The people of the Campania region and its capital Naples are great lovers of leafy green vegetables. Even before they became famous for pizza and pasta, Neapolitans were so enamored of their greens that other Italians would call them mangiafoglie, or “leaf eaters”. That love of leafy greens has come down to us in the vast array of traditional vegetable dishes, and here is one of my favorites, a Neapolitan classic little known on these shores, scarola imbottita al forno, or Stuffed and Baked Escarole.
The recipe is a variation on a familiar theme we’ve seen in other escarole dishes like scarola aglio e olio. In that dish, the escarole is sautéed in garlic then flavored with olives, capers and anchovies. What makes this dish different is the escarole is kept whole or, if very large, cut in two lengthwise. The flavorings, along with breadcrumbs for heft, go on the inside as a stuffing and, in this baked version, the escarole gets rolled up and heated through in the oven.
It’s a dish that’s both tasty and healthy, satisfying but not at all heavy. That makes scarola imbottita perfect for light post-holiday eating. Alas, it’s not terribly photogenic and so not particularly “bloggable”. That may explain why this near-vegan dish hasn’t caught on among today’s foodies. But plain looking as it may be, I thought I should blog about scarola imbottita all the same. This old time recipe is too good to forget.
Serves 2 as a main or 4 as a side course
For the initial braising:
- 2 large heads escarole (4 small ones, if you can find them)
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, left whole
- Olive oil
For the stuffing:
- 100g (1 cup) dry breadcrumbs
- 1 clove of garlic, roughly chopped
- A handful of black olives, roughly chopped
- A handful of capers
- A few anchovy filets, chopped
- A few sprigs of parsley, minced
- Olive oil
Prepping the escarole
Remove any bruised outer leaves from the escarole. Trim off any discoloration from the stems but take care not to remove them, as you want the escarole to remain intact. Wash the escarole and let it dry off.
If you’re dealing with a large escarole head, as you probably will be, you can cut it in half lengthwise, starting from the stem. Again, make sure the stem remains attached to the leaves like so:
Braising the escarole
In a large sauté pan large enough to hold all the escarole in one layer, gently heat the olive oil and add the garlic clove. When you begin the smell the garlic’s aroma, nestle the escarole in the pan, sprinkle with salt and cover. Let the escarole braise very gently, turning once, for about 15-20 minutes total, until wilted.
Let the escarole cool completely, then gently squeeze each head (or half head) and pat dry with paper towels.
Making the filling
While the escarole is braising, prepare the filling: Heat a good pour of olive oil in a skillet, then add the garlic. When they just begin to brown and give off their aroma, add the breadcrumbs and gently sauté them until they take on a nutty brown color.
Then add the other ingredients and given everything a good turn. Turn off the heat after about another minute.
Assembling and baking the dish
Take each head of escarole (or half) and gingerly open it, cut side up, spreading the leaves our flat. Divide the filling among the escarole, leaving some margins on all sides.
Then you have a choice: You can either re-form the escarole into its original shape—a good choice if you’re using individual small heads of escarole—which is the classic method. But if you’re dealing with half heads, it’s easier to roll the escarole up lengthwise, starting from the stems.
Place the escarole in a baking dish. Sprinkle with more breadcrumbs and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in a hot (200C/400F) oven until they are heated through and have taken on a nice color, about a half hour.
Serve your scarola imbottita still warm, but not scalding hot, as a side dish or light main.
This recipe for scarola imbottita, only slightly adapted from the one found in Jeanne Caròla Francesconi’s classic La cucina napoletana, is pretty straightforward, even if it involves a number of steps. Just a few points to bear in mind: During the initial braising, be sure to keep the heat very low so the escarole doesn’t actually brown; you can add a few drops of water if you need to. A non-stick pan works very well for the purpose. If you like, some recipes have you parboil the escarole for just 5 minutes or so rather than braising it. Quicker and “cleaner”, but not as tasty in my opinion. In either case, be careful not to overcook the escarole during the initial braise and handle it gingerly as you stuff it, so it doesn’t break apart. And do be careful, too, when toasting the breadcrumbs. Apply gentle heat, as breadcrumbs can burn in the bat of an eye.
There’s actually another very common way to make scarola imbottita, which I suspect is actually the original version, where you stuff the escarole raw and then braise it on the stovetop. You’ll need to tie it up with string so the stuffing doesn’t fall out as you braise it. And even then, you’ll need to be careful, since the escarole tends to shrink as it cooks, loosening the strings. It’s not very difficult but a little fussy, especially when cooking with the enormous heads of escarole you are likely to find Stateside. The breadcrumbs are usually omitted as they tend to turn soggy in the braising, and often the flavorings are sprinkled among the leaves rather than all piled in the center.
And if you want, as for Sautéed Escarole or Escarole Pie, you can add raisins and pine nuts to your stuffing. Personally, I like to keep things simple and savory only occasionally mixing things up with something sweet. And of course, the dish is easily veganized. Just omit the anchovies. While they add an extra layer of umami, the olives and capers already add plenty of flavor.
- 2 2 large heads escarole or 4 small ones, if you can find them
- 1-2 cloves garlic left whole and unpeeled
- Olive oil
For the stuffing
- 100g 1 cup dry breadcrumbs
- 1-2 cloves garlic roughly chopped
- A handful of black olives roughly chopped
- A handful of capers rinsed
- A few anchovy filets chopped
- A few sprigs of parsley minced
- Olive oil
Prepping the escarole
- Remove any bruised outer leaves from the escarole. Trim off any discoloration from the stem but take care not to remove it as you want the escarole to remain intact. Wash the escarole and let it dry off.
- If you're dealing with a large escarole head, as you probably will be, you can cut it in half lengthwise, starting from the stem. Again, make sure the stem remains attached to the leaves.
Braising the escarole
- In a large sauté pan large enough to hold all the escarole in one layer, gently heat the olive oil and add the garlic clove. When you begin the smell the garlic's aroma, nestle the escarole in the pan, sprinkle with salt and cover. Let the escarole braise very gently, turning once, for about 20 minutes, until wilted.
- Let the escarole cool completely, then gently squeeze each head (or half head) and pat dry with paper towels.
Making the filling
- While the escarole is braising, prepare the filling: Heat a good pour of olive oil in a skillet, then add the garlic. When they just begin to brown and give off their aroma, add the breadcrumbs and gently sauté them until they take on a nutty brown color. Then add the other ingredients and given everything a good turn. Turn off the heat after about another minute.
Assembling and baking
- Take each head of escarole (or half) and gingerly open it, cut side up, spreading the leaves our flat. Divide the filling among the escarole, leaving some margins on all sides.
- Then you have a choice: You can either re-form the escarole into its original shape—a good choice if you're using individual small heads of escarole—which is the classic method. But if you're dealing with half heads, it's easier to roll the escarole up lengthwise, starting from the stems.
- Place the escarole in a baking dish. Sprinkle with more breadcrumbs and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in a hot (200C/400F) oven until they are heated through and have taken on a nice color, about a half hour. Serve your scarola imbottita still warm but not scaling hot as a side dish or light main.
Hi Frank, I was both sceptical and curious about this recipe when I read it last year. Escarole is impossible to buy here (rural Australia) so I got some “Batavia” seed and grew some. Very different and very delicious both warm and cold. Thanks for the inspiration.
Keep up your great work.
I don’t think I’ve ever had Batavia or even heard of it to be honest, but on checking it out via Google search I bet it’d work very nicely in this recipe. I’m impressed you decided to grow your own! And delighted to hear that you were happy with the results! Thanks so much for writing in, John!
Hi Frank, first time long time
Thank you for including a picture of the raw escarole!
I often have trouble understanding the difference between some of the different vegetables within the escarole/chicory/endive family, because the names seem to be used differently in different regions! And recipe writers almost never include a picture of the raw vegetable they are using.
As a suggestion, I would personally appreciate and find it very useful if you made a post showing pictures of the different chicory-family vegetables that you use, as a reference that you could link to in recipes using those vegetables 🙂 but if that’s a bother I understand! (of course, I mostly mean the leafy veggies. Belgian endives and radicchio are a lot easier to tell in the cooked state – though perhaps other people have trouble with those too)
I love your blog and have used it as one of my main guides for learning to cook, so thank you for doing what you do
Thanks, Ashley, for your kind words about the blog and your suggestion. It’s a good one—I’ll put it on my “to do” list. It is very true that this family of vegetables gives rise to a lot of confusion.
I wonder if my Nonna ever made this? My mother has never made it, but it definitely seems like a dish our family would have had. I think I would love it, and why not? What’s not to love! Thanks, Frank!!
Possibly… was she from Campania? Either way, as you say, it’s tasty. Enjoy!
Hi Frank – this is probably the 5th time I have tried to comment. Not sure what is going on but they just keep disappearing into thin air. I read this recipe (and tried to comment) within minutes of your comment on my bok choy/shiitake post – yes, we are definitely on the same light(ness) wave after the holiday, And I thought of you again this weekend when I posted the braised oxtails… how difficult it was to photograph, similar to what you stated with the scarola. I finally found scarola here – and, as you said, the leaves are large. No problem with your instructions! Hope this gets through…
So sorry to hear about that, David! But glad to see that you finally made it through whatever firewall or other obstacle you were encountering… Your oxtails look fabulous, by the way, so no worries there!
It looks and sounds absolutely delicious, perfect for the wintery weather we’ve been having of late.
Thanks so much!
This looks great Frank, I never imagined Italian food with green leafy vegetables like such, as a lover for greens I you definitely gave me more interest on searching for recipes like the one you posted. They look amazing
Thanks so much, Raymund! Leafy green vegetables—vegetables in general, really—are a super-important part of Italian cookery. And you’ll find tons of recipes here on the blog. Hope you enjoy them!
This sounds and looks wonderful. Such a delicious blend of textures and flavors, and it’s so interesting. I love learning about Italian food history. I had no idea bout leafy greens being such an important part of the cuisine. I’ll try this one for sure. 🙂 ~Valentina
P.S. I think the photos are fantastic!
Indeed they are, Valentina! And thanks for the kind words about the photo. Trying to convey at least a bit of the taste experience through a visual medium is always a challenge, glad to hear this one worked out.
I don’t think I have ever cooked with escarole. I am going look at the farmer’s market and see if I can find it. The topping is what really talks to me. Thanks Frank for all your wonderful recipes.
Well, I think you’re in for a treat. Both for the tasty topping but also for the escarole itself. I think it has a lovely flavor. Thanks so much for your comment!
Wow an interesting new recipe to try. I love scarola, but I usually have in my salad. Thanks so much for sharing. Paola
And thank you, Paola, for stopping by!
A new dish for me as well. We see escarole in our veggie market from time to time, but I’ve not cooked with it. As your dish looks wonderful, I’ll be keeping my eye out for some escarole at the market.
Thanks, Ron! Do let us know if you make the dish. I’d be curious about your impressions.
I’ve never heard of baked escarole, but I’m really intrigued! It sounds fantastic, and the thought of a flavorful dish that isn’t on the heavy side sounds great for this time of the year. I often use escarole in soup, but I like this idea of stuffing and baking it! Also, I think you did a fantastic job taking pictures of a challenging food to photograph. Well done, sir!
Thanks so much, David!
I have never made this one and I will soon amend this gap. It looks great and here scarola is plenty and cheap right now in Italy. It is also one of those al almost accidentally vegan dishes worth knowing (I am not vegan, btw) Stefano
Yes, I remember you telling me that you’re not vegan… 😉 Glad you like the recipe!
It looks beautiful to me. Although I guess I’m also a leaf eater!
Ha! Glad you like it. And very tasty, too.
Great post Frank! It looks beautiful to me!
Thanks so much, Tina!
My mom used to make this! Looks like a perfectly blogworthy (and Instagram) photo to me.
Thanks, Lucia. You’re too kind… 🙂
You are teaching me something new and interesting ! Had heard of ‘escarole’ naturally but never seen it to buy . . . so off to Mr Google Australia who was not of much help ! I was cheerfully offered about six different lettuces, some with names totally new to me . . . ! I love your stuffing and your method is new to me – so it seems that if I choose a slightly bitter ‘fluffy’ head of salad and follow . . . I may be on the right track ! Shall try as more and more ‘green options’ are emanating from the kitchen in this house 🙂 !!!
It can be hard to find escarole in the States as well. Used to be much easier. And it can be easy to miss, since stores here usually place it next to the lettuce, and escarole looks a lot like lettuce! Why? Anyway, although with a large Italian diaspora I would have thought you could find it in Australia…?
Some of the best tasting food really is hard to photograph, isn’t it? Although your pictures make this dish look quite enticing. Like the stuffing, a lot — what a wonderful combo of flavors! I’ll bet you’re right that the original dish was a stovetop affair, which sounds good; but I like the idea of the oven better, I think. Anyway, this is nice — thanks.
Thanks, John! You’re totally right about some of the best tasting food being hard to photograph. It’s one of the biggest challenges of food blogging. Food has a visual aspect, but it’s hardly the most important one! Taste and smell and even feel are just as essential to the actual experience of eating, if not more so. So there’s a sensory mismatch between the medium and its subject.
You’ve done a great job on the pictures – that looks delicious! I suspect that imbottita may have some linguistic relationship to the Catalan embotits (and Spanish embutidos), meaning sausages, raw and cured. I would guess that the similarity is in a sausage skin or intestine being stuffed (or padded) with meat, fat and flavourings.
Thanks, MD! I suspect you’re right about the etymology. All my Italian dictionaries say it “perhaps” derives from the word botte, which means barrel (as in for wine) as in something you fill. But the origins trace to the 16th century which coincides with Spanish/Aragonese dominion over the south.
Now that really makes me suspect a connection. Calabrian ‘nduja comes from the same time period.