left for my class reunion. Inspired by the vegetable-laden goodness, and freshly armed with benevolence and good intentions after seeing classmates bursting with health, I vowed to make it myself when I got back to Knoxville.

I was going to take some to a game night at a friend's house. We were due at 6, so I start at 5. (I cook best under pressure.)

Saute some garlic. Wait, no garlic here. I reach for the garlic powder.

The beans, a can of kidney beans. Shoot, someone used them in chili last week.

But I'm not going to panic. I go out to the early fall garden to harvest soup herbs—spicy orange oregano, maybe 18 leaves, and two handfuls of fresh basil. Then, like a beacon, I spot chard, one raised bed over. Green and fresh, just right for minestrone. I pick four stalks of it, and four of the baby bok choy in the bed beside it. My minestrone will have homegrown greens, by golly. (And so it begins.)

I chop the stalky portions of my garden finds and saute them in a little olive oil. I cut the leaves into ribbons to add at the end.

Now, pasta. For the first time in my 23 years of living at Newton Street, there is none. Ah, but there are potatoes, so I peel and dice three medium ones, and add them to the saute.

A few minutes later, I add two tablespoons of vegetable Better Than Broth mix; plus a couple of Rose's Crab Shack glass tumblers full of water—we never can keep track of a glass measuring cup and that sure looks like 8 cups.

Add the beans. Oh yeah, I don't have any. But there is this cellophane tube of kosher Manischewitz split-pea soup mix, an impulse buy some past Passover season. I add half the container (not the seasoning), boil it madly, set it to simmer for 15 minutes. It's 5:30, plenty of time.

Now, pureed tomatoes. I always have those on hand—only not today. I eye the small, never-sampled jar of Three Brothers sun-dried tomato pesto. In goes a glob of that.

It's time to leave, and I notice the bits of pea are still brittle. Goodness, you'd think the container would say in bolder letters to cook for an hour. Using a clean blue T-shirt as a potholder, I drive the pot and Settlers of Catan game I borrowed to Robin's; it can cook there.

Oh, wait, it needs wine. Red wine, dark, dark, for that Italian taste. I squeal into a liquor store on Western. Saturday night. All the wine's in coolers, way out of reach behind a counter. The attendant eyes me skeptically. Can he find me some red wine, not Boone's Farm; cheap, table wine?

We settle on Arbor Mist white Zinfandel; the closest for under $5. (So it's pink and sweet, so what?)

When I reach Robin's, the split peas have cooked themselves in the car. I hit the soup with a few shots of Arbor Mist, bring it back to a boil, slide in the cup or so of chopped chard and basil, stir.

It's a hit! My friend Katie goes back for seconds; Chuck likens himself to Oliver Twist when he scrapes the pot for a final serving.

And Robin likes it so much she tells me, "I need to ask you for the recipe!"

It's a little hard to follow, but here it is, Robin. (Feel free to make substitutions.)