Comfort Food…everyone has a personal definition of this and many times the same dishes will find their way into people’s ideas of what foods are most “comforting”. My experience is that blend of American as well as immigrant Italian notions of what is “comfort food”. I can list 10 blogs full of them (I need lots of comfort) but one that is right at the top is the very delicious ESCAROLE AND BEANS (SCAROLA E FAGIOLI), a “soup” or a one pot dish of olive oil, aromatics, fresh escarole and cannellini beans. Italian-Americans all fall in line on this dish, it’s well loved and non-Italian-Americans who have eaten it feel the same way. It’s a culinary hug. What a dish like this does for you no reservation at Noma in Copenhagen or at the table of Ferran Adria’ of the former elBulli will do for you. Those types of foods are wonderfully rare and exceptional culinary experiences. Things to be savored by a select lucky few. A steamy bowl of escarole and beans is universal. We all can approach this, it’s ingredients price points are within most people’s reach and it’s quite simple to make. No long hours of tending needed for this, simply the desire to feed one’s body and soul. Lofty language for a humble dish that finds it’s true richness in basic parings of few ingredients. Most traditionally this is a dish that can be considered VEGETARIAN. Certainly you can enhance the flavors with a base containing a bit of cured Italian pork like PANCETTA, GUANCIALE, PROSCIUTTO, SALAMI, SPECK, or even Fresh SWEET ITALIAN SAUSAGE or COTECHINO. I’m complicating this now so I’ll stop there and begin the recipe. This dish was served very frequently while I was growing up and I continue to make it. Always highly anticipated!!
SERVES: 2-3 TIME: 40 MINUTES
1 thoroughly rinsed HEAD OF FRESH ESCAROLE (Escarole takes on lots of dirt..needs to be rinsed over and over again in fresh changes of water), then cut out the inside stem and chop.
1/4 cup OLIVE OIL
1/2 TSP. PEPERONCINO
4 SLICED CLOVES OF GARLIC
2 CANS OF CANNELLINI (WHITE KIDNEY) BEANS, DRAINED AND RINSED
KOSHER OR SEA SALT
2 CUPS OF WATER (OR CHICKEN STOCK)
PECORINO ROMANO or PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO CHEESE
2 TBS. FINELY DICED PANCETTA, GUANCIALE, PROSCIUTTO, ITALIAN SAUSAGE, SALAMI
1 TBS. WHITE WINE
1 SMALL ANCHOVY FILET
In a heavy saucepan heat 1/8 cup of the olive oil then add the peperoncino and let that cook for 2 minutes. This releases the flavors and heat in the peperoncino and gives them a toasty flavor, Then add the garlic and let this cook on medium for no more than 1 1/2minutes…add the escarole and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and let this saute’ for 5 minutes till it’s somewhat softer and wilted. Now add the water or stock. Stir and then add the beans. Bring to a boil for 4 minutes then to medium, just above a simmer. Stir well and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let it sit for at least 10 minutes. This tastes better when it’s not piping hot. Check for seasoning (salt) at this point. When serving drizzle each serving with additional olive oil, some peperoncino if you like and a good grating of one of the cheeses. Now if you want the less traditional version, simply add the cured pork or sausage when you a toasting the peperoncino at the beginning of the recipe. Add the anchovy when you add the garlic, then the white wine and continue with the recipe.
So let’s hold off any debating here, this recipe is the most basic and most traditional way to make Escarole and Beans, or A’Scarol…as with most in Italy Italian dishes less is always more. Does that mean your family’s style of making it with a little of this or that is wrong? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Even in Italy that is done, but this is the basic and possibly the genesis of all other MINESTRA made with escarole and beans. In Upstate NY this dish is sometimes known as BEANS AND GREENS.
For my vegan and vegetarian readers the basic recipe is wonderful as well. Of course no cheese in the vegan option but there’s tons of flavor in the soup without it. Try it the Naples way and then customize it or not. For me, too much meat in the dish takes away from the earthy nature of the dish and makes it more like a Minestra Maritata (Italian Wedding Soup) which is delicious and wonderful but I like my ‘Scarol and Beans to just be that..now pass the good Italian bread please..