I awoke with thoughts of escarole in my mind.
Or, more precisely, Escarole in Brodo, a simple Italian soup made from chicken stock and escarole, which I had eaten many times decades earlier at a white tablecloth Italian restaurant my wife and I used to frequent before we were married. This would have been in the late 1980s, back when we resided in the no man’s land of decrepit roach-filled apartment buildings that stretched between the Rosslyn and Court House sections of Arlington, VA. Rent was gloriously cheap, but the money we should have saved went mostly to the restaurants and nightclubs. Northern Italian cuisine was beginning to overtake metropolitan Washington’s restaurant scene. Once or twice a week, we dined at Bella Vista, an expansive restaurant with towering glass windows that overlooked the Potomac and offered spectacular night views of the Kennedy Center. Alison and I talked for hours, usually over a bottle of rich Barolo or, occasionally, a rich, pricey Brunello di Montalcino. We ate Insalata Caprese, risottos dishes, Osso Buco, Zuppa del Fruiti di Mare, and the restaurant’s signature entrée: Braised Beef in Barolo Sauce with Porcini Mushrooms and then, after the table was cleared, we’d split a plate of tiramisu and sip snifters of Strega.
We’d wobble out of the restaurant, satiated and leaning on each others’ shoulders. If we were up to it, we’d walk the ten or so blocks home, but otherwise we hailed taxicabs back to the apartment we shared in the basement of a non-descript 1940s-era brick building. An evening that began comfortably with a bowl of Escarole in Brodo would end equally comfortably, my wife-to-be and I snuggling together in a twin-sized bed.
Earlier in the week, with the aim of making an insanely simple yet filling soup to feed our family of five, I noticed the local market had a deal on 14-oz bags of frozen Armour Italian Meatballs—two bags for $4.99. Lacking steady employment in the years after quitting my good-paying DC job to pursue my MFA, price considerations are my most important factor when preparing meals. A card table in our makeshift pantry (i.e., the garage) overflows with dented canned goods picked up on the cheap. We must have a dozen cans of generic condensed chicken noodle soup. My idea had been to dump one bag of frozen meatballs into a pot with at least four cans of soup and stir in a bag of frozen spinach. Spinach is a dollar a bag, and each can of soup probably cost 20-35¢. Even counting a slice of bread per person, and a side dish of canned green beans, the meal would cost less than six dollars. Not bad, for a family of five. And, better yet, it was a dish so stress-free to prepare that it probably didn’t even count as cooking—no small consideration given that I’d probably be preparing it while simultaneously helping one or more of my children with their homework; within fifteen minutes of opening the first can, I could ladle the warm soup into bowls.
I started to imagine how the soup would taste with escarole instead of the spinach. Although it’s related to the endive, visually, with its greener, broader, curlier leaves, escarole is an emaciated cross between romaine and Boston lettuce. It tastes slightly bitter, but pleasantly so, and unlike many other greens, it holds up reasonably well when cooked. I imagined other small tweaks—fennel, shallots, refinement—and, before I knew it, I was planning a soup that aspired to be more than the just drab sustenance I dish out nowadays.
Four heads of escarole were on offer in my local market’s produce aisle. Fresh—leafy, crisp, fragrant—yet they were small and priced at $1.99 per head. If budget was not a consideration, I would have bought two of those heads to replace the pound bag of spinach I was going to stir into the soup. Instead, I weighed out each of the escaroles on the produce department scale and selected the largest. And then, for 36¢, I bought a shallot which, owing to its sweeter and milder flavor, I used to prefer to onions when cooking.
At home, I finely diced half the shallot, and then coarsely chopped three garlic cloves. Fennel seeds, which taste like licorice, have lately become my favorite seasoning. It’s one of those counter-intuitive things, but I’m convinced they add a touch of distinction to just about any dreck that passes over my stove. To bring out their flavor and aroma, I crushed about ¼ tsp of them under the heel of a broad knife. While sautéing these ingredients in a butter/oil mixture, I cut off the escarole’s core and cut the leaves crosswise into 1” wide strips. It felt good to be cooking something that had, at least in my dreams, the potential to be good. When the shallots and garlic were sautéed to a light golden hue, I added four cans of the canned chicken noodle soup into the pot with them. A few nights earlier, Alison, my wife, boiled frozen chicken breasts for dinner and, as is her habit, she refrigerated the resulting broth for later use. I poured that broth into the soup, using it instead of the water that the directions on the condensed soup cans advised. After dumping in the meatballs, I stirred in the escarole and let everything simmer for about thirty minutes.
The kitchen filled with adelightful aroma.
“What’s that?” Ellie, my fifth-grader, asked, lifting her head from the math worksheet she brought home from school. Her class was learning long division with decimals and I had been pleasantly surprised at how quickly she mastered the material. Sometimes, math can be excruciatingly difficult for her, but here she was, sailing through the problems in a room where the aroma of garlic and fennel and escarole swirled around her.
“It’s peace and comfort, Ellie. That’s what it is,” I said, nodding toward the pot.
Aromas can be more tantalizing than the actual taste of the finished dish. I ladled the soup into bowls, garnishing each with strips of escarole I withheld from cooking. As I set the bowls onto the table, I sensed raised eyebrows around me. Garnishing the soup announced my froufrou intentions, something my two high school-aged boys would be apt to josh me about; but, mercifully, they dipped their spoons into the soup, brought those spoons to their lips with the anticipation that they were about to taste something truly exceptional.
“So how is it?” I asked.
Sebastian, fourteen-years-old and by far the most diplomatic of my three children, glanced across the table at his siblings, who clearly were not enamored with the soup. “It’s not that bad, but I have to pretend I hate it, you know, for group solidarity.”
Pride being pride, I’d like to say that my kids were wrong. I’d like to say my soup was as delicious as the fantastic Escarole en Brodo I sipped years ago at a fine white-cloth Italian restaurant.
What I can say:
We recorded no cases of food borne illnesses that evening, no bouts of diarrhea or e coli poisoning, no panicked need to rush feverish and/or vomiting children to the emergency room, so certainly the soup was edible.
But was it good?
The escarole was good. I enjoyed it. Sipping the fennel-laced broth and tasting the escarole evoked memories of that long-ago Escarole en Brodo but, frankly, my bastardized soup recipe was no match for the real thing. The meatballs, heavy with some artificial-tasting grilled flavor, were a mistake. Though it would have driven up the cost, I should have used sweet Italian sausage instead. And perhaps a little more fennel and garlic. The shallot that my imagination led me to believe would nudge the soup to a level of brilliance, was all but invisible in the end product, meaning I could have saved 39¢.
As crazy as it now seems, there must have been a reason my younger self repeatedly splurged on fine dining and fine cooking. I ate as if eating mattered. On some psychological level, maybe I ate well to fill the emptiness I felt in other facets of my life. But that couldn’t be true: Alison and I were young lovers caught up in a whirlwind romance, and what could be more fulfilling than that?
Later that night, after the kids were asleep, I asked Alison what she remembered most about Bella Vista.
“The food. The windows,” she responded, meaning the gorgeous views they offered of our nation’s capital. We’d reach across the white-clothed tables and hold hands while we talked and stared out across the river. Lit up at night, The Kennedy Center’s Italian white marble positively glowed. Shalimar was Alison’s favorite perfume and now, thinking back on it, I recall that scent more fondly than anything we would have eaten on those nights.
Despite the quality of its cuisine, Bella Vista never quite gained a foothold in the super-competitive DC-area restaurant scene. Situated on a mid-level floor in the Gannett Building, where USA Today was headquartered, it was off the beaten track with precious little street-level signage to call attention to itself. One of Nancy Reagan’s favorite restaurants had been situated in the same space just a few years prior, yet on many nights we were the restaurant’s only customers. I always imagined the restaurant stayed afloat solely on the strength of its lunchtime trade because, business-wise, they must have lost a fortune at night. Bella Vista was not a small, cozy restaurant but a vast, tiered space of many tables and, in the back, enormous circular leather-upholstered booths where, perhaps USA Today editors held small conferences with their staff while they lunched. At times, the silence in this vast space and the absence of other patrons could be overwhelming. Had not we been young lovers, we might have found the atmosphere disconsolate; instead, we reveled in the catered, pampered privacy. It was enthralling; as if the entire restaurant existed solely for our benefit.
“That’s it? Do you remember anything else about Bella Vista?” I asked Alison as she changed into her pajamas for the night. We had brushed our teeth, set the alarm clock to wake us up the next morning. She shook her head, leading me to wonder if the restaurant had just been a sumptuous dream of mine, but then we slipped under the covers and, like all those long ago nights that began with a bowl of Escarole en Brodo, the night ended comfortably with us in bed, cuddling.