Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Let other people spin their wheels in the streets; I shall stay close to my soup bowl

Last Saturday, it snowed 18 inches in the town directly north of my small town. It snowed 24 inches in the town two towns directly west of my small town. I don't know exactly how much it snowed in my small town, but I'm guessing it was somewhere in the middle. So, yes, our home was hemmed in by 21 glittering inches of white, March snow.

While Jet leaped about in her own private winter play land, trying to keep her head above snow (which should not be difficult considering she weighs 100 pounds and does not ride close to the ground, but was challenging due to the sheer volume of snowfall), I stared out the front window, waiting for the man who plows our driveway to show up so I could send him over to clear off our neighbor's driveway, too. During snowplow-watch, Mom and Dad appeared, just barely making it into the driveway by giving their car a running start from down the street; seems that, dating back to the time they were teenagers, they've always enjoyed driving around in blizzards. They used to try to gun their car up large hills during massive snowstorms. Now, they just tool about their hometown and surrounding locales, even when they have nowhere urgent to go and nothing in particular to do. They joined me on snowplow-watch, and as we were drinking coffee in the front room, a gorgeous brown and white dappled horse ambled down the street, being ridden by two of the happiest women I've seen in some time. I opened the front door and, absent the usual traffic, the blustery noise of the snow and the clip-clop of the horse's hoofs made me yearn for a different century, one that doesn't start with a "2." "Beautiful horse!" I yelled, before realizing I was standing on my porch in a snowstorm in my robe, discussing equine aesthetics at a substantial volume with two women astride a horse on a relatively busy street in the year of our Lord, 2008. "Our car was snowed in!" they gleefully answered. I had a feeling that even if their car had been accessible, they would have busted out the horse for this journey regardless. "Good thing you have a horse," I responded.

The only thing that can possibly improve day like this is soup.

So I went about considering my soup repertoire. With as many good, warming soup options as there were sweater-clad government officials and weatherpeople on television -- we are working hard for you, citizens, we don't have time for ties and business apparel because the snow! it is falling! -- it took some time for me to decide that Italian wedding soup was the answer for this blizzardy day. Husband lobbied hard for potato-leek; it is one of his favorites. But that will have to wait for the next low-pressure system. The thought of Italian wedding soup's teeny meatballs, treading chicken stock with rustic, flavorful sounded the perfect antidote to Mother Nature's blowing and drifting assaults.

Though I am only one-quarter Italian, at times that minority seems to take over my entire being. Its little 25% wages big-time war with the 50% Polish and 25% German elements of me, usually planting its victorious Italian flag on my dinner plate. I have Dad to thank for this, who in turn has his Grandpa Masterson (name off the ship: Mastroianni) to thank. Grandpa Masterson was one of the many Italians who lived "Up Croton" in New Castle, PA, slang for a Little Italy of sorts, only a purely residential, working-class, OK, poor, Little Italy. This is where Grandma Masterson would cook tomato sauce for days on end, and where the parents and grandparents would serve sugar- and cream-laced coffee, poured over slices of bread, to children on Sunday mornings. It's where Grandpa Masterson would grate a mountain of snowy Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top of his pasta while humorously stating, "I no like-a the cheese." It's where my godfather grew up. Yep, my godfather.

(Grandpa Masterson standing outside his home Up Croton, eating a bowl of gnocchi or cavatelli, while Dad's Aunt Nikki and Grandma Masterson peek out the window, ca. 1928.)

(My grandfather, Pa, leans against the porch beams of Grandpa Masterson's house Up Croton. This was taken when he was dating Dad's mom, Ma Chris, in the mid-1930s. Check out his sweet ride.)

If you've never been to an Italian wedding, you need to get yourself invited to one. If you've never been to an Italian wedding in New Castle, you really need to make some friends in that town. For not only will you be able to sample real Italian wedding soup in its native surroundings, but also you will be privy to a host of behaviors that are challenging to describe yet thrilling to experience. There is always a fistfight. There is usually an older lady, typically a friend of the groom's grandmother, who is a kleptomaniac. Someone must be "assigned" to her lest the caterer's worldly belongings end up in her car along with all the centerpieces and the contents of the dessert buffet, placed in Styrofoam to-go containers given to her by unknowing and well-meaning servers. There are koombits, which most people call Jordan almonds, tied up with ribbons in little tulle bags. Then there is the time, near the end of the night, when the tipsy, more happening female guests start smoking cigars with the groomsmen. And pizzelles. Someone always makes pizzelles.

Italian wedding soup is a celebratory dish, but it's a humble, one, too. There's nothing very fancy about it, and nothing that goes into making it is wasted. Though I purchased the produce from a high-end grocer to make my version, I am certain Grandpa Masterson strolled out to his garden and plucked heads of 'SCArole (escarole) fresh from the Up Croton soil. He and Grandma Masterson used every part of that head of 'scarole, right down to the stem, throwing away only the very last bit. They made the chicken stock that served as the base for the soup, so they shredded up the cooked chicken into bite-size pieces and returned them to the pot. These were poor people, and they did not waste.

(Dad and his brother, my Uncle Ray [left], forage around an Italian garden Up Croton, ca. 1945.)

My adaptation of Italian wedding soup, while delicious, would make the Italians Up Croton bite the spaces between their thumbs and index fingers and cry, "Madon." Instead of beef meatballs, I use ground turkey (I gave up beef many years ago). And though I still use chicken in the soup, if I'm in a rush I reach for canned chicken stock and omit the meat itself. The soup is better if you take the time to make the stock from scratch, thereby poaching the chicken, pulling apart the meat then adding it back into the pot. But if you're very tight on time, you can get away with skipping this step. I fed my version to Dad, who is very much his grandfather's grandson. Though he would prefer beef to turkey, he enjoyed this soup nonetheless -- and you will too. Plus, Italian wedding soup is one of the few ways that I enjoy escarole and curly endive. I don't know where the greens' bitterness goes in this soup but it's just...gone. What you're left with is green goodness swimming around in chickeny liquid fortified by egg, cheese and the occasional Italian-spiced meatball.

Italian wedding soup is a metaphor for the Italian wedding itself: bitter things that maybe should be fighting, mixed in with fortified elements, spicy elements, boiling around in a large pot, yet still managing to remain for the most part civil and joyous because hey, this is a happy day!

And for those of you who aren't Italian or who haven't had the luck of traveling Up Croton, think of a pot of Italian wedding soup as approximating the feeling of being indoors while a blizzard rages around you: it's nice and warm in here, and there's nothing I need from the outside world right now. Everything I require is right here: soul-warming broth, nutritious turkey meatballs, delicious greens, salty cheese and stick-to-your-ribs eggs and pastina.

If it's not in this house, if it's not in this pot, I don't need it. Let other people spin their wheels in the streets; I shall stay close to my soup bowl.



For the turkey meatballs:

20 oz. ground turkey

1/4 c. flat-leaf parsley, freshly chopped

1/2 t. garlic, minced

1 egg, beaten

1/8 t. freshly-ground black pepper

1/2 t. kosher salt

1 c. Italian breadcrumbs

1/2 c. Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

2 T. olive oil, to fry the meatballs

For the soup:

3 48-oz. cans of low-sodium chicken stock

2 chicken or vegetable bouillon cubes

3 ribs plus the tops of one bunch of celery, chopped

1 large white or yellow onion, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

1/4 c. flat-leaf parsley, torn

1/3 c. white wine

4 c. escarole, heads quartered and chopped into bite-sized pieces

4 c. curly endive, heads quartered and chopped into bite-sized pieces

1/2 t. freshly-ground black pepper

Salt, to taste (optional)

1/4 c. pastina/acini di pepe

1 egg, beaten

1/3 c. Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

Bring the chicken stock and the vegetable or chicken bouillon cubes up to a simmer. When I made Italian wedding soup this past weekend, I started with some frozen stock I had leftover from some previous chicken poaching; I always freeze it in old-school metal ice-cube trays -- the kind with the metal lever release -- so the stock is easily accessible when I'm ready to use it.

While the stock is coming to a simmer, make the turkey meatballs. In a medium bowl, mix the ground turkey, 1/4 c. flat-leaf parsley, garlic, beaten egg, 1/8 t. pepper, salt, breadcrumbs and 1/2 c. cheese. I prefer to use my hands for this, but I suppose you could use a spoon if you were so inclined. I'm sure they use their hands Up Croton. When the mixture is thoroughly combined, form it into small bite-sized meatballs, using a teaspoon as a rough guide. If they get any larger than that, they are a little hard to eat in the context of the soup, and you have to cut them in half with your spoon (oh, such labor).

Fry the meatballs in a non-stick skillet in about 2 T. of olive oil, turning once, until they get some nice color. You don't have to worry about cooking them through; their romp in the soup will take care of that. Plus, they are so small it doesn't take long to cook them, anyway. This step is just for color and texture. Set the meatballs aside on a plate to await their dip into the soup pool.

When the chicken stock is simmering, add the celery, onion, carrot and parsley and cook for 15-20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Add the wine.

Add the reserved turkey meatballs, the curly endive and the escarole to the soup, and heat through. These ingredients don't need to cook for very long; in fact, if you allow the greens to overcook, they will start to fall apart and become rather stringy. Five minutes, tops, is all I let the soup go once I've added the meatballs and greens. Add the pepper and salt (optional); taste and adjust the seasonings, if necessary.

Add the pastina/acini di pepe and stir through the soup. Cook for about 2 minutes. Just before serving, beat one egg with 1/3 c. cheese, then drizzle this mixture into the hot soup while stirring constantly. This fortifies the soup in the most delicious way imaginable.

Ladle yourself an immense helping, and enjoy! Hopefully at this point you are still in your robe, and can look out the window at the falling snowflakes, secure in the knowledge that you don't have to go anywhere.

Unless you have a horse.

Serves many. At least 12. I lost count after I fed it to my parents, myself, my husband, my sick sister and nephews and then still had plenty left over for lunches.

Note: This soup is especially great with day-old Italian bread (it HAS to be stale for an authentic experience), or buttery, olive oily, homemade croutons.

Also, if you wish to include chicken in the soup, just poach 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts in the stock while you're bringing it up to a simmer. When the chicken is cooked through, remove it from the pot and let it stand until it's cool to the touch. Pull it apart into bite-sized pieces, and return those pieces to the soup.

Even better, you can start from scratch and make your own chicken stock -- thereby omitting the need for stock and bouillon cubes. But that, as they say, is another show. (If you are not into roasting and boiling chicken bones for hours on end you can check here for a quick little lesson on how to make a simple "stock," or court-bouillon, for lack of a better phrase.) It will make your soup taste better and even more homemade, but will add much more time and fussing and ingredients to the process: you will need cheesecloth and extra aromatics, because not only will you need the chopped celery, onion and carrot for the finished soup, you will need the same vegetables to cook down with the chicken to make the stock in the first place. If you have the time and inclination, by all means, go for it. I am a huge advocate for recipes that take all day!

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