Escarole by Way of Utica, New York

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For much of our adult lives escarole has been a favorite leafy green in our home. It is a member of the cichorium genus of plants, both domestic and wild, sharing that space with the likes of chicory, endive, frisee, puntarelle, and radicchio.

For the most part these leafy vegetables have a somewhat bitter flavor, can be eaten raw as part of a salad, or either braised, sautéed, or included in a soup or stew. Escarole, in particular, is quite versatile because it pairs well with sautéed garlic or onions, sweet or hot peppers, and many types of beans either in a soup or stew.

The darker outer leaves on a head of escarole are a little tougher than the softer, lighter colored inner leaves which comprise the heart. These outer leaves are best for cooking while the tender leaves of the heart, (which can also be cooked) make a nice addition to a salad.

Escarole is best sourced in either the spring or the fall, because in the warmer months the plants go to seed and the bitter flavor is more pronounced.

So what is this escarole from Utica, New York all about?

While thumbing through a few of my cookbooks looking for a way to prepare escarole I had not considered before, I came across a recipe called Utica Greens (Spicy Escarole) in the book entitled The Italian Vegetable Cookbook by Michele Scicolone. The headnote to the recipe piqued my interest because it talked about the many variations of the dish one can prepare, the various greens that can be substituted if escarole is not be available, and the addition of other ingredients such as potatoes or sausage. Also mentioned was the Utica Music and Arts Fest which apparently is/was an annual event, where one could sample a dish of the Utica Greens.

That said, I wanted to learn more. I did some further reading and came across several interpretations of the dish that also provided the background of Utica Greens.

As the story goes, back in the 1980s a man named of Joe Morelle, worked as a chef at the now closed Utica Italian-America eatery Grimaldi’s Restaurant and learned how to make the dish. Morelle moved on to work at the Chesterfield Restaurant, also in Utica, and by 1988 the dish was a regular menu item known at that time as “Greens Morelle.” It became so popular in restaurants throughout Central New York State, that it was often referred to as Utica Greens, with variations from eatery to eatery, chef to chef, and was even found in places such as NYC, Florida, and Las Vegas.

It was now time for me to try this dish but before I started I thought why not try and contact Joe Morelle at Chesterfield’s to learn his perspective and approach so that I prepared the dish the right way from the start? Sadly, while looking for the contact information for Chesterfield’s I also came across an obituary for Mr. Morelle who had passed away in October of this year. Even though I never got the chance to speak with him, I am happy that I discovered his recipe because it is so good that I’m not certain there is any reason to prepare escarole any other way!

Before I share the recipe, just a quick note about the peppers and the cheese used as two key components in the dish. I prepared the dish three times before settling on the variation we liked best. Morelle’s recipe as written and interpreted calls for hot cherry peppers and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

The first time I prepared the dish, I realized I did not have the hot cherry peppers on hand, so I substituted dried red chili flakes–a mix of Aleppo and Calabrian chilies along with the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Although this version was good, it lacked texture without the slices of pepper, and was just a little too salty because of the Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Actually, any aged, hard Italian grated cheese would work, so in the second version I did use the cherry peppers (a pickled variety, medium hot) along with an aged Piave Vecchio (“old” Piave) from the Veneto region that is similar in texture to a young Parmigiano-Reggiano, but just less salty. I was making progress as this version was good as well, but not everyone liked the pickled cherry peppers.

The third attempt turned out to be the best because the peppers I used were roasted red bell peppers, combined with a tablespoon of spicy olive oil made with Calabrian chilies, and again paired with the Piave Vecchio. With our evening meal, I served the Utica Greens as a side dish that was so good we enjoyed the leftovers as a topping for the bruschetta we ate for lunch the next day.

One final note about the peppers: I realize for some it would be more convenient to purchase a jar of roasted red peppers from your local grocery, but there is nothing like the smoky, woodsy flavor of freshly roasted peppers to punctuate a dish. Now I wasn’t going to fire up my grill for just two peppers, so for those of you who have gas ranges it is easy to char-roast the peppers directly in the flame on the stovetop. However for those of us who don’t have gas ranges, the broiler in your oven does a fine job. Here is how it is done: Split the peppers in half lengthwise through the stem end. Remove the stem, seed cluster, and the ribs. Place the cut pepper halves, skin side up on a sheet pan covered with baking parchment or foil. Lightly coat the pepper halves with a little olive oil and place under the broiler approximately 4 inches below the heating elements. After 5 minutes turn the pan 180 degrees and continue to broil, repeating the process three more times. After 20 minutes the peppers should be sufficiently blackened and blistered. Using tongs, turn the peppers over and broil 2 minutes more on the under side.

Place the charred pepper halves in a large stainless steel or ceramic work bowl and cover with clear film wrap. The peppers will steam as they cool. Once cool enough to handle (approximately 10 minutes) remove the wrap and using your hands gently peel away the charred skin and discard, careful to capture as much of the pepper juice as possible. Slice the peppers into thin strips, leaving them to macerate in the juices and set aside to include in finishing the Utica Greens dish.

 

Utica Greens

Ingredients (4 to 6 servings)

2 large heads of escarole, trimmed, root end cut, leaves separated and thoroughly washed several times to remove any sand or grit

3 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced

3 ounces prosciutto (approximately 6 pieces), sliced into thin strips

4 to 5 medium to hot cherry peppers (if using) stem end and seeds removed, then sliced, or 2 large red bell peppers prepared as described above

1 generous tablespoon spicy olive oil, as mentioned above, if using the bell peppers

Salt and pepper to taste

1½ cups of fine bread crumbs

1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Piave Vecchio, or other hard, dry Italian grating cheese

½ cup finely minced parsley

Mise en place

Method
In a large stockpot bring salted water to a boil. Add the washed escarole leaves and allow the pot to return to a boil. Using tongs and a strainer or spider, remove the blanched escarole to a colander to drain and cool. Once cool enough to handle, gently squeeze as much excess water from the blanched escarole leaves, separating the leaves as much as possible and then set aside.

In a large ovenproof sauté pan over medium – high heat, warm 4 to 5 tablespoons of olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and the prosciutto, stir and sauté until the garlic just begins to color and the prosciutto strips begin to crisp.

Start sauté

Add the blanched escarole, the roasted peppers, the spicy pepper oil, a little salt and plenty of ground black pepper. Mix all the ingredients so that they are well combined and heated through, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

Add greens and peppers

At this point you can cover the pan and set aside to finish the dish just before serving, or finish the dish and serve immediately while still warm.

To finish the dish, mix together the bread crumbs, grated cheese, and the minced parsley. Sprinkle the mixture over and around the top of the escarole in the pan, place the pan in the oven under the broiler, approximately 4 inches below the heating element until the topping is lightly toasted and golden brown. Serve warm.

Ready to broil

Ready to serve

The Utica Greens can be eaten as the main dish accompanied by some good crusty bread and your favorite red wine, or served as the vegetable side dish. If there are any leftovers they make a fine bruschetta topping or even a sandwich. Whatever way you decide to enjoy them, this is a dish you should consider trying soon. Like I said earlier, I’m not sure there is any reason to prepare escarole any other way as Utica Greens are that good. And, don’t forget to pour yourself another glass of that red wine while you are at it!

Eat well. Be well.

DM

Proceed as the way opens . . .

 

 

 

 

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Bolzano Apple Cake

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Sometimes you just need a change from the traditional apple pie, or the myriad of apple cake recipes from which to choose. Some feature roasted walnuts, others make spices the co-star to the apples, others might add a little hard cider, while still others may be glazed with a marmalade softened in warmed dark rum.

However, there is one apple cake recipe that I recently rediscovered that elevates the apple cake to a higher plateau, the Bolzano Apple Cake.

As I understand the story behind this recipe, it speaks to a cultural mix that has its roots in the Italian province of Trentino-Alto Adige in the farthest northeastern region of the country, bordering Switzerland and Austria. It is said to have originated in the town of Bolzano-Bozen located in that Italian province.

I noted that I rediscovered the recipe while I was looking through some of my recipe files in an effort to prepare an apple dessert to take advantage of the bounty available at this time of the year.

Back in 2004, Mark Bittman, writing for the New York Times, featured an article about chef Scott Carsberg, who at the time was running a popular Seattle restaurant, Lampreia. Carsberg included the Bolzano Apple Cake as part of the Lampreia dessert menu, which is, where I’m guessing, Bittman first encountered it and included an adaptation of Carsberg’s recipe in his article. He called it Balzano Apple Cake.

Well Carsberg and others I have read call the cake Bolzano, named after the town, Bolzano-Bozen, so I’m sticking with that moniker. Although Lampreia closed back in 2012, the recipe for this cake lives on thanks in part to the Internet and also to a beautifully produced digital book Carsberg co-wrote, entitled All About Apples.

The cake is not unlike a very dense clafoutis. It is laden with layers of apples held together by a light, minimalist batter, which becomes compressed and creamy when baked. The finished cake has caramelized edges and a golden brown top, all wrapping the layered apple middle. It is simply a light and delicious way to finish a meal.

Carsberg’s recipe has the cake prepared in a square baking pan, which I have used several times, both with and without the aluminum foil liner he recommends. I prefer the non-liner approach, which is how I am sharing the recipe here.

The square baking pan allows for the cake to be presented in long, slender, straight slices on the plate. I have since discovered a variation which is baked in a standard round cake pan that I am going to try the next because I believe a triangular sliced piece will include more of each of the cakes best features: caramelized edge, golden brown top, and layered center (compared to the square cake because the closer you get to the center some of the nice caramelized edges are lost). The recipe that follows can be baked in either shape pan.

One final ingredient note: Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, or Braeburn apples are all good choices to make this cake.

 

Bolzano Apple Cake

Ingredients (8 to 10 servings)
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 vanilla bean
½ cup Half & Half
1 stick butter (4 oz)
Juice of 1 lemon
5 apples
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ cup flour

 

Method
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Generously butter a baking pan, lightly flour, discarding the excess, and set aside.

In a large work bowl add the sugar and the eggs. Whisk rapidly until the mixture is thoroughly combined.

Split the vanilla bean with a sharp knife and scrape the seeds into the sugar and egg mixture. Whisk rapidly to combine and continue whisking until the sugar dissolves and the batter forms a thin ribbon when the whisk is lifted. Set the bowl aside.

In a small saucepan over very low heat, warm the Half & Half along with the vanilla bean pod.

Place the butter in another small saucepan and slowly melt over medium-low heat.

In another large work bowl squeeze the juice from the lemon. Cut approximately 1/8 inch off each end of the apples and set in a bowl of cold water in the refrigerator. These will be used to make a garnish for serving.

Peel, core, and quarter the apples, placing the quarters back in the lemon juice to prevent browning.

Apple quarters

Using a mandoline or other sharp slicing tool, cut each of the apple quarters into paper thin slices, placing them back in the lemon juice as you go and set aside when complete.

Apple slices

Slices in lemon juice

Return to the work bowl with the batter and slowly add the melted butter, gently whisking at first and then rapidly whisking to completely incorporate the butter.

Next, remove the vanilla bean pod from the warm Half & Half and pour it into the batter, again whisking to thoroughly combine.

Add the baking powder and the flour to the batter and once again whisk to completely combine so that no dry ingredients are visible.

Batter

Finally, pour the apple slices into the bowl with the batter and using your hands gently fold the apples into the mixture until completely coated and dispersed.

Slices poured into batter

Slices mixed into batter

Pour the apple mix into the prepared pan and use a fork to spread it out evenly.

Ready to bake

Bake for 25 minutes at 375 degrees, then lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees, turn the baking pan around and bake for another 25 minutes.

The cake is done when a tester comes out clean, the top is golden brown, and the edges are nicely caramelized and begin to pull away from the sides of the baking pan.

Place the baking pan on a rack to cool completely before turning it out onto a platter or simply slicing it in the pan to serve.

Out of the oven

A garnish can be made from the reserved apple ends by slicing them across into matchstick (batons) pieces, sprinkling with a little sugar, and placing them alongside a slice of the cake which has been dusted with powdered sugar.

Plated

This cake is intensely flavorful and simply delicious, do give it a try, whether square or round.

Eat well. Be well.

DM

It is the perfect time to be someone who loves to cook!

 

 

 

 

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