Category: Sides

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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Caponata—Summer’s Bounty

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From my perspective, some of the most interesting regional Mediterranean cuisine can be found on the island of Sicily. What makes the cuisine interesting for me, either in traditional or modern interpretations, are all of the diverse cultural heritages that have left their imprint on what has evolved into Sicilian cuisine today. Sicilian cuisine, it could be argued is the original “fusion cuisine”—a layering of many ingredients and flavors as they were discovered and later introduced into the culinary tradition.

Any discussion about Sicilian cuisine should begin with caponata and its more refined variation, caponatina. It is one dish that strongly reflects a melding of several of the culinary influences that have shaped Sicilian cuisine as it has evolved over the last 2,500 years. By way of a few examples: the Greeks introduced, among other ingredients, olives and honey, which both found their way into the base caponata recipe. The ancient Romans and later the Arabs shaped the Sicilian traditional style of cooking, agrodolce (sweet and sour), which uses olive oil, vinegar, and sugar or honey to add personality to caponata, and is a perfect example of that agrodolce style. Under the Spanish influence both the tomato and cocoa found their place in Sicilian cooking and a spot on the caponata ingredients list. Finally, the two key ingredients in the dish, eggplant and capers, owe much to the Arab influence on Sicilian cuisine and Sicilian culture in general. Eggplants, native to southern India, and capers, native to central and western Asia, found their way into Sicily as the Arab influence moved westward into the Mediterranean region.

Caponata has also been one of those foundation dishes for me because the recipe I will share with you in this post has kept me connected to my family, starting with my Sicilian grandmother who passed it along to my aunt, who in turn passed it along to my cousin from whom I received it initially. My recipe is now an interpretation of theirs, having evolved over time as I became a more experienced cook and discovered better ingredients.

The main ingredient of caponata is eggplant, which at this time of the summer season is at its peak, so it is best to take advantage of that bounty now. It can be argued that Sicilian eggplants are the best in Italy overall, although using the fruit—generally considered a vegetable, eggplant is actually a fruit—at its seasonal best will provide for a more delicious caponata outcome.

Caponata … My Way

Some quick thoughts before we begin:

  • There are many regional caponata recipes and optional ingredients to choose from, so find one with the ingredient combinations you like and begin to explore from there.
  • All the ingredients should be cut into uniform size, whether it’s all chunky or all in a smaller dice as with the caponatina, which allows all the ingredients to cook evenly.
  • The eggplant(s) you choose should be firm, not soft, with smooth unblemished skin. Select small to medium in size since the larger eggplants generally have more seeds. Peeling or not is a matter of personal taste. I prefer not to peel because the skin adds a depth of color, additional flavor and texture, along with simply making the finished dish look more interesting. Finally, eggplants are sponges when it comes to cooking with oil and can become soggy. Cook with less oil, over higher heat while stirring often to avoid having a soggy finish or the eggplant sticking to the pan. It is worth noting that I have read white eggplants will absorb less oil, although I have not used that variety in this recipe yet.
  • The variety and color of the olives used can influence the outcome of the dish by adding flavor, color, salinity, and texture. In the past I have used green Castelvetrano olives, Kalamata olives, Gaeta olives, and various other oil-cured olives. In this recipe I incorporated rich oil-cured olives from Morocco.
  • Capers, whether brined or salted can be used interchangeably, although with either they should be rinsed well to reduce the salt before adding to the mix.
  • Along with the required celery I also add fennel to this dish because I like the flavor and I find it is a good way to use both the stalks and the fronds.
  • Both sugar and honey can be used to add that touch of sweetness to the dish. Honey, the original sweetening ingredient before sugar cane was introduced on the island, is just more interesting to use because there are so many varieties, each bringing a different personality to the sweet component in the recipe. This time I used a wild-flower honey variety from Tuscany.
  • In this recipe two vinegars are used: Red wine vinegar, and for an added depth of flavor a drizzle or two of balsamic syrup, made by slowly cooking down a bottle of a lesser-aged balsamic.
  • If during the cooking process some additional liquid might be required, dry red vermouth or Marsala wine are on hand.
  • Along with the tomato paste I also add several chopped, slow-roasted plum tomatoes that are always on hand during this peak summer tomato season.
  • Herbs and spices: celery leaf, fennel fronds, fennel pollen, and occasionally minced parsley and basil leaf, along with a pinch of pepperoncino (red chili flakes).
  • Some recipes also include nuts, which if I were to include, would be either lightly toasted pine nuts or chopped pistachio nuts.

Ingredients
1 to 2 medium eggplants
2 medium red onions
3 to 4 large garlic cloves
2 to 3 celery stalks + leaves
2 to 3 fennel stalks + fronds
2/3 cup pitted olives
2 tablespoons capers
2 to 3 tablespoons raisins (yellow or red)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3 to 4 roasted plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons honey, or to taste
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or to taste
2 tablespoons balsamic syrup
Dry red vermouth or Marsala
Fennel pollen (optional)
Basil leaves (optional)
Pine nuts or pistachio (optional)
Salt, pepper, pepperoncino to taste

Mise en place

Method

Prepare all the ingredients as described in my opening thoughts.

Using a large heavy-bottom stockpot with high sides, heat ¼ cup of olive oil over medium to high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the onion, garlic, celery (without leaves), and fennel (without fronds), stirring frequently until vegetable mix begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the prepared eggplant, stirring to thoroughly combine with the aromatic vegetable sauté adding a pinch more of salt and pepper. Cook for an additional 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the olives, capers, and raisins, again mixing to thoroughly combine into the sauté. If the mix seems a little dry add a splash of the vermouth or Marsala.

Add the tomato paste, chopped roasted tomatoes, honey, vinegars, and sprinkle the cocoa over. Stir the mixture again to thoroughly combine as the dish will take on a deeper color. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and continue cooking for 7 to 10 minutes more stirring frequently to prevent any sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Add the reserved celery leaves and minced fennel fronds, along with ½ teaspoon of fennel pollen (if using) and the shredded basil leaves (if using). The nuts can be added at this time (if using) along with the pepperoncino (if using). Stir once again to combine all the ingredients while checking and correcting the seasoning, of the honey, the vinegar, the herbs and the spices.

Continue to slowly cook, stirring frequently until the eggplant is cooked through but is not soggy and continues to hold its shape—this is best determined by tasting as you go along.

When done, remove the pot from the heat and allow the caponata to cool. Transfer to a bowl and allow to set at room temperature. Cover and refrigerate, allowing the flavors to develop further over night as the dish is best served beginning on the second day. Allow it to return to room temperature before serving.

Caponata is best served as part of an antipasto course and makes a fine topping spread on crostini. It pairs well with egg dishes and works nicely as an appetizer or side salad. I have also used it as a flavorful underlay with grilled fish and sautéed cutlets made with either chicken or turkey. It keeps in the refrigerator for up to a week and also freezes well.

Caponata plated

So whether you choose to serve this sweet-and-sour eggplant specialty as part of your next antipasti, as a side dish, or as an accompaniment to a frittata, you should consider adding caponata to your summertime cooking.

Eat well. Be well.

DM

We all live in a small place, between the future we anticipate and the past we try and relive. . . . Food is one way of staying connected to the people who surround us.

 

 

 

 

 

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