Another reason to thank a bartender: White Bean Escarole Soup with Turkey Meatballs

by Terry B on January 26, 2011

White Bean Escarole Soup with Turkey Meatballs is a healthy, hearty, flavorful meal—perfect for a cold winter’s evening. Recipe below.


Never underestimate the power of a bored bartender. In January 2009, Chicago editor and writer Martha Bayne was tending bar at the Hideout, a comfortably divey music venue in an industrial corner of the city. Her midweek shifts meant small crowds and smaller tips, so the bored and broke Ms. Bayne came up with an idea to liven things up and do some good.

soup-and-bread-cookbookWhat she, fellow staffers and regulars cooked up was Soup and Bread. It’s a weekly free dinner of homemade soups cooked by the aforementioned staff and regulars as well as local musicians, writers, artists and professional cooks. Other treats include fresh bread and the occasional muffins, pie or cookies. While the dinners are nominally free, a donation is suggested. In the two years Soup and Bread has been going, it has raised more than $10,000 for neighborhood food pantries and soup kitchens. The Wednesday events run from January to mid-April. They start at 5:30pm and go until the soup runs out, usually before 7:00pm. You’ll find details, including the chefs of the week, at the Hideout website.

One way Soup and Bread has raised money has been through sales of a cookbook. I got a copy from my bride over the holidays. Sadly, they’ve now sold out. White beans are well represented in it, featured in at least three soup recipes, two with escarole. Those recipes formed the inspiration for my soup. As did snooping around on the Intertubes and doing a mash-up of what I found, along with stirring in my own ideas.

Escarole is a member of the endive family, slightly less bitter in taste than most endive varieties. It’s often used as a salad green to give a grown-up kick to the overall flavor and, in fact, looks like a head of broad, leafy lettuce. Cooking escarole softens that bitter bite, making it just a nice, subtle flavor note. It’s also really good for you, high in fiber, iron, potassium and vitamins A, C and K. And according to the LIVESTRONG website, “Like the other leafy greens, escarole contains a host of healthy plant chemicals that exert anti-oxidizing and powerfully health-promoting effects on the body… These antioxidant-packed greens are essential for optimum health and cancer prevention.”

Despite the slight bitterness of the greens, White Bean Escarole Soup with Turkey Meatballs is surprisingly delicate in flavor. It’s also a satisfying meal on a winter night.

White Bean Escarole Soup with Turkey Meatballs
Serves 3 to 4 as a main course

For the meatballs:
1 egg
3 tablespoons bread crumbs (I used panko)
1/2 pound ground turkey breast
2 generous tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 generous tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley
olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper

For the soup:
5 to 6 ounces escarole leaves
1 large carrot, diced
olive oil
1 generous tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage (or 1 teaspoon dry)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 bay leaf
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 15-ounce cans cannellini (or other white beans), drained and rinsed
grated Parmesan

Make the meatballs. Beat the egg in a large bowl. Stir in bread crumbs, then add Parmesan, garlic, parsley, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and mix thoroughly with a fork. Using wet hands, form turkey meatballs, 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter. (NOTE: The wet hands are crucial—the mixture is wet and slightly sticky, and wet hands means it will stick less to you. The meatballs will not be perfectly, beautifully round. Get over it.) Place meatballs on a wax paper-lined plate or platter as you form them. Place in freezer for 10 to 15 minutes to help them hold together better during cooking.

Heat a large skillet over medium flame (see Kitchen Note). Add 1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil and brown turkey meatballs on all sides, about 2 to 3 minutes, working in 2 batches. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

Make the soup. Rinse the escarole leaves thoroughly and slice crosswise into 1-inch strips, discarding the very bottoms of the leaves. Set aside. Heat a stockpot over medium flame. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and cook diced carrot until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add garlic and sage and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add escarole, wine, broth and bay leaf and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in meatballs. Reduce heat to simmer. Season with salt and pepper and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Don’t be alarmed at the volume—the escarole will gradually cook down. Stir in the cannellini beans and simmer for an additional 5 minutes. Plate in individual bowls and top with grated Parmesan. Serve with a crusty bread.

Kitchen Notes

Make it a one-pot meal. Cooking the meatballs in a skillet is an easy, don’t-burn-your-knuckles approach. I used a heavy, copper Dutch oven to cook my soup, though, and browned the meatballs in the Dutch oven instead of a separate skillet. While a little trickier to accomplish (Blue Kitchen lived up to its name as I did it), I had one less pan to wash. And there were nice browned bits to be scraped up when I added the broth, adding more flavor to the soup.


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

[email protected] January 26, 2011 at 4:02 am

Looks healthy, hearty and really delish!

randi January 26, 2011 at 2:10 pm

This is my favourite type of soup and is going straight to the printer.

Ronnie Ann January 26, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Love it! I’m always concocting my own soups using some bitter green or another – the greens do lose their sharpness just enough, especially when paired with the right ingredients. This sounds absolutely fabulous on all levels. A hearty one-pot meal. Whenever possible, one pot is this lazy woman’s choice. Thanks, Terry.

Laura [What I Like] January 26, 2011 at 8:34 pm

What a cool idea! And I’m liking the look of this soup. A lot. Perfect for January when you’re still freezing but don’t want to overload on the calories!

The Rowdy Chowgirl January 26, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Soup and Bread sounds like such a great operation–and this soup looks awesome, too. I use a lot of greens, but I haven’t cooked with escarole. Might have to give it a try.

Terry B January 26, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Thanks, Nancy!

I hope you like it, Randi.

Ronnie Ann—I know what you mean. Besides the laziness factor, there’s something about cooking a good meal in a single pot that makes me feel smugly efficient.

You’re right about the calories, Laura. I was just looking at another recipe for a winter comfort food, shepherd’s pie, that called for 14(!) tablespoons of butter.

Rowdy Chowgirl—This was my first time cooking with escarole. I’m sure I’ll use this healthy, delicious green again.

Cynthia Fox-Giddens January 26, 2011 at 10:23 pm

A yummy soup recipe with lots of nutritional ingredients. Somebody pass me a spoon :-)

dick January 27, 2011 at 2:19 am

I would think this would also work well with kale also. That is another of my favorite greens.

Rachel January 27, 2011 at 3:35 am

Sounds fantastic – I can’t wait to try it! But I’m having a hard time finding escarole (even checked my local Whole Foods). Could I substitue kale or something else? Thank you!

Terry B January 27, 2011 at 4:12 am

Thanks, Cynthia!

You’re right, Dick—kale also = good.

Rachel—Kale would work well. So would Swiss chard.

Mellen January 27, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Terry, this is almost identical to my white bean and kale soup. I sometimes use ground turkey (if I’m feeling fat), but also use a ground pork-veal mixture. And kale instead of escarole usually (but I’ve used escarole as well). I chop a small onion very fine and add it to the meatballs to keep them super-moist, but otherwise, basically the same recipe and one of our very favorites in the middle of a cold winter. Sometimes I use the immersion blender to make a creamier texture, too (but I don’t “blend it to death,” just soften up some of it). Delicious! And yes, it’s amazing how much kale you can put in the pot and how it melts down.

Oh, and I cheat and use Knorr chicken bouillon cubes instead of broth for a deeper chicken stock flavor than most stocks out of a can or container impart.

wgfoodie January 27, 2011 at 9:35 pm

I love this recipe! Make a version of it all the time :) Especially now that we’re in the dead midst of winter.

Terry B January 29, 2011 at 3:34 am

Mellen—We love our immersion blender. It’s caused our food processor to spend more time on the bench.

wgfoodie—I know what you mean about winter. When it got up to 19º last weekend, it felt absolutely balmy.

Gemma January 31, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Yay Soup & Bread! So sad I can’t cook for it this year (the first I will miss).

Love your soup photo!

Lael Hazan @educatedpalate January 31, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Lovely story and post. What a great concept and a worthy cause. Just reading the recipe warmed my cold toes; yes, we have gotten a bit cold this winter in Florida and soup is definitely on the menu.

Terry B January 31, 2011 at 11:47 pm

Hi, Gemma! I hope school is going well. We’ve never been to Soup & Bread, I’m embarrassed to say. We plan to fix that soon.

Thanks, Lael! The entire East Coast seems to be getting whacked with weird weather this winter.

[email protected] February 2, 2011 at 8:29 pm

I’ve had a similar turkey meatball in a curry, but never in a clear broth soup. I’m excited to try the recipe, it looks wonderful. Thanks for the post. Also, know that your Canadian neighbours to the North feel your snow related pain on the other side of the great lakes as well. Good luck digging out again!

BingePittsburgh February 10, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Yum. There’s a local place here in Pittsburgh that makes a similar dish and it’s delicious. They also do a bean salad which is incredible.

Kg July 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm

I found that kale, escarole, endive (and even spinach in a pinch), work well with this type of dish, as well as any ‘beans ‘n greens’ dish. I use whichever one the market has on sale. They are all slightly bitter until cooked. Any one should work well! One hint-have a great crusty bread on hand, as you won’t want to waste any broth!!!!

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