Makes about 5 quarts
In the dialect of the Lucani (as natives of Basilicata are known) maritare means “to wed,” and I have always thought that this wonderful soup was so named because it was customarily served at wedding celebrations. Recently, however, while doing some research, I came upon another explanation of why it is called maritata—because it weds vegetables (in the soup base) with meat (in the polpette), and with this added protein it becomes a complete and balanced one-course meal. I like both interpretations of the name and believe they’re compatible. Certainly a young couple, on the brink of their first night as newlyweds, can use this fortifying nourishment! There are many ways to prepare and serve a soup with multiple elements like this one, and you can of course play around with the recipe here. One variation is to fry the meatballs rather than poaching them. Though it takes a bit more work, it does give another layer of flavor (see my recipe for Meatballs in Broth in the Umbria chapter, page 196, for instructions on frying little meatballs for soup). Another option is to add cubes of provola to the soup just before serving. If you can get a good-quality Italian provola (mild provolone), this embellishment is superb. I’ve included instructions for this step at the end of the main recipe.
- For the vegetable soup
- 1 medium onion, cut in chunks
- 2 medium stalks celery with leaves, cut in chunks
- 1 small carrot, cut in chunks
- 4 plump garlic cloves, peeled
- ½ cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves
- ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 7 quarts cold water
- 1 head escarole (about 1 pound), cut in ½-inch shreds
- 1 bunch Swiss chard (about 1 pound), cut in ½-inch shreds
- 1 large fennel bulb (about 1 pound), trimmed and sliced ¼ inch thick
- 1 pound zucchini, cut in ½-inch pieces (about 3 small zucchini)
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- for the meatballs
- 4 ounces stale country bread, crusts removed (about 3 or 4 slices)
- ½ cup milk, or more as needed
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausage (without fennel seeds)
- 1 large egg, beaten
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley for serving
- Freshly grated pecorino (or half pecorino and half Grana Padano), plus more for passing
- Extra-virgin olive oil, best-quality
- ½ pound provola, cut in ¼-inch cubes (optional)
You will need a food processor; a heavy-bottomed soup-or stockpot, 8-quart capacity or larger, with a cover; a 4-quart saucepan for blanching the meatballs.
Using the food processor, mince onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and basil into a smooth paste (pestata). Heat the olive oil in the soup pot over high heat, and scrape in the pestata. Cook, stirring until the pestata has dried out and just begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes.
Pour the cold water into the pot, stir up the pestata, put on the cover, and bring the water to a boil. Lower the heat, and simmer the broth for about 15 minutes, blending the flavors, then stir in the greens, the fennel, the zucchini, and the 2 tablespoons salt. Return to the simmer, and cook covered for 45 minutes or so, until the greens are tender. Remove the cover, and cook at an active simmer for another 45 minutes or longer, until the soup has reduced in volume and the flavors are concentrated to your taste.
While the soup simmers, prepare the meatballs. Tear the bread into chunks, put them in a small bowl, and pour in just enough milk to cover them. Let soak for a few minutes, until completely saturated, then lift the bread out of the bowl and squeeze out the milk in your fists (use the milk for another purpose). Tear the moistened bread into shreds, and toss them into a large bowl. Remove the sausage meat from the casing, and crumble it in with the shredded bread, breaking up any meat clumps with your fingers. Pour the beaten egg over the meat, and sprinkle the salt, freshly ground black pepper, and parsley on top. Fold and toss and squeeze all the ingredients through your fingers to distribute them evenly. Scoop up a small amount of the meat mix—about a heaping teaspoon— and roll it in your palms to form a 1-inch ball (the size of a large grape). Continue to form balls until all the meat is used up.
Meanwhile, fill the 4-quart saucepan with 3 quarts of lightly salted water to poach the meatballs, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the meatballs, cover the pot, and return the water to a boil quickly. Adjust the heat to keep the water simmering gently, and poach the meatballs, uncovered, about 5 minutes, until cooked through. Lift them out with a spider or strainer, let drain briefly, and drop them into the finished soup (discard the poaching water). Bring the soup to a simmer, and cook meatballs and soup together for about 5 minutes. (If you’ll be serving the soup later, put the meatballs in a bowl. Reheat them in the soup, and simmer 5 minutes just before serving.) Turn off the heat, and ladle the soup, with plenty of vegetables and meatballs, into warm bowls.
Sprinkle each serving with some of the grated cheese, and give it a drizzle of your best olive oil.
Serve right away, passing more cheese at the table. If you are adding provola to the soup, as I like to do, drop in the cubes just after the meatballs have simmered in it and you’ve turned off the heat. Give the soup one good stir to distribute the provola pieces, which will begin to melt right away, and immediately ladle individual portions into your warm bowls. (Don’t leave the provola in the soup pot for a long time before serving, because it will become stringy.)