A beautiful bitter Italian spring leaf
“One of the things many people do not realise about Italian cooking is the extent to which vegetables take centre stage in a meal,” says respected Italian food writer and Borough Market demonstration chef Ursula Ferrigno. “This is especially true in the south of the country, where I am from. Meat is only eaten about once a week and it is mainly fish and vegetables that everyone loves.”
Escarole is part of the endive family and so has that trademark bitter edge to its flavour—a characteristic particularly loved by Italians. “In fact, Italians have traditionally believed bitter food and drinks help to stimulate the liver. This is important, because traditionally we believe the liver influences how happy you are. Italians actually call the liver the ‘happy organ’,” she says. “My grandmother used to say, ‘it is so good for you, it would even cure a wooden leg’.”
Escarole is a very dramatic-looking vegetable with a bright, almost lemon-yellow centre, the outer leaves darkening to green. The level of bitterness increases according to the darkness of the leaves, and our chef says this is a good way to judge the level of bitterness you want. “I would suggest keeping the yellow leaves raw and cooking the greener ones, if you are new to escarole,” Ursula advises. But even with the greener leaves, this lettuce only has a gentle bitterness which makes it a great way to start exploring the world of bitter foods.
Anoint with olive oil
As with most salad leaves, there are many ways to use it. The first is to simply add it to any leaf salad you are making—“this edge means it blends wonderfully well with the olive oils we love to anoint our leaves with”—and if you have tried radicchio in the past and found it too bitter, try substituting escarole.
One method Ursula suggests is to sauté or very gently chargrill the leaves and serve them with a pistachio pesto or an anchovy, garlic, lemon and parsley dressing—this will give it a wonderful texture, as well as flavour. Alternatively, “if you are making a light vegetable broth, ideal as spring starts to gather pace, add a good handful of chopped escarole leaves in near the end of the cooking,” says Ursula. “This way the lovely flavours of the escarole will still come through.”
This is the perfect time of year to try some, as the season starts at the end of winter and really gets going in spring—this beautifully frilly green can be found in abundance at Elsey and Bent right now.
“Back in Italy you will find it right across the country—from the north to the south. It is of equal importance all over, but the way it is cooked is down to regional tastes and the cook’s preferences,” Ursula continues. “I don’t see it used much in the UK, but it is such a wonderful vegetable that if more people get to know it, I’m sure it will become as popular across this country as it is in millions of Italian kitchens.”