I recently stumbled across a magazine article about dieting that asked, “What do you do when you’re so tired of salad you simply can’t eat any more vegetables?”
The question struck me as odd, because I’ve never been so tired of salad that I couldn’t eat any more vegetables. There are so many delicious combinations, so many wonderful varietals, and such a range of diverse tastes from season to season. I simply cannot fathom ever getting truly sick of them.
I can, however, fully sympathize with being tired of lettuce, and I understand that many people make the mistake of equating salad with lettuce.
Wintertime, in wet and cold climates, isn’t great for growing lettuce. But it is excellent for sweetening up sturdier greens, such as kale and chard. And then there are the chicories, the lettuces of winter.
Escarole is an ideal beginner’s chicory. It’s not as polarizingly bitter as sugarloaf or as unruly as frisée, but it’s more vigorous than lettuce or spinach. And while I find escarole’s bitterness to be almost imperceptible, I hear from other, more sensitive tasters that soaking it in ice water further reduces this quality.
In my book, escarole is the ideal winter salad green. Not only is it absolutely delicious raw — nutty and clean, with a satisfying crunchy-soft texture — but its durability is perfect for parties and holiday meals, as its slight bitterness cuts the fat of rich roasts and braises.
You can slice or tear escarole ahead of time without it going brown on you, and it can even be dressed beforehand without getting soggy or slimy. The morning after Thanksgiving this year, I got up and wandered into the kitchen, where I found a friend digging in to a gigantic bowl of leftover escarole-and-hazelnut salad, still crisp and tasty after being dressed more than 12 hours earlier.
Escarole pairs well with creamy dressings, strong cheeses, anchovies, fruits, and nuts. This quality also makes it a great base for a salad meant to stand alone as a meal.
You can, of course, also cook escarole, though with most winter vegetables requiring at least a short turn around a pan, I generally leap at the chance to eat something raw. It’s a common ingredient in Italian soups and stews, especially with white beans and ground meats. And, like all greens, it’s great sautéed with garlic and chiles.
Perhaps best of all, it’s tremendously forgiving to grow for home gardeners. I once planted escarole in a very shady back yard under an enormous and drippy rose bush. Even with my subsequent neglect, it thrived well into the winter, producing salads well into January.
You can harvest it all at once as a head, or snip off individual leaves to mix with mustards, baby kales, and radicchio for a fortifying winter salad mix.
And by the time escarole’s no longer thriving, springtime (and lettuce) is just around the corner.
Margarett Waterbury is an Oregon-based writer, editor, and employee at Gathering Together Farm.
Related recipe: Escarole and Hazelnut Salad