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Greens and Beans (a.k.a., Escarole and Beans, a.k.a., Scarole and Beans, a.k.a., Scarole e Fagioli) is a humble, but indisputable, quintessential Italian American side dish, beloved by many. This hearty, yet healthy, classic features humble ingredients that make a big impact. It pairs lightly bitter escarole greens with creamy cannellini beans to yield a nutritious, filling, super flavorful, and versatile dish. It’s a bit like tomato sauce in that there are hundreds of different versions out there. And, each Italian household believes that their version is the only way to make it. I’m not so strict when it comes to this dish–read on to learn my take on it!
The dynamic combination of greens and beans is prevalent in so many different cultures, but “schka-roll” paired with cannellini beans is distinctly Italian American, especially in the Northeast US. It most likely hails from the southern Italian regions where many of the turn-of-the-century Italian immigrants came from. It is classic peasant food and it is humble.
My Sicilian-American mom made it regularly, as did my Abruzzese grandmom, so I grew up loving this hearty dish and still do.
The “Right” Way to Make this Dish . . .
Like marinara and Sunday gravy/sauce, arguments have started over the “right” way to make this dish. Some say that beans from a can will not do and that they must be soaked and simmered in aromatics. Others swear by the addition of meat to the dish (though this strays from its ‘cucina povera’ roots). And some also claim that the escarole should be combined with a sweeter green like spinach to offset its bitterness. I am generally a proponent of ‘whatever works for you’ as long as you make it and eat it!
A Bit About Escarole . . .
So, what is escarole? Well, it’s a leafy green that is actually in the chicory family (same family as endive) and has a soft bitterness but is much milder than some of its green cousins like broccoli rabe, dandelion, kale and endive. It can be eaten raw and is actually delicious in salads, but also holds up well to longer cooking techniques and braising. In this dish, it gets transformed by heat from a bitter green into something soft, mellow and a little creamy. The creaminess comes from the soft cannellini beans, but also the viscosity of its signature starchy sauce. The whole dish is rounded out perfectly when you fold in some sharp pecorino cheese and drizzle it with extra-virgin olive oil.
A Great Side or Soup!
Greens and Beans is a perfect vegetarian side that could just as easily be made into a soup by increasing the amount of liquid that is used. I’ve also been known to make it my entire meal for a meatless entree in a pinch. The longer the greens and beans sit, the better they get, making this recipe a great make-ahead option. Plus, it freezes really well, so I tend to make a large batch of it, then freeze it in portions to enjoy later.
Pull up a chair, tuck a napkin into your shirt, grab that crusty bread and enjoy!
To make Greens and Beans, we will be using the following ingredients:
- Cannellini Beans: I am a big proponent of high-quality canned beans and use them regularly. There are just some dishes, though, that really benefit from starting off with dried beans, and this is one of them. One of the signature characteristics of this dish is its delicious starchy sauce, and that viscosity comes primarily from the bean cooking liquid, which does not exist if canned beans are used.
- However, I believe in shortcuts when they make sense and I would rather you use canned beans and make this dish than not make this dish at all. The only wild card is to whether or not to use the starchy liquid that comes with the canned beans. This is a personal choice, but here is my advice: if you buy no- or low-sodium high quality (preferably organic) canned beans, then it is probably okay to use the bean liquid. Otherwise, you may end up with an overly salty, briny and strange tasting liquid in your dish. If you choose not to use the canned bean liquid and have homemade chicken stock available, the collagen in the stock will create texture in the final dish. Otherwise, just use some vegetable or chicken broth as the liquid in this recipe.
- Escarole: Be sure to rinse all of the dirt out of the escarole, cut or hand-tear it into bite-sized pieces and drain it before using.
- Pecorino Romano Cheese: Adds a savory depth and body to the broth, along with some sharpness.
The Aromatics . . .
- Garlic: No explanation necessary! Other than to say, sliced or minced work best in this recipe.
- Crushed Red Pepper: Adds both flavor and a touch of heat. Feel free to leave this out if you prefer. Add it to the pan at the beginning so that its flavors infuse into the oil.
- Salt and Black Pepper: Always to your taste and always freshly ground black pepper, if possible!
A complete and detailed list of ingredients with amounts and instructions is included in the recipe below.
Step-By-Step, Pro-Tips included!
Here are the main steps for how to make Greens and Beans:
- Cook the beans and save the bean cooking liquid as it is an integral part of this dish! Alternatively, use canned beans and read my note about the canned bean liquid above.
- PRO-TIP: An alternative to soaking beans overnight is to bring the beans to a boil in a large pot of unsalted water, then turn off the heat. Let them sit, covered, for one hour. At this point, the beans will be as if they were soaked for several hours. Discard this soaking water, then proceed cooking.
- PRO-TIP: Cook the beans in advance and hold them, covered, in the refrigerator for two to three days until you are ready to use them.
- Prep and measure all ingredients. Be sure to rinse all of the dirt out of the escarole, cut or hand-tear it into bite-sized pieces and drain it before using.
- PRO-TIP: To save time when cooking, prep the escarole in advance and store it in a zip-lock bag in the refrigerator for up to one day.
- Sauté the garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil, then add the prepped escarole to the pan and cook until tender.
- PRO-TIP: Use a pan large enough to hold all of the greens or work in batches if necessary.
- Once the greens are tender, add the beans and their cooking liquid, stock or broth. The amount of liquid can be increased or decreased depending on how soupy or dry you would like the final dish to be.
- Simmer briefly, then finish by folding in the pecorino and drizzling with some high-quality extra virgin olive oil.
- Serve the greens and beans warm in a shallow pool of their sauce with some crusty, rustic bread. That’s it!
Recipe Variations for Greens and Beans
Here are a few ideas for twists on Greens and Beans:
- Use a Different Bean: Chickpeas, borlotti, kidney and navy beans are all great alternatives.
- Pork it up! A lot of folks swear by adding meat to this dish, for added protein and flavor. Try sautéing pancetta on low heat to render out some fat, then, crisp it at a higher heat. Remove it before adding the greens, then add it back at the very end along with the cheese. Italian pork sausage using the same technique is another option.
- Use a Different Green: Curly endive, broccoli rabe, mustard greens, swiss chard and kale (or a mixture of these) are all great bitter green alternatives for this dish. On the more mild side, spinach works really well. Some versions call for different lettuce greens, like romaine, but I have not tried this.
- Add Anchovy: If you prefer to go in a different direction, sautéing a couple of anchovies along with garlic until they dissolve is a great idea to add some depth of flavor. If you do this, decrease the salt and cheese since the anchovy is already very salty.
- Make it Less Soupy or Soupier: As I’ve mentioned, my take on this dish is rather soupy, with the greens and beans sitting in enough starchy, savory broth to make it interesting and welcome some crusty bread to sop it up. But, if you prefer a drier consistency, just reduce the amount of liquid. Or, alternatively, follow my recipe as is and then just drain out the liquid at the end. The flavor will still be great!
- Or, turn this side dish easily into a soup by increasing the amount of liquid to your liking. My version is definitely ‘soupy’, but not really soup.
- Add Pasta: I actually think this is a great idea if you are in the mood for a hearty pasta and beans dish. My only suggestion would be to cook the pasta separately until two minutes before it is al dente, then fold it into the greens and beans with a little pasta water and let it finish cooking.
- Make it Vegan: Just be sure to use vegetable broth and leave out the cheese.
- Add More Heat! I use a small amount of crushed red pepper, but increase this for more picante.
What to Serve With Greens and Beans
Greens and Beans is a hearty dish, often served as a side. Some crusty rustic bread is the perfect accompaniment to ‘fare la scarpetta’ and sop up all those remaining wonderful juices at the bottom of the dish.
Any simple grilled or roasted meat would be a nice accompaniment to the Greens and Beans. My favorites are rotisserie or roasted chicken, seared sausages or roasted turkey breast. Alternatively, serve it with some rice, whole grains or pasta for a complete vegetarian meal.
Kitchen Tools & Cookware for Greens and Beans
To make this Greens and Beans recipe, you will need the following:
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Multiple bowls to hold prep
- Cutting board with non-slip mat underneath (I use shelf liner)
- Sharp chef’s knife
- Pot to cook beans
- Can opener if using canned beans
- Large colander to drain greens
- Cheese grater (optional)
- Large sauté or frying pan
- Serving bowls and serving utensils
More Great Recipes to Try
If you’ve tried this recipe or any other recipe on the blog, please let me know how it went in the comments below — I love hearing from you!
Greens and Beans
- 1 1/4 cups dried white cannellini beans plus cooking liquid or 1 ¼ pounds cooked cannellini beans (See NOTE below about beans below.)
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced or chopped garlic
- pinch crushed red pepper
- 1 large head escarole, cored, chopped into bite-sized pieces, rinsed of all dirt and drained of all liquid (about 1 ½ pounds)
- chicken or vegetable broth, as needed
- pinch salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- 1-2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling over final dish
- Prep all ingredients according to specifications above, including cooking the beans.
- Make the beans: Rinse the cannellini beans, then place them in a large bowl covered with four times the amount of water and let them soak for several hours or overnight. After soaking, drain the beans, then boil them in unsalted water until soft. DO NOT THROW AWAY THE BEAN COOKING LIQUID as it is an important part of this recipe. (See NOTE about beans below.)
- Combine the olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper in a large skillet and heat on medium-low. Sauté for 2-3 minutes or until the garlic starts to brown, then increase the heat to medium-high and add the escarole.
- Cover the pan and let the greens cook until tender (about 5-7 minutes).
- Once the greens are tender, add the beans and approximately 1 ½ cups bean cooking liquid, stock or broth. (See NOTE about beans below.)
- Season with salt and pepper and simmer for about five minutes to let all of the flavors combine and allow the liquid to reduce a bit.
- Fold in the pecorino cheese, drizzle the extra-virgin olive oil and serve the greens and beans warm in a shallow pool of their sauce with some crusty, rustic bread. Buon Appetito!
- If you use canned beans to make this dish, the only wild card is to whether or not to use the starchy liquid that comes with the canned beans. This is a personal choice, but here is my advice: if you buy no- or low-sodium high quality (preferably organic) canned beans, then it is probably okay to use the bean liquid. Otherwise, you may end up with an overly salty, briny and strange tasting liquid in your dish. If you choose not to use the canned bean liquid and have homemade chicken stock available, the collagen in the stock will create texture in the final dish. Otherwise, just use some vegetable or chicken broth as the liquid in this recipe.
- An alternative to soaking the beans for several hours is to bring the beans to a boil in a large pot of unsalted water, then turn off the heat and let them sit, covered, for one hour. At this point, it will be as if they were soaked for several hours.
- Discard this soaking water, then proceed as if they had been soaked overnight by cooking them in a new pot of unsalted water until tender.
- The beans can be cooked in advance and held, covered, in the refrigerator for two to three days until you are ready to use them.
- To save time when cooking, prep the escarole in advance and store it in a zip-lock bag in the refrigerator for up to one day.
- The amount of bean cooking liquid, stock or broth used can be increased or decreased depending on how soupy or dry you would like the final dish to be.
- Be sure to use a pan large enough to hold all of the greens or work in batches if necessary.
- The dish gets better as it sits, so it is a great option to make ahead of time.
- This dish freezes really well! Make a large batch, portion it into containers and freeze for up to one month to enjoy down the road.