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What the salad bowl has joined together

Many years ago, long before I was old enough to care about such things, my mother told me that she didn’t like escarole. It didn’t mean much at the time. I didn’t even know what esca­whatever was, nor, for that matter, why anyone would have an opinion about it. It was one of those wisps of information that blow through a childhood like tumbleweeds – quiet, aimless, a part of the background – those errant bits that, though we hardly know why, we sometimes hold onto. Like, say, the fact that my uncle Chris took his eggs with Tabasco sauce. Or the story of that horse who bit my uncle Jerry, and whom my uncle Jerry bit right back. That’s what escarole was like. My mom didn’t care for it, and that’s what I knew. I never thought to ask or wonder. And until pretty recently, I also never thought to actually try the stuff.

To her credit, my mother has since told me that back in those days, she didn’t really know what escarole was, either. She thought it was a funny sort of lettuce, bitter and unpleasant, though she’s not sure why. Maybe my grandmother didn’t like it. Go figure. At this point, it doesn’t much matter, because I’ve broken rank. This winter, I’ve fallen head-over-snow-boots for escarole. Never mind that it took me some twenty-odd years to try it: what the salad bowl has joined together, let no man put asunder.

Now, it didn’t happen overnight, mind you. It was a process, and I credit my friend Kate with getting it started. One night a year or so ago, she invited me over for what she called “crazy fiery Chinese fish,” also known as filets of salmon, lightly steamed and then doused in soy sauce with scallions and fresh ginger, with a slug of sputtering, near-boiling oil poured over the top. [A family specialty and quite delicious, if dangerous.] She served it with steamed white rice to soak up the juices and, as it would happen, a head of escarole that she had tossed quickly in a hot skillet and plated with wedges of lemon. I was stunned to find it such a likable thing: a spectrum of whites and pale greens, silky in spots, crisp in others, with a faintly edgy chicory flavor. It was a very good start. It got me at least looking every now and then in the direction of escarole, even if I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

But then, oh then, enter the salad bowl. Brandon had once told me that his old friend Steve often made salads with escarole, so a couple of months ago, faced with a very poor selection of greens at the market, we picked up a head and brought it home. Just like that. We’ve been eating escarole salads ever since. After all that fuss, I feel kind of pathetic. There’s hardly even a story to tell. As it turns out, escarole is easy to love. Especially its pale heart, which, when served raw, is actually a little sweeter than standard lettuce and barely bitter at all. It’s the only salad green I know to be leafy and crisp in the same bite, soft and resilient and springy under the fork. I don’t like escarole. I flat-out love it.

In recent weeks, we’ve tried a few variations on the escarole salad theme, including one at Zuni Café in San Francisco, with persimmons and pomegranate seeds and a fancy local olive oil. But the version I keep returning to is one of the simplest, a study in yellow and green. We chop the escarole into coarse shreds, chuck into a bowl with some shavings from a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano, and coat it with a variation on my usual vinaigrette. Then, at the table, it gets a few lashings of creamy avocado and some more shavings of cheese. All told, it’s our new house salad, and one that I’m happy to share with you. It was our Friday dinner. It was our Sunday lunch. And if the avocados on the counter continue to ripen as planned, for a little while at least, it may be our every meal.

Escarole Salad with Avocado and Parmesan

Now is the time for escarole. It’s in season from December to April, before summer’s greens shove it aside. When choosing your escarole, look for heads with large, pale yellow hearts. That’s the best and most valuable part. For our purposes, the darker outer leaves exist mainly to protect the inner ones and, in the process, can tend to get tough and slightly bitter. Once you’ve bought your escarole, wash it thoroughly: it’s dirty business. Brandon once saw Mario Batali – back in the beautiful early years of Molto Mario – soak his in multiple changes of cold water, so that’s what we do, as you’ll see in the instructions that follow.

The quantities below make a light Sunday lunch for two, along with some crusty bread and fruit to finish, but this salad could also serve three or four as a starter or side dish. You’ll likely have dressing left over, but since it works with nearly any salad, it shouldn’t cause too much trouble. Should you happen to be a fancy-vinegar fiend, you might try this salad with cognac vinegar. We had a Williams-Sonoma gift certificate to burn, so we picked up a bottle one day last fall, and it’s pretty wonderful here. Lastly, for other escarole salad ideas, hop over and read Tea’s take on the theme.

1 head escarole (for reference, ours have generally weighed about 9 ounces each)
½ firm-ripe avocado
A hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano
Crunchy sea salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel

For the dressing:
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard, preferably Grey Poupon
3 Tbsp. champagne vinegar
½ tsp. fine sea salt
5 Tbsp. olive oil

First, prepare the escarole. Pull off the outer layer of leaves, as well as any other tough, raggedy-looking ones, and set them aside for another use. [I like to sauté them over high heat and finish them with lemon, sort of like this.] Cut the head in half from stem to tip, and then cut each half crosswise into coarse strips about 1 inch wide. Pile the escarole into the basket of a salad spinner, place the basket inside its bowl, and fill with cold water. Swish the leaves around and let them soak for a minute or two; then pull the basket out of the bowl to drain them. Dump the water from the bowl and rinse it well to remove any dirt. Place the basket in the bowl again, fill with cold water once more, and soak the leaves again. Pull the basket from the bowl, and shake off any excess water. Dump the water from the bowl, place the basket inside, and spin the leaves until they are well dried. Turn them out into a salad bowl.

While the escarole is soaking, make the dressing. In a small bowl, combine the mustard, vinegar, and salt, and whisk well to combine. Add the oil a tablespoon at a time, whisking continuously to emulsify. Taste, and adjust vinegar-oil balance, if necessary.

Cut the avocado into thin slices. Place them in a bowl or on a plate, and set them on the table.

Using a vegetable peeler, shave a small palmful of Parmigiano Reggiano over the escarole in the bowl. Add a good splash of dressing, and toss to combine. Taste, and add dressing until the salad is dressed to your liking. Serve, with avocado, additional shavings of Parmigiano, and crunchy sea salt to taste.

Yield: 2 Sunday-lunch-size servings


Anonymous abby said...

I like the fact that it serves "two sunday lunch servings" that sounds good to me :)

7:01 PM, February 19, 2007  
Blogger Anali said...

Escarole is sweeter than lettuce??!! Why has the poor veggie gotten this bitter rap for all these years? I'm feeling a little duped. I guess I'll have to try some and change my ways...

7:04 PM, February 19, 2007  
Anonymous Luisa said...

I have never tried escarole raw, and since I'm currently obsessed with the amazing avocados here, I'm going to have to try this very soon indeed. This sounds like my kind of lunch!

I know you had no success with the cooked version, but in case anyone else is interested, I grew up eating my mother's escarole soup, which consisted of a fried onion in olive oil, a can of diced tomatoes, chopped escarole (relatively small pieces), a handful of rice and a rind of Parmigiano, all cooked together until soupy and fragrant. It was simple, peasant food with good, warming flavors. Not bad at all, though to be honest, your salad sounds better to my adult ears. :)

7:43 PM, February 19, 2007  
Blogger Kalyn said...

I just bought some esdarole, intending it to go in soup. Now I want to run to the refrigerator and taste a piece of it raw. I had no idea you could eat it in salad. Most interesting.

7:56 PM, February 19, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Yup, Abby, we had this for lunch yesterday, and it was perfect for a cool, sort-of-sunny Sunday. And we scraped the last bits of cheese and dressing out of the bowl with some bread from Ken's Artisan Bakery - mmm. I think you and James would approve.

Anali, I know, it's hard to believe! I'd always thought escarole was terribly bitter, but no - or not to my palate, at least. I think it has to do with seasonality. All the escarole we've bought lately has been wonderfully mild and sweet, but this is the height of its season. I'll bet it could get a good deal more strong and bitter in the off-season. And the outer, darker leaves are always more bitter than the inner, lighter ones, which are what you want to use here. Go get some!

Luisa, I hear you on those avocados! We've been buying them like they're going out of style! Haven't had a bad one yet. As for cooked escarole, your mother's soup sounds wonderful - so homey and warming! I love the thought of it. I also love escarole cooked this way. The only way I don't like it cooked is when it's been blanched or boiled - it gets sog-gy. Yucky, yucky, yucky.

Try it, Kalyn! Keep in mind that the inner leaves, the ones that are pale yellow or pale green, are sweeter and more mild than the outer ones. I can't vouch for the sweetness of those...

8:18 PM, February 19, 2007  
Blogger Catherine said...

I'll have to try escarole. I'm sure I've had it in salads out, but I don't think I've ever tried it at home. You're salad looks delicious: anything with avocados. And there's something wonderful about winter salads.

9:38 PM, February 19, 2007  
Blogger Emily said...

Wow. That sounds so fresh and springy and invigorating. I've never had escarole but now I'll try it too.

9:52 PM, February 19, 2007  
Blogger Brian Gardunia said...

My mom said the same thing in passing about brussel sprouts and I wouldn't touch them until my daughter begged to be able to buy the baby cabbages at the farmers market. Who could say no to a four year old begging to try brussel sprouts? We have eaten them ever since. We will have to try escarole. I have never even heard of it.

4:46 AM, February 20, 2007  
Anonymous rebekka said...

AMAZING. I've been sauteing escraole with olive oil and garlic for a while and I love the stuff so much. Why have I never eaten it raw? I'm definately trying this for dinner tonight. Off to the farmer's market, thanks!

6:19 AM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger hannah said...

so easy and so good. to me it is the little things that make you my culinary genius.

6:48 AM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger s'kat said...

If this works like your brussels sprouts recommendation, I'm in love all over again!

Just in time, as I'm pretty fed up with the boring-ass salads I've been suffering through as of late.

7:34 AM, February 20, 2007  
Anonymous ann said...

funny! I had the exact opposite escarole education! I grew up eating it raw from my mom's garden. It was only at Christmas that I learned it was supposed to be cooked.

In fact I have some in my fridge right now waiting to play with a batch of homemade chicken stock and polenta for dinner sometime this week.

8:09 AM, February 20, 2007  
Anonymous mary said...

I'll have to give this one a try. I've lately succumbed to the charms another member of the chicory family, the belgian endive, but it looks like this family has more to offer...

10:00 AM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger krista said...

I never tried escarole raw.

10:13 AM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger Uber Mer said...

I too have never had escarole raw, but I think I should give it try. Funny, I never thought to eat it any other way than cooked. I grew up loving "Italian wedding soup" which, in my family is made with escarole. So delish!

I'm glad you gave it another chance. I always find when I revist foods that I disliked as a child, I end up loving as an adult.

10:36 AM, February 20, 2007  
Anonymous bea at La tartine gourmande said...

This is one of my favorite salads! Especially when it is home grown. One of the few times when I can eat a large bowl and that is it, a piece of baguette and my mum's secret vinaigrette!

12:06 PM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger wheresmymind said...

I'm impressed with the sheer size of this post for a salad ;)

12:47 PM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger Kelly said...

Ooh. I've had that salad at Zuni-delicious. I did order it for the pomegranate seeds, though.

2:00 PM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Catherine, I agree - although salads seem like summer food, there's just something about winter ones. The flavors are often so much more robust and interesting. And with the avocados this winter - so good.

Oh Emily, do try it! It's really such a good green.

Brian, I love that your daughter is the one who got you into Brussels sprouts! Tell me - what does her grandmother think?

Rebekka, if you like escarole cooked, I think you'll LOVE it raw. It's much more mild this way, in my opinion, while still being plenty interesting.

Your "culinary genius"? Good lord, hannah, you are too kind! How much do I owe you for that?

S'kat, that's why I'm here: to save you from "boring-ass" salads! I hope this escarole formula works the same magic for you as the Brussels sprouts did. Between the parmesan and the avocado and the champagne vinaigrette, I think it should be hard to refuse...

Ann, are you going to post about this escarole / polenta / chicken stock dish of yours? I know a few people who might like to hear more...

Mary, if you like endive, escarole should be a shoo-in. To my palate, endive is actually a lot more bitter than its leafier cousin. I love them both, but for the moment, it's all escarole, all the time, over here.

Try it, Krista! It's surprisingly mild and has a really lovely texture.

Uber Mer, I've heard of Italian wedding soup a few times now, but I've never known quite what it was. Is it basically a beans-and-greens soup? I love the name of it.

I hear you, Bea! I've been eating lots of large bowls of this lately. Wish mine were homegrown, though - that sounds especially lovely.

What can I say, wheresmymind? It's a very inspiring salad.

Wasn't that Zuni salad great, Kelly? The dressing was so delicious - so juicy, for lack of a better word. Mmm.

2:45 PM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger Ovens2Betsy said...

Hi Molly,

I just made an escarole & meatball soup that's super fast and very tasty. Check it out at www.ovenstobetsy.com/blog!


3:23 PM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger Clare said...

I, too, had been afraid of escarole. Mainly because I had a bad experience with grilled raddiccio and I (for reasons I cannot recall) group them into the same family. Apparently grilling raddiccio is supposed to make them sweeter, when, in fact, mine became so bitter it was inedible!

That said, I am now inspired to try escarole. Here goes nothin'!

3:36 PM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger Tea said...

Great minds, indeed, my friend! And if only I could have cheese these days, I might have gone in a parmesan direction... Sounds delish.

Isn't it yummy stuff? I'm dying to try it in soup, but my escarole farmer hasn't had any the past few weeks (sigh). I finally discover its charms only to lose it so quickly.

I'm going to have to go back to Zuni for that salad again:-)

6:21 PM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger s@bd said...

oh yum.

oh yum yum yum.

thank you for ushering this maligned vegetable out of the closet of ... malign ..erm ... ency.


7:08 PM, February 20, 2007  
Blogger Inne said...

I hear you Molly - when I was a kid Saturday lunch was very often a cheap, supermarket pizza that always had one sad little black olive plonked on the top. My parents would always take that olive off the pizza and when I once asked them why, they said olives tasted disgusting. Of course, me being a child, I believed them and I never even thought of trying olives. Until I was at a party once and had to eat one out of politeness. I've loved them ever since (especially green ones stuffed with red peppers) and I've always got a fresh olive supply in my fridge.

3:30 AM, February 21, 2007  
Blogger Susan said...

Growing up we always ate escarole cooked(scarola e fagioli is classic comfort food), but my girlfriends would always complain that my mom's salad with raw escarole was bitter! I know I'll love your recipe.

6:01 AM, February 21, 2007  
Blogger Petroglifa said...

I'm really surprise that so few of you had never tasted before raw escarole.
In Catalonia it's very preciated and we make a very nice salad called Xató (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xat%C3%B3). It has escarole, tuna, anxovies, cod, and Xató dressing -olive oil, vinegar, hazelnuts, almonds, salt and nyora (a catalan sweet capsicum)-.

6:40 AM, February 21, 2007  
Blogger Shilpa said...

I assume everyone knows this because I usually figure things out later than other foodies, but did you know if you want your avocado to ripen on command, you leave it near bananas?
They put out some kind of pheromone that causes avocadoes to ripen!!
I leave my avos in the fridge until the morning of the day I want to eat them, then take them out and leave them near a bunch of ripening bananas on the counter - by that evening or the next morning (depending on how soft you want them) they are ready!!

11:16 AM, February 22, 2007  
Blogger Melindy said...

oh inspiration- escarole! Another veggie for me to try. The latest have been bok choy and broccoli rabe(have you tried broccoli rabe?). It appears I must get to it! Anything with avocado, parmesean reggiano and mustard is totally worth trying. I shall be. Maybe for Sunday lunch.

1:08 PM, February 22, 2007  
Anonymous ann said...

Hi Molly... No need to post this comment, but I wanted to let you know I did in fact post my "recipe" for braised escarole... Just wanted to let you know. Thanks again for your salad "recipe". I never would have thought to pair escarole & avocado. It sounds like a match made in heaven.

6:03 AM, February 23, 2007  
Blogger jora said...

Hi Molly -- just found your site and love, love, love it. I think I'm officially orangette-obsessed. This week I've made your Italian vegetable soup, spring salad, locra de papas (although it was marked in my issue of Gourmet, as well...) and this escarloe and avocado salad. In fact, we had the latter two last night together. Perfection. Thank you so much for all the culinary inspiration. I'm hooked.

8:05 AM, February 23, 2007  
Blogger Brian Gardunia said...

When I told my mom she made me promise not to ever have them when she was over. She hasn't had them since she was a child at her grandma's house and doesn't want anything to do with them. That from a woman who in recent years is a facultative vegetarian.

8:13 AM, February 23, 2007  
Anonymous Terry B said...

Looks and sounds delicious! I'm intrigued that your oil-to-vinegar/mustard ratio is five to four! Sounds pretty acetic and tart--the usual ratio is more three parts oil to one part vinegar [etcetera], although I sometimes do a two-to-one mix. How's the flavor/pucker level of this dressing?

10:18 AM, February 23, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Betsy, I LOVE the thought of that. Escarole and meatballs - amen. I was just talking to my uncle the other day about Italian wedding soup, and yours sounds like a very tasty version. For anyone who wants the permalink to Betsy's soup, here you go: click.

Clare, I know what you mean! I happen to love raw radicchio - in measured doses, of course, since it's bitter - but recently, we tried braising it in cream, and though it did mellow a little, it was so intense that I had a hell of a time eating it. Brandon had to tackle the leftovers alone...

Oh Tea, my friend, as a fellow escarole addict, I have my fingers crossed that your farmer has some for you soon! GROW, escarole, grow! xo

You're welcome, s@bd. My pleasure!

Inne, I was slow to come around to olives too - although my parents always loved them, so I had no excuse. I started eating them in France - those little oil-cured ones - when I was about 20, and now I LOVE them. If only my dad could see! He'd be so proud.

Susan, I wish I'd grown up eating escarole! Sounds as though there was a lot of good food in your childhood...

Petroglifa, that salad sounds wonderful. Wow. I would love to try that...

Great suggestion, Shilpa! Thank you. I'm sure all the hungry avocado eaters out there are grateful - myself included.

Yes, Melindy, do try it! If you like bok choy and broccoli rabe, I can't imagine it won't be a hit. Speaking of broccoli rabe, have you made anything like this? It's my favorite way to eat it.

Thank you, Ann, for posting your braised escarole with polenta! I just hopped over to see it, and it looks SO good.

Well, thank you, jora, for your kind words! I'm touched to know that I've inspired so much good cooking in your kitchen this week! That makes me so happy.

Oh Brian, that's terrible! But I guess it means more for you and your daughter, right?

Terry B, you're right - this does look like a rather large amount of vinegar for a typical vinaigrette! I learned to do it this way in France, and it's my favorite way to make it. I do like a bright, slightly tart dressing, but this one is pretty balanced and shouldn't taste too vinegary. I've never had any complaints - in fact, when I make it for friends, they always ask for the formula. I'd love to hear what you think, should you decide to try it. Keep in mind that depending on the type of vinegar I use, I sometimes have to add a bit more oil to taste, smelling and sampling until it feels right to my palate.

11:12 AM, February 23, 2007  
Blogger Max said...

You had me at avocado. Anything with avocado and I'm usually a willing participant. For some reason escarole brings thoughts of bitterness to mind as well, but I'll have to lay these thoughts to rest and try your salad. It sounds so refreshing for the middle of the winter!

1:41 PM, February 23, 2007  
Blogger tammy said...

Wow, that was one great salad we just polished off. Thanks for the inspiration. Confession: I was kind to myself and used the whole avocado!

5:25 PM, February 23, 2007  
Blogger Lisa said...

I'm eating this right now and OH.MY.GOD it is impossibly delicious! Yum!

6:27 PM, February 23, 2007  
Blogger BipolarLawyerCook said...

I didn't have any escarole, but I did get a fresh head of organic red romaine and an avocado in my Boston Organics Box. The flavor combination works almost as well as with escarole. Thanks for the inspiration!

6:31 AM, February 24, 2007  
Anonymous Nico said...

I just had this for lunch. Silly me, I was expecting less than stellar.

Damn you Molly, I will now have to keep myself from having this less than 7 times in the next week...

11:32 AM, February 24, 2007  
Blogger HoneyHoneyNY said...

I love escarole, both raw and cooked, and I've never had it taste bitter to me. But then again, I love most greens. I've never tried it with avocado though, I'm going to have a go with it.

8:51 PM, February 24, 2007  
Anonymous Chris said...

Oh - thank you! I am so excited...I always look for new ways to eat escarole. Love it!

3:54 PM, February 25, 2007  
Blogger Victoria said...

This recipe sounds really delicious, and I will try it this week, but I wonder, what does Orangette do with the other half of the avocado?

5:09 AM, February 26, 2007  
Blogger Anali said...

Hi Molly! I just wanted to let you know that you convinced me about the escarole. It's really good! I made a salad and was even inspired to do a post! Here it is if you'd like to read it.


7:46 AM, February 26, 2007  
Blogger wellunderstood said...

tried it myself, and it was delicious! substituted pecorino for the parmigiano, as i had a fat wedge of it in the fridge. hurrah for a raw escarole surprise!

10:56 AM, February 26, 2007  
Anonymous Becca said...

We eat escarole all the time...I have a cannellini bean soup that our kids love that has escarole wilted in at the last second. Great stuff!

3:22 PM, February 26, 2007  
Blogger Lia said...

Made this last night for a little Oscar dinner party and it was a huge hit! And I loved it so much that I'm having it for dinner (before some stuffed shells with arrabiata sauce) tonight. YUMMMM. Thanks as usual, Molly!

3:51 PM, February 26, 2007  
Blogger Lori in PA said...

I made this last night and it was lovely, lovely. For me, summer salads are all about tomatoes. Winter salads call on all my creative resources, and this one is a winner. Thank you.

10:13 AM, February 28, 2007  
Anonymous Kirsten said...

Thank you Molly - I have another new found fav! finally got around to trying this and am head over heels for escarole - you were spot on with the "silky" description.

i have been on an "alternate" greens craze as these winter days continue....this was wonderful

12:15 PM, February 28, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Hey all -

I just love all this good cheer for escarole! So happy to hear that many of you have tried and loved this salad. Hip, hip!

Happy salad-eating, friends.

5:43 PM, February 28, 2007  
Anonymous D said...

Sounds interesting. I've never even heard of it.

1:42 PM, March 02, 2007  
Blogger dc365 said...

I am a new orangette reader, and hosted dinner party last night that featured, among other things, this escarole salad and the chocolate truffle tart from a previous post. They were both BIG hits, and so easy! I am hooked now...

8:41 AM, March 04, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

So happy to hear it, dc365! Wish I could have come by for a forkful or two...

7:42 PM, March 06, 2007  
Blogger Rose said...

I bought escarole last weekend only because your post convinced me.And you know what??it's not bitter at all;like you said,just a hint of chicore taste. I loved it.

12:19 PM, March 20, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Oh good, Rose! I'm so glad you liked it. (By the way, I just hopped over to your site, and your macarons look gorgeous.)

9:39 AM, March 21, 2007  
Anonymous emily said...

My escarole was bitter, but still very good! I just bought it for the first time (by accident). When I tasted it plain, it was definitely bitter, about on par with lettuce stems in summer. I then added a dressing of equal parts pomegranate molasses, balsamic vinegar & olive oil. I had no problem eating it all, the assertive dressing stood up to the bitter. But don't feed this to your friends who are used to iceberg lettuce... My escarole was purchased from whole foods at the end of March, and grown in mexico. Maybe it changes with the season.

4:41 PM, March 31, 2007  
Anonymous D. @ Outside Oslo said...

This has become my new favorite salad. The dressing is irresistible, and I keep finding myself dipping leaves into the dressing--before and after serving it. So good. Thanks for sharing.

7:31 PM, January 24, 2010  

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