As a working single mother, my mom often relied on the convenience of both instant and canned soups. Without a doubt I've tasted them all over the years, and I really can't say that there was a canned soup that I haven't liked. That said, the funnily named Chickarina was close to my heart. This canned soup by Progresso was a blast to eat: hearty broth with chunks of chicken, tiny pasta balls, and meaty chicken meatballs. I haven't had Chickarina soup in years, but instead of buying a can I tried making a full made-from-scratch, home simmered version.
The most challenging part of this soup was to duplicate the special texture of the chicken meatballs, so I first went through a quick round of meatball testing. I knew it would take a few tries to crack the code.
Getting the Meatball in Shape
Going on memory, I wanted a flavorful meatball that was soft, smooth but meaty, and with some spring in the bite—a texture that's definitely different from your average meatball. Could I get the bounce by making it tough? In The Burger Lab's Top Ten Tips for Making Better Burgers, overworking ground meat causes the proteins to get sticky and cross-link with each other, creating a denser structure. Salting the meat before cooking also contributes to a firmer texture. So I took pre-ground chicken and manhandled it to the point where it got really pasty and sticky. The result: It definitely became firmer with a chewier bite, but it was also a bit tough.
Springy meatballs of every variety are a popular in Asian dishes, which is where I found my answer. A few home recipes for these types of meatballs incorporate a food processor to purée chunks of raw chicken breast to a smooth consistency before shaping into balls. Intrigued, I riffed off of a recipe by The Waitakere Redneck's Kitchen, whose method processes cubes of uncooked chicken breast into a paste. But instead of the meat getting tougher, the result was almost mushy (remember chicken roll lunchmeat?).
For my Chickarina meatballs, I decided not to purée the meat completely smooth but to pulse the meat into a coarse paste. The result was just a bit springy while still retaining a meaty element.
See the photo above for the difference in texture between lightly handled pre-ground, strongly stirred pre-ground meat, chicken breast processed to a coarse paste, and puréed chicken breast. Don't sweat it if you process the meat until puréed—the meatballs are still pretty addictive.
Keep 'Em Porous and Juicy
To keep the cooked texture from being too dense, a bit of breadcrumbs and grated Romano cheese do a great job at both tenderizing and adding flavor, but I found that the real secret ingredient is baking powder. As the meatballs cook in the hot broth, they swell and absorb a bit of the broth. The result is amazingly moist meatballs.
The Rest of the Soup
To make Chickarina soup from scratch, you basically need chicken three ways: chicken meatballs, chunks of chicken, and a flavorful chicken broth. I could've made it a heck of a lot easier by using prepared chicken stock as the base, but that would be cheating, so instead I made a quick stock with chicken thighs and drumsticks, and used the meat to go into the soup. This takes about 45 minutes, during which time the meatball mixture can be mixed up and chilled until ready to cook.
The last question was at what point to cook the meatballs in the soup. I didn't want to overcook either the meatballs or the tiny pearl pasta. In the end, I found that the meatballs are not adversely affected if left in the simmering liquid (they even improve overnight). The pasta could be cooked last.
Chickarina soup at home: fun to make, and even more fun to eat.