January 10, 2010

Twelve Hours Before Christmas

The first piece of advice my Dad gave to my husband - then new fiancé was this: Don’t do once what you’re not prepared to do for the rest of your life. Sage guidance indeed.

Every year we drive the family Toyota from Massachusetts to Detroit to have Christmas at Nonna’s house (this Christmas marked my Dad’s 30th passage). Probably to the family’s dismay, though they’ve never verbally confirmed this, my Mom married a Polish guy from Massachusetts. After completing his doctorate at U of M he promptly moved her out of Michigan and they raised their children to be a good, New England liberals with a healthy distrust of authority. We never got the Boston accent, but Dad “nevah” lost his.

Yet every December since that blessed move, we journey to the Midwest to share in the holiday festivities and family drama and help to pound out a shitload of spiedinis. And every year, waiting for us at the end of the twelve hour car ride is a big, beautiful pot of Nonna Soup.

Incidentally, this tradition continues. I also married a Polish guy from Massachusetts and make him drive our Toyota the twelve hours to Detroit once a year. Like my mother, I tell people, he does this because he loves me; however, it is quite possible the motivating factor here for both him and my Dad, is the soup. It’s not our fault. As my Dad says, never do once…

Nonna Soup

The first thing we need to discuss is bones. Good bones are essential to good soup. It sounds simple right? Well, good luck trying to find a “knuckle bone” at your name brand supermarket. I have yet to find the elusive knuckle bone to which Nonna claims is the secret to this soup in any of my Cambridge markets.

Secondly, as I fear we will find with most of my cooking endeavors, the measurements here are guess work. As Nonna likes to remind me, her mother didn’t use such fancy tools as measuring spoons and never wrote anything down. Ever. My advice for this recipe? If you like carrots, put in a lot of carrots. If you don’t like tomatoes (in which case you may not care to follow this blog), simply omit the tomatoes. Do as Nonna suggests and make the flavor your own.

3-4 beef marrow bones
1 knuckle bone (or substitute 2 more marrow bones if, like me, you are unsuccessful in your bone purchases)
1 good size beef shank
Good olive oil
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1 large onion
1 bunch of Italian parsley
10 pepper corns
3 or 4 bay leaves
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled
Cold water

4-6 zucchini chopped sliced
2-3 onions chopped
3 celery stalks chopped
1 bunch of carrots chopped
1 can plum tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
1 box of pastina (or any small pasta of your liking)
Good Parmigiano-Reggiano
Preheat the oven to 415*

Rub some olive oil to coat the bones and beef shank, season with salt and roast. Turn 30 to 45 minutes until nicely browned.

Take the largest stockpot you own (as a reference point I use a 16 quart…I really like soup) and place the bones and all of the lovely fat drippings from the roasting process into the pot. Add the carrot, celery, onion, parsley, garlic and peppercorns and fill the pot with cold water roughly three quarters up the pot. Add a good chug of olive oil and a couple more bay leaves. Boil for about an hour, hour and a half. Let cool and refrigerate overnight.

Skim off the layer of fat, which will have inevitably settled on the top of the stock. At this point you are welcome to remove the bones and vegetables that have been used to flavor the stock.

Bring stock to a boil. Add the zucchini, onion, celery, carrots, and tomatoes. Let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour until the vegetables have softened.

While the soup is simmering make the pastina. Drain and put back into the pot you cooked it in. Add to this some soup broth and olive oil. Grate in a good amount of cheese.

Do not, I repeat, do not, put the cooked pastina into the pot of soup. It will proceed to eat up all of the broth and become bloated and chewy. I promise it will.

Serve with some grated cheese and a quick dash of olive oil.

*I enjoy spice because, as Nonna puts it, I take after her side of the family. So I also add a couple of habanero peppers, chopped and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes along with the other vegetables.

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