For a winter wonder, try blanching escarole
By Barbara Damrosch,
Winter is a good time to visit an old-fashioned Italian restaurant: cozy, warm and garlic-scented, with escarole on the menu. Snuggle in and you can order escarole in a nutritious salad, or sauteed in olive oil with sausage, garlic and hot peppers. Let it snow, let it blow. You’re all set.
While Italians are munching on this green winter tonic, the French, too, are fortifying themselves with large escarole salads, sparked with tart vinaigrette and lardons, which are little rods of bacon.
It can be directly sown in the garden in March for a spring crop (order seeds in January), but escarole is an ideal fall and early winter green sown from mid-August to mid-September.
In midwinter you’ll see escarole growing in the fields of southern France: large, lettuce-like heads with wavy leaves. Some of them will be wearing little white plastic hats, like shallow upside-down bowls. For a week or so before harvest, these cover the centers of the heads in order to blanch them, because blanching both tenderizes the foliage and makes its flavor more mild. The result is heads with strikingly pale yellow centers. These are beautiful to see, whether displayed in a market or tossed in a bowl, the dark leaves mixed with the gold ones, the slightly bitter along with the sweet.
You won’t find the blanching caps for sale in this country, but you can substitute the terra cotta saucers that go under flowerpots (or the pots themselves, with the bottom holes covered). By excluding light, you force new growth to come up in the center without its usual component of chlorophyll.
Tying up the head with string or a rubber band is another way to blanch it, but with more chance of rot. With either method, it’s best not to cover the heads when they’re moist from rain. In late summer or early fall, blanching takes about five days. Later on in fall and in winter, you’ll need to leave the cap on longer. This is because central growth slows with cold weather and low light, and it’s mostly the new leaves that are blanched, not the old.
Unblanched heads are also tasty, and many people like the barely bitter tang escarole shares with its chicory relatives. Picky eaters can be mollified with a little honey in the dressing. Or make an Italian soup with escarole leaves, white beans, sausage or little meatballs — and even with winter vegetables such as carrots and turnips for a cold-weather minestrone.
But it’s fun to try blanching escarole in the garden, just for the magic trick of it. Sometimes the crop takes a little explaining. We took a box of it to a store that sells a lot of our farm’s produce, with the centers nicely lightened. The woman who received them sent them back because “the leaves were yellowed.”
And of course the whole idea does seem a little upside down, what with winter as the green season, pale leaves a sign of mild flavor, and that sunshine color achieved by blotting out the sun’s light. But it takes just one salad to change your mind.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”