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A Question on Greens and Beans

January 3, 2019

In the Capital Region, Italian-American food is like the air we breathe.

There are several reasons why I’ve never really delved into the Italian-American restaurant landscape of the area. For starters, it’s just too massive. Cataloging all of the different red sauce joints we’ve got in the region could be your life’s work. And while I may truly love a great chicken parm, there are only so many I can eat. A lot of this food is heavy stuff based on refined grains, sometimes fried, and usually smothered in cheese.

Then you have the issue with portions, which are massive. And prices, which might be fair given the quantity of food served, but still quite high for the quality of the ingredients. Plus, I’m a pretty capable cook of Italian-American dishes, and all the ingredients one might need are readily available.

That said, there is another dish of almost equal ubiquity as chicken parm, which is loaded with vegetables, and typically served as an entree sized appetizer: Greens and beans.

Here’s the deal. I did not grow up surrounded by Italian-American restaurants. And for a large part of my life, these kinds of places were largely off my radar. They just don’t occupy the same ubiquitous space in Miami and San Francisco that do in the northeast.

My hunch is that Greens & Beans is fairly common across the northeastern Italian-American restaurant scene, but I just don’t know. Maybe it’s a regional variant of Upstate New York, much like the ubiquity of tripe on Italian-American menus is characteristic of Old Forge, Pennsylvania.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, especially since greens and beans can take on so many forms, let me explain the dish that has really captured my heart. It’s a deeply comforting blend of cannellini beans, escarole, chicken broth, parmesan, olive oil, and garlic.

Sometimes there may be things like chili flakes, pancetta, or sausage. The beans could be swapped for other white beans. The greens can take the form of broccoli rabe or another bitter green. Every now and again, you may get a whiff of anchovy that was melted into the oil.

It can be served on the brothier side with a spoon, and I’m pretty sure it can be a bit drier and served with a fork. I’ve also seen versions tossed with pasta. Locally, I’ve also found it used as a base for grilled sausage.

Today, I’m looking to local readers for some insight and guidance, but also those further afield to see how far and wide this dish is available across the country.

If you are a fan of this dish, what are the characteristics that you look for in a remarkable preparation, and where locally do you think is your favorite place to get it? I’m also curious if Utica greens are simply a variation of the form, replacing the beans with breadcrumbs, and pepper flakes for cherry peppers.

Whatever the case may be, I’m on the hunt for warm, soulful, and satisfying plates of greens cooked in garlic and chicken broth. And I’m hoping to make up for some lost time this winter, and really dig into some of our more classic Italian-American institutions. Even if it’s just for a plate of this appetizer at the bar.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2019 12:17 pm

    I came to the Cap Dist about the same time you did, but feel qualified to answer because of research on Utica foods. Utica Greens are quite different from Beans & Greens IMO. It’s a fairly dry dish, and dense, vs B&G which I think of as soupy. Also it has prosciutto in it or some other salty ham to go with the cherry peppers. And there’s more parm. Both dishes are great, in their own way.

    In Texas, of course, we have collards and black eyed peas but we’d always serve them separate on the plate.

  2. January 3, 2019 2:51 pm

    I agree with Otis, Utica greens are in no way a variant of green and beans.

    Growing up with an Italian step-father in Schenectady, and steeped in Italian-American culture I’m very familiar with greens and beans.

    I make mine less brothy than soup, with escarole, white beans (navy or cannellini), chicken stock, a small amount of pancetta, garlic, and a tiny amount of red pepper flake. Grated parm is served at the table, not put in the dish beforehand.

    I don’t like sausage in greens and beans. Escarole has a delicate flavor, strong flavors overwhelm it. You want to taste the escarole, not cover it up. And I don’t like a lot of beans. Escarole should be the star of the show.

    By the way, while I eat green and beans when out only occasionally, the best version I’ve had locally was at Caffe Italia on Central Ave., in Albany. I’d point to their version as a good yardstick for what greens and beans should be.

  3. Lauren Darman permalink
    January 3, 2019 5:00 pm

    I agree with Burnt. May I also add that in my house it is called “grass soup” and sometimes we throw the end of the parmesan into the pot for flavor. Simple, satisfying, and frugal – just the best. FYI – I am from New Hartford, a suburb of Utica and Utica Greens have morphed from a simple recipe into a weird spicy “mishcombrel (sp)”.

  4. January 3, 2019 10:29 pm

    Honest Weight has my favorite: white beans, kale and enough garlic so my husband can smell me from across the street. They also keep theirs vegan.

    • January 4, 2019 12:28 pm

      If it’s made with kale, it’s not greens and beans. I don’t care how good it tastes.

  5. Shawn permalink
    January 4, 2019 9:11 am

    I grew up in an Italian-American family in Boston and had never heard of this dish until I moved to Albany. It’s possible that it was just one of those things my family didn’t eat, but I don’t ever recall seeing it on a menu.

  6. Marco permalink
    January 4, 2019 10:16 am

    We use broccoli raab with small canned white beans. Olive oil, garlic slightly caramelized, salt, black pepper & hot dried red pepper. The raab is quite good right now. The raab steams some in the water that is left on it after rinsing. Two bunches of raab to one can of beans. Raab was always on the table when in season while I lived in RI.

  7. -R. permalink
    January 4, 2019 10:47 am

    Cafe Capriccio makes a very passable greens & beans as well. Escarole is one of my favorite ‘wet’ greens, and we regularly incorporate it into chicken soup.

  8. January 5, 2019 1:12 am

    This is going to sound weird but when Tess still ran the Lark Tavern, they often had a greens and beans dish on the menu that was pretty damn good. I make greens and beans in all types of variations frequently. It’s one of my comfort foods.

  9. enough already! permalink
    January 5, 2019 10:59 am

    I love this dish and agree with Steve N. No pancetta but sometimes add spicy dried sausage. Lots of garlic. Escarole only, preferring rappini with just o.o. and garlic, and dunk a nice chunk of crusty bread into the pot liquor.

    So how about a similar discussion of pasta fagioli? Or “Bolognese”?

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