Winter’s Leafy Greens: A Romantic History à la Française

A few mornings ago, the pumpkins sprawling on my front porch sparkled with frost.

And you know what that means.

It’s time for some serious rustic cooking. (And I’d like to include a recording right here of someone yelling “Yippee!”)

It’s time to turn to the hardy greens of winter, something that French cooks* use instead of the more delicate summer greens like butterhead lettuce or red oak.

Somehow, and this might just be me, after September cold salad just freezes my heart into something a lot like  Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt at Gomorrah. [If you live below the equator, I suspect you know the feeling — you probably experience it around April or May.]

It’s time for some Cichorium endivia var. latifolia (escarole), in other words. Or maybe spinach, kale, collard greens, Swiss chard — if you can’t find escarole.

Rich in folic acid and potassium, escarole likely originated in Central Asia and made its way to the Mediterranean via India. Evidence suggests that the ancient Egyptians and Greeks liked their escarole, too. Not to mention the Romans, as Apicius included a recipe for it and other endives in his book about cooking in ancient Rome.

Endives [are dressed] with brine, a little oil and chopped onion, instead of real lettuce in winter time the endives are taken out of the pickle [and are dressed with honey or vinegar. (Apicius III.18.1)

Cathy Kaufman states in her Cooking in Ancient Civilizations (2006 ) that Apicius used a generic word that means chicory, endive, and escarole. In her opinion, people cooked all fresh chicories in oil and added liquamen, or fish sauce.

In France, attesting to the fun people had with naming plants, escarole also goes by the name “barbe de capuchin” or “beard of the Capuchin monk,” as well as batavia.

Escarole seems to have been a foraged food for quite some time, and not until 1686 does any mention of cultivation show up in written records, with the English botanist John Ray saying, “it is sown in gardens and occurs wild in England.” By 1726, seed vendors included escarole seeds in their inventories.

Greens long enjoyed the attention of cooks in Europe, and elsewhere of course, because wild greens provided crucial nourishment, especially in famine years.

Barbara Ketcham Wheaton mentions that French cooks preserved  greens  by salting them, but gives no source. In François Pierre LaVarenne’s Le Cuisinier françois (1721 version, originally published 1651), La Varenne provides instructions on how to prepare chicory (“succory” in the English translation).

16. Chicorée blanche. Faites-la bien blanchir dans l’eau, & la mettez égouter, puis la liez , & la mettez cuire dans un pot avec de l’eau, du beurre & du sel, estant bien cuite , tirez-la & la fastes dereches égouter, aprés quoy vous la mettrez mitonner sur le rechaut, avec du beurre , sel, muscade, & un silet de vinaigre, lors que vous serez prest de servir, faite»-y une sauce liée & servez.

Autre façon. Estant blanche preparez-la en salade , avec sel, vinaigre, & sucre , puis servez.

This does not follow the English translations I found of The French Cook (1653 and 1673 printings, both the same verbally) and I plan to track down more versions of The French Cook in English and French, but for the moment this snippet will perhaps be of some interest to you:

10. Succory

Tie it, and whiten it in sand; when you think it may be kept; cleanse it well, and put it in a pot with Salt, Pepper, a little Vinegar, and Rosemary; when you will use it, to serve it for Salat, or to seeth it to garnith, or to farce.

Salads made with escarole/chicory and salted meats were popular for a long time in European courts. You see this trend in modern salads served today with walnuts and bacon or lardons.

I still find “fresh”‘ salad a trial, though, at certain times of the year.

Sometimes I feel as if my body demands some sort of greens besides the typical frilly lettuce that I buy, even something more substantial than a salad of escarole with a sweet-and-sour dressing.  Once I broiled some heads of Romaine and splashed them with a mustardy vinaigrette, but you can’t really do that with kale or some of the other tougher greens. Their toughness and bitterness require a different approach for me to enjoy their nature.

Like soup.

When that overwhelming, almost preternatural, urge comes over me, I usually turn to white bean soup with sausage and whatever herbs and greens I find in my refrigerator, making a dish typical across the Mediterranean region.

No recipe is really necessary, you know.


Beans, sausage, shredded greens, onions, garlic, herbs, olive oil, salt, black pepper. Tomatoes, if you prefer. Water works just fine, stock add richness, though. Grated cheese to finish. Lots of bread and a glass or two of wine, for you, not the soup. Though after the beans cook a while, until tender, you could add a dash of white wine to liven things up. Then add the greens and cook until they are just tender.

Note that there’s a lot of confusion about escarole and chicory, the names often used interchangeably.

For more about greens in general, see:

366 Healthful Ways to Cook Leafy Greens, by Linda Romanelli Leahy (1997)

Greens Glorious Greens: More than 140 Ways to Prepare All Those Great-Tasting, Super-Healthy, Beautiful Leafy Greens, by Johanna Albi and Catherine Walters (1996)

Leafy Greens: An A-To-Z Guide to 30 Types of Greens Plus 100 Delicious Recipes, by Mark Bittman (!) (1995)

Mediterranean Grains and Greens: A Book of Savory, Sun-Drenched Recipes, by Paul Wolfert (1998)

Spinach and Beyond: Loving Life and Dark Green Leafy Vegetables, by Linda Diane Feldt (2003)

*And others, of course.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen


One comment

  • I also rush to the stove to make soup as soon as the weather turns chilly ( not as often as I’d like, here, in Southern California!)

    Canadians preserve greens and herbs as herbes salees. A preserving method that goes back to Roman times.

    Indeed, in researching my book, A Biblical Feast, I encountered the origin of the word salad: salata (salted).

    Merci for another informative post.


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