My high-spirited Great-Aunt Bridget was the original #nofilter. Always, words were coming out of her mouth that caused us to look at one another as if to say, Did she really just say that? She also made a great pot of chicken soup. She was a character. Between the things she said, the clothes she wore, the bouffant hairdos, and the food she cooked, Aunt Bridget was memorable. And, loved. What more could we each want?
She and her husband, Uncle Jerome, both immigrants from Sicily, owned successful side by side businesses on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore — Bridget’s Beauty Shoppe and Jerome’s Barber Shop. They created an interior doorway between their adjoining buildings so they and their customers could visit one another all day. It was one big happening place. As a little girl, I loved to sit under the hairdryer hood and basque in the attention of my aunt as she paraded her loyal customers by my chair so they could meet her grandniece.
In this photo from 1963, Aunt Bridget is standing at the forefront of her salon wearing a white uniform and Uncle Jerome is in the back in his barber’s shirt. Aunt Bridget employed a dozen full-time “operators.” They were her girls and they were busy. This was at a time when women went to the beauty parlor weekly to get their hair washed and set. Upstairs from the shop, Aunt Bridget had a kitchen where she and her niece, Theresa, seemingly fed everyone either chicken soup or spaghetti and meatballs.
One year, in the mid-1970s, I visited my grandparents in Florida during Easter break; so did my Aunt Bridget. In the whirlwind that signaled her arrival from the airport, my aunt walked into the kitchen, opened her purse, and pulled out an “old hen,” complete with its collagen-laden feet. She announced she was going to make a pot of soup. Her nephew had brought her to the Fell’s Point Farmers Market to get the hen on the way to dropping her off at the airport. I regret now that I spent more time rolling my 19-year-old eyes than looking for a pen and paper to write down her recipe. Her soup was the best. I have spent years trying to recreate it.
What was so memorable about Aunt Bridget’s soup was the full-bodied flavor of the broth and the light, bite-sized meatballs that floated on the surface.
In my youthful attempts at recreating her broth, I was left with either perfectly cooked chicken in a thin stock that had to be boosted with a bouillon cube, or great tasting stock with tasteless, limp meat. Eventually, I figured out a way to have both, rich stock and tasty meat. I simmered the soup for sixty minutes, removed the chicken thighs, pulled the meat off the bones, and returned the bones to simmer in the stockpot for a few more hours.
About the Ingredients
My mother taught me to use chicken thighs when making soup. As the mother of seven children, she worried about us choking on small bones so chicken breasts were out. That was okay with me because I like thigh meat.
Bones, cartilage, and connective tissue contain a protein called collagen. As the bones simmer in water, the collagen breaks down, and once chilled, congeal and turn into this gooey gelatin. This gelatin is your goal. If the broth is too dilute, it will not gel up like this.
The aromatic vegetables used to flavor a stock are known as mirepoix (pronounced “MEER-pwah”). The standard French mirepoix consists of 50% onions, 25% carrots, and 25% celery. Other aromatics I use are garlic and parsley.
First, we will make the broth, then the meatballs, and then add the greens.
To Make the Broth
Chicken stock ingredients:
8 pounds chicken thighs, with skin and bones
5 quarts cold water
1 large unpeeled onion (1 pound), quartered
⅓ head celery, with leaves (½ pound)
4 unpeeled carrots (½ pound)
6 cloves unpeeled garlic (½ ounce)
10 whole stems Italian flat-leafed parsley
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black pepper, or about 20 twists of the pepper grinder
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Yield: 4 quarts of chicken stock
Rinse and drain chicken. Put in a large stockpot.
Cover with cold water. If you start with hot water, the stock could become cloudy. Bring ingredients to a simmer. Remove foam as it forms.
Prep the mirepoix: wash unpeeled vegetables and cut into large chunks Add to stockpot. Add seasonings: bay leaves, garlic, parsley, and pepper. I do not add salt until I decide how I’m going to use the broth.
Add the vinegar. Acids such as vinegar or lemon juice help break down cartilage and pull nutritious minerals like calcium from the bones.
Bring stock to a gentle simmer and cook for 60 minutes. A hard boil will make stock cloudy.
Use a slotted spoon to remove thighs. Once cool, pick off meat and refrigerate.
Return bones, cartilage, and skin to stockpot. Simmer for 4-5 hours. Strain through a colander positioned over a large container.
To get a couple more cups of flavorful stock, put the solids from the colander back into the stockpot. Add 2 cups of hot water and stir. Run the resulting liquid through the colander again and add to the container of stock. Discard solids.
I strain the stock once more, through a fine sieve, to clarify it further.
Refrigerate stock until fat rises to the top and congeals. Use a spoon to scrape it off.
To Make the Meatballs
Yield: 70 small meatballs
1 pound of ground meat. I use a package of combined beef, pork, and veal known as Meatloaf Mix when I can find it.
2 eggs, slightly beaten
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
½ cup grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese
¾ cup unseasoned bread crumbs
zest from 1 lemon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper
2 tablespoons water
Mise en Place for Meatballs:
Grate the Parmesan cheese.
To learn how to make your own bread crumbs, go here, or buy plain, fine bread crumbs.
Zest a lemon.
Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix gently until just blended– less than 30 seconds.
Use a melon scoop to make bite-sized meatballs. Place on a 13″ x 18″ rimmed sheet pan. The meat mixture weighed 1½ pounds. From that, I made 70 meatballs. Set aside.
Prep the Greens
I used spinach because I have so much of it in my garden. Hard to believe the spinach survived this cold weather. Escarole or endive would be other tasty choices. Wash the greens. If leaves are large, chop them.
Putting It All Together
4 quarts chicken stock, homemade or boxed
1 pound fresh spinach
About 70 uncooked bite-sized meatballs
1 pound cooked small pasta, such as ditalini, cooked separately
Bring a pot of chicken broth to a boil. Add the meatballs. Simmer for about 15 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the greens.
Sprinkle with freshly grated Reggiano Parmesan. If desired, serve over pasta cooked separately. If cooked in the broth, it will soak up most of the liquid.
Only the most memorable great-aunts get chickens named after them. Our two Rhode Island Reds were named Bridget and Josephine (sisters of my grandfather). The two blonde Buff Orpingtons were named after my husband’s blonde grandmothers, Mildred and Alice. The two black and white Plymouth Bard Rocks were named after my silver and black-haired grandmothers, Marion and Concetta.
Other Family Recipes
Baked Ziti with Roasted Eggplant, Mozzarella, and Marinara Sauce
Grandma’s Italian Fried Cauliflower
Rapini and Fettuccini
Spiralized Zucchini with Fresh Marinara Sauce
Pasta e Fagioli, aka Pasta and Bean Soup
Rachelle’s Italian Sausage, Onions, and Peppers
Italian Sesame Seed Cookies
Italian Ricotta and Lemon Cookies
LET’S STAY CONNECTED!
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© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.