Friends are the family we choose for ourselves

12 mins read

A few weeks ago a dear friend passed away and I’ve been thinking about the 20+ years I was lucky enough to know her, what she taught me and most of all, her near constant presence in my adult life. As much as I adore my family, I am also a strong believer that friends are the family we choose for ourselves and Nancy was one of my favorite choices.

Nancy moved back to Phillipsburg, NJ to be closer to family not long after I moved to Maine. Some of the early holidays, when I couldn’t travel back to Tennessee to be with my family, I spent time with Nancy and the extended Tarsi family in NJ. While their holiday traditions as a big Italian family were strikingly different from my own, there was something familiar, comforting and wonderful about being with them. Their holiday food traditions inspired me to look beyond what I knew as Italian food and discover foods that are now part of my own food traditions.

I should confess now, I am that odd person who doesn’t automatically turn to pasta, when I think of the Italian food Nancy and her family helped me discover, taste and fall in love with. Chief among those foods, and in no particular order are, porchetta, minestra maritata, torcetti and those addictive sprinkle cookies you find in a good Italian bakery. I don’t even attempt to make the latter because I both fear I won’t make them well and if I do, I’ll shove them in my mouth as fast as they come out of the oven.

Of the dishes I mentioned above, Nancy taught me to make one of them. Minestra Maritata or Wedding Soup. There are many recipes for this soup that range from the easy to complex. The version she taught me to make is fairly simple with a few extras to zhuzh it up. I will be making it this weekend and thinking of her.

Nancy’s Minestra Maritata

Nancy’s Minestra Maritata

Note: Italian wedding soup calls for bitter greens such as escarole, rapini, or broccoli rabe. I often cannot find those around here, so I turn to a combination of baby kale, beet greens, zucchini or fresh fennel (anise).

For the Meatballs

3 or 4 slices of old bread, crust removed (around 4 ounces)
½ cup milk
1 pound sweet italian sausage (loose or removed from casing)
1 egg, beaten
½ teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the Soup

8 – 10 cups chicken broth
1 medium onion, cut in chunks
2 medium stalks celery with leaves, cut in chunks
1 small carrot, cut in chunks
4 fat garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1 cup small pasta such as elbow, ditalini, acini di pepe or any other small soup pasta
1 ½-2 lbs of green vegetables, chopped (See note above. If you are using all leafy greens, I would err on the side of 2lbs, if you are using zucchini or fennel, I go for the higher side with 3 lbs).
Salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan rind (optional)
Pecorino Romano, for serving.


1. Pour 1 tablespoon olive oil onto a medium-sized, unlined baking sheet. Using your hands spread the oil all over the bottom of the pan. Alternatively, spray lightly with cooking spray. Set aside.

2. 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 larger bowl with the sausage, egg, salt and pepper. Form the mixture into tiny meatballs, about ½ inch in diameter and place them on the prepared baking pan. Tip: Lightly wet, or oil, your hands if the meatball mixture is sticking to your hands.

3. Set an oven rack 7 to 8 inches from the heat and heat the broiler to high. Once the broiler is hot, broil the meatballs until just starting to brown on one side about 4 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.

4. Using the food processor, mince onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and basil into a smooth paste (pestata). If you don’t have a food processor, mince the vegetables as fine as you can. Heat the olive oil in the soup pot over medium heat, and add the pestata. Cook for about 5 minutes before adding the chicken broth, and a chunk of parmesan rind (if you have it). Bring to a simmer and let cook for 15-20 minutes. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper as needed.

5. Add the meatballs and your green vegetables and continue simmering until the vegetables are to your liking. (Don’t let the broth come to a rapid boil or too much of the liquid will evaporate.)

6. Add the pasta and cook until just al dente, about 5 minutes. Check seasoning and adjust the salt and pepper as needed.

7. Ladle the soup into bowls and drizzle each bowl with olive oil, and pass around Pecorino Romano cheese for everyone to sprinkle over the soup, as desired.

The second recipe is for porchetta. I had it many times when visiting with Nancy and her family, but it was one of those dishes they ordered out and had delivered, rather than prepared at home. Not having the option to order porchetta, meant I had to figure out for myself how I could best replicate the dish. Many prepare it with a pork butt so they get a lovely crispy crust, but I stink at deboning and getting the pork butt spread flat and even so I could stuff and roll it, so I cheat and use a pork loin.

Porchetta (Herbed Pork Roast)

Porchetta (Herbed Pork Roast)

1 3-4 lbs pork loin roast ½ inch fat cap
⅓ cup fresh rosemary
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon of ground sage
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground fennel
zest and juice of 1 orange
1 bay leaf


1. Put rosemary, 3 tablespoons of the oil, the garlic cloves, sage and 1 teaspoon of salt in the work bowl of a small food chopper or food processor. Process until you have a smooth paste. You can use a mortar and pestle if you don’t have a chopper/processor.

2. This video from America’s Test Kitchen explains in 1 minute how to prep the meat so you can roll it up later. It isn’t as hard as my description will make it sound, so watch! Position roast fat side up on the cutting board. Insert knife two-thirds of way up from bottom of roast along 1 long side and cut horizontally, stopping 1/2 inch before edge to create flap. Open up the flap. At the hinge, cut down into the thicker portion of roast, stopping 1/2 inch from bottom. Pivot knife parallel to the cutting board and cut horizontally in the opposite direction, stopping 1/2 inch before edge, to create a second flap. Open up this flap and lay meat flat. If meat is of uneven thickness, cover roast with plastic wrap and pound to even thickness with meat pounder.

3. Spread the herb paste evenly over the entire cut surface of the pork. Roll the roast into a compact log with a spiral of the herb filling running through it. Tie the roast securely with kitchen twine to keep it from unrolling in the oven.

4. Combine the ground fennel, orange zest, 1 teaspoon salt, three 3tbsp olive oil and a generous grinding of black pepper in a small bowl and rub all over the surface of the roast.

5. Set the pork (fat side up) in a heavy casserole dish into which it fits snugly (I use my meatloaf pan). Add the orange juice, bay leaf and just enough water to come ½ way up the side of the pan.

6. Bake at 325F for 4 hours.

7. Discard twine, let roast rest 20 minutes and cut in ¼ inch slices. For sandwiches, serve on Italian rolls with provolone, roasted broccoli rabe (the bitterness cuts through the fat of the cheese and pork) and a little of the au jus for extra flavor. It is also tasty over polenta or alongside roasted carrots and potatoes.

Ashley Montgomery is a native Southerner with a deep love for collard greens, hot buttered biscuits and sweet tea. She married a boy from Maine, works at UMF and calls Wilton her home. She loves cooking, feeding people, learning about other folk’s food traditions and will eventually stop being afraid of pressure cookers.

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