"As my grandmother would say, every good soup starts with a pot, a chicken and water and after that it's up to you" says Joanne Avalon of Beverly. "Italian Wedding Soup is really chicken soup with spinach and meatballs," explains Avalon and in the two accompanying video demonstrations she shows us how to make the soup and the "itty, bitty" meatballs that are central to the dish.
Italian Wedding Soup is an Italian-American dish, particularly popular in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but common throughout the U.S. When researching Italian immigration, Donna Gabaccia, professor of history at the University of Minnesota, found that there was no "wedding soup" in Italy. It likely takes its name from a mistranslation of minestra maritata, literally married soup, referring to a marriage of flavors rather than a wedding. The soup is eaten in Campania and Lazio and is thought to have come from the Spanish originally.
Avalon comes from an Italian-American background and her recipe for Italian wedding soup has been passed down the generations, with some subtle changes along the way.
"Every generation adds something and I had children who did not like vegetables" says Avalon, so she takes an onion, carrot, celery stick, some garlic and peeled and deseeded tomatoes and blends them all up in a food processor. "I'm sure the reason my grandmother didn't do this is because there was no Cuisinart and this would take forever," she says. She adds this blend to the stock, followed by some baby spinach, the chicken meat and a cup of orzo.
Avalon says she would be perfectly happy with the soup as it is: "As far as I'm concerned this soup is done. It has everything I need; it has chicken, vegetables, it has a good homemade stock." Her father and brother would beg to differ; "if my father and brother were here they'd say, 'Where are the meatballs?'"
"To make it Italian wedding soup, we have to make the meatballs ,and what's special about the meatballs is that they have to be little itty bitty meatballs," Avalon says. The size is so they don't overpower the soup.
Avalon makes her meatballs with a mixture of pork and beef mince, but you don't have to stick to those meats. Veal, chicken and turkey could also be used, although she warns that "if you are using chicken and turkey, you're going to have to make it a little more moist with a little more milk because it will dry out."
Using milk to keep meatballs light and moist is an old trick used in both Spain and Italy, where minestra maritata is thought to have evolved, and it seems the tradition lives on. Avalon pours milk over bread crumbs and then adds the seasonings; some grated Romano, minced garlic, egg and chopped parsley.
Next she adds the meat and mixes it thoroughly with her hands. "So you can see that the meat mixture is actually quite wet and that's kinda what you want, it keeps the meat tender and it also keeps the meatballs light" she says. She then forms the mix into small balls, places them on a tray and bakes them for 20 minutes at 400 degrees till they are nice and crisp.
The final touch, and the most important, is when she pops the meatballs into the soup. " My father and brothers would be very happy," she says. "It's officially Italian wedding soup."
Italian Wedding Soup
For the stock:
1 (5- to 6-pound) chicken, rinsed
3 large leeks, cleaned and coarsely chopped
2 carrots, cleaned and coarsely chopped
2 celery stalks, cleaned and coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 3-inch piece of hard cheese rind (Parmesan or Romano, for instance)
1 3-inch end piece of prosciutto
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoon kosher salt
For the soup:
2 yellow onions, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
3 tomatoes peeled and seeded (or one 12-ounce can of diced tomatoes
3 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 cup orzo
1 pound baby spinach (or regular spinach coarsely chopped)
For the meatballs:
1 pound ground beef (or any combination of beef, pork and chicken)
1/4 cup unflavored bread crumbs
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (or a combination of the two cheeses; Manchego is also a good cheese to use, too)
3 cloves of garlic finely minced
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
For the stock:
1. Add all ingredients to a large stockpot. Add enough water to almost cover the chicken (about 21/2 quarts should do).
2. Slowly bring stock to a simmer and continue to simmer for about three hours or until chicken meat falls from the bone.
3. Remove chicken and separate meat from skin and bones. Tear chicken meat into bite-sized pieces and reserve.
4. Strain broth into a large container. If time permits, refrigerate overnight to make de-fatting easier. If that's not possible, allow strained stock to settle and then skim the surface with a large spoon or ladle, de-fatting the stock.
For the soup:
1. Bring reserved, de-fatted stock to simmer in a large stockpot.
2. Place onions, carrot, tomatoes and garlic in bowl of a food processer and pulse until mixture is finely diced.
3. Add finely diced vegetables to the soup and cook for five to ten minutes.
4. Meanwhile, cook orzo in salted water until al dente.
5. After vegetables have simmered, add spinach. Allow spinach to wilt and then add chicken and orzo.
6. Serve immediately or add meatballs.
For the meatballs:
1. Combine bread crumbs, milk, cheese garlic and egg in a small bowl.
2. Place ground meat in a large bowl and add bread crumb mixture to it. Handle just enough to mix. Add parsley.
3. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and brush with olive oil.
4. Roll 2 teaspoon of meat mixture into a meatball and place, evenly spaced, on the cookies sheet.
5. Bake at 400 degrees for no more than 16 minutes, turning tray half way through cooking time.
6. Add cooked meatballs to soup.
• • •
Recipe courtesy Joanne Avalon, 2012.