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Another late season green — escarole

Escarole in a garden (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

The days are getting shorter. The trees stand tall, pointing their dark, bare branches at the leaden gray sky. Even the tamaracks are beginning to shed their showy golden needles.

But autumn gardens still produce roots and winter greens. Among these is escarole, an Italian classic from the endive family that is part of the larger Asteraceae group which also includes asters and daisies.

Because this hardy green lasts late into the growing season, likes cool temperatures and thrives in a wide range of moist, well-drained soils, it does well in our region. In fact, a little rain during harvest time brings out its best qualities. In warmer climates, escarole is used as a winter vegetable.

This broad-leafed green is less bitter than other endive varieties. It looks a little like butterhead lettuce, but lacks the velvety softness and instead has fleshy leaves with jagged, pointy edges. Their tough texture and slight bitterness can be somewhat daunting.

The inner core is lighter in color and milder in flavor than the dark green leaves. The different layers can be used to attain the desired taste for a particular dish, making escarole versatile for both cooking and eating fresh in salads. The pale, inner leaves can be incorporated into a salad, while the darker outer leaves are better braised.

Cannellini bean, escarole and root vegetable skillet (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

Like other leafy greens, escarole is low in calories and is an excellent source of fiber, calcium, folate, vitamins A, C and K, iron, magnesium, potassium, thiamin and riboflavin. It has been used in folk medicine as a digestive aid, laxative and diuretic, as well as an anti-inflammatory.

Historians aren’t certain of its origins. Along with other endives, escarole probably got its start in the eastern Mediterranean region or possibly India. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all cultivated it. The Roman poet Ovid wrote about it. Today it remains a common vegetable in Mediterranean cuisine. In Italy and Sicily, it is common in soups, salads, bean dishes, risottos and pastas.

This versatile green can be cooked, steamed, sauteed or stir-fried. Cooking mellows its bitter flavor, which becomes buttery and sweet. Escarole combines well with winter squash and sweet root vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips or beets. Serve it as a side dish with chopped apples or nuts, or sauteed with garlic and hot peppers. Cooked this way, it makes a good sandwich filling or a topping for fish or chicken. It also goes well with beans, lentils or chickpeas, nuts, raisins, oranges and avocado. To eat raw in a salad, mix with other, less pungent greens and serve with a bold vinaigrette dressing, topped with tomatoes and croutons or nuts.

Since its leaves hold their shape well, escarole is one of the easiest greens to prep. Discard the tough bottom stem along with any damaged outer leaves. Wash the leaves in a bucket of cool water as you would other greens, swishing it around to release clinging sand and dirt. Drain. Spin dry for a salad or use with clinging water if cooking. Use the smaller leaves whole and chop the larger ones crosswise.

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Pasta with Cannellini Beans, Escarole and Root Vegetables

Ingredients:

2 slices bacon

6 to 8 ounces pasta

1 onion

2 carrot (about 2 cups)

1 kohlrabi (about 1 cup)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 head escarole, coarsely chopped (about 4 to 6 cups)

2 cloves garlic, pressed

1 (15.5 ounce) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 cup diced tomatoes

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

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Directions:

Wash and chop the escarole. Set aside to drain.

Place bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook until crisp, 7 to 8 minutes.

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Remove the bacon and reserve. Keep the drippings in the pan.

While the bacon is cooking, peel and dice the onion. Peel the kohlrabi and slice into matchsticks. Scrub the carrot and slice the same way.

Add olive oil to the bacon drippings and heat for 1 minute. Add the onion, carrot and kohlrabi, cover, lower heat and cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In the meantime, press or mince the garlic. Add garlic and escarole to cooking vegetables, stir, and cook for 8 to 10 more minutes, or until tender. Add the beans and tomatoes, and season with red pepper flakes. Cook about 5 minutes until heated through.

Serve over cooked pasta. Top with the reserved crumbled bacon and Parmesan cheese.

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Italian Escarole Soup

Ingredients:

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 onion

1 or 2 cloves garlic

1 small carrot

1 small parsnip

1 stalk celery

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 cups chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or cayenne 

4 to 6 cups escarole (use darker outer leaves)

1 or 2 cups cooked beans or lentils

1 cup freshly grated Mozzarella cheese

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Directions:

Heat olive oil in bottom of large soup pot. Peel and dice the onion, and add. Peel and mince the garlic and cook until onion is translucent about 5 minutes. Shred the carrot and parsnip and slice the stalk of celery thinly. Stir in.

Add the chicken broth, seasonings and escarole, and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook 10 to 15 minutes, until escarole is tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in cooked lentils or beans and freshly grated Mozzarella cheese and continue to simmer, stirring, just until cheese melts.

Pass additional cheese at the table. Serve with crusty Italian or whole-grain bread and a salad of sweet root vegetables seasoned with a light vinaigrette.

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Escarole, Fennel and Apple Salad

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Ingredients:

For the dressing:

1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoons honey

2 Tablespoons olive oil

2 cups pale green escarole leaves

2 cups spinach

2 cups lettuce (such as Romaine or red leaf)

1 small sweet onion

1 fennel bulb

1 apple

Cheese or croutons for garnish

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Directions:

Prepare greens by washing, draining, and tearing to size. Set aside. Cut out and discard core of fennel bulb, then cut crosswise into thin slices. Peel onion and slice into thin rings. Core and quarter the apple, slice, and sprinkle with a little lemon juice or cider vinegar to keep from browning.

In bottom of salad bowl, combine vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper, and honey; blend well. Pour in oil in a thin stream while whisking. Toss in the greens, mixing until coated with the dressing. Add onion, fennel, and apple, and stir well to combine. Garnish each serving with crumbled feta or shredded sharp cheddar, or croutons.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at “mailto:yvonawrite@yahoo.com”>yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at “Words are my World.”

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