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by Victoria Brown
“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 two 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 US. 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. First she makes the stock by poaching the chicken in water with various aromatics and seasonings for two and a half to three hours over a low heat. She then lets the stock and chicken cool, strains the stock and takes the chicken off the bone, getting rid of the skin and shredding the meat.
“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?’”
At the beginning of the meatball demonstration, Avalon explains that “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.” This is so that 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 that will dry it out.”
Using milk to keep meatballs light and moist is an old trick used in both Spain and Italy, where the minestra maritata is thought to have evolved, and it seems the tradition lives on. Avalon pours milk over breadcrumbs 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.
Now the final touch, and the most important, is ready and she pops the meatballs into the Italian wedding soup. “ My father and brothers would be very happy,” she says. “It’s officially Italian wedding soup.”
1 pound ground beef (or any combination of beef, pork and chicken)
¼ cup unflavored breadcrumbs
½ cup milk
¼ 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
1. Combine breadcrumbs, milk, cheese garlic and egg in a small bowl.
2. Place ground meat in a large bowl and add breadcrumb 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 tsp 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 of Joanne Avallon, 2012.
Joanne and I have known each other since high school; we've been teenagers together and now we are raising teenagers together, and we still laugh very hard about it all. With a law degree and a Ma