With apologies to my dear, departed Josephine, this is the best escarole soup ever made. And she has no one to blame but herself. I would have happily used her recipe, doing my best to master her method and technique. One Christmas when I was in my late twenties I gave my grandmother a scrapbook/journal and asked her to archive our family history. I felt sure this was a very clever project and a thoughtful gift. My grandmother lived alone, was nostalgic, bored and lonely for the past. I thought it would give her something to fill her days and the result would be this amazing compilation of pictures, recipes and memories recorded for posterity. But she never did. Maybe it was too heavy, too daunting, too hard. Or maybe she was too busy watching the Yankees/Lady Huskies with the volume turned down. I’m afraid I’ll never know.
This was the soup we had for our large extended family holiday dinners, made by my grandmother and her mother before her, my eighty-year-old, wig-wearing Noni. On Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter Sunday my mother’s cousins, their parents and kids would gather inside a house crammed with long tables covered in a patchwork of mismatched cloths. Many generations consuming many courses over many hours and jugs of cheap Chianti. First, the antipasto. Orange slices, celery and olives, marinating in sardine-infused olive oil. Stinky table cheese and salami. Myriad loaves of sliced Italian bread. Escarole soup was second – greens with mini meatballs and orzo. Then the pasta course, something baked with lots of red sauce, shells or ziti, occasionally lasagna. Finally, when you were too full to move much less ingest any more food, came the traditional American fare: turkey, peas, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls, and salad. By the time dessert was suggested the smaller children were were playing olive hockey over the big bellies of snoozing uncles. At some point a box of cookies and canolli from Del Prete Bakery would be put out and grazed on, but mostly the afternoon passed with people playing Pokeno and watching old slides and silent home movies on the screen brought up from the basement.
Maybe my grandma knew that a recipe had to evolve. That it could be written down but never replicated. Times would change, with slight variations in ingredients, kitchen tools, and environmental factors. These external elements cannot be controlled and mean that even working from the recipe written in her beautiful script, I would still never make her soup. I have to make my own soup in my own time. Informed by memory but inevitably a new creation. It’s also true that this is peasant food. Made by hand and from heart. Maybe there never was a recipe and she figured it out as she went every time, cooking with what she had and how she felt. It’s certain that this sort of thing is way open to interpretation and improvisation. Add a Parmesan rind, fresh herbs, or slightly beaten egg at will.
I suggest playing the Pandora station “Mambo Italiano” for finger-snapping inspiration from Dino, Louis Prima, and Rosemary Clooney. This soup tastes best on a rainy day. It doesn’t have to be a holiday. Make a big batch to last all week, to warm up after work, to eat while you read a magazine and drink a glass of wine in front of the fireplace. You can labor over the traditional tiny meatballs if you are so inclined, but I found that thinly sliced chicken sausage – the spinach and garlic kind – works well and makes it quick to make on a rainy weekday morning. So this is my own version of classic comfort food, flavors that get imbedded in your unconscious and stay there forever. This one is for my great-grandmother, Anna Falco, the meanest, most matronly matriarch I ever met.
- olive oil
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 1 cup carrot, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 heads escarole, thoroughly washed and chopped
- 1/2 cup Arborio rice
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 chicken sausage links, thinly sliced
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 4 cups water
In a large soup pot over medium heat saute onions, carrots, garlic, and bay leaf in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. When the vegetables are glossy, add the escarole, rice, sausage, broth and water. Stir, cover, and reduce heat to low; cook for an hour, until the greens are wilted and the rice is creamy. Serve with crusty bread and table wine.