Escarole Gratin

I had already washed the escarole from our first CSA box and cut it in quarters. I was searing it in olive oil, one quarter at a time, when Chimp walked into the kitchen.

“Oh man,” he whined in mock exasperation. “Not burned lettuce for dinner again!

“Burned endive, my dear. Escarole is an endive, not a lettuce.”

At our house, escarole most often ends up paired with white beans, olive oil, and lemon juice in a brothy soup. Liquid helps mediate its slight bitterness somewhat. I was in a different sort of mood today, though, and was thinking about how I could execute a gratin mostly in line with the Eat Local Challenge.

I knew I was going to brown one of my onions from K.M.K. Farms and make that part of the topping. I had Dry Jack cheese from Vella Cheese Co. in Sonoma in the fridge, and I knew that would go in. (Three Sisters Serena, from just south of Visalia, about an hour away, would have been much more local, but the wheel on offer at WFM wasn’t in the shape I wanted it to be. As a former cheesemonger, I’m terribly, terribly picky when it comes to the condition of my cheese. That tends to happen when you have 200 cheeses in front of you every day for five years and can eat each one at its peak.)

With the cheese figured, I also had cream, which would help add richness and moisture. Breadcrumbs are the traditional gratin topping, but I wasn’t in the mood for even a small amount of wheat, and there’s certainly nothing local about it.

I pulled a bag of walnuts out of the pantry. Chopped, they would add a crunch like breadcrumbs would, and though I bought these particular walnuts before I started the Challenge, there are plenty grown around here – I even know a couple local walnut growers.

Endive gratins I’ve undertaken a couple times before. I can remember a tomato-and-cheese topped one that I made probably ten years ago now. Escarole works better, though, in my opinion; because the ribs are thinner, it cooks more quickly and evenly.

The real evaluation is this, I suppose: there was none left within an hour of it coming out of the oven.

Olive oil for the pan
1 head escarole, washed, gently shaken to remove excess water, and quartered (leave it connected at the bottom)
1 large green onion, chopped finely
6 T. heavy cream
1 c. grated Dry Jack cheese
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a large sauté pan. While it is heating, gently separate the leaves of each quarter of escarole, without breaking the bunch, in order to season it with salt and pepper throughout. Once the oil is quite hot, place one quarter into the pan and press down firmly with a spatula. Allow the escarole to develop brown spots over one side, then flip it over and do the same on the other side. Repeat for all four quarters.

Place the quarters in a 9×13 glass baking pan and set aside.

Add a little more oil to the pan if necessary, and sauté the onion until it’s browned. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

Returning to the pan of escarole, pour the cream between the leaves and on top of the quarters. Tuck some of the cheese between the leaves and sprinkle some on top. Repeat with the walnuts and the reserved onions.

Add about 2 T. of water around the edge of the pan, in order to help the escarole cook. (The water trapped within the leaves will also aid in this.) Place the dish in the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the escarole is well-wilted, the cheese is browned, and the walnuts are toasted.

Serves two escarole lovers or four as a side dish.

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