Although the last few days here in NYC have been punctuated by rain, they have fortunately for us all been encapsulated by a welcome parenthesis of warm weather. Sunny days are here again—briefly, no doubt—but that doesn't mean we haven't all immediately broken out our spring coats and fought a stranger for an outdoor seat. While the food may not have caught up with the seasons quite yet, I'm happy to say that I'm feeling the need to eat a bit lighter. Not healthier, per se, but certainly something that takes the weight of winter off my shoulders (if it also takes a little something off my hips along the way, all the better). Most winter produce doesn't really permit for much light cuisine, but there is one particular soup that is light in texture, and yet filling, with a handful of a great winter ingredient tossed in.
Escarole is often ignored because it's considered bitter, which of course it is, if eaten raw. But the funny thing about escarole is that even though we often treat it as a lettuce here in the states, it is in fact a winter green in the chicory family, much like its bitter cousin the endive. While it works well in mixed green salads, many with an Italian background may be more familiar with it as a cooking green. It's a wonderful ingredient for bridging the gap from winter to spring, when we're all looking to layoff off the heavy stews and move on to something bright and vernal. Escarole is a great transition ingredient, especially because it cooks up incredibly quickly. It's almost always ready before you think it is, and requires almost no extra liquid to wilt. It's bitterness melts away with a hint of garlic and lemon, almost lending it a sweet flavor.
I most commonly associate escarole with Italian wedding soup. With its light broth and buoyant, meaty little orbs, Italian wedding soup is a festival of protein (there's also egg cooked into the broth) that's wrapped up in a seemingly weightless package. The meatballs are cooked right in the broth, lending their meaty flavor to the base of the soup, and the escarole is tossed in at the last minute to avoid overcooking, right before the egg goes in. Everything about this soup is fast, the most time consuming portion being rolling the meatballs. The smaller the meatball, the easier they are to roll, and the faster they cook, so 1-1 1/4 inch meatballs (traditional size for this soup) are your best bet.
I try to use a low sodium broth for this whenever possible since you'll have salt and seasoning from the meatballs flavoring your broth, in addition to grated parmesan cheese. Freshly grated is a must here both for flavor and texture. This is also a great place to use your leftover parmesan rinds--just toss them into broth to cook away with the meatballs, and whatever hardened cheese is left will melt away into your soup (but make sure to remove any wax or paper on the outside of your rind--natural rinds are fine to throw in as is). Some recipes call for pasta, but it's certainly not a requirement. I often like to throw in a handful of something small, like a tiny pastina or even Israeli couscous if I'm looking to make something a little heartier. Kids love this soup and a handful of star shaped pasta certainly couldn't hurt. So if you feel like eating lighter as the days get longer, give this soup a try—you'll be surprised by how pleasantly full you'll feel.
Italian Wedding Soup
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
1/4 cup milk (soy is fine)
2 Tbsp seasoned breadcrumbs
2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
6 cups chicken stock
2 eggs, lightly beaten
6 cups escarole, washed and roughly chopped
1. Bring stock to a boil and keep heated on low while you make the meatballs. In a bowl, combine beef, pork, milk, breadcrumbs, parsley, nutmeg, 1/2 tsp salt, garlic powder and onion powder with your hands until well mixed. Roll into 1- 1 1/4 inch balls and set aside.
2. Add meatballs to the hot stock and bring mixture to a low boil. Cook until meatballs are still soft but cooked through, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in Parmesan cheese and eggs and continue stirring until they are cooked and form long white threads, about 30 seconds. Add escarole and cook until just wilted. Taste soup for salt and add as necessary. Enjoy!