My wife’s mother is the undisputed Queen of soups. We often joke around the table that she would be rich if she opened up a soup shop and sold her amazing Romanian delicacies. The Toronto restaurant scene is truly lacking any sort of Romanian representation, let alone restaurants that specialize in soups. Until she commits to following her destiny, we’ll just have to keep showing up for weekend lunches.
One of her MANY specialties is Ciorbă de perișoare (a Romanian Meatball Soup), which is a light yet flavourful medley of vegetables and meatballs. This soup can be eaten year ‘round and is just as comforting in the summer months as it is during the harsh winters – Romanian, Canadian or otherwise.
Traditional versions of Ciorbă de perișoare (and the way she insists on making it) call for adding short grain rice to the meatballs. The mixture gets nice and fluffy and the starch in the rice helps thicken the broth ever so slightly. She is adamant on using ground pork but says that a mixture of beef and pork will work as well. She also adds dried lovage, an leafy herb that tastes like a cross between parsley and celery. It adds a beautiful flavour but it’s hard to find. Check your nearest Eastern European grocer. Otherwise, omit.
I absolutely love eating this soup with a side of raw, spicy pepper. Usually you eat a spoonful soup and then take a bite of the pepper to add some crunch and heat. Feel free to use a Hungarian pepper, banana pepper or any fresh chili of choice.
You will also find Romanians adding heavy dollops of sour cream (smântână) to their soup at the table. Many Eastern European countries similarly thicken their soups with sour cream and its something I grew up doing as well – mostly when eating borscht.
My slightly healthier version of Ciorbă de perișoare omits both the rice and sour cream garnish, making it Whole30 and Paleo compliant. Don’t you just love it when only minor adjustments are necessary?
I also decided to swap the ground pork for ground lamb. I wasn’t able to find any good quality ground pork at the store and lamb was on special. The good news is that the lamb made a great substitution given its high fat content, which made the meatballs juicy and added a beautiful, glossy top coat to the soup.
If you choose to go with ground beef, try to use one that is medium-fat. The meatballs might be a bit dry if going with a lean or extra-lean grind. Alternatively, if you can only find lean or extra-lean ground meat, you can add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to the broth along with the vegetables in the beginning to add some flavour and richness.
Even without the traditional ingredients, the soup unsuspectedly delivered the same comforting rush of nostalgia over my wife. She goes crazy over her mom’s soups so I surprised her with this Whole30 version of Ciorbă de perișoare after a long and miserable grey summer day. The look on her face was absolutely priceless when she walked through the door. She let out a big “mmmmmmmmm” as she snuck a spoonful from the pot before we sat down to eat. She asked how I did it. To which I replied, “Easy! I asked your mom for the recipe.” We both helped ourselves to seconds and I may or may not have eaten a bit more before bed.
- 2 lbs ground lamb (substitute ground beef, pork, or a combination of the two) – preferably grass-fed
- 1 large yellow onion diced
- 1 red bell pepper diced
- 3 medium carrots diced
- 5-6 cloves garlic finely sliced
- 6-7 yellow-fleshed potatoes peeled and diced
- 1 tomato diced
- 2 large eggs preferably free-range, organic
- 1.5 cups fresh parsley finely chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tbsp dried lovage if available
- 1/2 cup lemon juice or more, as necessary
- kosher salt
- freshly-cracked black pepper
- Pat ground lamb dry with paper towel.
- To a large mixing bowl, add lamb, eggs, ½ cup parsley, 2 tsp kosher salt and 1 tsp black pepper. Using your hands, mix until just combined. Avoid over-mixing the meat or it will toughen. Form mixture into golf-ball sized meatballs and lay on a tray or sheet pan lined with plastic wrap or parchment. Tips: use an ice cream scoop to achieve equal size meatballs; wet your hands slightly to prevent the meat from sticking to your skin.
- Fill a 4qt stock pot with water and bring to a boil. Add the onion, bell pepper, carrot, potato and bay leaves. Season with 1 tbsp kosher salt and 1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper. Reduce heat to a steady simmer and cook until potatoes are slightly fork tender (approximately 18-20min)
- Add meatballs one at a time and boil until meat is cooked through (approximately 18-20min), skimming any foam that rises to the surface.
- Add tomato, parsley, dried lovage and lemon juice and cook additional 5-6 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt, pepper and acid as necessary. Typically a generous amount of salt is required.
- Serve in a bowl with raw, spicy pepper of choice.