One of the oldest nicknames for the people of Campania was mangiafoglie, or ‘leaf eaters’, because they were known for their prodigious consumption of leafy green vegetables. It was probably a matter of necessity as much as preference back in the day. Wander around just about any open piece of land in Italy and you’ll find wild greens of all sorts, yours for the picking free of charge. Today, most people no longer need to forage for their food, but the habit of eating leafy green vegetables has stuck.
Angelina was no exception to the rule. She loved her green vegetables and, although she was not exactly a vegetarian, no meal was complete without a salad or some sautéed or braised vegetables to round things out. The two Ur vegetables of Angelina’s cookery were cicoria, or chicory, and scarola, or escarole.
This dish is another version of the basic ripassata technique. Here, however, you can enrich the basic dish with two different variations. You can add olives, anchovies and capers, or pinoli nuts and raisins, both classic combinations in Italian cooking. Some people even add both combinations, but that, to me, is really gilding the lily.
Ingredients (serves 4 people as a contorno, or side dish)
2 heads of escarole, well washed
2-3 cloves of garlic, slightly crushed
Salt and pepper
A handful of capers, well washed and squeezed
A handful of black olives
4 anchovy fillets
A handful of pinoli nuts
A handful of raisins, soaked until soft and drained
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt and add the escarole, which you will have cut at the root to separate the leaves. Let the escarole boil for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, fry the garlic gently in a generous amount of olive oil. Remove the garlic when it has just slightly browned. (Or you can leave it in, if you’re cooking for family and feeling a little lazy.) Turn off the heat. (This will let the oil cool down a bit, so it doesn’t splatter all over the place when you add the wet greens in the next step.)
Transfer the escarole from the pot to the sauté pan with a pair of tongs. Let the escarole drain before you add it to the pan, but letting some water still cling to the leaves.
Turn the heat back on, stir the escarole so it is well coated with the oil, and season with salt and pepper. (Go easy on the salt if you’re using the first optional ingredients, as they are also quite salty.) Cover the pan and let it simmer for 5 minutes.
If using the optional ingredients, add them to the pan, mix them into the escarole, and re-cover the pan. Let the escarole simmer for another 5 minutes. Uncover the pan and check on the escarole. It should be very tender and flavorful. If it’s still a bit tough, let it simmer another few minutes. If it lacks for seasoning, add a bit more salt and pepper. If the vegetables are too watery for your taste, turn up the heat and boil off the excess liquid.
NOTES: Most escarole you find in supermarkets these days (in the US anyway) comes pre-washed. But if not, be sure to wash your escarole very well, in several changes of water. It tends to contain quite a bit of grit between the leaves.
Most traditional recipes will tell you to simmer the escarole in the oil for a good half hour, if not more. And that’s advisable if you’re using wild greens, which tend to be tougher. But if you’re using modern supermarket escarole, the much shorter cooking times given here should work fine, but do check before you stop cooking. For this dish, the escarole should be perfectly tender, not at all crisp.
In some recipes, the olives, capers and anchovies are added to the oil at the beginning. This allows the anchovies to melt into the oil and the other flavorings to infuse the oil. Personally, I like to hold these back, which allows the ingredients to retain some of their individuality and, to my mind, makes for a more interesting dish.
Besides the different flavorings, there are some variations in technique. Most recipes tell you to add the escarole directly to the garlic-infused oil raw, without the initial blanching. Personally, I prefer to blanch the greens first. This helps the escarole to stay a bright green; otherwise they tend to turn a rather drab, olive green. I also like the ‘wet’ quality it gives to the dish. Angelina cooked all her greens this way, leaving lots of ‘pot liquor’ to soak up with bread. In fact, her greens were practically soups. The more typical technique these days is to serve greens quite dry. Even when they are blanched, recipes will tell you to squeeze them dry before adding them to the oil. Not sure what accounts for the difference here—a change in tastes? The dry technique is better when serving the dish as a contorno, as the greens don’t ‘leak’ on to the main course. On the other hand, if you want to serve the greens on their own, with bread to soak up the juices, then lots of pot liquor is what you’ll want.
By the way, the heart of escarole—the tender, white leaves at the core of each bunch—make a great salad, either on their own, or mixed with other greens. In fact, mixed escarole and chicory hearts are my favorite winter salad. The green outer leaves can then used in dishes like this one, or perhaps in a nice soup.