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 had a memorable look, too: her hair was always done up, her dresses were colorful, and she rocked the cat-eye glasses look. She was comfortable in her own skin. AND, she made a great pot of chicken soup. 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 a 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 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, 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 by the Fell’s Point Farmers Market in Baltimore 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 soup recipe; it was the best. I have spent years trying to recreate it.
What was so memorable about Aunt Bridget’s soup was the broth’s full-bodied flavor and the light, bite-sized meatballs that floated on the surface.
In my early 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 a 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, set the meat aside, and returned the bones to the stockpot to simmer 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 using whole chicken breasts with ribs attached was out. That was fine with me because I love the taste of 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, congeals into gelatin. This gelatin is your goal in broth-making. If the broth is not cooked long enough or 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.
Now to get started! First, we’ll 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 fragrant 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 out of the bones.
Bring stock to a gentle simmer and cook for 60 minutes. A hard boil will make the stock cloudy.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the thighs. Once cool enough to touch, pick off the meat and refrigerate until later.
Return bones, cartilage, and skin back to the stockpot. Simmer for a minimum of 5 hours. Strain through a colander positioned over a large container.
To get a couple more cups of flavorful stock, put the solids from inside the colander back into the stockpot. Add about 3 cups of hot water and stir. Run the solids and stock through the colander again, collect the stock, and add to the saved container of stock. Discard solids.
Strain the stock through a fine sieve to clarify it further.
Refrigerate stock until fat rises to the top and hardens. 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 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. Otherwise, escarole or endive would be my first choice. 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 the pot of chicken broth to a boil in a soup pot. 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. Do not cook the pasta 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 (my grandfather’s sisters who had reddish-brown hair). The two blonde Buff Orpingtons were named after my husband’s blonde grandmothers, Mildred and Alice. The two black and white Plymouth Barred Rocks were named after my silver and black-haired grandmothers, Marion and Concetta.
Aunt Josephine and Aunt Bridget flank their older brother, my grandfather, at my wedding. They were the last of the thirteen Giordano siblings.
Other Family Favorites
Baked Ziti with Roasted Eggplant, Mozzarella, and Marinara Sauce
Grandma’s Italian Fried Cauliflower
Rapini and Fettuccini
Spiralized Zucchini with Fresh Marinara Sauce
Rachelle’s Italian Sausage, Onions, and Peppers
Italian Sesame Seed Cookies
Italian Ricotta and Lemon Cookies
LET’S STAY CONNECTED!
Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram @JudysChickens.
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© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.