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.
What 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:
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
salt and freshly ground pepper
For the soup:
5 to 6 ounces escarole leaves
1 large carrot, diced
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
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.
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.