Escarole, Cinderella Of The Chicories

As plants go, the chicories are a confusing family. There's "common chicory," the roadside weed and cheap substitute for coffee. There's "true endive," which includes frisee and escarole. There's "leaf chicory," which includes radicchio, and, just to make things extra screwy, Belgian endive, which we sometimes just call "endive."

Whatever you call them, there's one thing all the chicories have in common, and that is their bitterness. The most aggressive is frisee, which when young and pale lends a pleasant "bite" to your salad mix. But let it grow too long into its frilled, dressy adulthood, and it becomes bad-tempered and formidable, like a vegetable Miss Havisham. You might as well stuff your mouth with dandelions. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

About The Author

T. Susan Chang regularly reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe and NPR.org and the cookbook indexing website Eat Your Books. Her first book, A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories from a Well-Tempered Table
(Lyons Press), was just released. For more information, visit her blog, Cookbooks for Dinner.

But on the other end of the spectrum is escarole, which you can find hiding unobtrusively and inexpensively in the supermarket produce section, where it is pretending to be a lettuce. Forever underestimated, escarole has all the virtues of its pretty, bitter stepsisters without the worst of their faults.

When you release it from its rubber band or twist tie and let the many-layered petticoat of leaves fall open, revealing a heart of spring green and snowy white, escarole is drop-dead gorgeous. Its leaves are swooping, smooth and graduated in color, with none of the spiky, toothy edges that serve to warn you when a plant bites back. Like the thick, curved leaves of the Belgian endive, escarole leaves are sturdy enough not to fall apart like wilted lettuce under heat, so you can saute or simmer or braise them and still be rewarded with a tender crunch, or at least a kind of yielding heft.

And its taste? Escarole is loaded with secret sugars that emerge when it's cooked (it's a little like an onion that way). While raw escarole has a springy, vegetal quality, a bit like a mild romaine, with heat it seems to mellow and ripen in flavor, growing, like Cinderella, only the sweeter for its ordeal.

Although perhaps the most familiar use of escarole is in the rustic white bean soup of Tuscany, where its meltingly tender final self merges with a bit of pecorino or Parmigiano, you can also braise it on its own or with a scattering of golden raisins (as you might with Swiss chard). In its crisp, unaltered form, it stands up to hearty ingredients in a salad. And you can even roast it under high heat and mix it into pasta.

To be truthful, I don't actually mind a little bitterness. The first chicory I ever tasted was a Belgian endive. My mother handed me a leaf and said, "Try it," in the carefully neutral voice I now know meant she expected me to hate it. I nibbled a little, and then promptly winced and fled. But five minutes later I was back. It was a dangerous taste, yet one I could control. For a while, it became a habitual snack — one raw leaf of Belgian endive, nibbled with excruciating slowness.

Indeed, for all the sweet and subtle charms of escarole, you too may find yourself occasionally craving the hard stuff. Don't worry. Dandelion season is around the corner.

White Bean And Escarole Soup

The original recipe from Cucina del Sole by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (Morrow 2007) includes grape or cherry tomatoes, sweated with the aromatics and added at the end. (Cucina del Sole is a southern Italian book, but perhaps it was the tomatoes that qualified this rather northern Italian soup to be included.) I use them when I can get nice ones in the summer. But when none are to be had, I simply skip them, for the recipe is delicious enough just as it is.

 White Bean And Escarole Soup i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
 White Bean And Escarole Soup
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 servings

1 cup dried white beans (cannellini, or Great Northern if no cannellini are available), soaked for 6 hours or overnight

1 large bunch escarole (about 1 pound)

1 or 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1 crisp green celery stalk, coarsely chopped

5 or 6 flat-leaf parsley sprigs, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

12 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

1 dried red chili (optional)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toasted slices of bread

Drain the beans, put them in a saucepan, and add fresh water to cover by about 1 inch. Bring to a simmer over low heat, cover, and cook for 40 to 60 minutes, or until the beans are tender. Drain the beans, reserving the bean liquid. Measure the bean liquid and add enough water to make 2 1/2 cups.

Rinse and core the escarole. Chop the leaves into pieces about 1 inch long. Add them to the saucepan in which you cooked the beans, cover the pan and cook the escarole over gentle heat in just the water clinging to its leaves until it is tender. Be careful not to let it scorch, adding a little boiling water to the pan if it starts to burn. When it is tender, set it aside with any liquid remaining in the pan.

Chop together the garlic, celery, and parsley to make about 1/2 cup finely minced aromatics. In a small skillet, cook the aromatics gently in the olive oil for about 10 minutes or until they give off fragrance but are not brown. Stir in the halved tomatoes and continue cooking until the tomatoes have shriveled somewhat and given off lots of juice.

Add the vegetable mixture to the escarole in the saucepan and set over medium-low heat. Break up the chili and add it, then stir in the beans plus the bean juice and water. Bring to a simmer, and season with sea salt and pepper. Let all the ingredients simmer together very gently while you toast the bread.

To serve, place a toasted bread slice in the bottom of each soup plate, then spoon the hot soup over. Pass a bottle of good olive oil at the table so diners can dribble on their own.

A small bowl of grated pecorino or caciocavallo cheese, passed at the table, would be welcome with this.

Sauteed Shrimp, Potato And Escarole Salad

I found this delicious and astonishingly simple salad in The Essential Jacques Pepin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011). The dressing on the potatoes and the butter from the shrimp rub shoulders with the escarole, which gets along with both, then the tarragon makes the whole thing sing. I've increased the potatoes a bit, as they're so good. It is meant to be a room-temperature salad, but it's good warm, too.

 Sauteed Shrimp, Potato And Escarole Salad i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
 Sauteed Shrimp, Potato And Escarole Salad
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 first-course servings

16 ounces small Yukon Gold potatoes, washed

1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic (2 cloves)

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 pound large shrimp (16 to 20), shelled and cut in halves or thirds crosswise

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley

1/2 head escarole (8 ounces), as white as possible inside, trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces, washed, and dried (about 4 cups)

Place the potatoes in a saucepan with enough water to cover them by 1 inch, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and boil the potatoes gently for 25 to 35 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with the point of a sharp knife. Drain and cool slightly.

When the potatoes are lukewarm, peel them and cut them into 1-inch cubes. Put them in a bowl, add the garlic, mustard, 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper, vinegar and olive oil and toss well. Set the potatoes aside to cool to room temperature.

At serving time, heat the butter in a large skillet. When it is hot but not smoking, add the shrimp and 1/8 teaspoon each salt and pepper and saute the shrimp for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Stir in the tarragon and parsley.

Add the escarole to the potato salad and mix well. Divide the mixture among four salad plates, sprinkle the shrimp on top, and serve.

Sweet Roasted Butternut Squash And Escarole Over Bow-Tie Pasta

This pasta comes from one of my favorite all-time cookbooks, Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift's The Splendid Table's How To Eat Supper (Potter 2008). The squash and escarole offer lively contrast in flavor, texture and color, and both are set off by the cheese. It was also my first experience roasting greens at a high temperature, and I haven't looked back since.

 Sweet Roasted Butternut Squash And Escarole Over Bow-Tie Pasta i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
 Sweet Roasted Butternut Squash And Escarole Over Bow-Tie Pasta
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 4 servings

5 quarts salted water in a 6-quart pot

2 1/2 to 3 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1 medium to large onion, cut into 1-inch chunks

3 big handfuls escarole, washed, dried and torn into small pieces

1/3 tight-packed cup fresh basil leaves, torn

16 large fresh sage leaves, torn

5 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 tight-packed tablespoon brown sugar (light or dark)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 pound bow tie pasta (farfalle)

1/2 cup half-and-half or heavy cream

1 to 1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) shredded Asiago cheese

Slip one large or two smaller shallow sheet pans into the oven. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Bring the salted water to a boil.

In a big bowl, toss together all the ingredients for the roasted vegetables: squash, onion, escarole, garlic, basil, sage, brown sugar, red pepper flakes and oil. Be generous with the salt and pepper.

Pull out the oven rack holding the sheet pan. Taking care not to burn yourself, turn the squash blend onto the hot sheet pan and spread it out. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the squash is tender, turning the vegetables two or three times during roasting.

As the squash becomes tender, drop the pasta into the boiling water and cook it until tender, but with some firmness to the bite. Drain in a colander.

Once the squash is tender, turn on the broiler to caramelize it. Watch the vegetables closely, turning the pieces often. Anticipate about 5 minutes under the broiler. You want crusty brown edges on the squash, and wilted, almost crisp greens.

Scrape everything into a serving bowl. Add the half-and-half, hot pasta and 1 cup of the cheese. Toss to blend, tasting for salt and pepper. Add more cheese if desired. Serve hot.

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