Escarole is a member of the chicory family, a form of endive with broad green leaves that’s easy to confuse with a head of curly lettuce. Like other chicories, radicchio and endive, those lush leaves come with a bitter edge.
Paige Witherington of Serenbe Farm says her foodie customers and those who have lived in Europe recognize it. “Escarole does take customer education. We have put it in our [community-supported agriculture] shares and hear comments of that ‘bitter head of lettuce’ despite our newsletter featuring the crop. We now make sure that we not only highlight the virtues of escarole in our newsletters but also communicate to each member in person that they need to be prepared for the bitter taste and not be afraid to cook the escarole leaves,” said Witherington.
She sometimes offers her community-supported agriculture participants a choice of leafy greens: escarole, arugula, lettuce or radicchio, so they can experiment if they wish and make a colorful salad or dish.
The farm’s community-supported agriculture program has pickup points at the farm and around Atlanta. It’s taking on new members now and is already half full for the season. Its produce can also be found at the Serenbe Farmers and Artists Market, which will be back in full swing the first Saturday in May. The farm’s produce also goes to local restaurants including those in the Serenbe community.
Witherington just started growing escarole two years ago to extend what could be grown year-round. “We grow it just like lettuce as it’s a close relative. We typically give escarole heads a little more space than lettuce, eight inches in the row with rows about 14 inches apart. This allows the heads to grow big and full. Escarole doesn’t appreciate the heat but we’ve still been able to harvest into May,” she said.
An apprenticeship on a farm in the Hudson Valley of New York was Witherington’s introduction to escarole, and now it’s something she craves. She makes an escarole and white bean soup that can be dressed up with bacon, sausage or ham, or reduced down and drizzled over buckwheat noodles. “It’s so yummy, hardy and simple. If we get tired of the soup, we also make a wilted salad with it with whatever toppings we have on hand,” she said.
Cooking tones down the bitterness, so if you’re new to escarole a quick saute is a good way to start. A small head of escarole will yield about five cups of torn leaves that will cook down to a fraction of their volume. A cup of escarole has only 20 calories, and a head should hold in your refrigerator for about a week.
At local farmers markets
Green Market at Piedmont Park now open. Saturdays 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. www.piedmontpark.org
Vegetables: arugula, Asian greens, beets, cabbage, carrots, celery, chard, collards, dandelion, endive, escarole, green garlic, green onions, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, mustard greens, radishes, rutabaga, spinach, sweet potatoes, turnips
-- From local reports
Hands on: 15 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
This milky preparation softens any bitterness in the escarole.
1 head escarole, end removed, leaves cut into 2-inch pieces (about 1 1/4 pounds)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup skim milk
Salt and pepper
1 cup fresh bread crumbs (about 2 slices bread)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a 1-quart baking dish.
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. When water is boiling, add escarole and cook 5 minutes. Drain into colander. When cool, squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
While escarole is cooling, in a small saucepan melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat. Add shallot and garlic and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add flour and stir over heat 1 minute. Whisk in milk and cook until mixture comes to a boil and thickens, about 2 minutes. Season to taste. Stir in drained escarole and put into prepared baking dish.
Melt remaining tablespoon butter and stir into bread crumbs. Spread bread crumbs on top of escarole mixture and bake 15 minutes or until bubbling. Cool slightly before serving.
Per serving: 96 calories (percent of calories from fat, 40), 4 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 4 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 11 milligrams cholesterol, 83 milligrams sodium.