Escarole, an ever-so-slightly-bitter lettuce, is prized among Italian cooks but has not yet found a prominent place in American kitchens. Its broad, wavy leaves are both crunchy and tender, and hold up well when paired with robust ingredients. They offer a fine counterpoint to the rich meats and long-cooked braises found on many dinner tables at this time of year.
In Naples, small heads of escarole are stuffed with a mixture of sweet and salty ingredients -- pine nuts, raisins, garlic, anchovies, capers, and olives -- then baked atop pizza. This special dish is traditionally served only on Christmas Eve, but escarole also finds its way into everyday Italian meals, such as a simple winter soup made with white beans and chicken broth.
Escarole tastes a lot like frisée, which is a curlier-leafed variety of the same species, Cichorium endivia. At the center of each head of escarole is a tender core of pearly, pale green leaves. These are sweet and mellow without any trace of bitterness. The outermost, dark green leaves, on the other hand, are a bit tougher and more flavorful. These are most commonly stirred into soups, rather than eaten raw in salads. Call me unconventional, but I love combining both types of leaves; one seems to make up for what the other lacks. My favorite way to eat escarole is in a variation on the classic iceberg wedge salad. For my escarole wedge salad, I make a thick, creamy, Caesar-like dressing with plenty of garlic and anchovies. Sweet pumpernickel croutons stand in for the usual crumbles of bacon.
Join me in sneaking this Sicilian-native into the canon of classic American recipes!
Escarole Wedge Salad with Pumpernickel Croutons
If you're an anchovy-fanatic (like me!), you could drape an additional fillet or two over each salad. As is traditional for Caesar salad, the dressing includes a raw egg yolk, so be sure to buy fresh eggs from someone you trust or choose pasteurized eggs.
Serves 4 as a first course
1 head escarole
2 slices (about 5 ounces) pumpernickel bread
½ cup plus 1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
3 small cloves garlic
3 anchovy fillets, rinsed and deboned
1 large egg yolk
1½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 small piece Parmigiano
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Trim the escarole's root-end and submerge the whole head in cool water. Swish it around to release any dirt. Dry by gently whirling the escarole in a salad spinner. If it doesn't fit inside your salad spinner, simply shake off any excess water, then wrap it in a kitchen towel. Place the escarole in the refrigerator to chill.
Tear the pumpernickel into bite-sized pieces and place them on an ungreased baking sheet. Drizzle with 1½ tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt. Using your hands, squeeze the bread so that it soaks up some of the oil. Bake croutons for 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, pound the garlic, anchovies, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and several grinds of pepper in a mortar and pestle. Alternatively, you can use the back of a large knife to smash the mixture, pounding until it is a smooth paste.
Crack the egg yolk into a small bowl. Whisk the yolk gently but constantly while pouring in a few drops of the remaining ½ cup olive oil. (To prevent the bowl from moving around while you whisk, place it on a folded kitchen towel or ask a friend to hold it steady while you pour the oil.) As the oil and yolk emulsify, continue to whisk and to add more oil in a very thin stream, until you've added all the oil. The mixture will be thick. Thin it by stirring in the lemon juice and the anchovy-garlic paste. Taste for seasoning and add a bit more lemon juice, if you like.
To serve, slice the escarole lengthwise into four wedges and place each wedge on a chilled salad plate. Drizzle with some of the dressing and sprinkle a small handful of croutons. Using a vegetable peeler, shave several thin curls of Parmigiano for each wedge. Top with a few grinds of black pepper. The dressing is best on the day it is made.