by Brian Clarey
Noni would have never used store-bought chicken stock.
She never would have made the meatballs with turkey, either, preferring a mix of beef, veal and pork that she would have her butcher grind together. Noni, my great-grandmother, was the first in her family to be born on US soil back in 1900, and she would no sooner have bought ground turkey than she would have eaten raw kale.
I’ve been thinking a lot about family these days. It’s been about a year since we lost Grandma; we said goodbye to Uncle Gordon the same exact day this year.
Noni’s been gone since 1997, but at Gordon’s farewell service most everybody in the family who’s still kicking made it through to pay their respects, even Aunt Nellie, who’s got to be about 100 by now.
Anyway, despite my practical substitutions, I knew there was one ingredient I could not do without when making my Noni’s most loved soup: A nice head of escarole lettuce.
There are many dialectical nuances to the Italian language, but all up and down the boot they call it schcarole: that stout, curly chickory that the old ladies in my family could prepare a hundred different ways.
I only know the one: escarole soup, with little meatballs and pasta that looks like BBs — what Big Soup has labeled “Italian wedding soup” on all the cans, though nobody in my family ever called it that.
I made the meatballs by hand, one by one, each the size of a shooter marble, mixed with Parmesan cheese that I grated in the manner I imagine my Noni must have when she learned to make the soup as a girl. Because I was out of breadcrumbs, I ran some pretzels through the blender. Noni, who lived through depressions, recessions, a dust bowl and a handful of wars, would likely have understood this kind of improvisation. Sometimes I cook the meatballs in the oven a bit, but not this time.
There are many dialectical nuances to the Italian language, but all up and down the boot they call it schcarole.
I washed the escarole and cut it into strips, sautéed it with some seasonings and just a little bit of onion, then boiled it in the broth and dumped the raw meatballs in to cook. The acini di pepe No. 78 — tiny little pasta balls, but not so tiny that they turn to mush — cooked off in nine minutes. Besides the prep time, it’s the simplest soup I make.
The eaters in my house roundly agreed it was fabulous. But next time I’m gonna have to make my own stock, with a bunch of garlic and maybe a Parmesan rind, the way my Noni used to make it.