Soup is the song of the hearth… and the home.
Louis P. De Gouy
Growing up in a kitchen dominated by Italian cooking, it was easy to eat endlessly. Whether or not it was healthy eating never seemed to matter. There was no discussion about if the tomatoes in the Sunday spaghetti sauce were organic. Whether or not the beef, pork, and veal that went into the meatballs came from a hormone-free source was not an issue, and there was no such thing as whole wheat pasta. Mealtime was an act of faith that our food was providing us with the best it had to offer.
Despite the obvious lack of attention to the fine print on the ingredient list, there was a strong connection between food and health. The best example of this connection between meal time and wellness was that my father, the carrier of the Italian gene, was seldom sick. I can only remember a few times in his career that he stayed home from work due to illness. The reason I’m so sure about this fact is that every time he stayed home there was always a big pot of chicken soup on the stove. Regardless of what it meant to the school that he worked for, his illness always meant one sure thing for the family; we were having soup for dinner.
This soup was not a mere starter to the “real meal” that was to come. It was a meal in itself. One never knew what was going to show up on one’s spoon. There would always be the basics of course; onion, fresh parsley and basil, celery, and chunks of chicken. But depending on dad’s mood, and whatever was lying around the house, one might also chance upon grated Romano cheese, rice, dumplings, broad egg noodles, tiny meatballs, and, if you were very lucky, the tiny soup pasta known as pastina (as much fun to say as it was to eat – we pronounced it pes-teeny). If dad was really under the weather, you might be served the grand-daddy of them all, Italian wedding soup. This soup, which I call Italian Prozac, was the epitome of a meal in a bowl and you felt better just thinking about what it was going to taste like. (recipe attached)
When dad was putting together his home medicinal brew, there was never any talk about how soup was good for you because of the vitamins and nutrients that were simmering together. There was no discussion about how food is love and that this was the secret ingredient that provided the healing power. If dad talked about it at all, it was only about how his mother or father would make soup in an effort to “piece up,” which meant using up the week’s leftovers. There were occasional tales of a supper table surrounded by his nine siblings and cries of “mangia” filling the air.
Soup made during dad’s illnesses was no ordinary soup; it was, in my dad’s humble words, “good soup.” As in, “I’ve made some good soup, if you want to have lunch.” Leaving one to wonder what constituted “bad” soup and whether or not one would want to eat it if you knew. As a child, it was easy to miss the significance of this gently simmering pot of goodness. Given the choice, I’m sure my brothers and sister would have opted for one of the other Italian delicacies we craved, with pizza being high on the list. But alas, pizza was meant to be eaten during festive times—celebrating the unlikely victory of the home team, the Buffalo Bills, for instance. No, if dad was sick there would be only soup to bring him back to health and when he was done cooking it there was going to be so much of it that we would have soup as a side to every dish for at least the next week.
As an adult, I can now appreciate my father’s tried-and-true method for chasing away the annoying symptoms of the common cold. During a recent slide into the doldrums, I found myself placing the remains of the smoked turkey into a large stainless steel pot and then methodically going through the refrigerator and cupboard looking for worthy additions. With years of tradition to guide me, and the added boost of knowing that I was using locally sourced ingredients, I joyfully paid tribute to my dad. Even though he moved beyond this earthly kitchen in May of last year, I could still feel him watching me as I salted and spiced, stirred and simmered, and threw all measuring techniques out the window. It came as no surprise that I began to feel better even before the first drop of soup touched my tongue. In true Italian fashion, when my wife came home and entered the kitchen I greeted her with, “I’ve made some good soup for dinner.” This wasn’t soup for the soul, it was soup for the sole purpose of feeling better and it has never failed; which is more than I can say for my attempts at home-made pasta. Some things are better left to the experts.
Italian Wedding Soup
1 whole stewing chicken (cut into 8 pieces including fat)
4 qt Water
3-4 celery stalks with leaves, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
1 large onion, chopped
5-6 sprigs, fresh Italian parsley, chopped
2-3 large hard-boiled eggs, diced (put aside)
In a large pot, add chicken pieces. Add water, making sure to cover chicken. Bring to boil; turn heat to medium. Skim off any froth. Cook stock for 25-30 mins skimming off any more froth. Add vegetables; season with salt and pepper to taste. Continue to simmer until chicken is cooked; remove from the stock and allow chicken to cool. Remove skin and bones, chop chicken and return to stock.
Preparing Tiny Meatballs
1/2 lb ground beef, 1/2 lb ground pork
3/4 cup fresh ground bread crumbs
1 large egg slightly beaten
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
1/4 tsp dried basil
2 T water
Salt & pepper to taste
In a large mixing bowl, add the above ingredients in order. Mix well to incorporate all ingredients. Shape tiny meatballs about 3/4 inch and place in baking pan or dish. Place in preheated oven until meatballs are well browned. Remove and drain on paper towels and place in stock.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg, slightly beaten 1
T olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
In a mixing bowl add ingredients and mix well. If too dry add a little water, if too moist add a little flour. Knead until smooth. Cut off pieces and shape into a rope about 1/2 inch thick. Use floured work area. Cut rope into pieces approximately 1/4 inch long. In a skillet put about an inch of oil and bring to hot. Add dough to hot oil and turn to cook until lightly browned. Remove from hot oil and drain on paper towels; put aside. Finish cooking remaining dumplings.
Preparing Pastina (or some other small soup pasta) Cook about 1/2 pound of pastina according to package directions. Drain the pastina and add to stock.*
*Tip: Do not add to much pastina at one time, as it will soak up the broth. This soup is not to be thick. Pastina should be added just when you are ready to serve.
To serve, place soup in large bowl, add chopped eggs and dumplings. Sprinkle with Romano cheese. Serve with crusty Italian bread