Proper Italian wedding soup is penance for all my culinary wrongs

Photo: Danny Palumbo

Let’s talk about Ed Alfredo. I know Ed Alfredo sounds like an alias, or what you’d make up if somebody held a gun to your head and asked you to quickly name a mob boss, but I swear he’s real. Ed and I worked together at a country club in western Pennsylvania, another job in my illustriously bad career as a line cook.

Ed and I were usually on pills as we served the same boring slop on a daily basis. The club’s members had the most Anglo palates imaginable: They wanted marble mashed potatoes and tuna melts squished on a flat-top grill. They pleaded for raspberry vinaigrettes like a wounded animal begging for death. Any creativity or imagination was stifled by the area’s dentists, doctors, and lawyers and their culinary dullness. To be fair, we weren’t any better. We chose to exist in this domain of mediocrity, too afraid to challenge ourselves with any sort of admirable work, perfectly fine with the quotidian discouragement that comes with a life unchallenged.

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One day I came into work and I saw the kitchen white board, which listed the day’s specials. The soup of the day read: “Czechoslovakian Baptism Goulash.” I asked Ed what the fuck that was and he just smiled and said, “You like that?” Service started. Waitresses began reciting the soup du jour as “Czechoslovakian Baptism Goulash” to club members, and not one diner questioned it. I don’t even remember what was in the soup. Cabbage, mostly? For weeks, Ed made up ridiculous soup names, and for weeks each one went uncontested. While Ed was gleefully wallowing in complacency, he proved a great point: These rubes didn’t know what good food was. We could sell them anything.

The real crime was that Ed could actually make tasty soup. Even though we used highlighter-yellow chicken base from Sysco and bags of sawdust-shredded, lower-case-“p” parmesan cheese, deep down, he knew what he was doing. Ed had what many of us called “the taste.” He could taste any food and tell you what it needed. In short, Ed knew the difference between flavor right and wrong.

The last time I worked with Ed, I made an Italian wedding soup that I asked him to try. He came back with a huge bag of that granulated parm and dumped half of it in. Cheap? Maybe, but the saltiness of the cheese improved the entire soup. Ed taught me a great lesson about achieving salt through means other than salting. The saltiness from the cheap parm permeated every molecule of that broth. It was delightful.

Here’s a recipe for wedding soup that’s an overcompensation for my days cooking bad food. Homemade meatballs, homemade egg squares (the sign of a good wedding soup), and homemade broth. Sure, you can go to the store and buy chicken stock if you want, but it’s important to try, to be obsessed. Put in the work. This whole process is especially great if you, like me, have agoraphobia and want an excuse not to leave the house for almost two days. This is also a recipe for four different components, and it’s a process. Anyway, please forgive me all my marbled potato sins.

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Photo: Danny Palumbo
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Italian Wedding Soup, for Ed Alfredo

Chicken Stock 

  • 1 (5 lb.) chicken carcass
  • 1 package chicken feet (about 12 or so, find it at an Asian grocer)
  • 3 large carrots, cut into chunk
  • 1 large onion, cut in half
  • 2 shallots, cut in half
  • Half a head of garlic, each clove cut in half
  • 3 stalks celery
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 Tbsp. peppercorn

I believe in a roasted chicken stock. Roast the carcasses (but not the feet) in the oven on 450 degrees Fahrenheit, along with the carrots, onion, shallots, and garlic. When everything is caramelized, take it out and put it in the biggest pot you have (I don’t have measurements for mine, but it’s the type you’d boil lobster in). Rinse the chicken feet and throw those in. Ditto for the bay leaf and peppercorn. Bring it up to a boil and then put on low. I cook this for about four hours, and then add the greens (celery, thyme, and parsley) all in for the last hour. I always put the green things in for the last hour, because overcooking anything green can result in a sour taste. Let sit; the next morning, skim off all the fat.

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Meatballs

  • 1/3 lb. each of ground veal, beef, and pork
  • 2 pieces bread
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 3 eggs
  • Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese
  • 1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Rip the pieces of bread into small chunks and soak them in the milk. Mix bread with the rest of the ingredients, then roll meat into small, soup-size meatballs. A lot of people cook their tiny meatballs in the wedding soup broth. I like to sear them in oil to get a nice crust, then finish them in the broth. Couple that with the roasted chicken stock, and now we’re achieving some deep, rustic flavors here.
 
Egg Squares (straight from my Grandma’s cookbook)

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  • 4 eggs
  • 3/4 Tbsp. flour
  • 2 Tbsp. grated Gruyere cheese
  • 2 Tbsp. grated Romano cheese
  • 2 Tbsp. Flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Beat the eggs, then add the cheese and parsley. Next, add the baking powder and flour, whisking until nearly homogenous. On low heat and in a preferably non-stick 10-inch pan, melt the butter. Add the egg mixture and keep cooking on low, using a rubber spatula to curl the edges. I put a lid on this for a few minutes at a time, constantly shaking and using the spatula to shape an omelet. Once the bottom and top are cooked, but not brown, slide it onto a cutting board and cut into little cubes. The fluffy egg squares nicely balance out the dark and meaty flavors we have going so far in this soup.
 
To assemble the soup 

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  • 10 cups homemade chicken stock (see above)
  • 3 chicken breasts
  • 3 heads escarole
  • Homemade meatballs (above)
  • Homemade egg squares (above)
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Bring your stock to a simmer. Now you can salt and pepper the liquid to taste. Cut the heads of escarole into squares. In a boiling pot of salted water, blanch the escarole for two minutes. Strain and add to the stock. Boil three chicken breasts and shred into tiny pieces. Add 1 cup of grated parmesan cheese to the soup (Ed’s tactic).

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Now add the meatballs. Cook everything for another 10 minutes at least. When plating, place the egg squares last. This recipe is exact, but it doesn’t need to be. Remember the components, and tweak to your liking.

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About the author

Danny Palumbo

Danny is a comedian and writer living in Los Angeles. Instagram @palumbros