Halloween: Swamp Soup with Mud Balls
OK, it’s not really swamp, and it’s not really mud; it’s chicken escarole soup with mini meatballs. As kids growing up in an Italian family, we dubbed it “Swamp Soup” because the long pieces of wilted escarole looked like they came from a sci-fi swamp creature B-movie. I also thought my older cousin, Michael, was super cool, and since he came up with the name, I ate the soup. How’s that for peer group influence.
A soup by any other name:
You may also recognize the recipe as “Italian Wedding Soup.” Despite the number of misinformed American brides (and caterers) who select this as an appropriate wedding menu course, Italians don’t eat this soup on their wedding day. The name is actually a mistranslation of the Southern Italian phrase “minestra maritata,” which literally means “soup marriage.”
In the case of Italian Wedding Soup, it means “marriage of flavors” – quite fitting for a soup that gets better and better the longer it’s in the pot, allowing the flavors to mingle and get to know each other intimately.
From weddings to Halloween:
Kids will gobble up Swamp Soup because of the name — who doesn’t love mud balls and swamp-things on Halloween. Moms will love the recipe because of the wholesome, good stuff packed into this soup; breadcrumbs from scratch, without preservatives and high fructose corn syrup; leafy, tender escarole, full of antioxidants; and lots of garlic to ward off the neighborhood goblins and vampires.
The mud balls can be made several days ahead, and kept in the fridge for up to two days, or in the freezer for one month before serving.
Swamp Soup with Mud Balls
Yields: 6 servings, or 4 with leftovers
Allergy info: soy-free; contains wheat, gluten, dairy, eggs
Fancy equipment: food processor
For the mud balls:
3 pieces Italian or sour dough bread
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 cup yellow onion, minced
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 pound lean ground beef
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon fresh minced parsley
1 tablespoon cream or whole milk
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Oil for searing the mud balls
For the swamp:
4 slices thick-cut bacon, finely chopped (1/4-inch pieces)
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (1/4-inch pieces)
2 carrots, finely chopped (1/4” pieces)
1 head escarole, sliced into thin ribbons
3 garlic cloves, crushed
Pinch red pepper flakes
4 cups (32-ounces) chicken stock
1 hard-cooked egg, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
Make the breadcrumbs:
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse bread slices until a fine crumb is produced. In a medium skillet, heat oil over medium, add oregano, onion, salt and pepper; sauté until onions soften, about 1 minute. Add breadcrumbs and garlic; cook until bread begins to toast in the pan, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
Make the mud balls:
Season ground beef with salt and pepper. In a large bowl, add seasoned ground beef, egg, parsley, cream and breadcrumbs. Mix with hands until well combined. Form into 1/2-inch meatballs (mud balls) and place on a tray or plate. Chill in refrigerator for 10 minutes to firm up.
In the pot being used to make the soup, heat enough oil to just cover the bottom of the pan over medium-high heat. Remove meat balls from the fridge and place a single layer in the hot oil. Swirl the pan to prevent the meatballs from sticking. Brown the meatballs on all sides, remove from pan and set aside. Repeat until all meatballs have been browned.
Make the swamp:
Drain meatball oil from pan, keeping any brown bits. Add bacon and render fat. Remove bacon when crisp and set aside. Add onions and carrots; sauté for 2 minutes. Add escarole; sauté until wilted. Add garlic and red pepper flakes; stir to incorporate and add chicken stock. Add meatballs to the pot, cover and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.
Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Serve in clear cups or bowls with chopped hard-cooked egg and crumbled bacon.