Eating Well: Good neighbors, good winter soups

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If awards were given for the best neighborhoods in Maine, surely the Deering Center neighborhood in Portland would be honored for its congeniality.

People happily care for each others’ children, return errant pets to their owners, help with snow removal, tend community gardens, host neighborhood parties and, often, offer samples of their home cooking.

On Christmas Eve, a neighbor telephoned to ask if we would like a quart of the escarole soup and some croutons she had just made. Grateful for her generosity, we knew we’d be getting something wonderful, because this neighbor is from a family known for its culinary skills.

We inhaled the rich, steamy chicken broth as we removed the cover from the container and decided to eat the soup right then while it was still warm. Ladling it into soup plates, we saw bits of bright green escarole, tiny meatballs, wisps of beaten eggs, bits of bacon or pancetta, and red pepper flakes floating in the broth. The croutons were as crisp as potato chips. We dropped a few into the soup and put the rest on the sides of our soup plates, so we could take our time deciding whether to savor them as a contrast to the soup or to watch them set sail with the escarole and tiny meatballs.

Agreeing that the escarole soup was fantastic and that we were lucky to have such a generous neighbor, we slurped our way through the whole quart. The soup was both comforting — exactly what you’d want if you were feeling under the weather — and enlivening.

On the day after Christmas, knowing we couldn’t appear at our neighbor’s door begging for more soup, we decided to read every recipe we could find for escarole (or chicory) soup, gather the ingredients, and make some of it.

This soup has quite a few versions and names: wedding soup, escarole soup, escarole stew, chicory soup, soup with greens and tiny meatballs, miniature meatball soup, shredded egg soup, and Christmas soup with bread and cheese strands. We may have had a combination of escarole soup, miniature meatball soup and shredded egg soup.

Here are recipes for some of the excellent soups we made. Try them and share some with your neighbors.

Chicken Soup with Escarole and Polpettini

The recipe is from “The North End Union Italian Cookbook” by Marguerite DiMini Buonopane, published by Globe Pequot Press in 1987.

Polpettini is Italian for tiny meatballs.

1 plump fowl, about 4 to 5 pounds
2 celery stalks with leaves, halved
2 fresh parsley sprigs
2 scraped carrots
1 large, ripe tomato, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 pounds escarole, well washed and cut crosswise into thin shreds
1/2 cup water
1 pound ground beef
2 tablespoons freshly grated Romano cheese
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
1/2 pound tiny pasta such as pastina, orzo, or acini di pepe

Clean and wash fowl well. Discard excess fat. Place fowl in a soup pot and add cold water to cover. Bring it slowly to a boil and skim the surface often.

When the water stays fairly clean, add the celery, parsley, carrots, tomato, salt and pepper.

Cover the pot tightly and cook slowly over low heat until the fowl is tender, about 2 ½ hours. Strain the broth. (The chicken may be used for chicken salad sandwiches another day, or the white meat may be boned and added to the broth.) Refrigerate the broth until the fat has congealed on top. Remove and discard the fat.

Reheat the broth over medium heat. Put the escarole in a large skillet with the 1/2 cup of water. Simmer for 3 minutes, strain, squeeze out excess water, and add to the broth.

Combine the ground beef, cheese, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Shape into balls no larger than a filbert (dip hands into water to keep the balls smooth and round), and drop into the hot, semi-boiling soup. These are the polpettini (tiny meatballs).

Cook the soup for ½ hour on low heat to combine the flavors thoroughly and to cook the meat.

Cook the pasta in 2 quarts of boiling salted water. Drain, do not rinse, and add to the soup just before serving.

Note: This soup can be refrigerated for several days. It also freezes well.

Makes about 2 quarts.

Straccetti (Christmas Soup with Bread and Cheese Strands)

The recipe is from “Celebrating Italy” by Carol Field, published by William Morrow & Company in 1990.

Christmas lunch in the Marches region of Italy, writes Carol Field, always begins with a delicate soup flavored with strands of bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese bound together with egg yolks. It reminds Romans of stracciatella and natives of Modena and Bologna of soup with passatelli, although this version has a fine lemony flavor found nowhere else.

4 egg yolks
Heaping 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/3 cup fine fresh bread crumbs
Freshly grated nutmeg
Grated zest of 1 lemon
8 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
Extra Parmesan cheese to pass at table

Blend together the egg yolks, cheese, bread crumbs, nutmeg, salt, and lemon zest until they form a firm mixture.

Place the broth in a large saucepan and bring to a simmer. You may either whisk in the mixture, stirring to break it up well, or pass it through a ricer directly into the broth. Simmer 3 minutes.

Serve immediately with extra grated cheese.

Sidebar Elements

Susan Lovell and her husband John, a great cook, live near Pat’s Meat Market & Cafe in Portland, with a hungry Maine coon cat and a poodle who eats cat food. An eighth-generation Mainer, she likes shellfish, steak, baked beans, cole slaw, corn bread, blueberry pie and Moxie. Her great great-grandfather, from Wellfleet, Mass., and his cousin founded Boston’s Union Oyster House and she really likes oysters and Guinness. And Boston cream pie.