Saturday, March 27, 2010

Escarole is my "vegetable destiny" at the farmers market

escarole from wickenden on flickr One of the challenges — and joys — of shopping at the farmers market is that it can shake up your plans: you might be a week too early or a week too late for a certain product, or the farmer might not have harvested it that week. And so, flexibility is needed. For last Sunday's dinner, I planned on making free-form lasagna filled with a fennel-mushroom sauté and ricotta cheese, topped with a tomato sauce made from Yes We Can! tomatoes. As a side dish, my initial idea was to go with a simple classic: braised rapini (broccoli rabe).

Alas, there was no rapini in the market that day. But escarole was on special at the Happy Boy stand, so I followed that morning's "vegetable destiny" and bought a head.

Elizabeth Schneider's "Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini" says that the two vegetables marketed as escarole (Cichorium endivia) — curly and broad-leaved — are in the endive family. But confusingly, curly endive is marketed as “chicory” or “curly chicory,” even though it is not a chicory. And then, it turns out, Belgian endive (Cichorium intybus)* is not a “true endive”, but is actually a chicory. Vegetable names can be so confusing sometimes.

Anyway, the curly endive plant, is actually the source of two marketable plants. One looks like a head of leaf lettuce with bright green leaves and a white base. The other is frisée, a pale vegetable with thin spidery leaves, which is made by “field blanching.” The word "blanch" here doesn't refer to the cooking process, but instead refers to pigment prevention: while still in the field, the plants are protected from light and weighted down, sometimes with boards, sometimes with cups, in order to maintain their pale pigmentation.

The escarole I bought was the broad-leaved variety. The outside leaves are somewhat tough, while the inside leaves are tender. For some reason, I had the phrase "escarole and beans" running through my head — perhaps I saw it on a Italian cooking show on TV (it seems that Lidia is always on public TV, and one of my channel surfs might have caught her talking about the combination). So I cooked some cannellini beans, sautéed some onion, and then braised most of the escarole. The result was a superb combination of hearty beans, warm rosemary, and the slight bitterness of the escarole.

Recipe: Escarole and cannellini beans

Cooking oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1-2 cloves garlic, finely minced
3/4 head escarole, washed and coarsely chopped
2 cups cooked cannellini beans (see notes)
Fresh or dried rosemary to taste (a teaspoon or two)
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat some oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until tender (a few minutes), stirring frequently. Stir in the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then pour in the escarole. Mix well, turn the heat to low, and cover. Cook for a few minutes until escarole is tender. Pour in the beans, and season with herbs, salt and pepper. Increase the heat to medium high and cook until heated through.


I'm partial to beans from Rancho Gordo and Phipps Country Store and Farm. I have had good luck using the following method:

  • Rinse, then cover with cool water. Soak for several hours, then drain and rinse
  • Heat oil in a saucepan over medium heat, add minced onion (and, optionally, diced carrot and celery), cook until tender
  • Add beans and water
  • Raise the heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil. Let boil for a minute or two.
  • Pour everything into a slow cooker.
  • Add herbs as desired (thyme, rosemary, bay leaf).
  • Cook until tender (a few hours), then add salt to taste.

The solar cooker is also a great way to cook beans if you have one, plus the sun and time.

If you eat pork, the addition of cooked Italian sausage or bacon can be an impressive flavor booster.

* The plant that produces Belgian endive also gives us the chicory root that is used as a coffee flavoring in New Orleans-style coffee.

Random link from the archive:In past centuries, ketchup wasn't all about tomatoes

Photo of Escarole in a colander from wickenden's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Making infused syrups

IMG_8922To bring liquid interest to my meals, I’ve been experimenting with home-made sodas. Or, more precisely, I’ve been experimenting with flavored syrups, as my sodas are simply some syrup topped by chilled sparkling water and perhaps a dash of Angostura bitters.

The possibilities are almost endless: aromatic leaves and roots from Asian cuisine, spices (the cardamom soda at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley is splendid), citrus zest, vanilla beans, berries, lavender, and so on. For many infusions, it’s almost as simple as making a cup of tea: heat water, sugar and the flavoring ingredients together, then cool and strain. For infusions with fresh produce, like a strawberry syrup, a different approach is needed, macerating the fruit in sugar, then cooking the mixture to obtain a syrup – a process similar to jam making but with far less cooking (no need to get the “set”).

Here’s one of my favorite base flavors: ginger, makrut lime and lemongrass. I’m still working on the timing for the infusion, thinking that a better flavor might be obtained by adding the lime leaves after the liquid has come to a boil.

Thai-Inspired Syrup

10 grams peeled ginger root, sliced
3 paired makrut lime leaves* (i.e., 6 leaf segments total)
20 grams lemon grass, sliced
225 grams water (1 cup)
225 grams sugar (about 1 cup)

Combine all of the ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan, bring to a boil over medium heat. Let boil for about a minute, then turn off the heat and cover. Let steep for five to ten minutes. Pour into a heat-proof container through a fine strainer and allow to cool. Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator.

To serve, pour 15-30 mL (1-2 tablespoons) into a glass and top with 350 mL (12 fl. oz.) chilled sparkling water.

* Citrus hystrix, an Asian lime with double-segmented leaves. Most famously used in Thai curries, salads and soups, the leaves impart a magical aroma and subtle flavor. You can sometimes find them in Asian grocery stores, or in groceries that carry more exotic ingredients (like Berkeley Bowl, Monterey Market, and possibly some Whole Foods).

Random link from the archive:The grocery bag pannier makes shopping by bicycle easier