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The Food Lab: Escarole and Parmesan Soup With Chicken Meatballs

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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"You're actually going to let me get near the stove?"

My wife claims that I'm a control freak in the kitchen. She's wrong. In fact, I'm totally willing to let her make dinner, and I offer a wide berth of latitude when it comes to how she does it. My wife gets to select her own knife from my "knives I'm probably never going to use again" drawer (oh, except for that one. Sorry, I just sharpened it.), and to choose what direction she stirs the pot in (just remember to scrape off those onions clinging to the edges, please). I'm even generous enough to let her specify which shoulder she'd prefer me to hover over while she does it. Now does that sound domineering to you?

Ok, fine. Perhaps I'm a bit commanding in the kitchen.

This weekend I decided to start making a more conscious effort to make our cooking more of a couples affair, to actually come up with tasks other than "can you pick these herbs (that I probably won't even use for this meal)?" when my wife asks me if she can help with anything.

I'm proud to say that my wife made a batch of this Escarole Soup with Chicken Meatballs 100% by herself with very minimal shoulder-hovering, which may seem like a big accomplishment to her, but is an even bigger accomplishment for my renewed efforts at self-control.

This soup is the more true-to-the-original version of Marco Canora's escarole soup, which we talked about a bit a couple months back, and for which I provided a vegetarian version. There, we relied on umami-enhancing tricks like tomato paste and soy sauce. This time around, we get plenty of flavor from just vegetables and chicken stock.

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Like many good soups and stews, this one starts out with mirepoix, a chopped mixture of onions, carrots, and celery (ok, I helped her with the chopping). In this case, we also sauté some chopped escarole, which becomes nice and sweet as it slowly sweats in olive oil. Some garlic also makes it into the mix.

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Next up: chicken stock, bay leaves, and a Parmesan rind for both body and flavor. ("So that's how you make soup awesome," said my wife. She's right.) Homemade chicken broth is best, but low-sodium store-bought stuff will work just fine. You're adding plenty of flavor here to punch it up.

Now comes the fun part: the meatballs.

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When you make the big ol' meatballs you'd expect in a pile of spaghetti or as an appetizer in Little Italy, you need to add plenty of binders—breadcrumbs, eggs, and the like—to ensure that they stay tender as they simmer past well-done in a big pot of sauce. With the tiny chicken meatballs we're going to make, binder is necessary too, but because they're so small, we want to make sure that they're packed with flavor.

Rather than a mixture of breadcrumbs and cheese, we're going 100% parmesan here, along with a single egg to help aerate the mix as it cooks. I use a ratio of four parts chicken breast to one part finely grated Parmesan.

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The rest of the flavorings are simple: salt, pepper, and a bit of freshly grated nutmeg.

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I was going to recommend that my wife mix with her left hand and hold the bowl with her right like I would have, but I wisely held my tongue.

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Did I say the fun part was mixing up the stuff? I lied. The fun part is pureeing it all in the food processor into chicken mush. When it looks like it'd be at home inside a hot dog, you're there. It takes about 30 seconds.

As with any time you make a forcemeat (that's fancy cook-talk for when you grind meat up into a paste), it's vital that your mixture be cold throughout the process to make sure that the fat doesn't break out when you cook it. So long as your chicken breast came from the fridge, you should be totally fine.

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I used to make my tiny meatballs by hand, but Chef Canora showed me a much funner way (man, this recipe is fun, isn't it?): Just pipe them out of a bag and cut them off with the tip of a paring knife directly into the pot of simmering soup.

And fine, I helped my wife at this stage by piping while she cut.

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The meatballs cook through in a matter of moments and end up with a nice bouncy, juicy texture while adding a bit of flavor to the broth themselves.

With a hearty Parmesan-scented broth, plenty of awesomely flavorful vegetables, and juicy meatballs, here's one more thing that I definitely let my wife do alone: Eat.*

*Jesus, that was a terrible quip, wasn't it?

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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