Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spring Minestrone with Mini Chicken Meatballs

I saw this recipe in the April issue of Bon Appétit and immediately had to make it. Who can resist a teeny tiny meatball?  This soup is loaded with lovely spring flavors and vegetables.  It’s truly a perfect springtime recipe as it allows you to keep your foot in the door of two seasons simultaneously.  The carrots, leeks, and basil make the soup feel sunny and light; they are reminiscent of increasing day light and warmth; however, the steamy, brothy soup and the heartiness of the meatballs make good use of the lingering coolness.  Soon the mere idea of soup will be abhorrent to us as temperatures and humidity rises, so it’s best to take advantage of good soup-making conditions. 
I may be taking this analysis a bit far, but seriously, the soup is worth your while. This simple soup consists of tiny chicken meatballs floating in a broth amidst carrots, leeks, spinach, pasta, and garnished with Parmesan cheese and fresh basil.  The garnishes here are mandatory.  Making meatballs is so much fun, and these have a twist in that they are made with chicken breast and loaded with chives (and parmesan cheese, of course).  Usually, when meatballs are in soup, they are poached in the broth.  Here, they are first browned, and then finished in the broth.  This gives the meatballs more flavor because the meat is caramelized; this gives the soup more flavor because you make the soup in the same pot the meatballs are browned in, making good use of any lingering browned up meatball bits (it truly makes a big difference in the flavor, and allows for fewer dishes).  The browning of the meatballs will impact the pure spherical shape of the meatballs, but the increased flavor is worth this small aesthetic sacrifice.    
As this soup is called “minestrone,” it has pasta in it.  You could add an extra cup or two of water and cook the pasta directly in the soup.  Rather, I recommend cooking it in a small, separate pot and adding it to each bowl.  Pasta can absorb unpredictable amounts of liquid, and cooking the pasta in the soup may leave you without limited broth and mushy pasta in its absence.  This soup is a little labor intensive and is best for leisurely Sunday afternoon cooking.  Meatballs construction is time-consuming, but worthwhile process.

Spring Minestrone with Mini Chicken Meatballs (adapted from Bon Appétit Magazine, April 2012)

8 ounces ground chicken breast
½ cup breadcrumbs (I used panko)
6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan, divided, plus more for garnish
3 garlic cloves, 1 grated, 2 thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1 large egg, whisked to blend
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white and pale-green parts only, sliced into 1/4" rounds
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
½ cup stelline pasta, or other small pasta (elbow macaroni, ditalini)
1 ½ cups ½" rounds peeled carrots (4-5 small carrots)
1 cup (packed) baby spinach
Chopped fresh basil

-      Mix breadcrumbs, 3 tablespoons Parmesan, 1 grated garlic clove, chives, egg, ¾ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a medium bowl.  Then add ground chicken and mix until combined.  Form into ½ inch diameter meatballs (makes about 28). (It may help to have a small bowl of water nearby to keep your fingers moist while forming the meatballs.  This reduces the sticky factor of the raw chicken)
-      Heat oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Cook meatballs until golden all over, about 3 minutes (they will finish cooking in soup). Transfer to a plate; set aside.  Make sure to do this in 2 batches so you don't crowd the pan.  (Also, resist the urge to eat those meatballs once they come out of the pot.  As delicious as they look, they're still raw in the middle.  I had to remind myself of this repeatedly.)
-      Meanwhile, bring a separate pot of water to boil and cook the pasta until al dente.  Drain and set aside.
-      Add leeks to pot and cook, stirring often, until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves; cook for 1 minute. Add broth and 1 cup water; bring to a boil. Stir in carrots; simmer until carrots begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add meatballs; simmer until carrots are tender, and meatballs are cooked through, about 5-8 minutes. Add spinach and remaining 3 tablespoons Parmesan; stir until spinach is wilted and Parmesan is melted. Season with salt and pepper.
-      Ladle soup into bowls.  Add a couple of spoonfuls of pasta per bowl.  Garnish with chopped basil and Parmesan.

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