But those ingredients vary by region, town and family. Because of mass-market versions such as those made by Rao’s, Olive Garden and Progresso, when many Americans hear “Italian wedding soup,” they think of a bowl of broth with meatballs, greens and pasta. But that’s only one version.
I combed through hundreds of recipes, from Apicius’s “De re Coquinaria” and Pellegrino Artusi’s “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” to more modern books such as Joyce Goldstein’s and “La Cucina Napoletana” by Jeanne Caròla Francesconi, and found that the dish can include: fava beans, a prosciutto bone, sausage, broccoli rabe, a whole chicken, wild fennel, escarole, rice, spinach, eggs, bread, milk, cheese, pasta and/or beef. It can take days or an hour to prepare. It may be based on a fatty broth or clear stock. It can start with making meatballs or by blanching greens, by roasting a whole pig or simmering sausages or boiling a chicken until the meat falls off the bone. If there was one true minestra maritata, I thought, certainly the Italian Academy of Cuisine would know.
In 1953, a group of Italians founded the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, dedicated to the preservation of regional Italian cuisine. After decades of research, they published a book of more than 2,000 recipes; “La Cucina del Bel Paese” was translated into English in 2009. It contains no fewer than five recipes for minestra maritata, each from a different region in Italy, from Piedmont to Puglia. In a fascinating twist, the only commonality four of the five share is that they marry a meaty broth with hearty greens, either chicory or endive or fennel or spinach. (The recipe from Veneto doesn’t contain any greens but thickens an enriched chicken stock with rice and tagliolini.)
According to the late historian and journalist Vittorio Gleijeses’s 1977 book, “A Napoli Si Mangia Così,” minestra maritata can be traced to Naples, and he supposed, originally came from the Spanish olla podrida, a long-simmered stew of vegetables, meat and beans. Italians made it their own, marrying local ingredients to great effect.
By the time it made its way to the United States, its popularity began to wane in Italy. Italian immigrants added meatballs, ranging in size from marbles to baseballs, and whatever greens they could grow or find at the markets in their new cities. (Escarole was a popular option; many, like my Italian American babysitter, also called it “scarole soup.”) The story of Italian wedding soup, then, is a lot like the story of a long, good marriage: It’s gone through a lot but it’s stuck together, because when something works, it just works.
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For this recipe, based on a memory of the one my babysitter used to make me when I was a kid, I’ve taken some liberties, using store-bought stock (use homemade if you have it!) and precooked chicken sausages (they add an easy hit of flavor). Then, quickly mixed and shaped meatballs, pork or turkey, are roasted before they’re added to the fortified broth along with lots of chopped kale, escarole, spinach or chard. Lemon juice and zest offset the rich, meaty flavors and perk up the bitter greens. It comes together in under an hour, but makes an especially filling and flavorful meal. Serve the soup with grated Parmesan or pecorino Romano, fresh herbs and crusty bread to soak up the lightly spicy broth.
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 (12-ounce) package fully cooked Italian-style chicken sausage, preferably spicy, sliced into coins
- 2 large (about 3 ounces) carrots, scrubbed and chopped
- 2 stalks (about 3 ounces) celery, halved lengthwise and sliced (save a few leaves for garnish, if desired)
- 10 cups (2 1/2 quarts) low-sodium chicken stock
- 1/4 cup (2 ounces) milk or water
- 1 large egg
- 1 slice white bread, hard crusts removed
- 1 pound ground pork or turkey
- 1/2 cup (about 1 ounce) grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, plus more for serving
- 1/4 (2 ounces) yellow onion, grated
- 1/4 cup (about 1/2 ounce) chopped Italian parsley, plus more for serving
- 3 or 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- 3/4 cup (2 1/2 ounces) tiny pasta, such as ditalini, orzo, stelline or acini di pepe
- 4 to 6 ounces (4 to 6 tightly packed cups) shredded or chopped escarole, kale (thick ribs removed), chard (ribs removed) or spinach, or a combination
- Pinch red pepper flakes, optional
- 1 large lemon, zested and juiced
- Sprigs of dill, for garnish (optional)
In a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high, add the olive oil and sausage and saute, stirring every so often, until browned on both sides, 2 to 4 minutes. Increase the heat to high and add the carrots, celery and stock. Cover, bring to a boil and cook until the carrots and celery are tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat.
Meanwhile, make the meatballs: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 425 degrees. In a large bowl, add the milk and egg and whisk lightly. Add the slice of bread and soak for 5 minutes. Add the ground pork or turkey, cheese, onion, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper to the soaked bread and mix with your hands until combined. Rinse and moisten your hands with cool water and then shape the mixture into 1- to 2-inch meatballs; you will have 30 to 35 meatballs. Place them, spaced evenly, on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes; meatballs will finish cooking in the soup.
Return the heat to high under the soup. As soon as the broth comes to a boil, stir in the pasta and simmer until al dente, 4 to 6 minutes. Lower the heat to medium, and stir in the chopped greens, red pepper flakes, if using, and half of the lemon zest; reserve the remaining zest for garnish.
Using a spatula, scrape the meatballs and any fat and crispy bits stuck to the pan into the soup. Increase the heat to high and cook until the greens soften and the meatballs are cooked through — cut into one to be sure it’s no longer pink in the center — about 3 minutes.
Add half of the lemon juice; taste the broth, and season with additional salt and pepper, if desired.
Serve the soup hot, garnished with celery leaves, Parmesan, parsley, dill, and the remaining lemon zest and juice, if desired.
Calories: 491; Total Fat: 23g; Saturated Fat: 8g; Cholesterol: 111mg; Sodium: 1134mg; Carbohydrates: 37g; Dietary Fiber: 3g; Sugar: 4g; Protein: 35g.
Recipe from staff writer G. Daniela Galarza.
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