Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ode to Escarole

I’ve been contemplating escarole lately, lettuce’s slightly more bitter, significantly more tasty cousin. (Its siblings, apparently, are chicory, endive and radicchio.)

Escarole used to be a once a year thing in my family. Every Easter Saturday it’s time for Sunday Soup (I know, just go with me here) a soup so delicious, so amazing, it feels a little sacriligious to have it at any other time of year. To me, at least. My sister makes it on a regular basis. Life is too short, she says. She’s got a point. Sunday Soup is an example of that kind of Italian cooking that takes a few intense, simple, perfect, perfectly complementary ingredients, and allows them to become even more than the sum of their parts.

Sunday Soup starts with a very simple but strong beef broth. Take about a 5 or 6 pound brisket or chuck roast, sear it on all sides, and cover it with water. Keep it on a very low simmer until the broth is delicious, then salt and pepper to taste. Remove the meat and serve it separately with mustard. (Or make Marcella Hazan’s delicious boiled beef salad, sliced thin, and dressed with –in its simplest version—salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar. Another version adds mustard, anchovies, cornichons, capers, onions and herbs. Both are excellent excuses to make and freeze lots of extra beef broth.)

Then come the tiny meatballs, made with 2-3 pounds of ground beef (or some combination of beef, pork and veal), 3-4 eggs, freshly chopped parsley, generous salt and pepper, and maybe a couple of cups of bread crumbs. The meatballs are usually rolled about ¾ of an inch in diameter. If you’re good, you can roll them 2 or even 3 at a time. We long ago stopped frying them, since this required so many batches that the task of standing in front of the stove and dealing with them tended to artificially, unacceptably, limit the number of meatballs. Instead, we found they’re just as good if you bake them at high heat. They usually fill about 2 half-sheet pans, and bake at about 400 degrees. Turn them over once. (Don’t pack them so tightly on the sheet that you don’t have room to turn them.) Once they’re done, put them in with the finished beef broth. Refrigerate the meatballs and broth overnight and remove the fat from the top the next morning.

All that’s left to do is heat up the de-fatted soup and add a couple of heads of chopped up escarole. (Save some back to add at the last minute, so it’s still a little crunchy.) Something amazing happens to the beef broth with the addition of the escarole. The broth was rich and delicious before. But the little bitter, fresh kick from the escarole cuts the richness a bit, and adds a whole new dimension.

The fourth and final element is not added to the soup pot but to the bowls. A handful of small cubes of hard mozarella (fresh mozarella works, too, but I prefer the way the hard stuff melts) goes into each bowl just before the piping hot soup. By the time you take your first bite, the cheese has melted enough to give you an appreciable string from your bowl, and adds a counterpoint of richness to the broth, still perfectly offset by the escarole. The still-slightly-crunchy escarole wraps in and around the little meatballs in each spoonful. It’s one of the most perfect things I’ve ever eaten.

So, how close to Sunday Soup can I come without anticipating and spoiling this once-a-year ritual? One soup experiment with turkey meatballs and no mozarella flirted with danger, but ultimately did no harm, I think. But I’ve also been making various other, non-soup things with escarole.

Turning first to Marcella Hazan (of course) I found, in Marcella Cucina, a recipe for Apulian-style bitter greens, blanched and then sauteed with olive oil, garlic, anchovies, a bit of chili pepper, and finished with homemade croutons. The crutons, made with a few slices of homemade bread, and fried in canola oil added the rich note that so nicely offsets the slight bitterness of the escarole. There was just a touch of garlic—whole cloves cooked just to golden and then removed from the scented oil, and then the magic deliciousness of the anchovies. I had a bit of an uh-oh moment as I added the finely chopped anchovies. They gave off the last of their fishiness as they hit the oil, but that was the end of it. Once the blanched escarole was added, the fishiness was gone. The result was incredibly good. I might actually use a few fewer croutons next time. And—I confess to an occasional difference of taste with the great Marcella on the subject of vegetable doneness—I might not blanch the escarole first. I think I might just wilt it in the pan. (Though greens with more bitterness would probably still benefit from blanching.)

The next experiment, from Food and Wine, while delicious, was, well, almost cheating. It’s an example of what I think of as lazy cooking—relying on cream and pork fat, not to mention a spike of homemade veal stock, to make its point. I mean, yes. It was yummy and comforting. But it’s the exact opposite of the magic that happens with the few perfectly balanced ingredients in Sunday Soup. And the escarole almost gets lost in this dish. I would up the quantity by at least 50 percent.

Not sure what awaits the head of escarole remaining in my crisper, but it may be another shot at soup while it’s still Winter.