Lately, I’m in love with meatballs. All kinds, not just in spaghetti. You can toss them in soups, serve them on skewers with a variety of sauces or slide them between crusty po’boy or hero bread. They’re great with all sorts of ground meats including veal, lamb, pork, turkey, beef, sausage or chicken, and are further enhanced by different cheeses, bits of ham or prosciutto, pesto or fresh herbs. You can roll meatballs in breadcrumbs and pan-fry them in a skillet, or you can bake them on a cookie sheet to save calories. I find that meatballs in any form are appealing to most kids — mine included — and they’re great for making ahead and freezing. I like to work them into the weeknight line-up and save myself some time and grief.
I never really ate meatballs growing up. Pitiful, I know. My mom’s spaghetti meant vermicelli with meat sauce, while meatballs were something illusive found only in restaurants. Now in my own kitchen, I make meatballs all the time. One of my favorite uses is in Italian wedding soup, my version of which is below.
A few years ago, I interviewed the owner of a local Italian restaurant, Monjuni’s, and his comment about meatballs was, “There’s a big time trick to it. Big time.” He wouldn’t tell me what it was, but after playing around enough — and failing some — I figured out that a meatball’s texture depends on certain ingredients, namely breadcrumbs or fresh bread, a little milk, egg and grated cheese. If you incorporate these elements and don’t pack the meatballs too tight, they’ll be juicy and tender.
Italian Wedding Soup
1 pound ground chicken, or any combination that combines beef with something lighter (pork, chicken or turkey)
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons milk
½ cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Several turns fresh cracked black pepper
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup chopped celery with leaves
8 cups chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1 cup fresh spinach leaves, stems removed
½ cup fresh asparagus, cut into ½-inch pieces
¼ cup small pasta
Fresh Parmesan cheese for garnish
Heat oven to 350. Combine first nine ingredients, form into small meatballs about 1 inch wide and place on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray or lined with parchment paper. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven or large pot and sauté onions, carrots and celery until soft. Add stock and bay leaves and bring to boil. Add pasta and cook for about 2 minutes. Add meatballs, spinach and asparagus and turn off heat. After about 2 minutes, serve and top with fresh Parmesan cheese.