Soup may seem like an unusual choice as we head into the long, sunny days of our northern spring and summer, and often gets overlooked as a warm-weather meal option. But, if there's one thing we know for sure, it's that there is a soup for every season, and this Minestrone Primavera with Chicken Meatballs is our top choice for spring.

Minestrone (min-eh-strohn-eh) has been a staple in the Italian diet for over 2,000 years, with its roots dating back to pre-Roman times. Traditionally, minestrone is a thick vegetable soup that is often served with beans, tomatoes and either pasta or rice, depending on the recipe's origin. The ingredients vary based on the season, and for this spring recipe we are skipping the tomatoes and canned beans, opting instead for a variety of fresh spring vegetables.

Fortunately, we had a great selection of leftover veggies after Easter weekend, so we used baby carrots (a rainbow variety is featured here), green beans, asparagus, spinach and leeks. I don't personally care for peas, but if you do, they would make a lovely addition to this recipe.Green onions are often used for flavor in minestrone soup, but we prefer the subtle richness and mild sweetness of leeks for this recipe. Leeks look like a larger version of green onions, and need to be rinsed more thoroughly between the layers, where dirt and grit tends to collect.

For this purpose, we want just the white and pale-green part of the leek, which we cut into thin rounds or half-rounds after thoroughly rinsing. The bottom inch of the stalk and top leafy-green portion are removed, and can be discarded or saved and frozen to make a stock.

When making soup, we always begin by preparing our mise-en-place, a French culinary term meaning "everything in its place." Before any cooking begins, we wash and chop our vegetables and herbs, measure out our liquids and pasta, and prepare our garnishes. Since we're also adding chicken meatballs to this dish, we will mix and roll them out once everything else is in place and cook them first so that the pot is seasoned with their flavor.

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The meatballs are a simple, savory mixture of ground chicken, fresh bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, garlic, egg, parsley and chives. We chose to use ground chicken because it's leaner than ground beef and we don't want the meatballs to overpower the lightness of this soup. We keep the meatballs small enough to fit on a spoon with the soup, no larger than a ½-inch in diameter.

Fresh breadcrumbs are best for making meatballs, and you can make your own by pulsing fresh or slightly stale bread in a food processor. Fresh breadcrumbs freeze wonderfully and any kind of bread will work — even English muffins or bagels. If pressed for time, you can use a plain, canned variety, but keep in mind that they are not as moist as fresh so you may need to adjust the amount used.

We use a mixture of water and low-sodium chicken broth for this recipe, which enables us to control the amount of salt in the soup. Our pasta of choice is a small, round tube called d'italini, but you could also use any mini-sized noodle. Fresh baby spinach and Parmesan cheese are added right at the end.

I made a large batch to ensure there would be leftovers, and you could easily halve this recipe. With some fresh focaccia bread and an assortment of cheeses and olives, Tony, Gio and I all agreed that this was a perfect springtime meal.

Minestrone Primavera with Chicken Meatballs

For the meatballs:

1 pound ground chicken

1 to 1 ½ cups fresh breadcrumbs

1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

4 garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons fresh chives, finely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped

2 large eggs, beaten

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

For the soup:

2 leeks, white and pale-green parts only, thoroughly rinsed and cut into ¼-inch rounds

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth

1 quart (4 cups) water

2 cups baby carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch rounds

1 ½ cups d'italini pasta (or any mini-sized noodle)

1 ½ cups (12 to 15 stalks) fresh asparagus, blanched and chopped into 1-inch pieces, ends removed

1 ½ cups (about 15 to 20) fresh green beans, blanched and chopped into 1-inch pieces

2 cups baby spinach, packed

¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated, plus more for garnish

Directions:

In a large bowl, combine the ground chicken, breadcrumbs (starting with 1 cup), cheese, minced garlic, chives, parsley, eggs, salt and pepper until well mixed. If the mixture is too sticky, gradually add more breadcrumbs until easy to handle. Roll the mixture into ½-inch balls (makes about 45 to 50 small balls).

Heat olive oil in a stock pot over medium heat and cook meatballs until golden-brown all over, about 3 to 4 minutes. The meatballs will finish cooking in the soup, so transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.In the same pot, add the leeks and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the thinly sliced garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add chicken broth and water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in the carrots and pasta and cook at a gentle simmer until pasta is almost al dente (still a bit firm), about 7 to 8 minutes. Add the meatballs, whole asparagus and whole green beans and simmer until carrots are tender, pasta is al dente and meatballs are cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes. To keep asparagus and beans firm, remove after 2 minutes and return to soup just before serving.

Add the spinach and Parmesan cheese and cook for about a minute until Parmesan melts and spinach just begins to wilt. Chop the blanched asparagus and green beans into 1-inch pieces and add to soup. Transfer to serving bowls and garnish with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese in the center.

Tips

  • Save top and bottom parts of the leek and freeze for later use to make stock.
  • Use any fresh or slightly stale bread to make your own fresh breadcrumbs, using a food processor to finely grind.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 11-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com and their blog at www.thelostitalian.areavoices.com.