Italian wedding soup

(About food, and names for dishes, and terminology for talking about families of food and recipes.)

On the bon appétit magazine site on 3/30/16, a piece by Nikki Reiss,”Cooking Without Recipes: The One Clever Shortcut to Weeknight Italian Wedding Soup”. An intro and then the actual article. The intro:

Welcome to Cooking Without Recipes, in which we teach you how to make a dish we love, but don’t worry too much about the nitty-gritty details of the recipe, so you can create your own spin. Every day this week, we’ll be bringing you a staffer’s favorite weeknight chicken recipe. Today, special events director Nikki Reiss shares a recipe for a 30-minute spin on Italian wedding soup.

This approach to cooking provides you with “mother recipes” and “master techniques” (lacking in detailed measurements and with what amount to variables in them, which can be filled in any of a number of ways); a mother recipe or master technique then defines what I’ve called a “food family” — like Italian wedding soup — a loose category of food, not actually a specific dish.

What I wrote about mother recipes, master techniques, and food families on this blog on 12/11/11 (in “food families”):

Recipe books tend towards the atomistic: each recipe is a little universe of its own, as if it had just popped out by itself and had nothing to do with any of the others. But of course most cooking uses a few “mother recipes” — templates with many possibilities for substitutions or expansions or simplifications — and “master techniques” — ways of dealing with foodstuffs. (Julia Child and James Beard, among a few others, are good about expressing the generalizations across recipes.) [Note: the terminology isn’t original with me, but I don’t know its ultimate source.]

… a version of my mother recipe for Chinese stir-fried dishes

… The whole procedure [for a Chinese stir-fried dish] can be translated into a mother recipe for an Italian sauté.

The photo accompanying Nikki Reiss’s piece: yummy-looking, but of course it’s just one instantiation of the mother recipe:

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Reiss in her own words:

Some days, I love having the kitchen to myself. But on a busy weeknight, I’ll take any help I can get. My husband loves meatballs, which I usually reserve for an all-day Sunday sauce situation. But weeknights call for something lighter (and more importantly, faster), so we get in the kitchen together and divide up tasks for this simple yet hearty soup. He cuts the veggies and opens the cans while I form and fry the quick chicken meatballs; between the two of us, dinner’s ready in 30 minutes. Plus, the leftovers pack up perfectly for an enviable lunch al desko later in the week. Here’s how we do it:

Remove one package of fresh spicy chicken sausages from their casings [note: this is a very specific ingredient; in fact, the mother recipe merely stipulates meatballs or sausages, of any sort] and form the meat into very small meatballs before rolling in a mixture of homemade breadcrumbs and grated Parm (grate extra to top the soup later). Pan-fry until they’re golden brown on all sides.

For the soup, sauté the usual suspects in a pot — a chopped small yellow onion, two diced carrots, a few minced garlic cloves, red pepper flakes and a can of white cannellini beans [note: cannellini beans are the classic legume for the dish, but there are lots of other possibilities, all the way to lentils]. Add enough stock (I use homemade vegetable or chicken, which I keep in the freezer, but store-bought is totally fine) to cover the veg by a few inches. Bring to a boil before adding a little starch — I love ditalini pasta, but Israeli couscous is also great. [note: starch as one of the variables] When the pasta is almost al dente, stir in a big bunch of shredded greens like kale, collards, or chard [note: shredded greens as another variable], as well as the crispy meatballs, and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through, about five minutes.

Garnish with a spoonful of that pesto that’s been sitting in your freezer [or not: not everyone has some frozen pesto to hand] and, obviously, that grated Parm.

The Wikipedia article has something even closer to a mother recipe, and it also has a (surprising) explanation for the name wedding soup:

Wedding soup or Italian wedding soup is an Italian-American soup consisting of green vegetables and meat. It is popular in the United States, where it is a staple in many Italian restaurants.

Wedding soup consists of green vegetables (usually endive and escarole or cabbage, lettuce, kale, and/or spinach) and meat (usually meatballs and/or sausage) in a clear chicken-based broth. Wedding soup sometimes contains cavatelli, acini di pepe, pastina, orzo, other pasta, lentils, or shredded chicken.

The term “wedding soup” is a mistranslation of the Italian language phrase “minestra maritata (“married soup”),” which is a reference to the fact that green vegetables and meats go well together. The minestra maritata recipe is also prepared by the families of Lazio and Campania during the Christmas season (a tradition started from the Spanish domination of Italy to the present days). Some form of minestra maritata was long popular in Toledo, Spain, before pasta became an affordable commodity to most Spaniards. The modern wedding soup is quite a bit lighter than the old Spanish form, which contained more meats than just the meatballs of modern Italian-American versions.

In pretty much any America city with a significant Italian-American community (which means a community historically based in southern Italy, especially Naples and Sicily), there will be Italian restaurants, and these will almost surely offer Italian wedding soup as a standard menu item (each restaurant will have its own version, which varies very little from day to day, but different restaurants will have different versions); certainly that was true in Reading PA in my childhood. A map of Italian regions, focused on Campania, with Naples at its center:

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