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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Proceed as the way opens . . .