Escarole has always been a mystery to me. Not that we didn’t eat it when I was growing up, but as far as I could tell, no one else ever did in the bland suburbs I grew up in north of New York City.
What was mysterious about it was that while my mother seemed to be the only one who ever bought it, there were always stacks of the stuff in the produce case. At a time in our food history when flat parsley was considered exotic (though little bunches of the tasteless curly variety were always plentiful, no doubt used primarily for “garnish”), escarole was plentiful. Who else was buying it? There wasn’t another Italian family in our neighborhood, and all the cooking smells that wafted through the hallways of our apartment complex suggested pot roasts, beefsteak, TV dinners, and canned soup. It was the 1950s. No escarole to be sure, except in our kitchen.
The mystery presented itself even after I left the family nest and moved to various American towns before finally settling in New York City: The markets never lacked for escarole, even if there didn’t seem to be much in the way of real Italian cooking going in my neighborhoods.
Just who was buying those heads of bright green, broad-leaf chicory (species Cichorium endivia) besides me? Or were all the produce managers Italian, and conspiring to stock their beloved “scarola” for their wives to make scarola ripassata, scarola e fagioli and such, like my mother did?
I never have solved the case. If supermarkets today are selling everything from arborio rice to D.O.P. plum tomatoes to cime di rape (under their new Anglicized name, “broccoli robb” aka “rapini”) foods that were once unheard of by most people, the piles of escarole in the produce section remain untouched. Thinking about this recently, it occurred to me that I ought to offer a good recipe for it and maybe get some sales going.
Beloved Green of Naples
Probably no one loves escarole more than the Neapolitans, nor does anyone make it taste as good. Besides the aforementioned dishes, they especially like to sauté it, first parboiled, in good olive oil and garlic with anchovy or olives. This is eaten as a vegetable side dish or stuffed into calzoni (“pants”), or spread over pizza dough before baking.
Most famously (popularized by Progresso), they make escarole soup. My favorite variation on the theme is to make a rich broth with it using the carcass of turkey the way my mother did, an event presenting itself only once a year, on the day after Thanksgiving. Call it American-Italian fusion—turkey soup with a faint hint of the sage and celery dressing, topped with sizzling olive oil croutons and shavings of parmigiano. We loved it so much that we forewent excavating every morsel of stuffing from the crannies of the cavity and saved the wings and even the drumsticks for the soup pot. The aim was to make soup with a walloping flavor the next day.
But you can make a gorgeous escarole soup with any tasty stock, whether turkey, chicken, veal, or a combination, no matter what time of year. The escarole is transformed from bitter to sweet once it is boiled in the broth, producing a very pleasant soup that even American children, with their suspicion of anything green, will love. Here is my basic recipe.
Escarole Soup with Sizzling Olive Oil Croutons
For 4 people
What is most important is to start out with a flavorful, full-bodied broth as the foundation for the soup.
Note: I use extra-virgin olive oil for everything from frying to sautéing to finishing for its delicious flavor and goodness. Alternatively, substitute a combination of good olive oil and seed oil such as safflower or grape seed oil. So-called “pure” olive oil is not, in fact, olive oil but a blend of other oils with a very small percentage of extra-virgin olive oil added.
•6 cups tasty chicken or meat stock
•half head (3/4 pound) escarole
•about 1-1/2 cups diced dense bread without crust
•olive oil for frying (see note, above)
•sea salt and freshly milled black pepper
•about 1/2 cup freshly shaved or shredded parmigiano-reggiano DOP or grana padano cheese
1. Remove and discard any wilted outer leaves of the escarole. Cut off the tough bottom and trim off any brown spots. Wash it well to remove any sand trapped in the leaves. Cut into ribbons approximately ½-inch by 2 inches. Set aside.
2. In an ample soup pot, bring the broth to a simmer.
3. In the meantime, heat enough of the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet to reach about 1/2-inch up the sides of a frying pan. Fry the bread cubes until they are crisp and golden on both sides. Use a mesh spoon to transfer the croutons onto paper towels and set aside them aside in a warm place.
4. When the broth boils, immediately stir in the shredded escarole. Reduce the heat and cook for 2 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into serving bowls, top with the croutons and the shaved or shredded cheese.
Julia della Croce is a print & broadcast journalist and James Beard award-winning cookbook author, cooking teacher, culinary consultant & recipe developer. You can visit her on her website, www.juliadellacroce.com and blog, http://juliadellacroce.com/forktales1/ Connect on Facebook: Julia della Croce – chef & foodwriter Twitter: @juliadella croce, Instagram: juliadellacroce