For decades, Italian country cooks have simmered greens and buttery white beans together.
When we eat greens—such as escarole, Tuscan cabbage, spinach and chard—we are eating the leaves of a plant. Leafy greens are miracle vegetables—not only are they are low in calories, rich in amino acids, vitamins A and C, minerals and fiber, they also help with digestion and boost the metabolism. In addition, they are believed to provide a host of health benefits—from building up the immune system to balancing hormones.
Some of the most common types of leafy greens and lettuces (called lattughe in Italian) are found in most good Italian fruttivendolo (fruit and vegetable stores) and in a vast portion of the United States as well. The leafy green vegetables described below make wonderful contorni (side dishes) when cooked for just a few minutes:
For salads, baby spinach is preferable because the leaves are more tender, but mature spinach is used in Italian cuisine in a myriad of ways—from the classic sautéed spinach to the fillings for a variety of pasta ripiena (filled pastas). Also, many pasta dishes, rolled meat preparations and crespelle (filled crêpes) use spinach as a main ingredient.
The best way to prepare spinach is by following this simple procedure:
Trim off the reddish roots from each bundle and eliminate any yellowish leaves Then wash the leaves three times in a clean sink filled with water. Fresh spinach often comes with a good deal of sand and dirt—so you want to be sure to thoroughly wash the spinach before cooking. Let the leaves dry out a bit in a big colander. In a large sauce pan, heat extra virgin olive oil on a low-medium flame; add one clove of peeled garlic (flattened with a knife) and then add the spinach, a little salt (very important because this will help release the spinach juices) and cover with a lid for a couple of minutes, until the leaves cook (they will shrink substantially). Then, remove the lid and allow the excess liquid to evaporate. Grate some nutmeg over the cooked spinach and serve.
Note: This basic method can be used with any greens and other vegetables with a high water content. None of the leafy greens’ nutritious juices are wasted when you cook and steam them in this way—it’s one of the quickest and healthiest ways to prepare them.
Bieta or bietola (chard)
This vegetable is used a great deal in Italian cuisine in all its forms—as verdure cotto (cooked vegetables) or biete saltate in padella (sautéed in a pan).
Because the stems take longer to cook than the leaves, it’s best to cut out the stems and cut them in half-inch pieces. Boil these pieces first in a small amount of salted water and then two minutes later add the leaves, cut in slices. After cooking another two minutes or less, drain and sauté the chard right away on a high flame in olive oil with a crushed clove of garlic. After just a couple of stirs, they’re ready to serve as a delicious contorno (side dish). Just drizzle with some good extra virgin olive oil on top before serving.
For other more complex preparations, the following method for cooking chard can be used: Drain the chard from the boiling water with a strainer and immerse them right away in ice and water. Then press the leaves firmly to remove the water or spin in a salad spinner to remove the water. Next, sauté the chard in a pan as described above. Cooked chard can be used in pasta dishes or as a filling for a focaccia, in frittatas or as part of the filling for involtini (stuffed, rolled meat). Chard can be prepared with other vegetables, such as endive, and baked in the oven with a béchamel sauce, for example.
Escarole is a form of endive that is both versatile and tasty. It is high in folic acid, fiber and vitamins A and K. Sometimes referred to as chicory and characterized by broad, dark outer leaves, this member of the chicory family does have a slightly bitter taste, but much less so than many other forms of endive. With a crinkled shape to the leaves, escarole is an example of greens that provide various degrees of flavor as the outer leaves are removed. While the outer leaves are a dark green, peeling back a layer will reveal a lighter shade of green. As more layers are peeled back, the leaves continue to lighten in shade. As the shade of the leaves lightens, the degree of bitter taste also lessens. The inner leaves are good in a salad and the darker, outer leaves can be sautéed.
Try serving some escarole quickly wilted with lemon juice or stir chopped escarole into soup. A medium head of escarole usually yields about seven cups of torn leaves.
Cabbage grows very well in the winter months and is therefore one of the most popular Italian winter vegetables. Common Italian cabbage varieties include:
Cavolo Verza: Savoy cabbage, also known as curly cabbage. A head cabbage with bright green, characteristically crinkly leaves. Very popular in northern Italy.
Cavolo Cappuccio: Red or green smooth-leaved head cabbage. Common in Northern Italy, especially the Northeast.
Cavolo Nero: Black leaf kale, a leafy cabbage with dark blackish-green leaves. It’s popular in central Italy, especially Tuscany.
Cime di Rapa or Rapini: Broccoli raab, one of the more rustic flowering cabbages; both the tiny florets and the leaves are edible. Popular in central and to a greater degree in Southern Italy.
Sauteed Escarole Casserole
- 1 large head of escarole (or 2 small heads)
- 4 thin slices prosciutto, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 long italian hot peppers, seeded and diced
- 1/2 cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated
- 1 cup chicken broth
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Clean and rinse escarole twice; chop into large pieces.
Boil in salted water for 5 minutes until wilted. Drain
Add olive oil to the pan and heat.
Add the chopped garlic and prosciutto and cook for 2 or 3 minutes. Do not burn the garlic.
Add peppers and cook another minute or so.
Add the drained escarole and broth.
Gradually add the grated cheese, tossing gently until blended.
Adjust salt and pepper seasoning to taste.
Place in a casserole dish; sprinkle with the breadcrumbs and place under a broiler for 3-4 minutes until the breadcrumbs brown. Serve hot.
Swiss Chard with Pancetta & Potatoes
- 3 large bunches of fresh Swiss chard
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
- 6 ounces pancetta, diced
- 3 medium potatoes, peeled, boiled and diced
Wash the Swiss chard leaves thoroughly. Remove the toughest bottom third of the stalk. Roughly chop the leaves and remaining stalks into inch-wide strips.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the Swiss chard by boiling it just long enough to soften the leaves and stalks, about 4 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Add the olive oil, garlic and the crushed red pepper to the pan. Sauté for about 1 minute. Add the diced pancetta, lower the heat and allow the pancetta to cook until lightly browned.
Add the cooked diced potatoes and sauté with the pancetta briefly. Then add the blanched Swiss chard; toss together and cover and cook for about 8 minutes over medium heat. Add salt to taste and a small drizzle of olive oil. Serve immediately with rustic bread. Serves 4 to 6
Zuppa di Cavolo Nero
- 2 bunches Tuscan cabbage, about 2 1/2 pounds (1 k)
- A medium onion, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- A medium carrot, minced
- A stalk of celery, minced
- A sprig of fresh thyme
- ¼ cup olive oil, plus extra for serving
- 4 canned plum tomatoes, crushed
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 quarts (2 liters) simmering vegetable or meat broth
- Slices of Italian bread
- Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Wash the cabbage, stripping the ribs from the leaves and slicing the leaves into strips. Next, heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a soup pot; add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic and sauté until the onion is translucent and begins to color. Add the thyme and cabbage. Cook, stirring occasionally, for a few more minutes.
Add the tomatoes and broth, mix well, check seasoning, and simmer the soup for an hour.
In the meantime, slice and toast the bread and use it to line the soup bowls.
Ladle the soup over the bread and serve it with freshly grated cheese, extra virgin olive oil and black or red pepper for those who want it.
Baked Pasta with Sausage & Broccoli Rabe
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
- Coarse salt and ground pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 lb spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1 can (28 ounces) whole peeled Italian tomatoes
- 8 ounces medium shell or penne pasta
- 1 bunch broccoli rabe (about 1 pound), trimmed and coarsely chopped
- 6 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Add onion and Italian seasoning; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is golden brown, about 15 minutes (reduce heat if browning too quickly).
Add garlic and sausage. Cook, breaking meat up with a wooden spoon, until browned, about 5 minutes. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, breaking them up with the wooden spoon. Cook sauce until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta 4 minutes less than the package instructions. Add broccoli rabe to the pot and cook 15 seconds. Drain pasta and broccoli rabe and return to the pot. Stir in sausage mixture.
Transfer to a 3-quart baking dish or divide among four 16-ounce gratin dishes. Top with mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake until cheese has melted and liquid is bubbling, about 15 minutes.
*A note to my readers who do not use US measurements – there is a recipe measurement/temperature converter tool in the side bar under Blogroll. Just click on the title and a new page will open with the converter tool.