Cooking with San Francisco Cooking School: Escarole Salad with Concord Grapes
When the weather cools down, I’m naturally drawn to comfort foods: braised meats, roasted potatoes, creamy soups and saucy pastas. Let’s face it, this stuff is rich and when you’re planning dinner around an indulgent fall dish, be it a blockbuster holiday or a quiet dinner at home, a crisp salad is exactly what you need to balance things out.
I’ve taken a liking to escarole these past years. Cooked or raw, I think its peppery bite is less bitter than the taunting radicchio or endive, but a heck of a lot more interesting than greens like romaine or bibb lettuce. So let’s start there: a head of escarole. Cut out the core and break the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Do not skip the dip in the salad spinner. Washing and drying lettuces is critical. The cold bath perks up leaves that may be slightly less than perfect, and the drying part ensures that no water is left behind. Wet lettuce doesn’t take well to oil-based dressings so spin those leaves until no moisture remains.
Escarole is sturdy enough to wash a few hours in advance. Once you spin it dry just put it in a bowl, cover it with a paper towel to absorb any excess moisture, and leave it in the fridge. May not seem like much but when you’re throwing a dinner party, any steps you can cross off your prep list in advance are key.
Sturdy also means that escarole holds up well to a bracing dressing, something else you can make ahead of time. Going back to my basic 3-to-1 vinaigrette (3 parts extra-virgin olive oil to 1 part acid), I use sherry vinegar here and spruce it up with a diced shallot, a spoonful of Dijon or grainy mustard and a healthy pinch of salt and pepper. Taste it and adjust the seasoning as needed. I always taste by dipping in a small leaf of the greens on which my dressing will be served so I know how it’ll all come together later. The finished vin can be kept at room temp for a few hours until you need it.
Pecans scream “fall” to me, so I melt a little butter in a sauté pan, add a pinch of salt, pepper, sugar and cayenne and then throw in a few handfuls of pecans. Cook them until fragrant, then spread the nuts out onto a baking sheet to cool. Again, a step you can do in advance. Once cool, these nuts will keep in an airtight container at room temp for several days (I prefer to store them in tin or glass versus plastic; they stay much crunchier).
You could stop there but, if you want to gild the lily just a bit, take a bunch or two of Concord grapes, place them on a baking sheet and drizzle with a little olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Roast them at 450° until they just start to blister and wrinkle, about 7 minutes.
While your grapes are roasting, toss just enough dressing into the bowl of escarole to lightly coat the leaves. I always toss salad with (impeccably clean) hands as it is really the only way to know if the leaves are properly coated with vinaigrette. There should be none of it pooling at the bottom of your bowl so start sparingly and add more only if you need it. Toss in a few handfuls of pecans and crumble in a chunk of gorgonzola cheese, if you want. The rich unctuousness of the creamy blue cheese gives this salad a bit of luxury that you can certainly skip but, hey, escarole is so good for you I think you can give a little and toss in the cheese.
When the grapes are done and still warm, separate them from their stems and very gently mix them into the salad. They will wilt the escarole slightly, which actually serves the greens well so don’t think you’re doing anything wrong here. Serve the salad immediately, and enjoy.
Braised short ribs be damned—I’m throwing this salad onto the plate too!
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Escarole Salad with Concord Grapes was published in the Fall 2016 issue. © 2016 Edible San Francisco. Photo © 2016 Bruce Cole.