A few years ago, if you had asked me to identify the vegetable up there, I would have scrunched up my face, looked at it sideways, and said, “Really good green leaf lettuce?”
Nope. It’s escarole. I first ate it only a few years ago, thanks to Danny. This is the first winter that I’m no longer confusing it with Belgian endive.
I’m not really that slow. It’s just that I didn’t grow up with escarole. My guess is that most of you didn’t either.
My fellow fabulous gluten-free blogger, Diane of The Whole Gang, put up the following fact on Facebook recently: “In the early 1970s, grocery stores stocked around 8000 items. In 2009, the number was over 48,000 items.
That’s a huge difference. And frankly, I think about 1/4 of it is from different brands of shampoos. Why do we need so many choices?
This statistic makes me gulp because it seems that most of the increase comes from bags and boxes of processed food. Do we really need microwaveable pork rinds? Frozen crustless sandwiches? Cheese-like food product you can spray from a can? Guacamole without any actual avocado? Fat-free cookies? Anything with high fructose corn syrup?
Most packaged food makes me a little sick to even look at it. Now that I can’t eat gluten, and xanthan and guar gum give my stomach fits, and I started avoiding food additives I could not pronounce long ago, there’s not much of the food-like substances I can eat anymore. Looks like I have to eat real food.
However, along with the zombie-like march of scary processed foods into grocery stores, we’re lucky when we walk into a grocery store now.
When I was growing up, there was only one kind of greens available in our Southern California grocery store: iceberg lettuce. I never saw mizuna, lacinato kale, arugula, frisee, or even romaine. There was one choice for us: a wedge of iceberg with a sliced tomato and ranch dressing. (I still love this, by the way.)
If you grew up in a family that gardened, you’re the one most likely to have eaten this slightly-bitter-and-somehow-almost-sweet winter green. It’s not as if it was just invented, after all. Growing food from seeds gives us a chance to play and experiment with plants we may not know well. Lu knows fava beans, at 2, and she’s talking about growing them again this year. I never ate a fava bean until I was in my late 30s. We want this kid to know her vegetables.
Do you remember when sushi moved into the grocery store? Or coconut oil? Or even olive oil, for that matter?
Think of all the gluten-free foods flooding the market now. We who have to eat gluten-free have so many choices that we can disdain some!
I’m grateful that I’m now seeing escarole in our grocery store. I missed it without knowing it.
If you want to discover foods you may not know and dishes you have never cooked before, you need to buy One Big Table: 600 recipes from the nation’s best home cooks, farmers, fishermen, pit-masters, and chefs.
I utterly adore this book. It’s not for the faint of heart or weak of bicep: this book is 864 pages long, counting the index, and weighs about 6 pounds. I’m not exaggerating. Carrying it around the house while reading is a tiny workout.
Why do I love this book? Because it’s a story, a long, rambling story of many small stories collected together, with digressions on salad dressings, anecdotes about appetizers, narratives about poultry and grains, little spiels about seafood and desserts. It’s the American story, told through meals made in country kitchens, Midwestern homes, Southern porches, and on the docks just feet away from fishing boats. No wonder it’s such a huge book. You can’t tell the American story in a pithy fashion.
There’s an incredible conversation happening about food in this country. We’re talking about where our food comes from, how it reaches our tables, the possible dangers of caramel color and food dyes, the best way to shop and cook and eat. This loud, fractious, sometimes laughing conversation has never taken place in my lifetime, or at least it wasn’t loud enough for me to hear it. I love this. I love how messy and sometimes elegiac and mostly productive the conversation about food is right now. We’re talking about the good stuff.
However, reading One Big Table makes me remember that once you clear away political conversation, the good stuff is happening in homes across this country, in quiet ways, in families of every kind.
The book has a recipe for Coconut-Marinated Chicken Over Coconut Rice, created by Jonathan Rosenberg of Ohio. He decided to adopt a boy from Vietnam, even though he didn’t have a partner yet. As a way of understanding his son’s culture, he’s learning to cook Vietnamese food. We want to do this too.
There’s Fathiyyan Mustafa’s Creamy Grits and Chard. Azeez and Fathiyyan Mustafa lost their jobs and mortgage in New Jersey in the 1970s. Broke with two children, they moved back to South Carolina to the small plot of land they still owned. They started gardening, because growing their own vegetables was one way to save money and feed the family. They did it organically because they couldn’t afford pesticides. Their success led to a co-op of gardens in the area, which became hugely successful. Now, they mentor other farmers on how to grow organic and make a living at it. This makes me want to grow chard.
There’s Rick Jarrett’s Sherpherd’s Stew, from Big Timber, Montana. A fifth-generation rancher on the same plot of land his ancestors first tackled in the 1880s, Jarrett shared the recipe for the lamb stew served every summer at sheep camp, the only opportunity for lonely ranchers to see other folks making a living doing the same thing. I want to eat that stew for dinner tonight.
The storytelling in One Big Table makes me want to cook every dish.
The food in this cookbook is incredible, simple to spectacular. Every dish we have made has worked well. More than that, however, I read this cookbook for its stories, for its generosity, for its broad understanding of how complex the culture of this country is. Some of us seem to believe that we’re one narrow set of beings in this country. Making scrambled eggs is easier than a mushroom-sausage-kale frittata. But reading One Big Table, it’s clear that America is as much Greek Chicken and Artichoke Stew, Makah Indian Slow-Cooked Salmon, Armenian Mackerel, Persian Kebabs, Brazilian Black Bean Stew, and Cape Verdean Jagacida as we are fried chicken and apple pie.
Thank goodness for it.
I don’t see how anyone could ever grow bored with food in this country.
When I wanted something to do with escarole other than chopping it up into salads, the first place I looked was One Big Table. I haven’t put it down since.
I think we’ll always be cooking out of this book.
HILDA MINTERS SPICY ESCAROLE, slightly adapted from One Big Table: 600 recipes from the nation’s best home cooks, farmers, fishermen, pit-masters, and chefs
I have to tell you, when I first read about stewing escarole in a sauce of tomatoes, spicy sausage, and garlic? I had my doubts. I mean I love those foods and flavors. However, thinking of escarole as a lettuce made me worry this would be a soggy dish.
Think again. The softened escarole somehow still has a crunch. Any bitterness in the fresh green is calmed by the small sweetness of the tomato. The chorizo adds a little heat, but not so much that you walk around with your mouth hanging open, begging for air. Theres something about stewing great flavors together that makes them far more memorable than when they stand alone.
That Hilda Minter knows what shes doing. Minters husband decided in the late 1980s that God was directing him to turn their backyard into a sculpture park about the African-American experience. When people started arriving by the busload, she began making big pots of this spicy escarole. Im sure that sculpture park is lovely, but Id take a bus ride just to eat some of this.
3 tablespoons olive oil (Minters recipe calls for bacon grease. We didnt have any.)
2 chorizo links, cut into ¼-inch dice
2 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 heads escarole, dark outer leaves removed, inner leaves chopped coarsely
2 cups high-quality canned diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon oregano
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1 to 3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
Sautéing the sausage. Set a deep skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil. Put the sausage and garlic into the hot oil. Cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is golden-brown, about 2 minutes. (Don’t burn it!) Add the red pepper flakes. Stir.Add the escarole and stir, cooking until the escarole starts to wilt.
Finishing the stew. Immediately add the tomatoes and oregano. Stir. Add a couple of pinches of salt and pepper and stir until the liquid comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the escarole is softened, but not entirely soggy, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and cover it, and then allow it to sit for 10 minutes. Take the lid off the pan and season with salt, pepper, and as much of the apple cider vinegar as tastes good to you.