Escarole & White Bean Soup with Rustic Croutons

This is my variation on a classic Italian soup that traditionally has more escarole and beans than broth. Escarole is one of the easiest greens to prepare since you don't need to stem it; just slice the whole head across into ribbons before washing.

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  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion (6 ounces), diced
  • 2 ounces very thinly sliced pancetta, diced (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 medium to large head escarole (about 14 ounces), trimmed of outer leaves, 2 inches of root end cut off, leaves sliced across into 3/4-inch wide strips (to yield about 9 to 10 cups), thoroughly washed
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups low-salt chicken stock (canned is fine, but don't use low-fat varieties, which I find have an off flavor)
  • 1 cup cooked cannellini, navy beans, or other white beans (I use canned--Goya brand--drained)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup grated
  • 2 cups Rustic Croutons (see below)
Heat the olive oil in a 4-quart low-sided soup pot or Dutch oven over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onion and pancetta and saute until the onion is softened and both are browned, about 12 minutes. Add the garlic, stir, and saute until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the escarole and stir thoroughly to coat the leaves (and to deglaze the pan slightly with their moisture). Season with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Add the stock, stir well, and bring to a boil; cover the pot, lower to a simmer, and cook 8 to 10 minutes. Uncover the pot, add the beans, and simmer another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the lemon juice and turn off the heat. Ladle the soup into four shallow soup bowls and top each with 1 tablespoon of the cheese and a quarter of the croutons.
Heat 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 cups (lightly packed) 3/4-inch cubes of bread, cut from a good, airy, crusty loaf like ciabatta. Stir to coat the cubes with the oil, season with salt, and saute, stirring constantly, until crisp and browned on most sides, 2 to 4 minutes.
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