One of the hallmarks of Italian-American comfort food, the classic combination of greens and beans is simple and undeniably satisfying. Welcome to one of my Italian-kitchen workhorses.
With a flexible base of just four ingredients—beans, greens, garlic and fat—this dish can be enjoyed at its most basic form or elevated from its humble roots and transformed into an entire meal.
Most Italian cooks utilize the dreamy combination in one way or another. On its own, it’s my perfect side dish to pair with roasted chicken. More on that later. You can also use this base for a warming soup, a killer pasta dish, or serve it with a couple of fried eggs for a quick lunch, all of which I do often. Proof: greens and beans pasta and my pink greens and beans pasta. See, I told you.
The reason I almost always serve this with my splayed roast chicken is because of one word. Two, if you’re not up for fun Yiddish words. Schmaltz, otherwise and less-interestingly known as rendered poultry fat, elevates classic beans & escarole and takes it to a whole new comfort-food level. How? Because what’s left behind after you remove a deliciously roasted bird from a cast-iron skillet is rich and holy-shit delicious chicken fat that has rendered from the meat and is now sitting in a golden pool at bottom of your cast iron, saying “do not toss me, fool.” It is also saying “be a good, clever chef and give me beans and escarole.” Note: if you are hearing voices from rendered chicken fat, be sure to turn off the heat and step away from the stove.
That’s right. To the schmaltz in that same skillet, you add garlic, cannellini beans and chopped escarole, and stir until it marries into a creamy yet hardy side dish. To that, I add some much-needed acid from lemon juice to balance it out and cut some of the richness. I also add just a touch of freshly-grated parm. Did it hit you yet that this was all done in one cast-iron skillet? I’ll give you a minute to process that.
A note on lemon juice: it’s best to wait until the last minute or so of cooking to add fresh lemon juice. If you “cook” lemon juice with too much heat, it could turn a bit sour. In this case, I take it off the heat before adding the lemon.
As I mentioned earlier, you can also serve this without the schmaltz, or meat for that matter. Remember those base ingredients? The “fat” can also just be extra virgin olive oil. Maybe you also add a little heat with some red pepper flakes. Maybe you make some space in your skillet for a few eggs, cover it for a few, and serve it over some bread. Maybe you are running on empty and still haven’t gone to the grocery store and you can’t even with dinner tonight so you literally just sautée white beans with a hearty green in some olive oil, finish it with a splash of lemon juice and call it a day. It’s all good.
This iconic dish hardly needs a recipe, and once you are familiarized with the savory and satisfying combination that is greens and beans, I doubt you’ll need one either.
I do want to quickly talk about dried vs canned beans for this recipe. Yes, of course it would be great if you purchase dried beans and soak them overnight and simmered them with herbs until they absorb all the liquid and are ready to use—but using good canned beans here is one of those shortcuts that is perfectly fine.
I think the important thing when it comes to committing to home cooking, is not driving yourself crazy. People often ask me with disbelief how I cook nearly every night of the week, and I tell them that my weeknight recipes are manageable. I do a lot of one-pot meals, and I make sure the meal matches the energy and time I have after a workday. Meaning I’m 100% using canned beans for beans & escarole for a Monday night dinner. Marcella Hazan most certainly would not agree, but I think being smart about which shortcuts you take are key. Blog post on that coming soon!
Okay. Back to the recipe.
If you’re going the roasted-bird route (chicken thighs could also work too for a quicker meal) do yourself a favor and before you add your beans & escarole to the leftover chicken fat, dip a piece of your homemade bread in that pool. And try not to be happy.
I know my 87-year-old grandmother will vouch for me on this—and she is not so easily impressed. I suppose decades of cooking for your kids, their kids, and the neighbors and their kids will do that to you. During a family dinner where I served beans & escarole with my roasted chicken, I gave my grandmother a solid slice of freshly-baked bread swiped in schmaltz. She was impressed. The fact that I could show my grandmother something new in the kitchen, even if it’s something as simple as fresh, homemade bread dipped in chicken fat, was victorious. To be able to surprise her, after she’s experienced (and eaten) so many things in her life already, felt like a small gift.
Once the secret was out that evening, the rest of the family wanted in on the schmaltzy bread. They were so thrilled with their newly-discovered culinary treat, that they asked me to save some and serve it at the table so they could continue to dip bread in it. This, of course, does not make for the most beautiful table setting, but hey—gotta give the people what they want. It just goes to show that sometimes the simplest of food, made with quality ingredients at home, can make for memorable moments at the table.
And memorable moments at the table are particularly special and important for me and my family right now. Recently, we’ve suffered a loss. A big one. A huge, heartbreaking one. And while we can’t control the forces that shift our lives without consent—the ones that change the way we see the world, that present a new way of living and challenge us to keep going anyway—gathering around the table with good food is one intentional thing we can do to stay connected and remember what’s important.
I know that’s a bit personal, and quite the deviation from the talking schmaltz and all, but it wouldn’t feel right not mentioning it. Especially since beans & escarole is one of the first meals I made for my family in the weeks following a tragedy.
In Italy, eating is so much more than just fuel. When I was there, and when I read about and listen to Italian chefs, I get the sense it’s more about the opposite—slowing down. Eating a delicious meal is like coming back to center, often a highlight of the day. In buzzing, modern American life, with a culture focused on efficiency, technology and momentum, the act of slowing down here takes more practice. But with a little commitment and some breaking in, we can try our best to live like the Italians.
Let’s savor the moment, linger at the table, put our phones away, and eat as much bread as we want to.