Hailing from upstate New York, Utica greens are a mouthwatering side dish starring escarole, prosciutto, pickled hot cherry peppers and finished with a cheesy breadcrumb topping. This side dish pairs wonderfully with everything from pizza to pasta and meat. A must-try no matter where you live!
A year ago, we moved from the Hudson Valley region of New York about one hour north of NYC to central New York about 40 minutes outside of Utica.
When I was in the process of selecting the kitchen cabinets at a local business, the woman helping me design the space asked me if I make “greens?”
Side note — the business is called Knotty by Nature and not only were they fantastic to work with but how could I not, as a child of the 90s, want to work with them with that play on words?
She asked me this question in light of finding out about my food blog and me asking her where the heck people grocery shopped up here (spoiler — local Price Chopper’s are horrendous) so she probably expected me to know what “greens” meant but truth be told, I had no idea.
I’m sure my face divulged the truth but I lied and quickly said “of course!”
Fast forward a few months later after acclimating to upstate New York life and I quickly came to understand what she meant by “greens.”
Greens, also known as Utica greens, are a staple Italian-American side dish in central upstate New York. And no, it’s not just sautéed greens (which is what I assumed in the moment) but rather a specific combination of tender escarole, garlic, onion, pickled hot cherry peppers, prosciutto and a cheesy breadcrumb topping.
It’s available in many local restaurants — like Delmonico’s Steakhouse — and it’s pretty darn delicious with the combination of bitter greens, salty cured meat, tangy peppers and a savory cheese topping.
Ingredients to make Utica greens
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Pecorino Romano cheese
- Salt & pepper
- Yellow onion
- Pickled hot cherry peppers
Escarole — A classic Utica greens recipe is traditionally made with escarole. You can certainly swap it out for another bitter leafy green like Swiss chard or kale if preferred. Escarole looks almost identical to green leaf lettuce so be careful to choose the right green at the store.
Prosciutto — Pancetta is another option for prosciutto. The key element is something salty and cured to give the greens a meaty bite. Even bacon could work in a pinch.
Breadcrumbs — One thing I love about this recipe is how easy it is to make gluten-free. I simply swapped gluten free breadcrumbs (I make my own) for regular ones.
Pecorino Romano — I’ve talked extensively about how I prefer pecorino to parmesan in this cacio e pepe recipe but parmesan is an acceptable swap if that’s what you have on hand.
Pickled hot cherry peppers — This is the ingredient that makes the dish in my opinion. What gives Utica greens their standout taste is the element of tangy spiciness that comes from the pickled hot peppers. The recipe as written is a low-medium spice level but you can adjust the amount of peppers depending on your taste. I typically double the amount noted here because I love anything pickled and tolerate spice well.
How to make the greens
When making escarole and beans I dismiss blanching the escarole as an unnecessary step. With Utica greens, however, it’s a necessary one.
My Pro Tip
If you’re planning to serve the Utica greens with pasta, use the same pot of water for cooking the pasta to blanch the escarole.
Start by blanching the escarole in salted boiling water for two minutes. Transfer it to an ice bath to stop the cooking process then drain the excess water. I use a salad spinner to do this and it’s important so that the recipe doesn’t end up watery.
Combine the breadcrumbs, cheese, salt, pepper and oregano in a small bowl. Drizzle in a tablespoon of olive oil and combine with a fork until the mixture is the texture of coarse meal. Set aside.
Heat the other tablespoon of olive oil in an oven-safe skillet. A cast iron skillet is great for this recipe. Once hot, add the onions, prosciutto and hot cherry peppers. Sauté for about 4-5 minutes until the onions have softened and the prosciutto is starting to crisp around the edges.
Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute.
Roughly chop the escarole and add it to the skillet along with 1/3 of the breadcrumb mixture. Toss to combine then top the entire pan with the remaining breadcrumb and cheese mixture.
Transfer the skillet to the oven and broil for 2-4 minutes until golden and crispy on top.
Where did Utica greens come from?
This Italian-American side dish originated in the 1980s when restaurants in the Utica, NY area starting serving it as a variation on traditional Sicilian and southern Italian sautéed greens.
The dish was created by Joe Morelle, a chef from the Chesterfield restaurant located in Utica where they were called “Greens Morelle” instead of Utica greens as they’re more commonly known today.
According to Morelle, who told the NY Times, it’s meant to be a flexible recipe. In Italy, the family greens recipe would’ve varied from house to house depending on what people liked and what they had on hand. Salami may replace prosciutto in some recipes and potatoes may be added in another, he said.
So while not classically Italian, similar to how some believe chicken sorrentino came to be in the states, it’s a dish created by immigrant Italians that draws on the cooking of their homeland.
Why you’ll love the recipe
No matter where you live or what customizations you make, this Italian-American greens side dish is likely to become a family favorite with the variety of flavors and texture.
Bitter greens are often a hard sell to many (especially kids) but with the pickled peppers, the salty prosciutto and the cheesy breadcrumb topping, there aren’t many who dislike this dish.
Blanching the escarole also greatly helps tame its bitterness making it more palate-pleasing to a wider audience. And as a bonus, this is a 25-minute dish start to finish.
What to serve with the greens
Utica greens go well with everything from pizza and pasta to a roasted chicken dinner. They’re a great versatile side dish.
If you want the full-on upstate New York experience, serve them with another local favorite, chicken riggies — a creamy, tomato-based rigatoni pasta dish also originating from the Utica area.
The greens will store well in the refrigerator for up to 5 days in an air-tight container.
They’re best reheated in the oven at 300°F for 10 minutes then broiled for a minute or two to re-crisp the topping. You can also do this in a skillet with some olive oil in the pan.
Freezing Utica greens isn’t suggested.
More bitter greens recipes to try
Escarole soup is another delicious way to use this bitter green. In many ways, this soup has a lot of elements as these greens with savory pork sausage and pecorino cheese.
Kohlrabi greens with bacon offer a more Americanized version of sautéed greens but with a similar taste. They’re a great way to make use of the entire vegetable too.
For true bitter greens lovers, this dandelion greens and beans skillet is a must-try. Dandelion greens are the most bitter of all the common greens. The addition of beans makes it a hearty vegetarian meal.
- 1 head escarole
- 2 tablespoons, divided
- 1 small yellow onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 ounces prosciutto, chopped
- 1/4 cup pickled hot peppers
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, gluten-free if preferred
- 1/3 cup grated pecorino romano
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon oregano
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Slice the escarole in half lengthwise, rinse off any dirt and debris until running water then submerge in the boiling water. Blanch for 2 minutes, remove with tongs and transfer to an ice bath for a few minutes to stop the cooking. Drain then roughly chop.
- Combine 1 the breadcrumbs, cheese, salt, pepper and oregano in a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and mix together until it's the texture of coarse meal.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in an oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the onions, peppers and prosciutto. Cook for 4-5 minutes until the onions are softened and the prosciutto is starting to get crispy. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute.
- Add the escarole and 1/3 of the breadcrumb mixture to the skillet. Mix together and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
- Turn off the heat, top the skillet with the remaining breadcrumb mixture and broil for 2-3 minutes until golden and crispy.
- Serve warm with additional cheese and pickled hot peppers if desired.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
Gina Matsoukas is an AP syndicated writer. She is the founder, photographer and recipe developer of Running to the Kitchen — a food website focused on providing healthy, wholesome recipes using fresh and seasonal ingredients. Her work has been featured in numerous media outlets both digital and print, including MSN, Huffington post, Buzzfeed, Women’s Health and Food Network.