Is it just me, or are baking and cooking just kind of magical? Think about making a cake, for instance. You start by measuring out a bunch of completely different ingredients, potion-like -- powdery flour, grainy sugar, unctuous butter, a few rather slimy eggs, a drop of fragrant vanilla, a bit of all-mighty baking powder, its leavening power all contained in a mere teaspoon -- combine them, place the mixture in a pan and then into the oven, and voilà! What was before a bowl of gooey, nondescript batter has transformed into a tall, proud, and hopefully delicious cake. Or how about this one? You take a few potatoes -- brown, unremarkable, akin to a pile of rocks, covered in dirt -- give them a bit of washing, toss them with some olive oil and salt and pepper, and leave them to roast in the oven, where they transform into gems of deliciousness, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, redolent of garlic and rosemary (that's how I do my potatoes anyways). And don't get me started on onions! What begins as a pungent, tear-inducing vegetable becomes sweet, mild, and candy-like when slowly cooked with a little butter (and patience) over low heat. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is this: even after all my years of cooking, I still marvel at these little transformations, changes, and shifts that occur in the kitchen, and I think that baking and cooking is probably the closest I'll ever come to having magical powers. Step aside, Hermione Granger.
Escarole, if you hadn't heard, also possesses magical properties. Known as scarola in Italian, it is a winter green, part of the endive family, with pale green leaves that have a slightly bitter flavor (though not as bitter as cicoria). So, why is escarole so magical, you might ask? Escarole (like spinach, kale, and other greens) pulls a bit of a vanishing act. Its astounding, really -- what starts as a great big bunch of leafy, unruly greens (so unruly in fact that they occupy nearly a whole shelf of your refrigerator, leaving you certain that you'll have escarole to last you the whole week) disappears, transforming itself in to a small bunch of greens the moment they begin to cook, shrinking to nearly half their original size, instantly. This tiny bit of alchemy never ceases to amaze me -- seriously, that little pile of escarole there was a whole pound of greens! -- which brings me to today's recipe, escarole served with white beans, or rather, simple, rustic Italian cooking at its best. With only four ingredients, scarola e fagioli may not seem like much, but it would be a mistake to underestimate it. Here we have slow-cooked (magical) greens turned silky once they spend a bit of time sizzling in a bit of olive oil, all the while taking on the spicy, sharp flavor of the garlic (as greens have a way of doing) balanced nicely by the mild, creamy white beans and jolted awake with a little hot pepper. Served with a little bread and potatoes or sausage on the side, its become my new favorite week night meal. Bonus: its nutritious and takes no time and minimal effort to prepare, no wand required.
Looking for other vegetable-y dishes? Check out these Green Beans with Pancetta, Caramelized Shallots, and Lemon, this Cicoria ripassata alla romana, these Squash and Sage Pancakes, these Herb Roasted Purple and Orange Carrots, this Sicilian Eggplant Caponata, this Chickpea and Kale Soup, this Asparagus with Parmesan and Prosciutto, or these Zucchini, Cherry Tomato, or Butternut Squash tarts.
SCAROLA E FAGIOLI
Red pepper flakes
2 pounds (about 1 kilo) of escarole
3 cloves garlic
1 can (400 gram can) of white beans, drained
Cut the leaves from the base stalks and rinse them under cold water to remove any bits of dirt that may still be hanging around. Place in a bowl (it's okay if there is still a little water clinging to the leaves) and chop or tear the leaves into coarse pieces.
Heat the olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the skillet generously) in a large skillet over medium heat and add the garlic and red pepper flakes, to taste. Let the garlic flavor the olive oil for 2 or so minutes, then add the escarole a few bunches at a time, adding more escarole as the leaves do their disappearing act and cook down. Let the escarole cook until wilted -- this will take about 15-20 or so minutes -- and until any water still on the leaves has evaporated. Season to taste with salt. Add the beans to the escarole mixture, and stir until heated throughout. Taste and season again with salt, if needed. Serve immediately, with bread on the side. Serves 4.