A friend recently pointed out to me that I seem to gravitate towards ingredients which usually garner scorn from others. I have a feeling that this is primarily due to my childhood shock and awe education which introduced me to a wide range of potentially upsetting tastes and textures. I can confidently say now that there is value gained from watching a honeycombed expanse of cow stomach float about in a bubbling broth or from tearing apart a leathery cuttlefish half the length of the kitchen table into sinewy rubbery shreds. These food experiences might have sent a more tendered hearted individual scurrying behind their mother’s apron strings-- but not me. These times strengthened my gut and stretched my yet formed palate. It might be that I became more resolved to explore the unknown, a reckless food junkie thrilling and scoring an adrenaline rush with the sampling of each new and exotic ingredient entering my horizon.
But when it comes to vegetables how risqué can it get? They do not possess snouts or rogue bristly hairs on protuberances. They do not undergo body functions with identifiable parts which too closely resemble our own. No shiny eyes peer down at us nor are ungainly sounds emitted. The entire rainbow of the plant kingdom should have been unearthed and employed within my kitchen at least several times over. I’ve indulged in racy red beets and become entangled with cruciferous kale. I’ve been enamored with the peppery bite of radishes and the silky seduction of eggplants. Somehow during my romp and trample through the garden of eating, I managed to skip past the greens which form the foundation of a very basic salad.
The ubiquitous appearance of mesclun mix in the produce aisle hailed my downward slothful slide. The simple ease of throwing down a medley of lettuces into a bowl with a few nonchalant additions freed up time and energy for other culinary pursuits. The formula’s success was short lived as it became increasingly more difficult to find pre-made mixes unmarred by slime or wilt. Luckily the delightful discovery of names like rocket, lamb’s quarter, frisée, endive and radicchio played upon my imagination, encouraging the once familiar search in new and far places.
And then I found escarole. It is no denying that this produce is easy to overlook. A too quick glance would categorize this type of endive as merely green leaf lettuce. A closer examination would reveal a pale broadly ruffled leaf which exudes a hardy vigorous appearance which one might discount as “too tough” or even “stringy”. But let me assure you that this concern is trivial in the pursuit of a wonderful new vegetal friend. It is true that escarole has character, substance. If one enjoys the bitter tone to radicchio, frisée or Belgian endive then escarole will effortlessly slide right into your well oiled salad bowl. However if the rugged taste is too burdensome to be taken raw, do not fret for a reprieve is close at hand. Cooking tames the beast and soup is the fix.
I actually discovered escarole when making Italian Wedding Soup. I had recently developed a fondness for frisée and knew that the two were distantly related. While lettuce in soup sounds like a bad idea I can assure you in this case, it is not. Eating this magical elixir is like wearing a vintage buttery-soft silk robe over freshly bathed skin. One is enveloped from the inside out with a deceptively simple luxuriousness that takes over all senses. First the greens reduce down to a slippery gulp of unmistakable nourishment. In conjunction with tender orzo which slides so amicably down the gullet making one feel safe, young and content, one is at least doubly satisfied. This happy convergence is then wrapped in a chicken broth thickened into velvet with the gentle introduction of a frothy egg. Lastly the marriage is officiated by a brood of tender meatballs and celebrated with a sprinkle of cheese. I promise you that this soup will have you positively greedy for escarole and sounding out its beautiful sonorous name.
Italian Wedding Soup
12 oz. ground turkey
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons milk/soymilk/water
¼ cup breadcrumbs
¼ tsp ground black pepper
Pinch of salt
8 cups plus of chicken broth
¾ cup of orzo
1 small head of rough chopped escarole
1 egg whisked with a bit of water
Sprinkle of grated parmesan cheese
Directions: First put the stock in ample sized pot to gentle boil. In the meantime, gently mix the turkey, cheese, thyme, egg and milk, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper. While the stock comes up to heat, form the mixture into marble size balls and drop in. You’ll want to work rather quickly so that the meat doesn’t overcook. Once the meatballs mixture is complete, stir in the orzo and then add the escarole roughly in thirds. When all the escarole has been added and wilted, slowly pour the whisked egg mixture in to the soup while gently agitating the broth. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with cheese.