Many years ago, long before I was old enough to care about such things, my mother told me that she didn’t like escarole. It didn’t mean much at the time. I didn’t even know what escawhatever was, nor, for that matter, why anyone would have an opinion about it. It was one of those wisps of information that blow through a childhood like tumbleweeds – quiet, aimless, a part of the background – those errant bits that, though we hardly know why, we sometimes hold onto. Like, say, the fact that my uncle Chris took his eggs with Tabasco sauce. Or the story of that horse who bit my uncle Jerry, and whom my uncle Jerry bit right back. That’s what escarole was like. My mom didn’t care for it, and that’s what I knew. I never thought to ask or wonder. And until pretty recently, I also never thought to actually try the stuff.
To her credit, my mother has since told me that back in those days, she didn’t really know what escarole was, either. She thought it was a funny sort of lettuce, bitter and unpleasant, though she’s not sure why. Maybe my grandmother didn’t like it. Go figure. At this point, it doesn’t much matter, because I’ve broken rank. This winter, I’ve fallen head-over-snow-boots for escarole. Never mind that it took me some twenty-odd years to try it: what the salad bowl has joined together, let no man put asunder.
Now, it didn’t happen overnight, mind you. It was a process, and I credit my friend Kate with getting it started. One night a year or so ago, she invited me over for what she called “crazy fiery Chinese fish,” also known as filets of salmon, lightly steamed and then doused in soy sauce with scallions and fresh ginger, with a slug of sputtering, near-boiling oil poured over the top. [A family specialty and quite delicious, if dangerous.] She served it with steamed white rice to soak up the juices and, as it would happen, a head of escarole that she had tossed quickly in a hot skillet and plated with wedges of lemon. I was stunned to find it such a likable thing: a spectrum of whites and pale greens, silky in spots, crisp in others, with a faintly edgy chicory flavor. It was a very good start. It got me at least looking every now and then in the direction of escarole, even if I wasn’t sure what to do with it.
But then, oh then, enter the salad bowl. Brandon had once told me that his old friend Steve often made salads with escarole, so a couple of months ago, faced with a very poor selection of greens at the market, we picked up a head and brought it home. Just like that. We’ve been eating escarole salads ever since. After all that fuss, I feel kind of pathetic. There’s hardly even a story to tell. As it turns out, escarole is easy to love. Especially its pale heart, which, when served raw, is actually a little sweeter than standard lettuce and barely bitter at all. It’s the only salad green I know to be leafy and crisp in the same bite, soft and resilient and springy under the fork. I don’t like escarole. I flat-out love it.
In recent weeks, we’ve tried a few variations on the escarole salad theme, including one at Zuni Café in San Francisco, with persimmons and pomegranate seeds and a fancy local olive oil. But the version I keep returning to is one of the simplest, a study in yellow and green. We chop the escarole into coarse shreds, chuck into a bowl with some shavings from a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano, and coat it with a variation on my usual vinaigrette. Then, at the table, it gets a few lashings of creamy avocado and some more shavings of cheese. All told, it’s our new house salad, and one that I’m happy to share with you. It was our Friday dinner. It was our Sunday lunch. And if the avocados on the counter continue to ripen as planned, for a little while at least, it may be our every meal.
Escarole Salad with Avocado and Parmesan
Now is the time for escarole. It’s in season from December to April, before summer’s greens shove it aside. When choosing your escarole, look for heads with large, pale yellow hearts. That’s the best and most valuable part. For our purposes, the darker outer leaves exist mainly to protect the inner ones and, in the process, can tend to get tough and slightly bitter. Once you’ve bought your escarole, wash it thoroughly: it’s dirty business. Brandon once saw Mario Batali – back in the beautiful early years of Molto Mario – soak his in multiple changes of cold water, so that’s what we do, as you’ll see in the instructions that follow.
The quantities below make a light Sunday lunch for two, along with some crusty bread and fruit to finish, but this salad could also serve three or four as a starter or side dish. You’ll likely have dressing left over, but since it works with nearly any salad, it shouldn’t cause too much trouble. Should you happen to be a fancy-vinegar fiend, you might try this salad with cognac vinegar. We had a Williams-Sonoma gift certificate to burn, so we picked up a bottle one day last fall, and it’s pretty wonderful here. Lastly, for other escarole salad ideas, hop over and read Tea’s take on the theme.
1 head escarole (for reference, ours have generally weighed about 9 ounces each)
½ firm-ripe avocado
A hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano
Crunchy sea salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel
For the dressing:
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard, preferably Grey Poupon
3 Tbsp. champagne vinegar
½ tsp. fine sea salt
5 Tbsp. olive oil
First, prepare the escarole. Pull off the outer layer of leaves, as well as any other tough, raggedy-looking ones, and set them aside for another use. [I like to sauté them over high heat and finish them with lemon, sort of like this.] Cut the head in half from stem to tip, and then cut each half crosswise into coarse strips about 1 inch wide. Pile the escarole into the basket of a salad spinner, place the basket inside its bowl, and fill with cold water. Swish the leaves around and let them soak for a minute or two; then pull the basket out of the bowl to drain them. Dump the water from the bowl and rinse it well to remove any dirt. Place the basket in the bowl again, fill with cold water once more, and soak the leaves again. Pull the basket from the bowl, and shake off any excess water. Dump the water from the bowl, place the basket inside, and spin the leaves until they are well dried. Turn them out into a salad bowl.
While the escarole is soaking, make the dressing. In a small bowl, combine the mustard, vinegar, and salt, and whisk well to combine. Add the oil a tablespoon at a time, whisking continuously to emulsify. Taste, and adjust vinegar-oil balance, if necessary.
Cut the avocado into thin slices. Place them in a bowl or on a plate, and set them on the table.
Using a vegetable peeler, shave a small palmful of Parmigiano Reggiano over the escarole in the bowl. Add a good splash of dressing, and toss to combine. Taste, and add dressing until the salad is dressed to your liking. Serve, with avocado, additional shavings of Parmigiano, and crunchy sea salt to taste.
Yield: 2 Sunday-lunch-size servings