After all, they’re perfectly tender and have just a hint of fennel. What’s not to love?
Autumn is being a little spastic with the weather lately; it’s a bit warmer than it should be, and last night it actively tried to kill us with hail the size of Jack Russell Terriers. Still, we’re firmly into October, and that means it’s high time for some damn soup. This soup is a lot like a soup my mom used to make when I was little, mini meatball soup with beans and greens. Ain’t no one don’t like no mini meatball soup.
Well, except that I hated her soup because her green of choice was escarole, a vegetable that activates my gag reflex without fail and totally obliterates the joybites that are teeny tiny meatballs. But escarole aside, ain’t no one don’t like no mini meatball soup.
I started off by making some cheater’s chicken broth (from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper), something everyone should know how to do: just store-bought stock simmered with a canned tomato, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bay, peppercorns and a little wine, but so much bang for the buck. The tomato is key, and it was worth the price of admission for that tip alone. Public Radio saves the day again!
While my cheater’s stock simmered I dealt with the meat, a pound of ground beef split into 3/4 pound (for soup meatballs) and 1/4 pound (for dogs) segments. I doctored up the soup meat with salt, pepper, garlic and a plentiful helping of fennel seed.
While I was making up the stock, I wondered why I don’t make mini meatball soup more often. I mean, it’s quick, easy, hearty and filled with delicious nostalgia. Then I remembered that rolling countless tiny meatballs? OH THE TEDIUM. It takes, like, a thousand hours. No joke. And this wasn’t even a very big pot of soup. It doesn’t help that I’m completely anal retentive and require each and every meatball to be exactly the same size. (I start to slip up near the end as the photo clearly illustrates – look at that little weenie in the lower left corner – and IT MAKES ME FUCKING INSANE.)
Okay, I may be overstating the case just a little and I will pause for a moment to take a deep breath. But it’s still tedious, I’m still anal and raw ground beef still feels like blech. So there you go: there is actually a very real reason why I don’t make mini meatball soup more often. I shall wonder no more.
My balls waited on the counter for the stock to finish up; I also opened, drained and rinsed a can of cannellini beans and pulled a box of frozen spinach out of the freezer.
When the stock was sufficiently flavorful – it takes about 30-40 minutes to reach maximum flavorification – I popped in the meatballs and let them gently cook through in the hot stock. I added the beans, followed by the block of frozen spinach I unceremoniously dumped in. The soup is done with the meat is cooked and the spinach is thawed.
It’s an unfortunate fact that it is difficult to make this soup attractive because of the greyish hue of the poached meatballs. Since they’re not seared off first they never have a chance to take on any color so they end up looking like tiny gefilte fishes, and there’s really nothing to be done about that.
Luckily they taste really good, so you can look past their somewhat unappetizing pallor.
I finished my bowl of soup off with some shavings of parm, which goes beautifully with the spinach. The crackling bursts of fennel in the meatballs warms the palate, and the beans lend an earthy creaminess. Altogether, it was good enough to banish memories of those escarole horrors. It’s filling, relatively good for you and serves four for little more than the cost of some ground beef and a box of stock. Hooray for October!
Fennel Meatball Soup with Spinach and White Beans
4 c. chicken stock
3 tbsp. white wine
1/2 medium carrot, roughly chopped
1/2 stalk celery, roughly chopped
1/4 onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp, black peppercorns
1 canned whole tomato
3/4 lb. ground beef
1 tsp. fennel seed
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 15oz. can cannellini beans
1 10oz. package frozen spinach*
grated or shaved parm
Make the cheater’s stock: combine the stock, wine, carrot, celery, onion, garlic, bay, peppercorns and tomato in a medium sauce pan. Bring to a boil, then let simmer for 40 minutes.
While the stock is simmering, mix up the beef, fennel and garlic along with some salt and pepper. Shape the meat into small meatballs, no more than one inch in diameter. No one wants full-size meatballs in their soup. Drain and rinse off the beans.
Discard the vegetables and aromatics from the stock. Add the meatballs and beans; stir gently to keep the meatballs separated.
Once the meatballs are cooked through, add the spinach. Simmer until the spinach is fully thawed, then simmer a few minutes more to help the flavors meld. Serve immediately, topping with the cheese.
*You can use a wide variety of greens – spinach, kale, chard, or even the detested escarole. If you’re using fresh, just wilt it right into the stock.