Monday, 21 December 2009

Escarole Soup, or Italian Wedding Soup

Mrs D was of Irish descent, a Canadian from Newfoundland, but she had the reputation of making the best Italian home cooked meals in Philadelphia. That's a lot to say considering that there is such a large Italian population in the Philadelphia area. Many will disagree and nominate someone else to take over Mrs D's spot. I understand, however, I will respectfully disagree. 

A home-cooked meal made by a person one holds dear and shared with good company makes for a time well spent. I am grateful to Mrs D and to her family for giving me so many wonderful memories! 

Mrs D, whose first name was Carmel, met Richard D, her Italian-American husband-to-be when, during the Korean War, he was stationed at an American air force base in Stephenville, Newfoundland. The two fell in love and were soon married. Carmel found herself ensconced in her new home in Philadelphia. It was West Philadelphia to be exact, St Donato's parish, Overbrook.  

The Overbrook section of West Philadelphia was one of the neighbourhoods where a large population of Italian Americans called home. Some of them still live there, most (like Mrs D and her family), have moved away. Carmel became close with her in-laws, especially with Anne, her new aunt. Aunt Anne taught Carmel all about Italian cooking, and soon Carmel was on her way to becoming a superb Italian home cook.

Thanksgiving and Christmas meals at Mrs D's would always begin with escarole soup (otherwise known as Italian wedding soup). Escarole soup is basically chicken soup on steroids. It's chicken soup amplified to an  an eleven, and I hope you get the inference! To honour Mrs D, I have incorporated escarole soup into my own holiday traditions. Now, when my Greek-Spanish-Italian family gets together for the holidays, meals begin with escarole soup. 

We enjoy those succulent little meatballs swirling in aromatic chicken broth, and we reminisce and celebrate. Mrs D, Carmel, Carm, I remember you, I miss you, I love you!


Step 1: Make the chicken broth.
You can use store-bought chicken broth, but we all know that to have a good soup base we must make our own broth, with chicken and soup vegetables. Store-bought broth is all right to use if you need to make something in a jiffy, but for a special occasion, do start from scratch. To lessen the labour involved, the broth can be made a day before, or even a month ahead and then frozen. Here's how:
  • Clean and wash one 5 lb chicken. Place it in a large soup pot. Add:
  • three carrots roughly chopped
  • three stalks of celery with leaves, roughly chopped
  • one large onion peeled and cut in quarters
  • one parsnip roughly chopped
  • one turnip cut in quarters
  • one leek roughly chopped
  • Add some dill and parsley, stems and all
  • Add two bay leaves 
  • Add ten peppercorns, three cloves of garlic cut up, and salt and pepper.
  • Pour water over the ingredients, filling the pot to about one inch from the rim. Place it on the stove top and bring to a boil, turn the heat to low and cover. Allow the soup to cook slowly until the meat of the chicken can be easily pulled off the bone. Turn off the heat, and let cool.
  • When the meat is cool enough to handle, remove the chicken from the pot. Strain the broth and reserve it. Press down on the vegetables with a masher to remove their excess liquid and combine that liquid with the reserved broth. Discard the vegetables.
  • Remove the meat from the chicken bones and reserve some breast meat to be used when assembling the soup.
  • You can save the rest of the cooked chicken for another use. You now have the broth that will be used as a base for your soup. Refrigerate or freeze it until ready to use.
  • Tip: the fat in the broth rises to the top. While the broth is in the refrigerator, the fat will solidify. You can skim it off, and you will have a fat free broth.
Step 2: Prepare the escarole.
  • Escarole can be bitter. Therefore, cook it separately in water rather than in the broth. This way, the bitterness will leach out into the water which will then be discarded. The escarole can be cooked ahead of time and stored it in the refrigerator. 
  • Clean one large or two small heads of escarole very carefully. You'll have to wash them several times to make sure no soil or sand remains stuck to the leaves.
  • Cut the escarole into pieces one to two inches in length.
  • Bring a pot of salted water to boil and add the escarole. Cook for about five minutes, until the escarole is wilted and has given off its liquid. Turn off the heat and drain the escarole
  • Immerse it in an ice water bath to blanch it. After about five minutes drain it and reserve it until ready to use.
Step 3: Make the meatballs.

  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs 
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
  • 1 tablespooon fresh basil, minced
  • 1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Combine all the ingredients and shape into small meatballs, about one inch in diameter. 
  • Saute the meatballs in some vegetable oil until they are browned. Remove them onto paper towels. The meatballs will finish cooking in the broth.

Step 4: Assemble the soup
  • Bring the broth to a boil (you should have about ten cups).
  • Add one diced carrot and three chopped green onions.
  • Drop the meatballs into the boiling liquid, lower the heat and finish cooking them.
  • Cut up the reserved chicken breast into bite-sized pieces and add it to the broth.
  • Add the escarole.
  • Add three tablespoons of chopped parsley.
  • Ready to serve! Plate and pass around grated Pecorino Romano cheese to sprinkle on top.