Sicilian Meatball Soup

In the dead of winter, one craves warmth and comfort food: Sicilian Meatball Soup to the rescue. It’s the perfect antidote to the winter doldrums. My mother pleased our whole family with this soup and did a favor for herself, as well. With some crusty bread, the soup makes a delicious meal in itself—nothing more to cook. If you’re concerned about the lack of vegetables, that problem is solved by the broth.

To make a truly rich, deeply flavored soup, you need a long-simmered stock as your base. For those pressed for time (or those who are just plain lazy), you can skip the stock and just use the store-bought variety (you’ll need at least 2 quarts). The result will be acceptable but not as fully satisfying, nor as thoroughly nourishing, as the homemade beef broth.

Admittedly, the stock is the part of the recipe that takes the most time and effort. I always make my stock the night before I’m going to serve the soup, starting early in the evening, so as to allow for at least four to five hours of simmering. You want to coax every last bit of flavor from your ingredients, thus the long cooking time. One of the payoffs for me is that the smell of the simmering broth makes me nearly as euphoric as the smell of freshly baked bread.

For a successful stock, you need several pounds of beef bones, at least a pound of chuck or other beef cut, vegetables, and herbs. Another plus in favor of preparing your stock the day before is that it allows time for it to cool, making for easier removal of unnecessary fat. You want a nice clean, clear broth.

For the Stock
4-5 pounds beef bones
1 pound piece of beef chuck
2 peeled onions
4 carrots, peeled and quartered
1 quart commercial beef stock
2 celery stalks cut in chunks
2 leeks (optional)
8 sprigs parsley
2 unpeeled garlic cloves
1 bay leaf
8 sprigs fresh thyme
4 peppercorns
2 whole cloves
1 tablespoon salt

To make the stock, preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large shallow roasting pan, arrange the chuck, the bones, and the onions each stuck with a clove. Place at the middle level of the oven and roast, turning the ingredients several times so, they brown evenly. This should take about 40 minutes.

Remove from the oven and transfer the ingredients to a large kettle, about 8-10 quarts. Set the roasting pan over the flame, and add 2 cups of water, scraping up any browned particles with a wood spoon. Pour that liquid into the soup kettle. Add the commercial beef stock and enough water to cover the ingredients. Then add the celery, the optional leeks, the parsley, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns, and salt.

Bring to the simmer. Skim off any scum that accumulates. Once the stock looks clear of the scum, partially cover and simmer for at least 4-5 hours. Maintain a slow bubbling, never letting the stock to come to the boil because this will cause the fat to be incorporated into the broth. Do not fully cover the pot. If the liquid is evaporating too much, add extra water as needed. When you believe you’ve extracted all you can from the ingredients, remove from the heat.

Simmering Stock

With a ladle strain the liquid into a smaller kettle, pressing down on the vegetables to extract as much flavor as possible. Discard the bones and the vegetables. The piece of chuck may be served separately.

If you have time, once the stock has cooled, refrigerate it until the fat congeals at the top. It can then be removed easily with a spoon. If you don’t have time, let the stock cool a few minutes, then spoon off the accumulated fat. To remove the last elements of fat, skim paper towels over the stock.

Most traditional Sicilian Meatball Soup recipes call for garlic in the meatballs. And though I use a generous amount of garlic when I’m making fried meatballs for tomato sauce, I find that the flavor is too assertive and overpowering in this soup. The reason is that the meatballs are not fried, they are cooked only briefly in the broth. Instead, I prefer minced shallots.

For the Meatballs
1½ pounds ground beef chuck
? cup minced shallots
3 large eggs
½ cup grated Parmigiano
¼ cup bread crumbs
¼ cup minced parsley
Salt and pepper

To make the meatballs, place the ground chuck in a bowl with the minced shallots, the eggs, the Parmigiano, the bread crumbs, the parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix gently with your fingertips then knead a bit until smooth. Take a walnut-sized piece of the mixture, flatten it, and fry it to taste for seasoning. Correct the seasoning.

Roll the meatballs between your hands to the size of a very large grape. The meatballs can be made several hours in advance and refrigerated until ready to use.

Formed raw meatballs

Bring the stock to a boil.  During this period, I like to add a chopped tomato to the soup. It adds not only a bit of color, but also enhances the flavor. When it returns to a boil, add all of the meatballs. Again skim off the scum that accumulates. In about 7-10 minutes the meatballs should be floating to the top and fully cooked.

Pastina is what gives the soup its filling, stick-to-the-ribs attribute. Choose any pastina you like: I use either tubettini or tiny shells or farfalle. If you’re using all  the soup in one night, cook the pastina right in the soup until tender. Because I tend to make enough soup for several nights, I cook the pastina separately in boiling salted water, then add it to each soup bowl. With a slotted spoon, place some pastina in each soup bowl, then ladle in the meatball soup. If you reheat the soup with the cooked pastina, you’ll have a sticky, unappealing mess.Add the pastina to the soup and cook until tender.

Many like to serve the soup with grated Parmigiano. I prefer a cleaner taste with no cheese. Any leftover soup can be frozen.

Norman Mathews
Norman Mathews
Norman Mathews' autobiography, The Wrong Side of the Room: A Life in Music Theater has been published by Eburn Press. As a composer/playwright, Mathews' work has been performed at the Kennedy Center, Chicago’s Harris Theatre of Music and Dance, and around the world. La Lupa, his opera set to the novella by Giovanni Verga, was performed at the Ft. Worth Opera. Songs of the Poet, set to Walt Whitman, premiered in Europe with Munich Opera tenor Gregory Wiest, who recorded the work for Capstone Records. The American Composers Orchestra performed the work at its Whitman and Music Celebration. Rossetti Songs, set to Christina Rossetti poetry for mezzo-soprano, piano, flute, and cello, was recorded by Navona Records and distributed by Naxos. Sonnet No.61, a choral work set to Shakespeare, won the American Composers’ Forum VocalEssence Award. Ye Are Many—They Are Few, Cantata for a Just World received a Puffin Foundation Grant and premiered at the Chicago Cultural Center. Mathews’ one-woman Dorothy Parker musical play, You Might as Well Live, which received a Vogelstein Foundation playwriting grant, has been performed around the country by TonyAward-Winner Michele Pawk and Outer-Critics-Award-Winner Karen Mason. His music is published by Graphite Publishing. His play Drone dramatizes the horrific effects of drone warfare on two families: the pilot’s and the victim’s

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