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Utica Greens: Repetition and Variation

June 25, 2019

The other night I found myself talking about the Cobb salad on some Facebook group. A member had ordered the Cobb and felt shorted, because it didn’t come with what they felt was the full array of traditional toppings. However, when reading her complaint, even she didn’t include all of this salad’s ingredients.

There is a current notion that EAT COBB is good mnemonic device for remembering the salad’s components: egg, avocado, tomato, chicken, onion, bacon, and blue cheese. But there’s an argument to be made that the cheese should be roquefort. And some will say onions were not included in the original. These things get lost to time and are often apocryphal.

So what does it mean to leave one ingredient out of the dish? What are the implications of adding another. How much room is there for variation in a classic dish, which may itself have evolved over time? And what if the variation is even tastier than the original?

These are issues I struggle with all the time. Just last Friday, I found myself in Utica, staring down two plates of greens. One was a traditional preparation, and the other? Well, let’s just say the restaurant took some liberties.

I think I mentioned last week that I was headed out to Utica.

It was a beautiful drive out west. I had a little time, so I took Route 20 almost all the way there, passing through the small towns that dot the landscape between the Capital Region and Central New York.

Technically, I did not drive to Utica, but rather New Hartford. Because that was where my cousin was told we could find the best greens. In the Utica area, they don’t call them Utica greens. They are simply greens. And for those who are unfamiliar with this classic regional dish, it’s made from esacrole, grated cheese, prosciutto, bread crumbs, and hot cherry peppers.

I love it. It’s spicy and comforting, deeply flavorful, hearty, meaty, and cheesy. Yet at the same time is an effective way to eat a lot of dark leafy greens. So I can indulge while entertaining the notion that all of this deliciousness is a healthful option. And who knows? Maybe it is. Especially when you enjoy it as your meal and not simply a side.

Some people include chicken stock and garlic in the list of ingredients. Others specify parmesan. There are those who insist it’s romano. So we’re already starting from some point of disagreement about the dish itself.

At Georgio’s in New Hartford, the classic greens are called “Village Greens” on the menu. But the greens I was told were truly special are the “Georgio’s Greens”. The twist? Instead of the prosciutto, the kitchen substitutes a combinations of diced salami and potato.

Okay. Those were delicious. I had my doubts. Potatoes in greens? That just felt wrong. However, the salami is even saltier and fattier than the prosciutto, and the potatoes helped to keep that salinity in check while providing some extra body and weight that isn’t found in traditional greens.

But here’s the problem.

The “Village Greens” are delicious on their own. Maybe they could stand a few more hot cherry peppers in the mix, but that’s why you can always find Utica grind red pepper in shakers on the tables. However, when tasted after the saltier “Georgio’s Greens” they lost their luster.

It’s not a fault of the dish. It’s about the physiology of taste. So yes, one dish was clearly tastier. However, I ultimately found myself eating more from the traditional version of greens.

There will always be ways to make some dishes taste better. But typically they involve cheap tricks like adding more fat, salt, or sugar. As human beings we love those things. A simple dish of macaroni and cheese can be fantastic on its own, but it can taste drab when put next to a version of the dish topped with fatty pulled pork, tossed in a sweet and sticky sauce.

Which one is the better macaroni and cheese? For me the answer is that I want the main ingredients to be the stars of the dish. So while I try to not be a purist, I still find myself aligning more with the classics. That said, I’d rather have a delicious pizza topped with bacon, ham, and hot peppers, than suffering through an uninspiring plain cheese pie.

It’s an ongoing battle and there is no way to know the answer until you try all of the dishes. So you’ve simply got to keep on eating. But it’s also important to have experience with excellent versions of the classics before venturing into their well intentioned variants.

More than anything, I’d love to take a trip out to the Utica area just for a Tour de Greens. However, we’re simply out of time. If anyone wants to pick up the gauntlet, I’d be happy to make scoresheets and write up the results. Just let me know.

One Comment leave one →
  1. M. dave permalink
    June 25, 2019 1:05 pm

    Potatoes in greens is common. A standard on the hot bar at Mazzaferro’s in Rome.

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