Escarole is a ‘bitter green’ member of the chicory family that looks like a lettuce, but packs a powerful nutritional punch. And no Italian wedding soup would be right without it.
Escarole has been eaten and cultivated since Egyptian times. Escarole is an excellent addition to soups and salads, providing both flavor and texture. It can also be baked into casseroles, sautéed, added to pasta, or used to wrap meat or fish. [Lightly sautéing or braising escarole is the best way to bring out its sweetness.] In fact, it is easier to find recipes for escarole than growing tips. But grow it we shall!
The escarole plant
Cousin to radicchio, escarole is a subspecies of endive [on-deev]. The endive species is divided between curly endive or frisée (var crispum), with narrow, toothed leaves, and escarole, or broadleaf endive (var latifolia). Being a type of chicory, escarole has darker outer leaves and pale green to white inner leaves. The degree of greenness to a leaf is an indicator of its bitterness. The chemicals that create the bitterness are said to aid digestion. This group of plants also produces a milky white latex than can cause skin irritation for some.
Escarole, and other chicories, are biennial plants grown as annuals. If you allow them to go through their full lifecycle, as I do, the flowers will attract pollinators and you will find escarole turning up everywhere that it can grow!
How to grow escarole
In hot regions, escarole seeds are generally planted in early fall through early spring, successively. This helps avoid bolting, or going to seed, before plants reach full size, and ensures a ready supply of fresh escarole for the kitchen. While they are less likely to bolt than lettuce or spinach, escarole leaves do not taste very good once this process begins.
Escarole is grown much like lettuce, in that it prefers full sun, consistent moisture, temperatures between 50 and 75°F, and a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.8, ideally. Like lettuce, if the soil dries out too much, growth will slow and the leaves will become too bitter to enjoy. Prepare the seed bed by top dressing with aged compost.
Seeds are planted 1/4-inch deep and thinned to 6 to 12 inches apart. Plants growing too close together are more likely to bolt. Side dressing with more aged compost will provide valuable nutrients, retain moisture, and slow weed growth. Escarole also makes a lovely container plant, indoors or out. Escarole matures in 85 to 98 days, depending on conditions.
Escarole pests and diseases
Aphids, flea beetles, beet leafminers, cabbageworms, cabbage loopers, leafhoppers, slugs and snails, and cutworms may feed on your escarole plants, but they rarely cause serious damage. You can use brassica collars to protect young escarole from cutworm damage, and row covers to block many of the other pests. Diseases of escarole include damping off disease, downy mildews, Alternaria leaf spot, Rhizoctonia blight, white mold, leaf rot, and bottom rot.
You can remove outer leaves any time you like, or cut the entire plant off at ground level. Leaving the root system in place feeds the soil microorganisms that help our plants thrive.
Escarole does not freeze well, but many of the recipes that use escarole do, so cook it up and freeze it for later use.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!