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Beans & Escarole

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.

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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.

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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.

In Colorado

The air smells of leather and pine, and the rustling of the wind floating through the tops of trees almost sounds like the beginning of summer rain in Florida. It’s as if the world’s quietest train was passing through to its next stop in the sky.

Climbing at least 1,200 feet straight up on a mountain, at an altitude of over 10,000 feet above sea level to begin with, is not something you forget (or do) easily. My dad and Matt and I carefully watched our footing as we hiked over sprawling tree roots and masses of rocks, laughing and literally out of breath along the way. There were times on our six-hour hike where just a few feet away from us, was a sharp, terrifying drop down. I remember seeing a woman ahead of us cover the side of her face so she couldn’t see it.

It’s in these moments where you get a true sense of nature’s incredible beauty, vastness and wonder—and that we are powerless and small in comparison.

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In Colorado, the mountains are high, the food is fresh, and the people are happy.  Whether it’s the cool mountain air or the endorphins from all that exercise, there is something about that “Rocky Mountain High” that you can’t find anywhere else.

I’ve snowboarded in Colorado nearly every year since I was a child, thanks to my dad. I think he has a special place in his heart for Colorado too. But these last couple of years, I’ve been lucky enough to add a summer trip. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing better than spring skiing (in fact, it’s the best kind) but the summers in Summit County are magical. The weather is absolutely perfect, and my sunny days consist of books, hikes, bike rides, and of course, cooking–with a view.

My Colorado reads? “Of Mice and Men,” “Beautiful Exiles” and “The Tenth Island.”

A part from hiking through national parks and biking through miles of winding mountain roads, one of my favorite things to do in Colorado is shop at the overflowing farmer’s markets, open only during the summer. The markets are filled with trucks selling coffee and food, talented local artists and musicians, locally-made products, an abundance of organic local produce, and even a few farmers who bring fresh, Colorado-raised cuts of grass-fed beef.

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I left the farmer’s market that day with gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, green beans, romaine, arugula, and a variety of small potatoes—and a magnet, a poster, healing crystals and two lattes.

The main course for us on this particular evening was a cast-iron roasted chicken, and I knew a fresh farmer’s market salad and perfectly roasted potatoes would pair beautifully with it.

When roasting potatoes, don’t be afraid of the heat! Aim for 450-475° and be generous with olive oil and salt.

This farmer’s market salad comes together easily, and can work with whatever produce you have on hand, but I hope it inspires you to shop local and try it with peak-season fruits and vegetables. For the potatoes, I used an organic variety of purple, red and gold—but thanks to my go-to roasting method, I’ve had the same crispy-but-still-fluffy-inside success with Yukon Gold, red potatoes, and sweet potatoes.

My go-to salad dressing—for everything—is olive oil, lemon juice, salt + pepper.

Both of these simple recipes work as excellent side dishes or even a light meal all by themselves. Jump to recipes.

During our time in Colorado this year, we did a lot of hiking and biking, and spent quality time with family around the dinner table and in the kitchen. We even saw a play at the local theater, which for me was really special.

But perhaps one of the most memorable days was when Matt and I biked Vail Pass Summit, a 10,662-foot-high mountain pass. We rode for 20 miles through dreamy valleys and steep, picturesque roads. Dwarfed by the mountains around me, I was awestruck by their sheer size and million-year history.

It’s easy to overlook all the life and beauty around you when you’re just trying your best to make it to Friday. But mountains are a massive reminder that time waits for no one, and we should try more often to stop and smell the roses—or mountains, or palm trees.

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Only halfway to the top!

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Mohawk Lake

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Literally the “trail”

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Sunsets from the condo

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Loveland Pass

Farmer’s Market Salad

Feel free to get creative here. This is what was in my salad, but you can really use whatever produce you like. This is my go-to salad dressing—for everything. 

  • few large bunches of greens I like arugula, spring mix, or romaine
  • 1 pint of halved tomatoes Heirloom tomatoes are so pretty!
  • large bunch of blanched* green beans
  • shaved parm optional
  • walnuts or any chopped nut!
  • lemon & olive oil dressing see recipe below
  1. Add all produce to a large bowl, drizzle dressing over everything and toss.
  2. Add nuts and shaved cheese on top and serve.

     Dressing:

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt + pepper
  • lemon juice
  1. Whisk lemon juice (start with half a lemon) and a tablespoon or so of high-quality olive oil, and salt and pepper in a small bowl. Season to taste, and adjust accordingly.

*Blanching vegetables: Assemble a large bowl of ice and water. Drop vegetables into a pot of boiling, salted water. Cook for a few minutes (usually 2-5) tasting along the way to see if they’re cooked through. Using a slotted spoon or a large strainer, drop all vegetables into the big bowl of ice water. This helps to retain their beautiful color and halt the cooking process.

Perfect Roasted Potatoes

  • potato variety
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt + pepper
  • herbs de Provence
  • juice from half of a lemon optional
  1. Heat oven to 475°*
  2. Half potatoes so that they are all uniform in size.
  3. Add potatoes to a ribbed baking sheet.
  4. Add more salt and olive oil than you think you need, along with pepper and herbs. You want a really thin layer of olive oil covering the bottom of pan. No dry spots!
  5. Using your clean hands, toss it all togethermaking sure to leave at least half of the potato halves flesh-side down. This is how we’ll get some really crispy ones!
  6. Cook for about 30 minutes or until fork tender and deliciously browned. I usually grab one with a fork around this time to taste. 
  7. When they are done, remove from oven and drizzle fresh lemon juice over potatoes right before serving. Taste, and add more salt if needed while they’re hot.

*If you find yourself cooking something else at a lower temperature, and only have one oven (like me) and want to cook the potatoes with it, I’ve found that you can still get delicious crispy fluffy potatoes cooked at as low as 350°, but you need to cook them for longercloser to an hour.