Escarole, "scarola," holds a cherished place along side pasta as one of the main stays of the traditional, feel good Italian American foods. Escarole, which in dialect is called "shka- roll," is the main ingredient for stick to your ribs home cooking.“Shka-role” was once of singular importance in the Italian-American cuisine.
In the pantheon of Italian-American foods, escarole may be second only to Sunday “gravy.” Escarole finds itself in soups, in recipes with beans and in stuffed versions. The single most important use of escarole was for the New Year’s Day soup, a soup that most Americans know as “Italian Wedding Soup.” In Italian, this soup is called “straciatella,” which means something like “rag soup.” The name comes from the way the greens and the beaten egg swirled about shapelessly in the chicken broth. Straciatella is en essential course for either Christmas or New Year and also appears on birthdays and other festive occasions. Then there was also “shka-rol ‘n beans.” My father loved that dish: a rich mix of cannelini,escarole and garlic in a soup base. I can still see my Aunt Annie, on Watkins Street in South Philadelphia, draped in her apron and bringing the pot to the table.
While the straciatella and the scarole and beans continue as staples to this day, I have only a vague recollection of stuffed escarole. What I dimly remember is leaves rolled with a bread stuffing and finished with tomato sauce.
Then, recently, I saw an episode of Lidia Bastianich where she prepared stuffed escarole leaves. Childhood memories came flooding back. In Lidia’s version she boiled the head of escarole and then removed the large leaves. She then laid down each leaf, covered it with a mix of bread crumbs, cheese, pignoli and capers and the rolled them. Lydia finished them by baking them in the oven.
Lidia’s appealing recipe prompted me to do a little online research. The results were almost endless. While stuffed escarole leaves may be Italian, its concept belongs to that extensive family of stuffed green leaf vegetables known all over Europe and Asia where not escarole but cabbage leaves serve as the vehicle.
'a scarola ‘mbuttunata
Then, heading off into the world of Google Italy (www.google.it) I came across numerous variations of the escarole recipe. One of the most interesting came from a site that featured the local recipes of the Cilento, the very region that one of my great grandfathers came from. (See my Pollo Cilentano.) In the Cilento dialect the stuffed escarole is called “’a scarola ‘mbuttunata.” In the Cilento recipe and in many other Italian recipes, they did not stuff and roll individual leaves but stuffed the whole head of escarole.
In most of the Italian versions the leaves were not pulled off for individual stuffing. On most sites, the stuffing was wedged inside the leaves and the whole head was then tied together with string and then braised. What I missed in these recipes was textural and visual effect of being baked. So for my version I added the extra step of the broiler.
While my online research found a wonderful array of recipes from Italy, one big question remained.What exactly was escarole? I found two versions of this green. One variety of escarole had a kind of frizzy leaf, the other variety had a broad, fat leaf. It seems that both are members of the endive family. Some sites however, claim that the broad leaf variety is less bitter. It is this broad, flat leaf variety that I remember from childhood.Although, I must also note that several Italian sites, including the one from the Cilento seemed to use the frizzy type. It would also seem to me that the flat, broad leaf variety is easier to stuff.
As a side note, one of the most interesting points I came upon was that stuffed escarole is a significant course for the Christmas Eve dinner in southern Italy. Stuffed escarole is a very simple and quickly made dish. Stuffing the escarole gives real substance to an otherwise flimsy leafy green. The combination of the savory elements like the olives and anchovies with the sweetness of the raisins plays games on the palate. Of course, if you really don't like the anchovies you can leave them out. In my version, I did not use garlic as most Italian recipes do. I felt that garlic was just too competitive in the mix. While scarola imbotitto can stand alone as an individual course,this dish also makes a perfect accompaniment to a roast chicken with potatoes.Stuffed escarole is also quite attractive on the plate.
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