My late cousin’s husband, who hails from Utica, NY, first described Utica greens to me a few years ago. As a second-generation Italian-American kid, I had turned up my nose at escarole many, many times before learning to love it, even to the point of craving it, in adulthood. Did I mention begging Hubby to move out of North Carolina when I couldn’t find escarole in any of the grocery stores?
My mother’s escarole was typical cucina pauvera — [over]cooked in salted water, not chicken broth, with chunks of potatoes to absorb some of the “pot likker” (as it’s known in the Southern US). It was a wintertime dish. Foodies today may consider eating with the seasons their own invention, but that notion, of course, is ridiculous. The range of produce available to us in the first three quarters of the 20th Century was far more limited than it is today. No mangoes, no bok choy, no tomatillos. With some exceptions, such as greenhouse grown lettuce and tomatoes, and items from the garden or farm market that were “put up” for the winter, we ate what was in season.
But I digress (as I often do). This post is about Utica greens. After being told about this dish, I did some research. I found that it did, in fact, originate at a restaurant in Utica and later saw a feature about the greens on one of Andrew Zimmern’s Travel Channel shows. After trying an online recipe that was okay but not great, I forgot about Utica greens until a few weeks ago, when I realized that we’d soon be driving through upstate New York, preciously close to Utica. That same relative pointed out (thank you!) that we would find Utica greens on the menu at virtually any Italian restaurant there.
And so we did. At Francesca’s, in Liverpool, NY. The restaurant’s description: “sautéed with prosciutto, hot cherry peppers, garlic & onions, finished toasted breadcrumbs & Romano cheese.” I ordered mine without the heat (LOL… it’s hell to get old), which I didn’t miss—they were absolutely luscious. My generous “appetizer” portion could easily have served as an entrée, and I spotted a couple at a nearby table sharing the mammoth dinner portion as a first course.
Now that I’ve had the real thing, I’m ready to try Utica greens at home again, maybe on a rainy summer day, slightly out of season. You can find a solid recipe and read all about the history of Utica greens, together with some very sharp perceptions about Italian-American cooking, on one of my very favorite food blogs, Memorie di Angelina.