My friend Marianne and I cook together most Sundays, putting together at least one big dish that we can pack for lunch a few days of the following week. My lentil soup is a regular feature of Sunday night cooking, as are roasted vegetables, But a glorious head of escarole at a recent end-of-season Restoration Farm pick-up proved inspiring and nostalgic.
For Marianne it was all about her Italian nana who Marianne swears made this soup out of a handful of leaves, a pinch of ground beef and water. Grandmothers from those days were like that…they somehow conjured the most memorable, intoxicating flavors out of thin air like fairy godmothers.
Me, I need a good stock to help me out. Especially because my own abuela never made anything like this that I can remember, so I don’t know where I first had escarole soup, or why it provokes such sighs of nostalgia in me, or how I knew that mine has to have white beans, even though Nana Manone doesn’t seem to have included them in hers. And I wasn’t planning on meatballs, but since Nana used them….(which might explain the water instead of stock) Marianne’s big brother Peter will have to shed some light on this one, if he remembers.
In the meantime, I defrosted my prize homemade chicken stock in the fridge and softened the beans and grudgingly defrosted some raw but seasoned ground beef and prepared myself for battle.
This is how it goes with old friends in the kitchen. “My grandma this” and “Mine did it this way” and “maybe we should do it this way” and “which recipe are we working from?” and “okay, but I think we should reconsider” and “Let’s see what Marcella (Hazan) says” and “It definitely had meatballs; we’ve got to have meatballs” and “Marcela is getting a little complicated; let’s stick to Giada ” and “I already added salt” and maybe a little grumbled commentary under the breath, just barely loud enough for the practiced old friend ear to catch and then laughter and negotiation and compromise and the result: A soup that was off the hook. Holy Mother of Cooperative Italian Cooking.
I give you the complete version here (I have since made it with my homemade veggie stock and no meatballs to lighter effect), but let it be known that my hearty chicken broth made it in. Her meatballs made it in. My beans got held and I added them for my own servings just before heating up for lunch in the subsequent days. And everyone was very, very happy. I daresay Nana was too.
Escarole and White Bean Soup (with tiny meatball option)
2 Tbs olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 pound escarole (one head), chopped in thirds and washed and dried thoroughly (use a spinner if you’ve got)
4 cups low-salt chicken or vegetable broth
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed or 1 Cup pre-soaked beans
Abundant Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, grated
Freshly ground black pepper
(Optional Tiny Meatballs
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 tsp Adobo powder
1/2 tsp Old Bay seasoning
2 Tbs bread crumbs
1 Tbs finely chopped onion
In a bowl, mix all ingredients thoroughly but gently. Pinch off into tiny ½ inch balls and set aside.)
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add the escarole and saute until wilted, about 2 minutes. Add a pinch of salt. Add the broth and beans and simmer for five minutes (if NOT using meatballs). If using meatballs, drop those in and hold the beans back. Cover and simmer until the meatballs are almost cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add beans if you haven’t yet. Simmer another five minutes to heat beans. Season with cheese, salt and pepper, to taste.