Escarole, by Todd Lynch.
Recipe below: Escarole Salad with Radishes, Ricotta Salata, and Garlic Croutons
There were certain foods that set an Italo-American family apart from other households in our New York neighborhood. Each family had its Italian staples. What ours always had on hand tells a historical tale straight from the Mezzogiorno. Eggplant, provolone, anchovies, broccoli rabe, and escarole were high up on the list of “foreign” foods we considered a normal part of life. They were always there, fitting effortlessly into all kinds of meals. Escarole salads came out at the end of dinner, sickeningly bitter and tough to outsiders, but eagerly awaited by us. So good after spaghetti with red clam sauce.
Things have been difficult around here the past few weeks. My mother, maker of the perfect escarole salad, is in the hospital again, all up and down and uncertain. When she gets sick, which has been often in the last few years, I find myself cooking what she taught me. But taught is not really the correct word. My mother never asked me into the kitchen to cook by her side. She was too irritable for that. She showed me, though, because I was watching. She believed that escarole with olive oil and lemon was the perfect digestivo and essential to good health. She brought it and other strongly flavored green things to the table, and she never questioned that we would eat them and like them and then anticipate their reappearance in the future.
I like escarole salad presented freely with just a swirl of oil and lemon or vinegar drizzled into the bowl, but I also like it with stuff added, as in the version I offer here, which has touches of springtime. Salty, crumbly ricotta salata goes exceptionally well with the crunch and bitter of escarole. So this salad’s for you, Mom. Feel better soon, and thanks for showing me how.
Note: In late spring I start seeing young escarole in my Greenmarket. I try to use it for salads, since the leaves are bright green and tender. The tougher supermarket stuff is best for sautéing with garlic, anchovies, and hot chili, as my family always made it. If you can only find older heads, just use their inner tender leaves for this salad.
2 large, thick slices of day-old Italian bread, cut into 1-inch croutons, leaving the crust on (you’ll want about a cup or so of croutons)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
2 or 3 young heads of escarole, or an equivalent amount of inner leaves from older heads, torn into pieces
3 French breakfast radishes, thinly sliced on an angle, leaving on any tender green stems
1 small head of fennel, thinly sliced
2 scallions, thinly sliced, using some of the tender green part
About 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 anchovy fillets, minced
A dozen or more large shavings of ricotta salata
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Spread the croutons out on a sheet pan, and stick them in the oven until they’re crisp and fairly dry, probably in about 15 minutes.
Heat a little olive oil in a small skillet. When it’s hot, add the croutons, half the minced garlic, and a little salt and black pepper. Sauté until golden, about 2 or 3 minutes.
Put the escarole in a large salad bowl. Add the radish slices, fennel, and scallion.
In a small bowl, mix the lemon juice, minced anchovy, the rest of the garlic, and a touch of salt. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and whisk it in. Add more lemon juice if needed.
Grind a good amount of black pepper over the salad, and pour on the dressing. Toss lightly. Add the croutons, and toss again. Top with the ricotta salata shavings.