Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
What's the Real Story?
There's a soup made of broth, vegetables, pasta, and teeny-tiny meatballs that we all know and love as "Italian wedding soup."
But why? Why it is called wedding soup?
Some say that, long ago, the soup was created as a hearty meal to fortify the bride and groom with enough strength and vigor to ensure a "memorable" night of wedded bliss. Although this story might be tantalizing, it is a misunderstanding of the Italian name: Minestra maritata, wedding soup, is a reference not to a matrimony of couples, but rather a blending or harmony of flavors. Savory bits of meat, salty broth, sweet onions, and bitter greens create a melange of tastes and textures that meld—or marry—together.
Originally this soup was not a sumptuous feast reserved for only the finest of occasions. It's actually a peasant dish made of broth, whatever leftover meats might be found (or none at all), and whatever bitter greens were in season. The Americanized version (the one we enjoy today) is a much heartier fare, bulked up with more vegetables and plump little morsels of pasta.
You don't have to eat at an Italian restaurant to get a good bowl of this soup, nor do you have to settle for second- (or third-) best from a can. You can actually make this at home. Let me explain to you each of the components and how they work together to make this "marriage" of flavors.
Let's get started.
Yellow Onions: These are considered the universal, all-purpose type and constitute about 75% of the world's onion production. They are astringent yet sweet, and their sweetness intensifies with low, slow cooking.
Garlic: Another ubiquitous aromatic, but perhaps you think its flavor is too harsh, too intense for a soup? Garlic doesn't have to be that way. If you treat it gently, it will reveal to you its sweet side. Rule #1 - Don't smash it and don't push through a garlic press. Take your time and mince with a knife. Rule #2 - Don't cook it on high heat; it will burn and burnt garlic is bitter garlic. Low and slow is the way to go.
Celery: Celery, slightly bitter, is used for flavor rather than texture. In this soup, as in many other dishes, celery is included with onions and carrots (the holy trinity of western cooking) as an aromatic. You might not recognize its flavor in the broth of the soup but, trust me, if you omit it you will say to yourself "there's something missing."
Carrots: Carrots are the sweet note in the broth. They and celery are in the same botanical family, and they play well together.
Bitter Greens: There are several from which to choose—Giada De Laurentiis favors curly endive, Ina Garten uses baby spinach, I like kale, and other recipes feature escarole.
- Curly endive: This hearty green also known as chicory, has narrow stems and frilly, very curly leaves. It has an assertive bitter flavor.
- Baby spinach: Tender leaves and a mild flavor which cooks in mere moments.
- Kale: The center rib is fibrous and should be removed before slicing kale leaves into thin ribbons.
- Escarole: This green is related to endive, it's a less bitter cousin, high in Vitamin A, and also a good source of iron and calcium.
Which Kinds of Teeny, Tiny Pasta to Use
You need a very small pasta for this dish because you want a quick-cooking bite of pasta in every spoonful. Here are some suggestions:
Acini de pepe: The name says it all, these pasta are about the size and shape of a peppercorn. They cook in about 6 minutes.
Alfabeto: This letters-of-the-alphabet pasta appeals to children. Depending on their thickness they cook in 5-9 minutes.
Ditalini: The name means "little thimbles" in Italian. They cook in 10 minutes.
Israeli couscous: These little orbs of pasta are not to be confused with their more delicate wheat couscous cousins. They remain toothsome and are the size of pearls.
Stellette: These "little stars" are sometimes lovingly called avemarie because they cook in the time that it takes to say one Hail Mary.
Tips for Making the Mini Meatballs
Size. Bigger is not always better, and that is certainly true when it comes to the meatballs in wedding soup. Yes, it does take more time to shape many small orbs rather than a few large ones, but there is something nourishing and comforting in having a bite of meatball with (almost) every spoonful of soup.
Meat. Italian nonnas used whatever was available when they cooked for their families; beef, pork, or sausage were common additions. I favor a blend of ground turkey and Italian turkey sausage. Turkey is not as fatty or greasy as beef or pork but still has the rich luscious flavor.
How to Form the Meatballs: Here's a quick tip on how to speed up the process of making all of those tiny meatballs:
- Pat your meat mixture into a square onto a piece of parchment paper, about 1-inch thick.
- Then use a knife to slice through the meat. Make horizontal slices every inch.
- Turn your paper 90 degrees, and repeat the process.
- You now have 1-inch squares of meat, each about the same size, that you can easily scoop up with a spoon (or your fingers) and roll into cute little meatballs.
- 3/4 pound ground turkey (7 percent fat)
- 1/2 pound turkey sausage, casings removed
- 2/3 cup fresh white bread crumbs
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream or half and half
- 1 egg
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Place the ground turkey, turkey sausage, bread crumbs, garlic, cheese, cream and egg in large mixing bowl. Combine gently. (You might wish to use a fork, but I do it the old fashioned nonna way, with my fingertips). Don't be too heavy-handed with your mixing or your meatballs will be tough.
- Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Form mixture into 1-inch meatballs and space evenly on the pan (you should have about 48 meatballs).
- Bake for 30 minutes, until cooked through and lightly browned. Set aside.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, diced (1 cup)
- 2 or 3 carrots, peeled and cut into small dice (1 cup)
- 2 stalks celery tender inner stalks and leaves, cut into fine dice (1 cup)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 10 cups homemade chicken stock
- Heat the olive oil in a stockpot over low heat. Add the onion, carrots, and celery. Saute 5 minutes, stirring several times, until the onion begins to soften. Add the garlic and continue to cook until the vegetables begin to soften. Don't let the garlic brown; it will burn and become bitter.
- Stir in the wine and increase the heat to medium. Cook until most of the wine has evaporated then stir in the chicken stock.
Pasta, and Finishing the Soup
- 12 ounces greens, washed, center ribs removed, and sliced into thin ribbons
- 1 cup small pasta such as ditalini
- Bring the broth to a simmer. Add the greens, stir and cover. Cook for about 15 to 20 minutes or until the greens are wilted and tender.
- Add the pasta and continue to cook for 6 to 8 minutes or until the pasta is tender.
- Add the meatballs to the soup and simmer until heated, about 1-2 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper. Ladle into soup bowls and sprinkle each serving with extra grated Parmesan.
© 2019 Linda Lum