You don't have to have a wedding or be married to make (or eat) Italian Wedding Soup. With a stracciatella twist, this soup is a big bowl of comfort. Pairs so well with my Italian Arugula Salad.
Earning Its Name
It seems very few restaurants serve Italian Wedding Soup. Whether it's because it's too rustic, or someone thinks it too time-consuming (to make, not eat), you might agree that it's just plain disappointing. What could be better than mini meatballs and baby spheres of pasta co-mingling in a bowl of amazing broth? Adding a stracciatella finish!
With a handful of vegetables thrown in for health and wealth, you've got all the things one wishes on a married couple. It is said that Italian wedding soup was given its name because the ingredients are married together: as in the broths from the meat and vegetables cooking. Hence, the married broths — or minestra maritata (not to be confused with hakuna matata)—of the cooking liquids of the meats and vegetables.
Let's break it down. Here are the traditional components of the recipe:
Now how those ingredients are sourced (as in beef, pork, chicken) or blended varies from region, country or even family. But then again, isn't that the case with most recipes? Or most marriages? You and your significant other can debate that...over a bowl of this soup, of course.
Chicken or Beef?
Meatballs -The favorite part of this soup has got to be the meatballs, amirite? Whether it takes one back to the mini-meatballs you could get from a certain school lunch spaghetti or no,t I don't know (because we weren't allowed to eat canned spaghetti in our house growing up...bitter much?) OR whether it's because they are kind of like the inside of soup dumplings in Chinese cuisine, I'm not sure. Or maybe it's some other reason such as being unbelievably and soulfully GOOD.
The meatballs in this recipe are made from two kinds of meat: chicken and pork. Could you use beef instead of chicken? Sure. I won't stop you. My grandmas wouldn't stop you. Just give the original recipe a shot before you decide. If you have to have beef meatballs, give these meatballs a try (but cut the recipe at least in half because it makes a lot).
Pasta - Traditionally, you would use acini di pepe for Italian Wedding Soup. If you have a box of orzo or pastina in your pantry or some other really small pasta, go for it. And then refer to the paragraph above regarding my grandmas and permission and such. It's all good.
Broth: Because I am using chicken in my meatballs, chicken broth makes the most sense. Could you use beef broth in your soup? Totally. But don't use only beef broth. Add some chicken or vegetable broth. It is a wedding after all. And since you're asking, I'd use more chicken than beef (say if you had some leftover of one or the other you needed to use up).
Greens: You'll notice that I used spinach here. Escarole is the most traditional which I would have used. However, it's a long story involving a grocery clerk insisting that what I had in my hand was escarole when I felt pretty confident it wasn't. I trusted him, It wasn't. Minestra maritata.
Ok— on to the good stuff...getting all these ingredients good and married.
Make Some Meatballs
You'll want to use a large bowl and your favorite kitchen tool - your hands. That's how you can feel the texture. First, blend the meats together so that you know they're good and incorporated. Next, add all the other meatball ingredients to the bowl EXCEPT the water. You want the meatball mix to be on the looser side but you need it to hold its shape. A lot depends on the amount of fat in your meat and the grind of the chicken. If you have a butcher who grinds chicken for you on-site, that's the way to go. You won't have as much moisture because a lot of time the meat is shipped frozen to the store leading to more moisture in your meat mix. FYI—if you have a Fresh Market store in your area, they usually will grind fresh chicken right from the butcher case and it's so worth it.
To shape the meatballs, use either a small melon baller or just your hands. You want about a 1" meatball. Lightly roll it into a ball and place it on a cookie sheet. Keep going until you use them all up.
The Broth Base
Having a food processor for this step is going to save you some time. If you don't, that's ok! There are directions in the recipe for each. Either way, you are going to end up with some minced veggies that you are going to quickly saute in a hot pan. To that, you'll add the broth and deglaze the pan. (Deglazing is just scraping up all the brown bits at the bottom which is where the flavor is).
Wedded Meatball + Soup Bliss
In another pan, you're going to heat up some broth and add your meatballs. You are essentially poaching the meatballs and will finish cooking them in the other pot. After poaching them and straining the water, add them to the other pot with where the remaining broth and pasta will have been cooking. [TIP: you can always add the meatballs and all the broth directly to the first pan. That'll definitely save on clean up. But- you won't get as clear of a broth. Entirely your call.]
Right at the end, you'll add in the spinach or escarole along with the stracciatella.
What Is Stracciatella?
If you've been to Italy, you've eaten gelato. Every gelato shop has a stracciatella flavor which to Americans is like chocolate chip. While stracciatella soup inspired the creation of the gelato, it doesn't have chocolate in it. It's more of a chicken soup with a swirl of eggy Parmesan right before serving. The egg cooks in the broth with little cheesy strands strewn through the soup. It's magical and adds an amazing flavor layer.
Does Italian wedding soup freeze well?
Yes! There are a couple of ways to do it:
- make the meatballs ahead of time, freeze them separately and make the broth the day you plan to serve.
- make the whole soup—pasta and all—and freeze it.
I prefer the first because the pasta doesn't get as soft
For a crowd: A lighter alternative to my Completely Steak Chili, especially if you have guests who choose not to eat red meat. Fun for your Super Bowl party!
For a few: Freeze half of the meatballs for another meal.
Make ahead: Perfect to make ahead up to two days. The soup can also be frozen. If you make extra meatballs, freeze them separately. Then you'll always be ready to have soup.
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Italian Wedding Soup
For the soup base:
- 1 small onion, refer to instructions
- 1 stalk celery, refer to instructions
- 1 large carrot or 5-7 baby carrots, refer to instructions
- 5 basil leaves, directions below
- 2 cloves garlic , peeled
For the Meatballs
- ½ lb ground chicken
- ½ lb ground Italian sausage, w/o fennel if possible. See note below
- ¾ cup Romano Cheese, grated and divided
- 1 Tbsp parsley, minced
- 1 egg, lightly whisked
- 2 slices white or wheat bread, broken into small pieces
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- ¼ cup warm water
For the soup
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 3½ qts chicken stock, divided
- 1 cup acini di pepe, see note below
- 1 head escarole or 6 cups (or handfuls) of fresh spinach, cleaned and chopped
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1 egg
- ½ lemon
FIRST STEP || WITH A FOOD PROCESSOR:
- Place 2 quarters of the onion, the celery, carrots, basil, and garlic in the bowl of a food processor and pulse for about 15 seconds until the contents are minced. Set aside and continue to the second step.
FIRST STEP || WITHOUT A FOOD PROCESSOR:
- Mince the onions, celery, carrots, and garlic. Place in medium bowl.
- Stack the basil leaves one on top of each other and roll into a long cylinder. Using a sharp knife, thinly slice the roll. Add to other minced veggies. Set aside and continue to the second step.
SECOND STEP || Make the Meatballs
- Using your hands, lightly combine all the meatball ingredients including ½ cup of Romano except the water in a large bowl until well mixed. Don't overmix it. Add the water and using your hands again, gently incorporate it.
- Put a little water in a small cup or bowl. Using a teaspoon or small scoop, make small meatballs scooping with one hand and placing in the fingertips of the other hand, lightly shaping the ball. Dip fingers into the water bowl in between making each meatball. Place meatballs on a lightly sprayed or parchment-lined baking sheet.
- Meanwhile, bring 2 cups of the chicken stock to a low boil in a medium saucepan. Keep on a low simmer.
- After all the meatballs are made, gently place them in the simmering broth and cook for 5 minutes. You might have to do this in batches. [See notes below for making extra or making ahead]
- Through a fine mesh strainer, strain the meatball poaching liquid and add it to the other pan with the other broth.
STEP THREE || Make the Soup
- Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot. Add the veggies from step one and saute over medium heat for approximately 5 minutes.
- Add the remaining stock to the stockpot along with salt and pepper. Bring to a low boil.
- Add the pasta to the pot and cook for 5 minutes. Then, add the meatballs and strained poaching liquid along with the spinach or escarole. Cook until the pasta is al dente, about 5 minutes more.
- Meanwhile, in a small bowl, add the remaining ¼ cup of Romano to the 2 eggs and whisk lightly together. Right before serving, take the handle of a wooden spoon and swirl the soup while slowly pouring the egg and cheese mixture into the pot.
- Squeeze some lemon in just before serving and sprinkle some grated romano on top. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, if needed.
- Acini di pepe pasta is a small round rice-like pasta typically used in Italian wedding soup.
- If you can't find Italian sausage without fennel, you can substitute plain ground pork for the sausage or use 100% ground chicken. I would add a little drizzle of olive oil to compensate for the loss of fat. Per the post, you can also use ground beef (85%).
- Gluten-free /dairy free options: use gluten free breadcrumbs or bread. And omit the cheese from the meatballs and finishing of the soup.