Updating the Marriage: Spicy Vietnamese Soup with Pork Meatballs, Lemongrass and Asian Greens

Tony writes: I love Italian wedding soup. Meatballs, pasta, greens, chicken broth. How could you go wrong? Plus, it always makes me think of the Godfather wedding reception (when Sonny smashes a photographer’s camera, Johnny Fontane and Luca Brasi huddle with the don, and Mama Corleone sings “Luna Mezzo Mare”). I know – there’s no soup in that scene, but I always imagined that this was the kind of thing that would be served at beautiful old-school Italian-American weddings (without Brando and offers-you-can’t-refuse, of course).

And this weekend, inexplicably, I started getting an itch for Italian wedding soup. But I’d never really made it before, nor had it made for me (outside of a restaurant), nor had the desire or discipline to toe tradition. And, as I learned from a lazy man’s visit to Wikipedia (and confirmed with further research), the soup really has nothing to do with weddings either. Rather it’s just an evolution of a mis-translation: that the “marriage” or “maritata” of the meat and greens in the soup go well together, not that they should be served at a wedding.

But I do like soup as dinner, especially now as it starts to rain and get cool. And soup only becomes dinner when it’s got a lot of stuff in it. And I like spicy Asian soups. So the thought was this: make a really fragrant Asian chicken broth (kind of pho-ish) and then simmer with pork meatballs (themselves traditional to Vietnamese cuisine), some baby bok choy, and broken up Thai rice noodles (the Asian equivalent of maltagliati). A marriage of the same base ingredients, updated with a little verve. And easy: the whole thing takes anywhere from 1 to 2 hours (depending on if you want to make the broth homemade) and feeds about 6 people. Give it a try.

1. Make the broth: If you want to make this soup weeknight-ish, you could you just embellish canned chicken broth with the fragrant aromatics – ginger, lemongrass, and shallots. I made this soup on a rainy afternoon when I had the time and inclination to make the broth from scratch. Here’s how: Add the rinsed carcass of a chicken as well as 1 sliced carrot, 1 sliced shallot, 1-inch knob ginger (thinly sliced), 1 stalk lemongrass (thinly sliced), 2 to 3 Thai chiles or 1 jalapeno (cut either into pieces), and 3 quarts cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, skimming off any foam or fat that rises to the surface, for about 1 hour so the vegetables and chicken leach off their flavor. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve (discarding the vegetables; you can pick through the chicken and return pieces to the broth if you like) and continue on with the recipe.

2. While the broth simmers, make the meatballs (and soak and snip the rice noodles): For the meatballs, any kind of meat goes. Really, whatever you have or are in the mood for: ground pork, beef, chicken, or turkey. Just mix it with a light drizzle of soy and fish sauce as well as some finely chopped shallot. Meanwhile, soak the rice noodles in hot water and then cut them into 1-inch pieces (so they can be eaten with a spoon, like everything else in this soup). To do this:  Bring 1 quart water to a boil, remove from the heat, and add 8 oz. rice noodles (the pad Thai variety; about 1/4-inch wide). Soak the noodles for 5 to 10 minutes so they’re tender but toothy. Drain well under cold, running water then cut into small pieces using kitchen shears (or a chef’s knife). Meanwhile, mix 1 lb. ground pork (or beef, chicken, or turkey) with 1 shallot (finely diced) 2 tsp. soy sauce, 1 tsp. fish sauce, 1 tsp. sugar,  1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. ground coriander. Occasionally moistening your hands with cold water, form the meat into 1-inch meatballs; hold in the refrigerator until cooking.

3. Add everything to the pot and simmer: The three things added to the soup in this step – rice noodles, meatballs, and  greens – all take about the same time to cook (or become tender). So add them to the soup together and simmer for about 15 minutes so they cook through and infuse the broth: Drop the raw meatballs, the soaked noodles, and 1 lb. baby bok choy (cut into 1-inch pieces and soaked well in a couple of changes of water – it can be quite gritty) into the soup and cook, simmering and stirring occasionally, until the meatballs cook through (cut one upon to check) and the bok choy becomes tender, about 15 minutes. Squeeze in the juice of 1/2 lime (about 1 Tbs.), 2 tsp. fish sauce. and 1 tsp. sugar. Season the broth with salt and more lime juice to taste. Serve the soup with lime wedges and Sriracha.

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