We do this thing in my house where we arbitrarily shoehorn green things into the family diet, generally in quantities insufficient for any real nutritional purpose. Most often, this takes the form of a small bowl of sad lettuce splashed with cheap balsamic and presented as some sort of pre-dinner hazing ritual: We appease the gods of delicious dinner with our somber mastication of this meager roughage.
I remember here and there that this is an intensely stupid, pointless, and unnecessary way to consume green things, if one is so inclined. Specifically, I remember that there are things like Utica greens, which are great, and which we are now going to prepare together.
See, right away, you’re rolling your eyes in disappointment, like a shitty teen. Ugh, greens, you are thinking. Screw you! These are no ordinary greens!
Up in the Syracuse part of central New York, they do things differently. They call houses “camps,” and they pronounce the word “car” more like “care.” They wear tracksuits to gravesides. And when they say the word “greens,” what they are referring to is not anything like any other greens you will find anywhere. These greens, these Utica greens, are a fucking meal. And not only that, they are the best meal.
I don’t say that lightly. They are the best meal. These greens are spicy and hefty and rich, studded with delicious fatty pork and thickened with handfuls of cheese and breadcrumbs. Utica greens are much more like a casserole than they are like Grandma’s turnip greens. Listen, dammit, if you put down your aversion to the word “greens” and set aside your learned terror of the kale takeover and just make these goddamn things, you will be a happier person, forever.
You will need: an embarrassing amount of escarole (more on this later); some prosciutto; some garlic, which you will be finely chopping; some cherry peppers; some bread crumbs; some grated, hard Italian cheese; some chicken stock; some olive oil.
So, let’s talk escarole. Escarole is a leafy green and part of the endive family. What that means, in practical terms, is that escarole is a little bit bitter. Not in-your-face bitter like radicchio or Belgian endive, but mildly, pleasantly bitter. The bitterness, you see, is a positive selling point of escarole.
It will be somewhat of a bummer, then, if you are unable to find escarole, whether because your local grocers are butt, or because you’re cooking this during whatever season is the one in which escarole is hard to find. Escarole, though—like a stout, broad, ragged-looking head of romaine with wide, deep-green leaves—has enough in common with certain other lettuces that, if you must, you can substitute. Green or red romaine will do in a pinch, even if you’ll lose some of the essential character of the finished product. It’ll still be delicious, is what I’m saying.
In particular, escarole has in common with other leafy greens the characteristic of shrinking away to nothing when it’s cooked, which is why you’re going to buy a really shocking, ridiculous amount of the stuff. You know how you pack a wheelbarrow full of spinach, and when it’s done cooking, you’ve got, like, a cup and a half of food? Escarole is about the same. (As are whatever substitute leafy greens you’re using—green or red romaine, green or red leaf, oak leaf, etc.) So you’re going to buy four or five heads of escarole. Yes, this will require multiple produce bags, as many as three. Yes, the pimpled, knobby, annoyingly precocious teenager working the checkout register will make some sort of teen-lingo comment about your bounty of escarole. Possibly this will have to do with feeding your pet rabbit. Probably you should resist the impulse to retaliate by mocking the cashier’s near-certain virginity. Grin and bear it, homie. You are the bigger person. Literally.
Now. You’ve got tons of escarole. Start by thoroughly rinsing it, and then chop it into big pieces. Each head should be good for three or four horizontal chops, all the way down to the base. Unlike, say, chard or kale or collards, the ribs of the escarole leaves will be juicy and delicious, even while retaining a pleasant crunch, so we want all but the very bottom half-inch or so of each head.
You’ve got some sort of big, deep, or wide pot that you use for chili, right? Or pasta? Or, you know, steaming huge volumes of salad greens, for some goddamn reason? Here, we’re going to use it for steaming. If it comes with one of those steaming inserts, huzzah. If not, it will be fine to stick a small metal colander in the bottom of your big pot. (Ha! We both know you don’t have a colander. Okay, just this once, don’t worry about separating the vegetables from the water. Just put an inch of water in the bottom of the pot and cram, stuff, squeeze, and in all other ways force your greens on in there. Put your back into it.)
Uh oh, here come the Uticans. You’re supposed to boil the greens, this isn’t authentic, mew mew mew. Here’s the dumb thing about boiling greens: You might as well replace the actual greens with paper pulp or shredded packing peanuts. Boiling escarole will leave you with a pot of fragrant, green, nutrient-rich water, and handfuls of grey, bland, utterly replaceable zombie escarole. Don’t do this. Steaming will be faster—two or three times as fast—and will produce a much more flavorful finished product. Eat it, Rocco from Utica!
So! Steam your escarole in a huge pot with a heavy lid on top until it’s done a fair amount of shrinking, and then yank it all out of there and onto a cutting board or into a big bowl. You can do this according to your preference. I like my escarole significantly softened, but with some crunchy texture along the ribs. Maybe you want no crunch at all—if that’s the case, leave the escarole in the steam a bit longer. I’ve had Utica greens that were the consistency of creamed spinach, and they were goddamn wonderful. Do your thing.
While your escarole hangs out to the side, get your garlic and peppers going in some olive oil over medium heat in a deep sauté pan or saucier. A word on the peppers: Cherry peppers are festive and hot and delicious and will work perfectly here. Use four or five of them, chop them into thin strips, and throw the strips, plus the seeds, in with the garlic. If you can’t find them—and they’re usually sold in brine jars, a la pickles—it will be okay to substitute something like peperoncini, treated the same. You may also use friggitello, which are commonly sold as “pepperoncini” (note the extra “p”). Or! You can go crazy and use all of the above, which will be delicious.[Cue 10,000 residents of central New York going absolutely insane.]
Also, before we go any further, let’s talk about the prosciutto. Prosciutto is wonderful, and has a unique pungency that will do wonders for this or any other recipe. But! As readily available cured pork products go, prosciutto is a little expensive. Here it will not be the central ingredient, and so it will be okay to use pancetta instead. Prosciutto comes from a pig’s hind legs, whereas pancetta comes from (that’s right) the belly. It has also been cured, but has denser fat, a more straightforward ham flavor, and is usually sold in either small cubes or thin slices. If you go with pancetta, add a handful of either cubes or thin strips to your hot oil with the garlic and peppers. If you go with prosciutto, cut it into thin strips and set it aside for later addition.
Alright. Your garlic is doing the seductive garlic thing in the hot oil with the peppers, and your pancetta is in there popping and warming, and it’s all so wonderful. Don’t let the garlic burn! Just as it starts to turn light brown, dump all that goddamn escarole into the pan and toss it a few times to get a good mix.
What comes next will depend upon what exactly you’re looking for from your greens. If you like them on the fresh, green, and crunchy side, a few short minutes in the hot pan will be fine. If you think you’d prefer ’em in the creamed spinach style, stir ’em around for a while, adding a splash of chicken stock here and there as needed. Either way, there will come a point where the desired texture has been achieved. This is where things get downright indecent.
Into your greens you will now stir a giant handful of breadcrumbs, a giant handful of finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano or Grana Padano (or some combination thereof), and a glug or two of olive oil. Now, instead of a big hot pan of green stuff, you’ve got something substantial and obscenely rich. Now, you are beginning to understand.
But! We’re not done! Load that blob of goodness into an oven-safe casserole jam, sprinkle some more breadcrumbs and cheese over the top, and slide the whole thing under your hot broiler for a minute or two. Oh, yes. Ohhhhhhhhh, yes.
When the top is browned and you can’t take it anymore damn your eyes, yank the dish from under the broiler and grind some black pepper over that damn thing. That’s it. You’re done. You may now enter motherfucking heaven.
There is no wrong thing to do with these greens, up to and including waiting for them to cool slightly and then bathing in them. They will body the absolute hell out of any so-called main course you plate beside them, so it’s best to think of them as, at worst, a co-billed star with, say, hearty pasta or a pork chop. A splendid way to enjoy them is heaped onto a plate all by themselves, with nothing but a loaf of hot, crusty Italian bread and all the possibilities thereby presented. A Utica greens sandwich, for example, will be one of the very best sandwiches you’ve ever eaten in your entire life.
You’ve got the soft bitterness of the escarole, accented perfectly by the nuttiness and saltiness of the cheese. You’ve got the meaty chew of your cured pork. You’ve got surprising bursts of vinegary and/or spicy peppers. And you’ve got the rich gluten heft of the breadcrumbs. There is no ho-hum bite of these greens, no bite that is less than spectacular. You will find yourself wondering where the hell these greens have been all your damn life. You will feel a strong urge to strap these lovely greens into the passenger seat of your car, drive back to the grocery store, and introduce them to that shitty-punk cashier. Not so goddamn smart now, are you, smart-ass!
Don’t do it. If you do that, he will want to taste them, and that is bullshit. Hole up here in the kitchen with your greens and your loaf of bread and a glass of wine. Share with no one.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, hate-loves and writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Gawker, Vice Sports, and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll. He’ll be doing these every other Saturday; check the Foodspin archive here.
Lead art by Sam Woolley.
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