Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ecstatic About Escarole

I love escarole. Absolutely LOVE it. I am going through a phase where I am bored with regular lettuce, instead opting for bolder and firmer greens. Radicchio, arugula, frisee and chicory all make me happy, but lately it is escarole that really makes my taste buds dance.

Escarole is the M.V.P. of the chicory family. At first glance it looks like a firm head of green leaf lettuce, but it has so much more to offer than that. Gutsy and bold, escarole can definitely hold its own on center stage, yet it is gracious and versatile enough to be an excellent supporting player when necessary.

It is gorgeous as the main star of a perfectly composed salad, which is probably my favorite way to enjoy it. It makes for a mouthwatering bruschetta when slivered and sautéed with olive oil and garlic, generously piled onto grilled bread and topped with toasted pine nuts. Yet it is equally delicious in a soup (especially a hearty vegetable soup with white beans and a hunk of parmesan cheese thrown in for flavor), where silky emerald ribbons of simmered escarole contribute a depth to the overall dish. It is like finding the perfect date, one who is savvy and well-rounded, utterly at ease at both a formal black-tie event as well as at a very casual relaxed affair.

I found the most beautiful head of escarole at the Fall Festival farm stand on Sunday, and I have been making a series of salads with it this week. Would you just look at this beautiful specimen?! When I removed the rubber band around its leaves, it made itself quite comfortable and sprawled out all over my cutting board.

(It reminded me of my hair on a humid day: it can be carefully contained, but once it is loosened from its restraining elastic band, it goes crazy! Look at my profile picture if you need further proof of this.)

Alissa came over the other day to help me out with this considerable head of escarole. We’d had a decadent afternoon, celebrating the beginning of her birthday week by escaping to a movie theater to watch “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”. It was cold twilight when we emerged from the theater back onto Broadway, yet we were floating on visions of the most delicious Spanish sunshine with daydreams of fleeing the concrete jungle for blissful Barcelona.

Since we had eschewed the overpriced stale movie popcorn and were both ravenous by the end of the film, I offered to make something involving this crazy bunch of escarole I had at home. Now I know that might not sound like the most thrilling proposition, especially when you’ve just spent the previous two hours enjoying a smoldering Javier Bardem and a fiery Penelope Cruz on the big screen! But you might feel quite thrilled yourself if you tasted this salad too, one which falls into the category of “So Simple Yet So Incredibly Satisfying”. If you have great ingredients to work with and use the freshest produce available to you, it’s easy to prepare dishes that answer to that description. We’re talking four main ingredients (escarole, shallots, mint, and almonds) and three supporting ingredients (olive oil, white wine vinegar, and fresh lemon juice) to highlight the flavors and tie it all together. Check out what happened:

The star of today’s post, my beautiful majestic head of escarole, was shredded into ribbons, then cut crosswise into smaller bite-sized pieces before being placed in a large salad bowl. Shallots shaved into paper-thin rings got a short soak in a spoonful of wine vinegar, just to take the edge off of them. Slivered almonds are always lovely, but they became even lovelier when lightly toasted. Fresh herbs are one of the easiest way to add an additional layer of bright flavor to any dish, and I thinly sliced a few mint leaves for this particular salad. Once the shallots had a few minutes to soak and were removed from the vinegar, my four main ingredients were ready to play.

These flavors were so fresh and bright, they didn’t need much else except a drizzle of great olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and a sprinkling of sea salt and freshly ground pepper to tie them all together. When you're dressing a salad, I would encourage you to taste as you go, using the recipe as a guideline for the amount of olive oil and lemon. Start by adding a smaller amount, since you can always add more if necessary but you can’t take away. You want the escarole leaves to glisten with the finest film of olive oil, lightly coated but not laden down with oil. The lemon juice adds a necessary acidity, a brightness that only enhances the flavors of the salad. Taste as you go, adding more olive oil and lemon juice if you think it needs it. I gilded the lily a bit by shaving some fresh Pecorino cheese over the top, which is a fabulous addition but not strictly necessary.

Since it was the beginning of Alissa’s birthday week, we opened a celebratory bottle of Punkt Genau, a sparkling Gruner Veltliner from Austria. I have a handful of friends who are part of the "I LOVE Sparkling Wine" club, of which Alissa and I are both founding members. Whether it comes from France, Italy, Australia, California, or in this case, Austria, we simply love bubbly wine! I discovered this particular wine in January of this year, and it was one of the great revelations of my wine year. Since Gruner Veltliners tend to be still white wines, this sparkling beauty is the only one of its kind, redolent of green apples, minerality, green melon and honeysuckle. I have ordered cases of Punkt Genau from Astor Wines over the course of the year, and each bottle has been an effervescent delight.

The Punkt proved to be a felicitous choice for the evening, as this happy bubbly wine truly enhanced the lively flavors of the escarole. We both kept laughing over how excited we were about this SALAD! It’s one thing to be thrilled about gorgeous oysters, or the most beautifully prepared piece of fish, or any number of decadent chocolate desserts. But an escarole salad?! I told you it was a more thrilling proposition that you might have expected! Alissa kept saying, “I wish you could include an audio clip on your blog of me moaning over how much I love this salad!”

In honor of today’s birthday girl, I am including the recipe for this favorite escarole salad. (Here’s to you, Alissa, wishing you many escarole salads and beautiful bottles of sparkling wine this year along with every other happy birthday wish!)

You can substitute chicory for escarole in this recipe with equally happy results. This makes a good starting course for 4. However, if your names are Louise and Alissa, this recipe might only provide 2 large servings!

1 small shallot, peeled and sliced crosswise into paper-thin rings
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
6 cups escarole, leaves washed and spun dry
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly chopped mint leaves
¼ cup toasted slivered almonds, or more to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice (about half a lemon)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Pecorino cheese, for grating (optional)

Place the sliced shallot and vinegar in a small bowl with a sprinkling of salt. Let sit for five minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.

Slice the escarole leaves into thin ribbons, then cut cross-wise into bite-sized pieces. Place the chopped escarole in a large salad bowl. Drain the shallots from the vinegar and add them to the escarole, along with the chopped mint leaves and toasted slivered almonds.

Drizzle the olive oil over the salad and toss gently, using just enough oil so that all of the escarole leaves are lightly coated. Add the fresh lemon juice, a sprinkling of sea salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Toss gently and taste for seasoning and balance, adding more lemon juice and/or salt&pepper if needed. Divide equally between four salad plates or bowls. If you are using the optional Pecorino cheese, grate a little on top of each salad serving. Go crazy.

1 comment:

modrocker said...

It really must be Pecorino cheese, and don't let anyone tell you differently. I learned this while visiting the town of Pienza, which incidentally is the Pecorino capitol of the world. The whole town smells like Pecorino--no joke--which is odd. It is even more odd when you consider that there are no sheep in sight. Hmmm...I digress: you haven't lived until you have tasted Pecorino FRESCA from Italy.