Comfort Food for Fall: Dad's Greens and Beans

My comfort food kick culminated last week with a batch of greens and beans. I love this most simple soup, which is so easy to make because I almost always have the ingredients on hand. In the winter, everyone's grandpa or dad had a pot of greens and beans simmering on the stove, and it remains one of my favorite festival foods at St. Anthony's, the local Italian festival back home.

Greens and beans are fast, easy, and unbelievably delicious in the way that only the simplest recipes can be.

Ingredients: You probably already have most of the ingredients to make greens and beans in your pantry. You will need: One head of escarole, one 19 oz. can (approx. 1 ½-2 cups) cannellini beans, chicken stock or broth, olive oil, garlic, salt & pepper, red pepper flakes, parmesan cheese rind.

If you are unfamiliar with escarole, it's a slightly bitter green you will find among the other lettuces in the produce section of your grocery store. Escarole is a member of the endive family, but its broad, pale green leaves look more like a head of green leaf lettuce; escarole leaves feel soft, almost silky, to the touch.

Step 1: Chop and wash the escarole

When I eat greens raw I generally don't like the bitter white spine, but when cooking escarole I find them essential to the recipe. Chop the leaves away from the root as closely as possible, preserving the white ends; tear or chop leaves (as you would lettuce), wash and dry. Escarole is dense, so you may need to complete this in 2-3 cycles. I recommend a salad spinner to get the leaves as dry as possible. The center leaves of the escarole are the silkiest, most tender of the bunch--use the entire head!

Step 2: Prep cannellini beans

If you are using canned beans, open, rinse and drain them. Some recipes call for using undrained beans, but I find that too gritty--it's a personal preference. If you are using dried beans cook them ahead of time so they are ready to go right into the soup.

Step 3: GARLIC, baby

I like my greens and beans super, extra-garlicky. Chop as many garlic cloves as you think you can handle. I like to add a good two tablespoons.

Step 4: Wilting the greens

Start by heating 2-3 tablespoons of garlic oil over medium heat in your favorite soup pot. Add escarole in handfuls, turning to get the top leaves to the bottom. Add the chopped garlic, but continue to turn the leaves frequently to cook the garlic through. Season this mixture with salt and black pepper as you add leaves, but remember that adding broth adds salt--be more liberal with the black pepper! Some of the escarole leaves will get a little brown on the edges, and this is perfectly fine.

Step 5: Add beans

Add the cannellini beans to the mixture. I like to give the greens and the beans a few good turns together, to break open some of the beans which will later give a little body to the broth. Sprinkle on red pepper flakes, to taste. (Red pepper flakes are optional; omit if you don't like heat.)

Step 5: Add broth or stock

Add approximately three cups of your chicken broth or stock to the pot. I like less "soupy" greens and beans, so I add a scant three cups. Add in your parmesan cheese rind, if you have one. (YOU HAVE ONE, DON'T YOU?! Start saving them!) Bring the entire mixture up to a simmer and heat through, 8-10 minutes. Vegetarian? Use vegetable stock instead.

Step 6: Eat!

Greens and beans is great on day one, but like most soups it is killer on day two. I drizzle a little olive oil on top, and add a pinch of red pepper flakes. If the parmesan cheese rind doesn't add enough cheesy flavor for you, grate some parm on top, too. Greens and beans are best sopped up with white Italian bread, but any rustic bread will be delicious.

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