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Freestyle Cilantro Meatball Soup

There are many beautiful things about soups, and among them is their flexibility. This Cilantro Meatball Soup can be made a variety of ways, so the recipe is somewhat free-form. It is one of the recipes I think of when I’ve made chicken or turkey broth, when I’ve also got a mess of plain noodles in the fridge, and particularly when the cilantro is bot beautiful and abundant.

The first time I had anything like it was when my then-future wife, Cindy, was feeling nostalgic for one of her mother’s favorite dishes. My mother-in-law Carol had given her daughter a recipe box with a stack of the family favorites lovingly inscribed on 3×5 cards.

One of the things Cindy and I had in common was a blossoming desire to transcend our parent’s kitchens, which were loving and well-intentioned, but like many kitchens of the 1970s were not noted for culinary adventurism. We both had a few dishes we really loved from our family traditions, and this was one of hers. It had been given to my mother-in-law by her neighbor Sami, who came from Afghanistan, and it was a clear departure from the cuisines we’d grown up with. As a deliciously different and easy recipe, it was an early stepping stone to expanding our palette.

On our recipe card the quantities — of cilantro and stock — are clearly tied to particular supermarket brands that I don’t have access to, and so as I began to cook this more often in the last year I discovered there were a lot of ways to cook it, and few ways to mess it up.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 quarts broth (see section 1 of instructions)
  • 1/2 onion, 2 shallots, or 4 bunches scallions (see section 2 of instructions)
  • ~4 ounces cilantro (see section 4 of instructions)
  • 1/2 pound noodles (vermicelli, udon, rice, etc. — see section 8 of instructions)
  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup bread crumbs
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger powder

INSTRUCTIONS

1Start by bringing the broth to a simmer in a suitable soup pan. While I will use store-bought broths, it can be hard to find those without nightshades, and I’m also one of those people who inherently dislikes the single-use packaging of broth. So I typically will make this if I have a broth source—usually chicken or turkey—already at hand. Vegetable broth works as well, and sometimes I’ll use a quart of turkey broth from my freezer and a couple of veggie bouillon cubes to fill out the second quart. Yet another option if you have access to a good Asian grocer is Vietnamese soup cubes. They come in a variety of flavors but mostly contain some combination of palm sugar, hydrolyzed yeast, MSG, garlic, ginger and pepper. If you’re not bothered by MSG they provide a striking Asian backdrop for an otherwise fairly tame broth.

2To the simmering broth add your choice of allium. Scallions, shallots, onions—they all work here. Onions and shallots should be choped very finely. Scallions should be sliced according to their diameter; the thicker the scallion, the thiner the slice. A combination including scallions is delicious, but you go as simple or as complex as you please. I don’t typically use garlic because I like the interplay between the sweet and oniony broth with the tangy cilantro and the savory meatballs. (But one of these days I’m also going to absolutely load this soup with garlic just to see what happens.) Simmer for 10 minutes.

3If you don’t have leftover noodles, put some water on to cook the noodles seperately.

4Now for the cilantro. If you are a regular cilantro consumer you’ll know that on any given day a bunch of cilantro can weigh in at anything from two ounces to six ounces. So your choice for how much to put in the broth itself is entirely at the discretion of your taste buds and your budget. I think four ounces of cilantro works well, and this might be an average sized bunch of cilantro. If you want to get the full benefit of all that cilantro, and you have other no other plans for it, take the bottom two thirds the stems and grind them up in a spice grinder or small food processor. Add to the broth. Then finely chop the leaf end of the cilantro and add that. Simmer to bring out the flavor.

5To make the meatballs put the ground turkey or chicken or any other ground meat that you care to use in a bowl. Use a fork to tease apart the meat, exposing surface area and spreading it around. Sprinkle the bread crumbs, salt, white pepper, garlic powder and ginger powder over the meat. Then break the egg in the middle of it all and use the fork to blend the yolk and the whites. Before you stick your hands into this, take out a clean plate and place it nearby. Use your hands to mix everything together thoroughly. (Not everybody likes to use their hands to mix raw meat, and you can use a spatula for the mixing. It’s not as effective, and unless you have some kind of meatball-forming utensil you’re going to be using your hands to make the meatballs anyway, so you may as well just get them dirty right here. It will go faster and you’ll have less to clean up.) Form meatballs a bit larger than a classic superball and put them on the plate.

6Put your noodles on to cook.

7Taste the broth to see that it meets your standards, and that the onions and cilantro are sufficiently cooked. The meatballs will enhance the flavor profile, but you don’t want to be tasting in the first few minutes after you’ve added the meatballs. When you like the flavor of the broth bring the soup to a boil, gently add the raw meatballs, then bring the pot back to a simmer. They’ll cook in about five minutes.

8Add your noodles, or rice. You can put pretty much any kind of noodles in here that you want. In my personal opinion actual noodles and not some other formed pasta are preferable. But let your own soup aesthetic dictate your choices. Spaghetti and linguini both work. Egg noodles are hearty. Udon noodles are spectacular. Rice noodles too. You could even drop these uncooked into the broth, but if you’ve made enough soup you know that noodles always, eventually, expand to the soak up the available broth. Precooking forestalls that inevitability and also helps to avoid the thickening of the broth that comes with cooking pasta in situ.

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