02/09/2012 09:49 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2012

Three Sweet Ways With Bitter Greens

I remember the first time I had escarole. Having spent most of my younger life in small-town West Virginia and North Carolina, I'd met many vegetables, but nothing so exotic as this pleasantly bitter green with its thick leaves and gracefully frilled edges. My early culinary escapades in my grandmothers' kitchen were limited to experimenting with okra, blackberries and field peas. (The first time my grandmother added garlic to something, she exclaimed on how sophisticated she felt, a rogue chef dabbling in culinary exotica.)

So my first encounter with escarole -- with an Italian family who, thankfully, knew how to handle the sassy thing -- left me swooning. It was served in a traditional Italian wedding soup, a rich broth soup filled with tiny meatballs, bits of pasta and heroic quantities of garlic. I found reasons to be at that family's house near many a mealtime, and sampled escarole in all its clever incarnations: braised with garlic and olive oil, married with tender white beans and tomatoes in salad, tossed with orecchiette and spicy sausage in a fresh alternative to spaghetti and meatballs.

I now think escarole may well be the queen of greens. Its leaves are broad and confident, sturdy enough to stand up to a sauté, but tender enough to yield in a salad. From the same family as chicory, radicchio, endive and frisee, it's rich in vitamins and minerals, and the bitter flavor is said to move stuck liver Qi (or, in Western terms, help detox the liver -- probably something most of us need right about now). Try it both raw and cooked, paired with beans, fish and eggs, and perhaps the whisper of a salty, assertive cheese.

Grilled Bitter Greens with Soft-Poached Eggs
Serves 4

1 large head of escarole
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, pressed in a garlic press
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch cayenne pepper
4 to 8 large eggs (1 or 2 eggs per person)
1/2 cup shaved Pecorino-Romano (optional)

1. Pre-heat grill or grill pan to medium-high.
2. Cut escarole head into quarters lengthwise, cutting through the core, but leaving core attached to the leaves.
3. In a small bowl, combine olive oil with garlic, pepper, salt and cayenne, if desired. Lightly coat outsides of escarole with oil mixture. Grill, turning once or twice, until greens are wilted and grill marks appear, 7 or 8 minutes.
4. While greens are cooking, bring 4 inches of water and 1 tablespoon vinegar to a low simmer. Crack one egg into a cup and gently pour the egg into the water. Repeat with remaining eggs, being careful not to crowd pan, and poach at a bare simmer until just set, about 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
5. To serve, arrange one segment of escarole on each plate and fan out slightly. Place two eggs on top of greens. Sprinkle eggs liberally with pepper and lightly with salt. Scatter cheese (if using) over greens, and serve hot, with bread of your choice.

Slow-Cooker White Bean and Escarole Soup
Serves 6

1/2 pound dried white cannelini beans, soaked overnight in water to cover
1 small yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 large bay leaves
2 large sprigs of thyme
8 cups high-quality or homemade chicken stock
Two 2x2 inch parmesan rinds (optional)
4 carrots, diced
1/2 large head escarole, chopped into bite-sized pieces
Additional olive oil for serving
Sherry vinegar for serving.

1. Drain and rinse beans. Combine in a 4- to 6-quart slow cooker with onion, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, stock and parmesan rinds, if using. Stir to mix. Cover and cook on low for 4 to 5 hours, until beans are tender. Be careful not to overcook beans; they should be tender, but not mushy.
2. About 30 minutes before serving, remove and discard thyme and bay leaf. Add carrots and escarole, cover and cook for 30 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
3. To serve, divide between individual bowls. Drizzle with additional olive oil and sherry vinegar, if desired, and serve hot.

Escarole, Grapefruit and Pomegranate Salad with Grapefruit-Basil Vinaigrette
Serves 4

1 large pink grapefruit
3 to 4 tablespoons grapeseed oil
3 tablespoons raspberry preserves
1 small head escarole, chopped
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

1. Zest outside of grapefruit to make 1 teaspoon of zest; set zest aside. Using a very sharp knife, peel skin from grapefruit, removing all the white pith. Holding the grapefruit over a large bowl, cut between the membranes to remove sections. Reserve sections. Squeeze the remaining membranes to extract 2 tablespoons of juice into a small bowl.
2. Add zest, raspberry preserves and grapeseed oil to the juice, and whisk to mix. Whisk in basil. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
3. Combine escarole with grapefruit segments in a large bowl, and toss gently to mix. Drizzle with just enough dressing to lightly coat leaves and toss to coat. Divide between four individual salad plates, sprinkle with pomegranate seeds, and serve immediately.