1/2poundhot Italian sausage, casing removed if in links
1/3cupblue cheese, crumbled fine
For the Soup
4tablespoonsextra virgin olive oil
1 1/2cupscoarsely chopped leeks, white and light green part only, or chopped sweet onion
1cupchopped fennel bulb(1 large)
1cupchopped celery(about 2 ribs)
1cupdiced carrots(2-3 large)
1 1/2cupsdiced parsnips(2-3 medium)
2 1/2teaspoonsdried Italian herb blend
1/4teaspoonred pepper flakes
28ouncescanned tomatoes(San Marzano style, if available) -- crushed or stewed tomatoes (if whole, chop into bite-size pieces)
2x3 piece Parmigiano-Reggiano rind, or 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
15ouncesred kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2cupsdry pasta (uncooked)(about 8 ounces) like mezzi rigatoni, orecchiette, pipette, mini wheels (rotelle), or tubetti
8ouncesbaby spinach leaves
1/4cupchopped fresh parsley
Sea salt and pepper, to taste
Preparing the Meatballs
In a medium mixing bowl, beat eggs with milk and Worcestershire sauce. Stir in the bread crumbs, Parmesan, parsley, Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper; set aside.
Saute onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until softened. Add garlic and cook 2 more minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly.
Mix meats and blue cheese together in a large mixing bowl. Add the egg and bread crumb mixture, and onions; mix thoroughly. Shape into small 1/2-inch (bite-size) meatballs and place on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Broil on HIGH until cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes. Cooking time will vary depending on size of meatballs. Break one open to be sure they are cooked through, extend cooking time if needed.
Transfer cooked meatballs to a platter and set aside to finish the soup. NOTE: The meatball recipe may produce more than enough for the soup, it's up to you whether to add all of them or save and freeze a few for another meal.
Preparing the Soup
In a soup pot over medium heat, saute leeks, fennel, and celery in 2 tablespoons olive oil until the vegetables begin to caramelize, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook until garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes.
Add the carrots and parsnips to the pot and continue to cook over medium heat, adding additional olive oil as needed. Sprinkle vegetables with the oregano, thyme, and red pepper flakes and cook until herbs are fragrant.
Stir in the tomatoes with their juices to the pot along with the drained kidney beans. Pour 4 cups of beef stock into a soup pot and add a 2x3-inch piece of Parmesan rind (if you do not have Parmesan rind, grate 1/4 cup Parmesan into the stock). Stir to combine and simmer 10 minutes.
Add the remaining broth and all the meatballs to the soup and bring back to a strong simmer. Stir in the pasta and cook at a strong simmer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes until pasta is al dente. Stir in the spinach and parsley the last 5 minutes. Taste and add sea salt and pepper, as desired.
Serve in warm bowls and garnish with additional grated Parmesan.
Time-Saving TIP: Ready-made meatballs can be substituted for making your own, though they will likely be larger than bite-size. Simply cut in half or quarter them before adding them to the soup for a more pleasing bite. Otherwise, you can substitute the meat mix in the meatballs with mild Italian sausage. Remove the sausage from its casing, divide and roll into balls. Broil on HIGH for 6-8 minutes until browned and cooked through. This handy shortcut won't produce as tender of meatballs, but it works in a pinch.Equipment TIP: Use a Stainless Steel Scoop, 25MM (.5 Tablespoon) for consistent meatballs.NOTE: While any favorite pasta will work in the soup, we prefer smaller more toothsome varieties like mezzi rigatoni, orecchiette, pipette, mini wheels (rotelle), or tubetti as they hold their shape and texture well in this soup.
Wait to add cooked pasta at the time of reheating the soup. Pasta can absorb too much liquid and can breakdown when it sits in the broth for a long time. This does not affect the flavor, only the texture of the pasta and how brothy the soup will be when reheating.
Wait to add the fresh spinach until reheating the soup for a brighter green color and gently wilted texture. This does not affect the flavor of the soup, only the texture of the spinach.
Refrigerate prepped soup for up to 5 days.
Freeze the prepared soup for up to 6 months.
Once cooked, any leftover meatballs can be frozen and enjoyed at a later date, either in the soup or herby tomato sauce served with pasta.
Make it dairy-free by removing the cheese from both the traditional minestrone soup and the baked Italian meatballs. Also, substitute the milk in the meatballs with a suitable dairy-free alternative like oat milk or gelled chicken broth.
Make the soup vegetarian by substituting the beef broth with a vegetable broth. Remove the meatballs from the recipe entirely and serve with some crusty bread instead.
Make substitutions for gluten-free soup by using gluten-free bread crumbs and pasta.
Substitute the beef, lamb, or pork with ground turkey. If using ground turkey, look for dark meat (thigh) over white meat (breast) for better fat content and flavor.
Substitute 1/2 cup panko = 2 slices fresh bread = 1 cup fresh bread crumbs (reduce milk by 1-2 tablespoons if using fresh bread crumbs)
Substitute any of the soup vegetables listed for those you enjoy eating, like acorn or butternut squash, zucchini, or eggplant.
Substitute kidney beans with another canned bean, for example, cannellini beans.
Substitute spinach leaves for other fresh leafy greens like kale or chard, which are also iron-rich and full of nutrients. Exchange 8 ounces of fresh spinach with 4-5 ounces frozen spinach.
Substitute dry Italian seasoning blend simply with dried oregano or a blend of oregano, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, savory, and sage.
A good substitute for Parmigiano Reggiano is pecorino romano or grana padano, both flavoursome, hard Italian cheeses.