For what ever reason (tradition, habit, nostalgia) for as long as I remember there were seasons of foods in my family. Spring was a time for lighter fare reminiscent of the awakening world around us; Summer was grilling, picnic salads and simple, quick meals to sustain those on-the-go days — then as the colder weather of Fall set in we turned toward more satisfying, carb-filled “comfort foods” like hearty soups, pasta, and casseroles… eagerly followed by the festive fare that goes along with the Holidays… and so on into Winter with its rich roasts and stews. With all that in mind, I recently whipped up a batch of a classic Italian-American comfort food Escarole & Beans otherwise known as “greens and beans.”
I’ve mentioned before, in our house growing up, “greens” usually meant escarole. Other greens like spinach, Swiss chard, mustard greens or beet greens were eaten occasionally as a side dish (and always sprinkled with vinegar) — my Grandma or Great-Aunt also cooked up dandelion greens and broccoli rabe from the back yard — but kale was not even on our radar. As a matter of fact, I’d never heard of kale until I was working in food service in the 80’s and kale was used exclusively as a decorative element lining salad bars and food trays (kale is such a hearty vegetable that we often re-used it over and over). And collard greens didn’t become part of my diet until the advent of the BBQ restaurant trend in the 90’s. Despite the limits to our greens repertoire… the Lista family enjoyed them fairly often.
Even my non-Italian maternal Grandfather, “Grampa Gailor” would cook up what he called “break greens” (I suspect they were fiddle head ferns) that he gathered up every spring “down by the creek” while fishing. He would bring home a big bunch of these ferns and cook them in his old cast iron skillet (which he never washed) with bacon grease (from the coffee can by the sink) and some “Eye-talian” seasoning. Talk about comfort food!
So getting back to Escarole & Beans… for me this is a perfect cold weather meal for a work day. It goes together quickly, can be easily adjusted for more people, can be as mild or spicy as you want, and gives you that comfort food unctuousness without having a lot of added fat. The beans and Romano cheese give this dish a creamy melt-in-your-mouth feel while the escarole provides substance and just a hint of bitterness in contrast.
Although I have traditionally made this with chicken broth, feel free to use readily available vegetable broth — leave out anchovy and cheese for the vegan folks. If you want to make this more of a soup, just add additional broth (about 2-3 cups).
If you’re looking for an added element to make this dish even more substantial — try adding some sliced cooked Italian sausage with the beans (one of my favorite ways to make it). To “fancy it up” for serving guests try toasting some coarse breadcrumbs in a skillet with a little olive oil, mix in some fresh chopped parsley and Romano cheese… put the finished Escarole & Beans in an oven proof serving dish and sprinkle the bread crumb mixture over the top — pop under the broiler for a minute or two and serve.
Escarole & Beans
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
1/4 cup Olive Oil
3 cloves Garlic – chopped
3 Anchovy Fillets (optional)
1 pinch Crushed Red Pepper
1 large head Escarole – washed, trimmed, and cut into 1 inch pieces
3/4 cup Chicken or Vegetable Broth
1 (16 oz.) can Cannellini Beans – rinsed
Salt and Black Pepper – to taste
¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano Cheese (plus more for topping)
Crushed Red Pepper for topping (optional)
1. Heat oil in a large deep skillet with lid over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the anchovies and red pepper and cook until the anchovies break down about 2-3 minutes.
2. Add in the broth and beans and bring to a simmer. Add the escarole to the pan and stir until the wilted about 2 minutes. Place the lid on the pot and cook for about 10 minutes or until some of the liquid is reduced. Turn off heat.
3. Uncover and stir in the Roman cheese, cover and allow to rest for about 2-3 minutes before serving.
4. Serve in shallow bowls, top Escarole & Beans with additional Romano cheese and a pinch of red pepper (if desired). Serve with good, crusty Italian bread or rolls for sopping up the sauce.
There you have it, Escarole & Beans, a quick and easy classic Italian-American comfort food dish to warm you up on a cold, rainy fall afternoon. I hope you cook and enjoy this version sometime soon.
Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”