Today has been a tragic day, as at 6 am this morning I found out that my 93 year old Grandma passed away in her sleep. She was like a second mother to me. This whole post is dedicated to her beautiful life and all the wonderful memories I have of her. One of my greatest experiences with Grandma is her cooking for me and with me. This recipe is just one of the many dishes I learned to prepare from the greatest cook I know. As I cook and type, I wipe away tears of sadness and choose to think of the incredible times we shared.
Grandma. Grammy. Gram. Grams. She answered to them all.
Today I chose to cook her famous Italian Chicken Soup because this is what she made for comfort in times like these. This soup is what brought our whole Italian family together on holidays. This soup is what she made when we were sick or coming inside from playing in the snow. This soup is Grandma in a bowl.
My incredible Grandma came over on a boat from Italy to America when she was in her 20’s. Her strong thick Italian accent was not the only thing that reminded us of our heritage. The other reminder was her cooking. Grandma created food that one could only imagine on their vacation to Italy.
Each and every Sunday my whole family of cousins, aunts, uncles, mom, brothers, and everyone’s significant other gathered around her kitchen table to break bread, say grace and dive into a plate of sauce. See, in my family our reference to “sauce” means meatballs, ziti and red tomato sauce doused in Pecorino Romano cheese. Like I said, Grandma made a HUGE pot each Sunday. Sometimes she had a second smaller pot of sauce that had rabbit meat in it. She knew most of us may not like that.
When eating dinner, there were two tables. There was a “kids” table that, even to this day at 27 years old, I still would sit at. Myself, cousins and our significant others sat at this table in the dining room. We had a clear shot to the kitchen, where our parents and Grandma sat at the adult’s table. We, at the kid’s table, had to go to the adult’s table and grab bread, a bowl of meatballs and Italian cheese for our table. The adults would say, “Where’s the cheese”? We didn’t want to tell them we had it at our table.
Growing up I was always fascinated with my Grandma’s garden. She and I would always take a walk up and down the wooden planks between the rows of peas, string beans, garlic, onions, tomatoes, basil and parsley. A small pear tree grew in her back yard and in the late summer the ground would be covered in fresh pears. Grandma’s back yard was also bordered by beautiful flower plants of roses and many others that I do not recall. She enjoyed working outside with her hands and her garden bore the fruits of her labor. When my husband and I started dating, Grandma asked him to go pick some basil from her garden to put on our Sunday sauce. He fell in love with basil that day.
I know this is a horrible picture of me, but this is us in her kitchen. On the stove, as it always was, is a large pot of sauce. Grandma is wearing one of her many aprons, which was a typical sight. Grandma put her heart and soul into cooking for her family and loved ones. Whenever I would come home from being away she always had a huge meal prepared. She would feed all of us whether or not we were hungry. She would say “Mangia!” Every time I left to go back to college or back home, Grandma would try to shove money down my shirt or in my pockets.
We would argue,
“No Grandma, I don’t want your money!”
“Yes, take it Maria!”
I’d find the money hidden in my purse or stuck in my hair. She never wanted me to go hungry or be without money.
My mom, dad, brothers and I lived with Grandma while we were in a transitional period. She went everywhere with us and vice versa. Here we are apple picking last fall. At a whopping 4 feet, she is the only person I know that is shorter than me (besides my mom).
It makes me laugh when I think of when I was younger, Grandma and I would play UNO. I would always strategically deal myself all 7 wilds and miraculously win every time. I just found out today that Grandma knew I was cheating all along and just let me win. That little stinker.
Forgive me as I get emotional writing this post. My love for Grandma will literally never fail. I will always have a piece of her with me, as my middle name is Theresa, which is her name. I learned to make this soup a few years ago when she got sick. It was a holiday and everyone was sad that she could not make this soup. I offered to learn from the best. So Grandma sat in a wooden chair in her kitchen while she told me exactly what to do. As I cooked, I wrote down every detail, knowing that I would cherish this recipe someday. So please, as I share it with you, know that this is very special to me.
For the final photo of Grandma’s Chicken Soup, I lit a candle for her. It is set in her candle holder that she gave me a few years ago. On the right is her favorite tea, Bay Leaf Tea. The yellow flower represents hope, making me think of Jeremiah 29:11. Of course, front and center is her Chicken Soup.
- 1 whole chicken, bones in, skin on
- 4-5 carrots, cut into circles
- 4-5 celery stalks, cut thin
- 1 onion, diced
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes with juices, chopped
- 6 basil leaves, chopped
- 1 cup parsley, chopped
- Orzo pasta
- salt and pepper
- breadcrumbs, handful
- 1 egg
- 1 pound ground beef
- 2/4 cup Italian cheese, grated
- salt and pepper
- Put the whole chicken in the bottom of a large soup pan
- Cover the chicken with cold water (fill pan about 2/3 with water)
- Turn on high heat
- Add the carrots and cook for about 15 minutes
- Then add the celery and onion. Season with salt and pepper.
- Let this cook for 15 minutes.
- Add bay leaves, chopped parsley and chopped basil
- If we are not using fresh tomatoes, my family likes using Red Pack. After you chop them into smaller pieces, pour the tomato and juices into the soup pot.
- Let the soup cook on a lower temperature for about 1.5 hours. Stir every once and a while.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste (I even add chicken bouillon sometimes if it needs more salt).
While the soup is cooking, make the meatballs:
- Pour all meatball ingredients into a bowl
- Mix thoroughly with your hands, like Grandma would
- Roll the meatballs into small balls and set aside until soup has been cooking for 1.5 hours
- When soup is almost done, boil a pot of water and make the orzo pasta as directed on the box.
*Some people, like me, fancy a lot of pasta in their soup, while others do not. So make as much as you think your family will need. Also, you could pour the raw pasta right into the soup pot and it would cook. It will thicken the soup. However, if you want leftovers, the pasta will become swollen and mushy, making the soup yucky. Trust me, I’ve had years of experience. So I make it separately. *
- After the soup is done cooking, throw the meatballs in the pot and cook for 5 more minutes
- While the meatballs are cooking, pull out the chicken carcass. With two forks, tear the meat off the bones. Add the chicken meat back to the pot and discard the bones
- Then skim the fat off the top of the soup with a spoon
When it is all done, put some pasta in a bowl, pour the soup over it, sprinkle on Italian cheese and parsley and serve with crusty bread.
After taking the final shots of Grandma’s Italian Chicken Soup, I wiped away my tears, sat down and ate. I closed my eyes and could taste the love. It truly tasted liked Grandma made it for me. This is comfort food at it finest. Grandma, I know you are watching from heaven, how does your soup look from up there?
This was a week ago, when I went to spend time with Grandma in the rehab center. Just six weeks prior she had brain surgery, due to a brain bleed from a fall. She was recovering so well and rocking the half shaved head look. It was so nice to see her smile and to reminisce with her. We talked about her garden and this soup. I love you Grandma, you will never be forgotten.
On March 30th, 2016, I made grandma’s soup for dinner. I have decided that this will be my yearly tradition on this day. It is the best way to celebrate her love for me and her passion for feeding those she loved.
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