Soup makes an inviting meal with a tantalizing aroma that welcomes everyone to the table. Minestra is Italian for soup, and minestrone is a hearty vegetable soup. In Italy, specific recipes are rarely followed; cooks use ingredients they have on hand, including pasta, beans, leftover meat and vegetables.
This meatball minestrone is a one-pot meal. (The recipe can be doubled easily. If you have time, make a large pot and use it for another meal.) Fennel seeds and oregano give the meatballs a distinctive taste. Fennel seeds are oval, green-brown seeds from the common fennel plant. They have an anise taste and are used in many liqueurs. They can be found in the spice section of your market and will keep for 6 months.
Brushing the top of the bread with garlic gives it just a hint of spice that doesn't overwhelm the other flavors in the meal. If you're a big garlic fan, though, simply add another clove to the recipe.
The pasta will absorb the soup liquid if left to sit for any length of time. If you are not serving the soup immediately, cook the pasta in a separate pot of water for 10 minutes. Drain, reserving a little of the cooking liquid. Add 1/2 teaspoon olive oil to the liquid and toss in the pasta to keep it from sticking. Add the pasta to the soup a few minutes before serving to warm through.
This meal contains 596 calories per serving with 23 percent of calories from fat.
Acini pepe or pastina are tiny pastas that are used for soup. If you have difficulty finding either, use orzo or any small pieces of pasta.
Herbed Meatball Minestrone
1/2 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon oregano
6 ounces very lean ground beef
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup sliced onion
1/2 cup sliced carrots
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup canned low-sodium, whole tomatoes (including juice)
1 cup low sodium tomato juice
2 cups fat-free, low-salt chicken broth
2 cups water
1/2 cup acini pepe, pastina or other very small pasta
1/2 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 cups washed, ready-to-eat spinach
1/2 cup fresh basil torn into small pieces
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Mix fennel seeds and oregano into ground beef. Add a little salt and pepper and form into meatballs about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Heat oil in a medium-sized, nonstick sauce pan over medium-high heat. Brown meatballs on all sides, about 5 minutes. They will be cooked through. Remove to a plate and add onion, carrot and garlic to pan. Saute 2 minutes without browning the vegetables. Add the whole tomatoes, including juice, and break them up with the edge of a spoon. Add the tomato juice, chicken broth and water. Bring to a boil. Add pasta, reduce heat slightly and cook gently for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice to make sure the pasta cooks freely in the liquid.
Add chickpeas, spinach and basil to soup. Return meatballs to the soup, stir and cook to wilt spinach, about 30 seconds. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve in large soup bowls with Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.
Makes 2 servings.
Per serving: 432 calories (21 percent from fat), 10.1 grams fat (3.5 grams saturated, 4.2 grams monounsaturated), 112 milligrams cholesterol, 34.6 grams protein, 52.8 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fiber, 778 milligrams sodium.
Garlic Crusted Bread
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium clove garlic, crushed
1/2 loaf Italian bread or 2 crusty rolls
Preheat oven to 350 degrees or use toaster oven. Mix oil and garlic together and brush on top of bread. Warm in oven for 5 minutes or until golden and crisp. Serve with soup. Makes 2 servings.
Per serving: 164 calories (28 percent from fat), 5 grams fat (0.8 grams saturated, 2.8 grams monounsaturated), no cholesterol, 3.9 grams protein, 25.8 grams carbohydrates, 1.3 grams fiber, 341 milligrams sodium.
Linda Gassenheimer is the author of 14 cookbooks including her newest, "The Flavors of the Florida Keys" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010).