After Christmas, we all came down with winter colds. A medley of symptoms--scratchy throats, achy limbs, throbbing heads--combined with the post-holiday ho-hums necessitated a nourishing soup. With appetites expanded from our festivus feasts, we were hungry for more than the traditional panacea, chicken noodle soup.
I recalled an Italian Wedding Soup that I had made to nurture my sister and her hubby when they became new parents. Three years later, with new cookbooks in their kitchen, I found a delizioso version in Lidia Cooks From The Heart Of Italy, Lidia Bastianach's delightful book of regional Italian cooking. Named for the custom to serve the soup at a nuptial meal as well as the marriage between meat and greens, this hearty & healthy soup was just what the doctor ordered.
What distinguishes Lidia's Ministra Maritata is an abundance of greens (zucchini, escarole, chard, and fennel), a traditional pestata for a flavorful broth, and a garnish of provolone for added yum. In her recipe, she calls for sausage meatballs, but I used my own recipe instead. Feel free to incorporate your favorite meatball recipe, just be sure to take the extra step to brown them. And like many Italian dishes, each day the soup is even more squisito.
Italian Wedding Soup
adapted from Lidia Bastianach
For the vegetable soup
1 medium onion, cut in chunks
2 medium stalks, celery with leaves, cut in chunks
1 small carrot, cut in chunks
4 plump garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 quarts cold water (or you can mix half chicken broth and half water, but if so, reduce salt by half)
1 head escarole, about 1 pound, cut into 1/2-inch shreds
1 bunch Swiss chard, about 1 pound, cut into 1/2-inch shreds
1 large fennel bulb, about 1 pound, trimmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 pound zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3 small zucchini)
2 tablespoons kosher salt
For the meatballs
1 small onion, grated
1/3 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 large egg
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 slice fresh white bread, crust trimmed, bread torn into small pieces
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 lb ground pork (or you can mix beef and pork)
Freshly ground black pepper
Pecorino cheese, freshly grated, plus more for passing
extra-virgin olive oil, best quality
½ pound provola, cut in 1/4-inch cubes
Using the food processor, mince onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and basil into a smooth paste (pestata).
Heat the olive oil in the soup pot over high heat, and scrape in the pestata. Cook, stirring until the pestata has dried out and just begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Pour the cold water into the pot, stir up the pestata, put on the cover, and bring the water to a boil. Lower the heat, and simmer the broth for about 15 minutes, blending the flavors, then stir in the greens, the fennel, the zucchini, and the 2 tablespoons salt. Return to the simmer, and cook covered for 45 minutes or so, until the greens are tender. Remove the cover, and cook at an active simmer for another 45 minutes or longer, until the soup has reduced in volume and the flavors are concentrated to your taste.
While the soup simmers, prepare the meatballs. Stir the first 6 ingredients in a large bowl to blend. Add the cheese and pork, then mix the ingredients with your hands to distribute them evenly. Scoop up a small amount of the meat mix-about a heaping teaspoon- and roll it in your palms to form a 1-inch ball (the size of a large grape).
Spread flour on a large plate, roll each meatball in the flour to coat, then set them aside. Heat up a thin layer of oil on med-high in a skillet and drop in the floured meatballs. Fry them for about 5 minutes, turning and moving them occasionally, until browned on all sides. Remove them to a plate lined with paper towels. Between batches, remove browned bits and add more oil if necessary.
Bring the soup to a simmer, and cook meatballs and soup together for about 5 minutes. (If you'll be serving the soup later, put the meatballs in a bowl. Reheat them in the soup, and simmer 5 minutes just before serving.)
Turn off the heat and drop in the cubes of provola. . Give the soup one good stir to distribute the provola pieces, which will begin to melt right away, and immediately ladle individual portions into your warm bowls. (Don't leave the provola in the soup pot for a long time before serving, because it will become stringy.)
Ladle the soup into warm bowls (an essential added step to prevent tepid soup). Sprinkle each serving with some of the grated cheese, and give it a drizzle of your best olive oil. Serve right away, passing more cheese at the table.