Before I launch into my rendition of Italian Wedding Soup, I want to share with you a shocking discovery. Italian wedding soup isn’t served at weddings. I guess you already knew that, especially if you’ve walked into an Italian restaurant in North America in the last forever. But I mean, even traditionally, Italian Wedding Soup wasn’t served at weddings. I mean, it can be served at a wedding – no law against it. But the soup isn’t specifically a wedding food, like a wedding cake. You dig? Should I over explain it some more?
I guess the romantic in me was a little letdown by the soup’s non-matrimonial origins. A soup passed down through the generations as an emblem of love and unity, not a bad story, right? But the part of me that loves to eat was, well, elated. I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog that I resent when dishes are relegated to special occasions. The reasoning behind my sour grapes is this: usually special occasion dishes are bananas delicious and I want to eat delicious things all the damn time. You can see the issue.
I’m also pleased Italian Wedding Soup isn’t something sacred because I didn’t make much of an effort to make mine authentic. I mean, if you read this blog, you know I have an uneasy relationship with “authenticity”, but still it never feels good to alter something hallowed or revered. So, at this point, you might be wondering why the word “wedding” is attached to this soup at all. Well, I’m kind of in love with the reason behind its moniker.
Apparently, the name Wedding Soup comes from a mistranslation of “minestra maritata”, a soup that hails from Lazio and Campania. Minestra maritata means “married soup” and the name does not refer to a marriage between people but rather the delicious marriage between greens and meat. Minestra maritata consists of hearty greens and slow-cooked cheap cuts of meat. It’s not a recipe born out of celebration, it is a recipe of necessity. It’s a peasant dish, created to make the most of tough leftover cuts of meat and cheap, local greens.
So, Minestra maritata made its way to North America and became Italian Wedding Soup. And along the way, the ham hocks and pork ribs gave way to mini meatballs and the tangle of greens decreased in volume. It became a staple starter in American Italian cuisine. And it was this version of the soup I fell in love with at the tender age of 10.
My love for this soup comes from a completely unauthentic and, frankly, embarrassing place: a can. Yes, the first time I ever had Italian Wedding soup it came from a can, and it was one of those “Ready to Serve” cans. It required no effort whatsoever. It brings me no pleasure to admit to this. But the truth must come out. The first piece of kitchen equipment I mastered was a can-opener. Now, do you believe me when I say you can learn how to cook anything? I’m in no way miraculous, I’m just a dork with a high tolerance for complete and utter failure. And you can be too!
But despite my less-than-refined introduction, I was hooked on Italian Wedding Soup from the first mouthful. I ordered it everywhere. At this point, I’ve had so many versions that I was able to tease out what I liked about each bowl and what I didn’t. Today’s Italian Wedding Soup with Orecchiette is an amalgamation of my favorite aspects of numerous bowls of soup. Let’s start with the stock.
I’ve had quite a few versions of Italian Wedding Soup that are chicken stock based. There’s nothing wrong with them, they just aren’t my favorite. It feels strange to eat something that tastes like chicken soup and then bite into a pork, beef or veal meatball. I decided to make a riff on the stock Italians usually serve their tortellini in. It uses a leftover Parm rind, a fennel bulb and a fair amount of wine. It makes your house smell like nothing else while it’s cooking and it tastes like a dream. What more could you ask for?
I made my meatballs slightly larger than the ones you find in many Italian Wedding Soups. The little ones are more prone to overcooking, which transforms their texture into something resembling a rubber bullet. I went with a pork-based recipe and didn’t shy away from fennel seeds. Fennel seeds are frigging delicious and they helped reinforce the fennel flavor in the broth. I also opted to add some crushed red pepper flakes for a hit of heat. And when it came to pasta, I let my inner carb fiend drive. I went with orecchiette, which is a larger pasta shape than the usual pasta found in Italian Wedding Soup. I thought it made the soup a bit more of a meal, but if you’d prefer something daintier, go with the more traditional acini de pepe.
As for greens, you can feel free to add just about anything hearty enough to go in soup. I went with lacinato kale because it doesn’t go mushy and it has a more tender bite than green kale. You could opt for spinach or collards or endive, really, any leafy green you fancy. And hey, if you don’t like Italian Wedding Soup or you’re a vegetarian, just make the Parmesan Fennel stock. Seriously, it’s the true gem of this recipe.
That’s the scoop on this Italian Wedding Soup with Orecchiette. Honestly, this soup is no starter, so if you’re taking it on, don’t make any other dinner plans.
Italian Wedding Soup with Orecchiette
- 1 batch Parmesan Fennel stock see below
- 1 batch Meatballs see below
- 1 cup dried orecchiette
- 1 head lacinato kale stalks removed, coarsely chopped
- 1/4 loaf of chiabatta sliced thin
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese shredded
Parmesan Fennel Stock
- 1 large Parmesan rind
- 1 fennel bulb quartered
- 1 sweet onion halved
- 3 small carrots cut into thirds
- 1/2 bulb garlic
- 12 sprigs flat leaf parsley
- 3 celery stalks coarsely chopped
- 14 g 0.5 oz dried mixed mushrooms
- 12 cups water
- 1 cup dry white wine
- Salt to taste
- 454 g 1lb ground pork
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1/4 cup seasoned bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup flat leaf parsley coarsely chopped
- 2 teaspoons dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 - 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
For the Stock
- Place the rind and vegetables into a large stock pot. Add the water and wine, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduced the heat to a simmer and cover. Let cook for 4 hours or until the liquid is reduced by half. Taste and season with salt accordingly. Remove the stock from the heat and set aside.
For the Meatballs
- Place all the ingredients except the olive oil in a large bowl. Using clean hands, mix the ingredients until well integrated. Form the meat mixture into mini 1/2 teaspoon-sized meatballs.
- In a large skillet, heat a quarter-sized amount of olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add half of the meatballs and cook until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Repeat with the remaining half of the meatballs. Set the browned meatballs aside until ready to use.
For the Soup
- When ready to assemble the soup, preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Arrange slices of ciabatta on a large baking sheet. Brush a little olive oil on each slice and sprinkle with salt. Toast the bread until golden, about 7 minutes. Remove the bread from the oven and top the slices with parmesan. Return the pan to the oven and toast until the cheese is melted, about 2-3 minutes.
- While the bread is toasting, bring the stock up to boil. Add the orecchiette and cook for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the meatballs, cook for another 10 minutes. Stir in the kale and cook until it begins to wilt.
- Divide the finished soup amongst four bowl and top with 2 or 3 ciabatta slices. Serve immediately.