I was shopping the other day and two things happened: I saw an old friend and I bought a head of escarole.
I’d like to tell the story of my relationship to the second encounter, escarole, an underdog vegetable. The story begins in West Chester County, New York, where I had my first job after college. I was working at the historic Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, NY. I arrived in March of 1974, and met a man named Joseph Dellaporta who worked in the shop. His nickname was Moe, and I asked him how he got the nickname. I couldn’t understand a word he said and he couldn’t understand a word I said, he would say, “Damn boy, you got a southern accent! I can’t understand a word you say.” I asked another guy who was working in the shop, whom I could understand, how a man named Joseph could come to be called Moe. It turns out that there was an Irish Club President who had decided that there were too many Italians working at the Club. When he inquired about what the guy’s name was who worked in the back of the shop, my boss quickly declared that he was called Moe Mahoney, and the name stuck. He was forever Moe from then on.
Don’t worry I’m going to get to the escarole soon.
Moe asked me if I had a place to live yet, and when I told him I did not, he sent me down to the Village to an Italian deli where the owner might know of Italian families who had rooms to rent, as they had in the past. I ended up moving into the Delitto home on the Hill, and one of the first meals they served me was Italian Sausage in White Beans and Escarole. I became a fan.
Ten years later when I was buying produce for Wellspring Grocery, I would often return from the farmer’s market with a case of escarole. I’d always take a head home, which would leave me with 11 left to sell, but I could never sell a single head, even when I posted a recipe for how to use it. I even created an ad campaign that we ran in the Independent, called Take a Stranger Home to Dinner, and escarole was featured in one of the ads. I still couldn’t sell any!
Escarole is a member of the Chicory family, and it has a hint of bitterness, which is partly what I love about it. It adds a complexity to a dish that can’t be replicated with something else. But Americans shun anything bitter. Although radicchio, maybe because it is purple and supposedly “Gourmet” (read my last post for my disdain about the word ‘gourmet’), seems to have taken a shaky hold. Maybe it’s the color, or the gourmet moniker, I don’t know which, but radicchio seems to have had some minor success here in the US.
I’ll list the ingredients down below, but I’ll tell you here what I did with the head of escarole the other day. I had some sausages from Chapel Hill Creamery I’d bought at the farmer’s market. I poked the sausages with a sharp knife to make numerous holes in both sides, and browned the sausages in some olive oil. This yielded some good pork fat, and while the sausages were browning, a couple minutes on each side, medium heat, I diced up one medium sized onion, and minced 3 cloves of garlic. I removed the sausages to a plate and added the onions and a pinch of crushed red chile flakes, and cooked for 5-10 minutes until they were golden and soft. I then added the garlic, constantly stirring, turning down the heat, so as not to burn. Meanwhile I thoroughly washed the escarole and cut it up across the rib. I tossed the cut up escarole (that still had a little water on the leaves) in with the onion and garlic, already in the pan. I added a little white wine and some chicken stock, put on the top and allowed the escarole to braise for 45-60 minutes, long enough for it to wilt nicely but not lose its integrity. It yielded additional liquids so I didn’t have to add any more. I then placed the sausages on top of the escarole and replaced the lid, and allowed the sausage to continue cooking through for twenty minutes.
In California, you can buy baby escarole, which is almost like a bib lettuce, very tender. And cutting-edge restaurants often serve baby escarole salads, usually with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette. The head of escarole I bought the other day definitely needed cooking. Yet, one of the more dynamic attributes of the vegetable is that the different layers of the head can be used for different purposes. As you peel into the head, the leaves go from dark green to light white, bitter to subtle, chewy to tender.
As you might imagine, the outer leaves harbor more flavor and can be used in cooked recipes, while the inner leaves may be served raw.
I would have liked to add a glass jar of White Beans, one of my favorite products that I developed at Whole Foods and imported from Spain, but sadly, they no longer are on the shelves.
Braised Escarole with Sausage
-a few of your favorite sausages
-1 head of escarole
-1 medium onion
-3 cloves garlic
-pinch of chile flakes
-1/2 cup chicken stock
-splash of white wine