There are three reasons I will never be a vegetarian.  The first is roast chicken.  The second is a leg of lamb, preferably turned on a spit or roasted on a grill.  And the third is meatballs.  I never met a meatball I didn’t love.  I love them with spaghetti.  I love them over rice.  I love them in red sauce, or white sauce, or mushroom sauce, or gravy, or with lingonberry jam and mashed potatoes (and you thought Ikea was only good for furniture!).  And I love them in soup.

Rolling dozens of tiny meatballs is a lot of work, so make them as small as your patience allows (my mother-in-law makes 1/2″ meatballs; I roll them about 1″ wide).   I usually double the meatball ingredients and roll half of them small for soup and half of them large to cook and freeze for a later date.

This recipe easily translates into meatball alphabet soup:  omit the escarole, double the tomatoes (or add a tablespoon or two of tomato paste), and use 1 1/2 cups of tiny alphabet pasta.

Italian wedding soup

Yield:  About 4 quarts, serving 6-8

For meatballs:

2 slices stale sandwich bread (white or wheat is fine, just nothing grainy)

1/3 c. cold water

1 lb. ground turkey (dark meat is best)

1/4 c. finely grated Pecorino Romano

1/4 c. chopped, fresh parsley

1 egg, lightly beaten

2 cloves garlic, minced

Generous pinch salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 tbsp. olive oil

For soup:

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and diced

1 stalk celery, diced

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped

1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

1 head escarole, roughly chopped, rinsed, and drained

1 c. chopped, canned tomatoes, with their juice

2 quarts chicken stock

1 c. small pasta shapes (I like Hodgson Mill’s tiny whole grain shells), cooked al dente, rinsed until cool, and drained

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Make meatballs:

Line a sheet tray with parchment or wax paper and set aside.

Use a food processor or box grater to turn the bread into crumbs.  Put the crumbs into a large mixing bowl and pour the water over them.  Add the turkey, cheese, parsley, egg, garlic, salt, and pepper, and mix with your hands until well-combined.  Gently form turkey mixture into 1-inch balls and place them on the lined sheet tray. (I find it’s easiest to roll the meatballs if my hands are wet.  I keep a bowl full of cool water on the counter for periodically rinsing my hands — this way I’m not constantly contaminating my sink with raw turkey-covered fingers.)  Cover meatballs lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or up to one day.

Warm a large skillet over medium heat (you can use your soup pot to brown the meatballs, if you want to save washing a second pan, but I find using a shallow skillet much easier).  Drizzle in half the olive oil, then add half the meatballs.  Let them cook, undisturbed, for a few minutes.  When browned on the bottom, gently shake the pan to turn the meatballs (loosen them with a spatula, if need be) and cook another minute or two.  Carefully remove them to a plate and repeat with remaining oil and meatballs.  Don’t worry about cooking the meatballs all the way through — they will finish up when they’re dropped into the hot soup.

Make soup:

Warm a large pot over medium heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add onion, carrot, and celery.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very tender, 8-10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add garlic, thyme, and pepper flakes, and cook 2 minutes more.  Add escarole and cook, stirring, until wilted.  Add tomatoes and stock.  Bring to a gentle simmer, add meatballs, and cook a few minutes until meatballs are done.  Add pasta.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Make it egg- and/or dairy-free: Feel free to omit the egg and cheese (though you might need a tiny bit more salt if you leave out the cheese) — the broth keeps the meatballs soft and tender.

Make it gluten-free: Use gluten-free sandwich bread or waffles for breadcrumbs and brown rice pasta (If you’re cooking for kids, try this one.  Bicycles, airplanes, and tiny meatballs all in one bowl?  They’ll love it!).