For many years I thought minestra was a soup unique to my family. Every year I would meticulously describe each ingredient in this soup to my friends and co-workers when asked about what we ate for Thanksgiving dinner. The chicken, meatballs, escarole, savoy cabbage, and eggs makes the soup a meal in and of itself. Who needs turkey?
We had to be careful about whom we invited to dinner, because once you’ve had minest’ you became part of our family.
Then one year, while I was describing the baby meatballs floating in our sacred broth next to the escarole and chopped egg, I learned that other Italian-American families also made this soup. (I always thought of this soup as our family signature dish.) I was devastated to learn that some cooks use pepperoni instead of the meatballs, some use black olives, and many more include pasta as an ingredient. I suppose like other Italian-American recipes, minestra can be found in many variations.
Then several years ago, it started showing up on Italian restaurant menus as Italian Wedding Soup, or Minestra Maritata (marriage). The soup earned its name because of the perfect marriage of flavors between the escarole chicken broth and the small tiny meatballs (or something like this). Once or twice I ordered the soup, but it tasted canned, not home-made like the soup I cherised. Not surprisingly, I also noticed that the soup was stocked (under numerous name brands) in the canned soup aisle at the grocery store.
We make minestra every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas for sure, but also for any special occasions throughout the year. We call the soup minest’, peasant soup, the soup, or minestra but younger generations call it holiday soup. (See ONO’s About page for my rant on this specific terminology.)
Minest’ represents old Napoli in its ingredients and technique, but for us it represents family. If this is the only thing I had to eat on Thanksgiving Day, I would be both thankful and satisfied. In fact, it’s usually the only leftover I’ll eat a day or so after Thanksgiving.
Minestra Maritata / Italian Wedding Soup Recipe
For the broth
- 2 whole chickens
- celery leaves
- Salt & pepper
For the meatballs
- 1¼ pounds ground chuck
- ½ cup bread crumbs
- 3 eggs
- Salt & pepper
For the remainder
- 6 large heads of escarole
- 3-4 savoy cabbage leaves
- 8 hard-boiled eggs
- In a small saucepan, cook eggs for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. When cool enough to handle, peel, then chop the eggs. Set aside and reserve. Meanwhile, remove savoy cabbage and escarole leaves from stem, wash thoroughly. Place in large pot, cover with water and cook until done, about 30 minutes. Remove escarole from pot and place in colander to drain. When cool enough to handle, squeeze one handful of escarole at a time to remove the excess liquid, then cut into small pieces and add to broth.
- For the broth: Place chickens in a large stockpot. Cover completely with water plus about two inches. Add celery leaves, and salt and pepper as desired. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about one hour. Remove from heat. Cool completely. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove from pot and reserve broth. Remove skin from chicken and discard. Remove chicken from the bone with your fingers and cut into small pieces. Add the chicken to the broth and bring to a simmer.
- For the meatballs: To the ground chuck, add bread crumbs, raw eggs, and salt and pepper to taste. Shape into tiny meatballs and add to simmering broth. The hot broth will cook the meatballs through.
- Add chopped eggs to the soup. Simmer for about 30 minutes so the flavors can blend.
YIELD: about 15 quarts