This easy recipe for Escarole with Olives and Capers is a mouthwatering side dish inspired by my vacation on the Italian Amalfi coast. It's naturally vegan, gluten free and totally delicious!
I've been wanting to bring you this recipe ever since I had it on our trip to Italy last October.
It was at a restaurant called Il Pirata in the little town of Praiano, which is located right between the more popular Positano and Amalfi. Like all towns on the coast, Praiano is perched up in the hills overlooking the sea, and while it makes for breathtaking views, it also makes getting around a bit challenging.
If you want to get somewhere in Praiano, you have to do it by foot. That is, unless you have the balls to actually drive along the coast, the know-how to call for a taxi, or happen to get lucky and catch the elusive local bus (which is actually a van) whizzing by. We were staying on one side of Praiano, and Il Pirata was all the way on the opposite end of town. We knew it would be a hike to get there - and I mean a literal hike - but so many people had recommended eating there that there was no way we were going to miss it.
We took off in the direction of the restaurant, but really had no idea if we were going the right way to get there. Aside form the main road, the "streets" in Praiano are essentially narrow, unmarked walking paths carved into a steep cliff, so it made our journey both confusing and strenuous. We'd been navigating down desolate winding walkways and rocky staircases for more than 30 minutes and it seemed like we were getting nowhere.
Since we were there in the shoulder season, there weren't any other people around to ask for directions or confirm that we were on the right trajectory. Eventually, out of sheer luck, we ran into a solo traveler from England who was happy to help us out. Thankfully, he told us we were headed in the right direction and only had about 15 more minutes or so to go. Sweet! We picked up our pace and descended down a steep hill when I took a nice tumble and scraped a giant chunk of nail polish off of my freshly pedicured big toe.
I was sweaty, starving and now scuffed up, but finally - after close to an hour of hiking - we'd made it. "This f@#$%ing dinner better be worth it!"
And boy, it was. We ordered our standard appetizer of marinated anchovies, which were incredibly fresh and flavorful. Chaser ordered fish, which was very good, but naturally I had to go for pasta and it was one of the best we had all trip (which is saying something). It was a dead simple spaghetti, perfectly cooked with with a local specialty ingredient called Colatura di Alici, or "essence of anchovy," and breadcrumbs. It was absolutely phenomenal.
The pasta was hard to outdo, but the two side dishes we ordered were not far behind. The first was thinly sliced zucchini that was flash fried and marinated with vinegar and fresh mint. It was so delicious, and you can rest assured I'll be posting my recipe for that once zucchini comes back in season this summer. The other side was this escarole with capers and olives, a specialty of the Campania region. It was so simple, yet so delicious, and I knew I had to make it as soon as I got home.
I've made this escarole with olives and capers several times since we've been back, and I love how healthy and flavorful it is. Escarole is a bitter green that gets mellow, sweet and tender when cooked down. It first gets blanched in a big pot of boiling water, then drained until fairly dry. There's no need to shock it in ice water. You can do this step up to a day before if you wish, then once you're ready to serve it just needs a quick sauté with plenty of good olive oil, a bit of garlic and a handful of juicy olives and salty capers.
I like using oil cured olives in this recipe because they taste more fruity than briny, and the capers provide plenty of brininess. I'm not sure what type of olive was used in the plate of escarole we had at Il Pirata, but they tasted oil cured. They could have been Gaeta olives, which are typical of the region, but who knows. I'm not crazy about oil cured olives on their own, but they work really well in this recipe. Still, I think you can use whatever type of black olive you want and you'll still have a fine result.
Thankfully the folks at Il Pirata called us a taxi to take us back home so we didn't have to make that trek again. I doubt I could ever recreate that pasta, but this escarole with olives and capers tastes exactly like the one we had that night. Give it a try if you want to bring a little taste of the Amalfi Coast into your home, with no hiking required.
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