The abundance of bitter flavours in Italian cooking has been a revelation for me. I've already waxed lyrical about the bitterness of Campari, black coffee, artichokes and cardoons. I love bitterness; it's a flavour we rarely encounter in English cooking.
The chief joy of bitterness in cooking is finding clever and delicious ways to counteract it. Cooking, like life, is a question of balance. Sweet balances bitter. Just as black coffee is best with a sugar-dusted pastry, so are bitter radicchio leaves dressed in a sweet-sharp orange dressing, perhaps laced with a little honey. Even if we wouldn't usually think of an ingredient as sweet, pairing it with something bitter coaxes out its reticent sweetness. When bitter leaves are paired with flakes of parmesan, for example, the toffee sweetness of the cheese sounds louder than its usually savoury soliloquy.
I am always looking for recipes which involve finding this perfect balance between sweet and bitter. It's my favourite combination. I found a recipe recently for stuffed escarole which I instantly wanted to try. Like many of my favourite recipes, the vegetable is the star of the dish.
Escarole is a member of the chicory family cunningly disguised as a lettuce. It's vibrant green and crepe-paper leaves make it looks deceptively lettuce-y, but once eaten you will realise this leaf is entirely different. The bitterness of escarole is much like that of its family members: radicchio, endive etc, but its texture is altogether more interesting. When braised slowly, as in this recipe, it maintains its shape and just a hint of bite, whilst simultaneously collapsing into a silken defeat. It also remains wonderfully juicy, and this recipe coaxes out all of those bitter sweet juices and enhances them with the musk of garlic and the oak/almond fragrance of Vernaccia. There are anchovies and pecorino too, for an intense savouriness so meaty you'll almost forget you're eating a vegetable. The raisins, meanwhile, provide the coveted sweetness. A perfect balance.
Adapted from The Bocca Cookbook
Serves 2 (as a main course)
1 large head of escarole
5 anchovy fillets
4 cloves of garlic
50g pine nuts
20g grated pecorino sardo
large handful of chopped parsley
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
100ml of Vernaccia or dry white wine
Open the escarole up like a flower and wash it well.
Shake it dry and pat it with some kitchen towel to absorb any remaining water.
Roughly pound 2 cloves of the garlic, the nuts, anchovies and pecorino in a pestle and mortar, or in a blender. Stir through half the olive oil, the raisins and half of the parsley until you have a chunky stuffing.
Sprinkle or spoon this filling into the centre of your opened escarole and distribute and dot it between the inner leaves.
Pick up the escarole and close it again like a rose bud, encasing all the leaves and filling. Tie it in place with some thread or string.
Heat the rest of the oil in a saute pan. Add the remaining garlic cloves and let them begin to sizzle and turn golden. Add your escarole, and saute for a moment on each side until just beginning to take colour (remove your garlic if it is getting too brown at this stage and add it in again later). Add the wine and a glass of water, a pinch of salt, and place the lid on the pan, turning the heat down.
Saute the escarole for 30 minutes, checking occasionally and topping up the liquid (using water or wine) if necessary.
Add the remainder of the chopped parsley in the last few minutes and then serve, with plenty of crusty bread.