Sunday, October 3, 2010
Italian Wedding Soup
Back in my college days, I worked at a little Italian café in Upstate New York as a glorified barista. In addition to sandwiches and desserts, we proudly offered a homemade soup of the day, and when it was Italian Wedding, people went bananas. Nothing sold out quite as fast. So you can imagine my horror the day I saw how the sausage was actually made. I walked into the back room right as one of the kitchen staff was dropping a huge block of frozen Stouffer’s meatball soup into a crock-pot. “Yes sir, we make all of our soups on site.” Oops.
But that didn’t change the fact that Italian Wedding Soup remains one of my favorites. And making it from scratch isn’t all that difficult, not to mention exponentially better.
The soup in its simplest form consists of clear broth, greens, tiny pasta and miniature meatballs that cook right in the hot liquid. Ina Garten, however, inspired me to employ a twist: bake the meatballs. Baking, unlike simmering, imparts color, and color = flavor. But that’s not all. These particular meatballs are made with ground chicken and chicken Italian sausage. The fennel flavor, characteristic of Italian sausages, adds a dimension that ground meat alone can’t. These are so juicy and savory that I would actually serve them on their own as an appetizer.
As for greens, endive, escarole, spinach or kale are most commonly used. Since I rarely find ways of incorporating it into my cooking, I chose to make mine with escarole.
Escarole is a variety of endive whose leaves are broader and paler. It’s quite bitter, with a taste reminiscent of radicchio, and can be eaten raw, sautéed or chopped into soups. If you’re not a fan of bitter greens, you can easily make yours with spinach.
I made a huge pot of wedding soup last week and ate it for three days straight. And no, getting married is not a prerequisite.
Italian Wedding Soup
If you’re going to be eating your soup over a few days, you may want to cook the pasta separately and add a bit to each bowl before ladling in the hot soup. Otherwise, the pasta will continue absorbing broth and become quite mushy. Adapted from Barefoot Contessa.
3/4 pound ground chicken or turkey
1/2 pound chicken Italian sausage, casings removed
2/3 cup fresh bread crumbs, about 1 large slice of good quality white sandwich bread
2 big cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
3 tablespoons milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 cup diced carrots, cut into ¼-inch pieces
3/4 cup diced celery, cut into ¼-inch pieces
12 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine, optional
2 cups small pasta (I used whole wheat orzo)
1 pound chopped escarole, endive or whole baby spinach
Preheat oven to 350˚F.
For the meatballs, gently combine all meatball ingredients in a large bowl. Using your hands, carefully roll 3/4- to 1-inch sized meatballs and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Transfer to the oven and bake for 30 minutes until they are cooked through and lightly browned. Set aside.
For the soup, heat the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium-low heat. Add the onions, carrots and celery and sauté until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the stock and wine, if using, and bring to a boil. Add the pasta and escarole/endive* and simmer until the pasta is tender, about 6 minutes. Add the meatballs and simmer for 1 minute more. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust if necessary.
Ladle soup into bowls and sprinkle with chopped parsley and grated Parmesan.
* If you opt to use spinach, wait until the last minute of cooking and add it along with the meatballs.