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Minestra Maritata

About once a week I get an email requesting Italian wedding soup. Tuscans don't serve a specific soup at weddings, so I was stumped. Until I found a discussion of minestra maritata in Jeannne Caròla Francesconi's La Cucina Napoletana and realized the dish has nothing to do with the happy day -- wedding soup is a mistranslation. To say two things go well together in Italian, one can say si sposono bene (they're well married) -- or, more to the south, that they're maritati, i.e. married. The combination of greens and meat in a clear broth certainly does work well and deserves to be called maritata -- no wedding involved.

According to Ms. Francesconi, the dish is extremely old, falling into a group of meat-and-vegetable soups that are common throughout Europe, and may have a Roman origin. In any case, it was the standard Neapolitan fare before the introduction of pasta, so much so that people from other regions used to call Neapolitans "leaf-eaters"(mangiafoglie). Alas, minestra maritata's popularity is now waning among Neapolitans: Since it was designed to be a fulfilling single-course meal (and would likely have been the only meal of the day for many people a century ago) it is rib-sticking. Too rib-sticking for modern diners, who generally follow their soup with a second course, and are also much more conscious of fats than their ancestors were.

As is the case with all traditional recipes, there is an infinite number of variations to minestra maritata. The important thing is that it contain meat and greens; within these restrictions feel free to vary the recipe to suit your tastes and what's available in your local market. A note on the meats: Ms. Francesconi says that those used traditionally are now difficult to find even in Naples, so I am transcribing those of her modern version.

To serve 6 you will need:

The Greens
1 pound broccoli rabe
3/4 pound broccoli florets
2 pounds chicory or escarole
1 pound green cabbage
1 pound torzelle (another kind of broccoli; you could also substitute something along the lines of collard greens)
Aromatic herbs such as thyme or basil, to taste
The Meats
A prosciutto bone, if you like, with some meat attached
1/2 pound prosciutto rind -- if you cannot find this, use a quarter pound of fresh side pork (the cut used to make bacon). Do not substitute pork rinds or bacon, which have spices that will throw off the seasoning
1/2 pound Italian salami -- any kind of Italian salami, including cotechino
3/4 pound pork loin
3 fresh Italian sausages (mild)
1/3 pound cured lard, diced (get this from your delicatessen)
1/4 pound well-seasoned caciocavallo (a Southern cheese)
1/4 pound Parmigiano, grated (or pecorino romano, if need be)
A bouquet garnis consisting of a rib of celery, a peeled carrot and several sprigs parsley, tied with a string
Half a red pepper or more to taste (don't go overboard)

Wash the meat and put it in a pot with the herbs. Cover the meat to a depth of about 2 inches with water and set the pot on the stove; simmer for about two and a half hours. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and pick it apart (if the meat on the prosciutto bone is still tough boil it some more). Transfer the pulled meat to another pot, and add to it a ladle or two of broth; check seasoning, adding more salt if necessary, cover the pot and set it aside.

Let the broth in the stock pot cool and skim the fat that rises to the surface. The return the pot to the fire.

In the meantime, wash the greens well, coarsely shred them, and blanch them in a little bit of lightly salted water (dump them into the pot, cover it, wait for the water to return to a boil, and drain the vegetables into a colander). Squeeze out as much water as you can (it will be quite bitter because of the broccoli rabe).

Crumble the caciocavallo. Stir it into the stock, together with the drained vegetables and the hot pepper. Simmer for about a half hour, and check seasoning, adding salt if necessary. Reheat the pulled meat; you can either stir it into the soup in the kitchen, or serve it in a second bowl, allowing your diners to add as much as they want to their soup bowls. Serve the grated Parmigiano on the side.

The wine? I'd go with a white, either a Fiano or a Greco di Tufo.

Cavalcanti, one of the great gastronomes of the 1850s, gives the following variation, which is somewhat lighter:

The Greens
1 head green cabbage, coarsely shredded
2 1/4 pounds torzelle (a kind of broccoli; you could also substitute broccoli rabe here, blanching it and squeezing out the bitter juices)
2 1/4 pounds escarole, coarsely shredded
A bunch of basil
The Meats
1/2 a chicken
2 1/4 pounds soup beef
1/4 pound pork rinds (see note above)
1/4 pound prosciutto
1/4 pound pancetta
1/4 pound seasoned lard (you may wish to omit this, either increasing the prosciutto and pancetta, or leaving them as are)
A small onion, a stick of celery, a peeled carrot, one or two bay leaves, parsley and other herbs to taste

Wash the meats and put them in the stock pot with sufficient water to make soup and the herbs; bring the mixture to a boil and simmer it until the meat is done. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon, strain the broth, and cook the greens in it.

Serve the meat on the side, or if you prefer, add some of it to the soup.

The wine? Again, a Fiano or a Greco di Tufo.

A Few More Wedding Soup & Similar Recipes.

Chris's Wedding Soup
A very good variation with meat balls.

Giuseppina Acri's Wedding Soup
Tom's Mom used meat balls, chicken, and the crumb from English muffins, which does resemble that of the bread baked in Italy.

Minestra di Cardi in Compagnia
A cardoon-based soup from the Marche that's rather similar to minestra maritata.

Good Food & Drink,
Kyle Phillips

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