Escarole Soup (shkah-roll) was a staple of the Italian American Kitchen. Pork and greens: a traditional combination that recalls one of the most fundamental farm style meals, offers an autumn to spring, sweet and substantial dish that everyone loves. The duo is combined in country kitchens from the hill towns of Italy to the farms of the American South. Of course, while the use of pork with greens is the common theme, there are variations on the parts of the pork and on the type of greens. In this country, ham hocks are used with collards. In Portugal, a soup called “caldo verde,” blends kale with Portuguese pork sausage. In Italy, there is the wonderful “scarola e fagioli,” (escarole and beans.) Now, with this Italian version, beans have entered the pot and the dish begins to lose its soup aspect. Actually, the same is true in America, where black eyed peas or other beans may be added to the greens. Here too, you find recipes that go from a true soup to versions where the broth is all but cooked away.
The foundation of this recipe is the pork. It virtually all of the recipes for this dish, the pork is either smoked or in the form of sausage. For the European peasant or the American share cropper, the pig was usually slaughtered as soon as the weather became cold but before it was freezing. The best parts of the pig went to the land owner or were sold for income. All the other parts were smoked or cured or turned into sausages. These remainders became the stock for any number of home-style recipes.
The greens used with the pork vary from country to country. In America you will certainly find collards as the staple green. In Portugal, while collards show up in other preparations, for the soup, they tend to use kale. In Italy, I would say that the most common green is escarole. (I don’t know that the Italians use collards at all.) When we were kids we called escarole “skah –roll.” The proper Italian is “scarola.”
But just what is that green leafy vegetable? What was it that we were served as children? What is available today? Frankly, I don’t know. Go to a grocery store, go to the farmer’s market, go to a garden seed catalogue. Check American Google and Google Italy (www.google.it) . You will find several leafy greens which resemble each other but that are all quite different.
ow, let me set out my version. For the soup that follows, I worked on combining American, Italian and Portuguese recipes. I also wanted to add a starch to give the soup a bit more sustenance. But, I didn’t want to go the route of beans. So, I used potatoes, an ingredient found in several Portuguese versions. In the cooking some of the potatoes hold their shape but others break down to render a creamy texture to the soup. I also compromised the use of garlic and onions found in many European recipes with leeks. After all, as the French know so well, leeks and potatoes are a perfect pairing. To flavor the soup, I decided on using the Italian and the American use of smoked pork to make the stock: in this case a smoked pork shank. My other addition, taken from the European tradition was to add a whipped egg just before serving.
The problem with this recipe is that the ingredients require distinct levels of cooking. Many home recipes do not take the variations into consideration. If you are using smoked pork, the pork needs hours to be edible. The greens, however, are ready in a matter of seconds. Many versions of pork and greens that I have seen and tasted tend to put everything in the pot at the same time. What happens is that the pork is often tough and inedible and the greens are no longer green but a very unappealing gray. This recipe adds each ingredient to the pot based on its required cooking time. The preparation of this soup is very easy. But, it requires quite some time and attention to see it through to completion. When it’s done, the first spoonful will tell you that it was worth it.
What you need
Getting it together: the Mise-en-place
The pork has simmered for about and hour to ninety minutes.
Let the pork, leeks, tomatoes and potatoes simmer for 30 minutes.