Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Recipe: Italian Wedding Soup Re-Imagined

Pietransieri -- the source of great recipes and culinary inspiration
If you aren't Italian and if you didn't grow up in Pittsburgh, you may not even know what Italian Wedding Soup is. It's a sad state of affairs, I know. For the uninitiated, wedding soup is chicken broth, with baby meatballs, greens (usually escarole or spinach) and tiny pasta (generally acini de pepe). But if you you grew up in an Italian family in the Pittsburgh area, you probably had wedding soup at home -- we always had it at Christmas and Easter. I remember that my neighbors, the Polish, German and Slovak ones, didn't eat wedding soup for holidays. Talk about a sad state of affairs.

At some point in the mid-1980's, wedding soup exploded throughout the area and, like the Primanti's sandwich and the pierogi, became one of the hallmark foods of Pittsburgh. [We can only be grateful that they don't race tureens of wedding soup at PNC Park.] Now you can get wedding soup at pretty much any little diner and bar that serves food. It is everywhere. I'm shocked, actually, that Monday Night Football hasn't used wedding soup as their go-to Pittsburgh food image. (If you're not a sports fan, you don't realize that MNF has a gratuitous shot of a local food wherever they are. E.G., in Philly, it's always a cheesesteak; in San Diego, generally they show a fish taco; in Cincy, there is always a lingering shot of Skyline Chili; and in Pittsburgh, it's always, always a Primanti's sandwich. 'They put french fries right. on. the. sandwich!')

At any rate, wedding soup can be sublime and it can be downright inedible. As it has become more of an everyday food, people have started using more and more short-cuts -- particularly buying frozen mini-meatballs from some place like Sam's Club or Costco or something like that. This is not a short-cut I would recommend. Perhaps because wedding soup has been dumbed down, I've been thinking about ways to inject new life into the soup. What I've come up with is a tomato based broth, with sausage meatballs and fregola sarda. Enough with the memories, on with the cooking!

You will need:
1 pound of italian hot sausage
2 eggs
fresh breadcrumbs (about the equivalent of 2 to 3 healthy slices of bread)
1 tsp. of basil
1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons of red table wine
1 large can (28 oz) of crushed tomatoes (San Marzano if possible)
1 small can (6 oz) of tomato paste
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 large onion, finely diced
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
several cloves of finely diced garlic
4 quarts of vegetable stock
1 pound of baby spinach
fregola sarda

For the meatballs:
This part is important. Do get sausage from a proper butcher or italian market; don't get some pre-packaged crap at the supermarket. As Dr. John might say, it's matters a difference. I get my sausage at an italian market near me. They make it in house, but they don't sell hot sausage loose, so I buy one pound, then just slice the casing and release it. I always seem to have a left over 1/3 loaf of fresh italian bread, so I run that through the cuisinart for fresh breadcrumbs. I think that makes a huge difference, as well.

Mix up the sausage with one or two finely diced cloves of garlic, two eggs, one tablespoon of red table wine, 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese and teaspoon of dried basil.

As you can see, somebody had to test them ...
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with foil. Roll the meat mixture out into small balls -- they will kind of puff up in the soup, so you want them small now. Remember those Red Hot Jawbreakers? You want the meatballs a touch smaller than that. Into the oven they go for 35 to 40 minutes. When they're ready, pull them out and set aside. (Do be sure to taste one. Or six ...)

For the soup:
Finely dice the carrot, onion and 2 cloves of garlic. Heat a large stock pot, add a drizzle of olive oil and the veg. Add a pinch of salt and sautee until the veg are soft. Then add the can of tomato paste. You can brown this -- yes, you can brown tomato paste -- for a few minutes, stirring the entire time. Add one can of water, one tablespoon of wine, a pinch of crushed red peppers, the can of crushed tomatoes and the stock. (You can use chicken stock, too, but I figure with the sausage there's plenty of animal fat already in the soup, so I generally opt for vegetable stock.) Let the soup simmer for about an one-half hour over low heat. Then add the sausage balls and let it continue to simmer for another hour.

In a large pasta pot, heat water to a rolling boil. Salt very well and add the fregola sarda. (Here's my summer recipe for fregola sarda.) Fregola sarda are tiny pastas, much like acini de pepe, but instead of simply drying them, they are toasted, which gives them a really carmelized, nutty flavor. Also, it makes them particularly toothsome, which is fantastic in soup. Cook the fregola sarda until they are al dente, then strain. DO NOT PUT THEM IN THE SOUP. This is the second most common mistake made with wedding soup. The cooked pasta will absorb moisture from the soup and give the broth a kind of floury, pastey taste. Keep the pasta separate from the broth.

By now, the soup should be ready. Add the spinach and let it cook for a minute. The spinach will wilt almost immediately in the hot broth. Fill the bottom of a soup bowl with the fregola sarda, then ladle the soup over it. (This is the key to having toothsome pasta in the soup.) Serve with grated romano or grated parm. Mangia.

No comments:

Post a Comment