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The Clean Plates Special: Escarole with Top Chef's Antonia Lofaso

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This installment of the Clean Plates series features raw escarole, a member of the chicory family and technically a kind of endive that's traditionally been cooked in soups and sautés. This intense, lacy lettuce can have large, bitter, dark green outer leaves and more delicate, smaller inner yellow shoots. The vegetable is a rich source of iron, potassium, vitamins A and K, magnesium and calcium.

We spoke with charming Top Chef star, cookbook author, and restaurateur Antonia Lofaso, whose popular Black Market Liquor Bar draws raves from Los Angeles diners. Her latest release, The Busy Mom's Cookbook, has 100 quick, delicious and healthful recipes. She dished about her passion for raw escarole and the simple Italian cooking of her youth, her upcoming television show and how her parents still don't trust her in the kitchen.

Why do you like raw escarole instead of cooked?

Actually, I love escarole in general, raw and cooked. It's something I grew up with. For the poor Italian family — that's what my grandparents were eating. Lots of people put sausage in it, but beans and escarole was a staple of my diet. That simple Italian, beautiful, healthy dish was formed during Depression times.

If raw escarole is seasoned well and mixed well, it takes on the same properties as a salad. But you have to be a bit more mindful of what you're dressing it with and how you clean it. It can be very bitter if you use the outside greens but not the inside yellow [leaves].

It's the same thing with kale — no one ever thought, "Kale salad?" But you're seeing them in restaurants all over the place now, on a high end. I just had a kale salad with grilled octopus in our restaurant, but before [people believed] you had to cook kale in order for it to be edible.

Brussels sprouts too, people don't automatically think it can be used in its raw form by shaving it and serving it almost like a coleslaw. So you almost have the benefits of two vegetables.

I like to utilize these vegetables to get a lot of my nutritional balance — you get more nutrition from them in their raw form, and yet you're still not losing or sacrificing that intention, the idea of a chef's kind of a dish.

Did you eat raw escarole as a kid?

We did not eat raw escarole when I was a kid, we only ate it cooked. The first time I made an escarole salad I basically took the beans and escarole as a cooked dish and turned it into a raw dish, almost like an Italian version of a Caesar [salad].

But the first time I did this — my dad does this with a lot of my cooking — he said, "You can't eat escarole raw!" This idea, like, what are you doing? But as I've said [to him] many times in my life, "People pay me for my ideas, why don’t you accept it and try something different? Some people think I cook rather well. Let's just say, for argument's sake, that I know what I'm talking about."

When I visit my parents, my mother always runs into the kitchen and says, "Turn down the heat! You're going to burn it!" No matter what I'm cooking.

Parents are like, "I don't care what you do for a living! That's not the way you cook a chicken!" I kind of really appreciate it, to a certain degree, because in life there are people that say, "Everything you do is great," and I don't get that unbiased opinion — I really do want to know when something doesn't taste good.

Got any new projects in the works?

I just finished shooting my new show called Beat the Chefs. The whole concept is home cooks who think they can do better than the professionals. So it's this kind of fun idea. The network was worried at first that the chefs would kick butt every time, but I said, "Hold on a second. The older grandmother or aunt who's been cooking smoked turkey wings for a hundred years is not going to think for one second that I could beat her."

If my mom came on [the show] right now with her chicken meatballs, she would say, "I don't care how many cookbooks you've written or how many restaurants you've opened, my chicken meatballs will kill your chicken meatballs any day of the week."

Where do you source your escarole?

I source my escarole for the restaurant at the local farmers market whenever they're selling it — I'm at the Santa Monica Farmers Market every Wednesday, and that lasts me three to four days. Then I get most of my back up produce from LA Specialty; they deal with local farmers as well.

So you decided to share the escarole salad recipe with us?

The first time I gave my family escarole salad at one of our barbeques, they said, "You're crazy." And afterwards, every single one asked me for the recipe. It's one of the reasons I put it in my book: It's specifically for my family because they all keep asking me how to make that salad. I just say, "Open to page 161, it's right there."

Escarole Salad
This recipe was reprinted with permission from Chef Antonia's The Busy Mom's Cookbook.
Serves 4
Total time: 10 minutes

1 12-ounce can of white beans
⅓ cup, plus 6 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of salt, about ¼ teaspoon
Pinch of black pepper, about ¼ teaspoon
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary or ½ teaspoon dried rosemary
2 heads escarole
⅓  cup shaved Parmesan cheese, plus shreds for garnish
⅓  cup Italian flat leaf parsley leaves
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
4 white anchovies, drained

Drain the beans and combine them in a bowl with the ⅓ cup olive oil, a pinch of salt, a pinch of black pepper and the rosemary. Set the mixture aside to marinate.

Remove and discard the green leaves from the outside of the heads of escarole. Chop the hearts into small pieces of about ¼ inch.

In a large bowl, combine the escarole, Parmesan, parsley, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon black pepper, the 6 tablespoons olive oil and the vinegar. Toss it all together. Escarole is a hearty green and it will absorb the oil without turning into a wilted mess.

Sprinkle the beans on top and around the sides of the bowl. Garnish the salad with several shreds of Parmesan, and top with the anchovies.

I prefer to buy a block of Parmesan cheese and shave it with a potato peeler. It’s more cost effective, and the freshly shaved cheese is more flavorful.

Story by Clean Plates Managing Editor, Tory L. Davis

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Comments (18)

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