“Do you want a bag of escarole?” asked a friend as I picked my son up from her house.
I had no idea what I would do with it—I’ve only ever put it in soup, and I wasn’t about to make soup in this balmy weather. But there’s something in the genes of an Italian-American—you simply can’t turn down escarole when it’s offered to you. “Sure,” I said.
“I tried to make Utica greens last week,” she said, “but it didn’t work—the escarole was too tough and bitter.” But as she described the process, and the ingredients that make this iconic Utica, New York, side dish—Italian pork of some sort, garlic, breadcrumbs, hot chile flakes, grated cheese—my stomach started rumbling. Suddenly Utica greens needed to be in my near future.
I estimated that escarole was like another favorite of mine, dandelion greens, where they have to be boiled first—and not just the two minutes that you might blanche green beans or asparagus for, but more like ten—to tenderize them and remove just enough bitterness to balance out their flavor. You can get a genius-simple recipe for dandelion greens from my colleague Gina Marie Miraglia-Eriquez here.
So I did blanche that escarole (we were also eating pasta last night, so I already had the pot of salted water going), and meanwhile sauteed some homemade breadcrumbs* in butter and removed them from the pan. I added a bit more butter, some garlic cloves, some salami cut into strips (it was all we had in the deli drawer that would fit the bill), and some red chile flakes. Finally, I added back the escarole and sprinkled with a little more salt**.
I spooned this into a bowl and scattered the crumbs on top. Typically, there would be some cheese in there too—my guess is a pungent and salty candidate, like pecorino romano, but I skipped it—I don’t actually like my side veg to be so rich that it needs its own side veg. And it was completely scrumptious.
*If you don’t already do it, start keeping homemade breadcrumbs in the house. When you have some leftover crusty bread, toast it in the oven a bit, then whir it in the food processor, and throw this into an airtight container in the freezer. They will be indispensible when you’re making meatballs, stuffed anything, or your new favorite, Utica greens.
**Disclaimer: I have arguably never eaten real Utica greens, so I am not claiming that there’s anything authentic going on here. I ate them one time in an atrocious Syracuse Italian-American joint, which I will not name here, but if you really want to gossip about it you can send me a private message. They were totally gross, but I thought the idea was still a good one.