Food & Drink

Take a culinary trip with these recipes from northeast Ohio

Chopped greens are used to make Fried Italian Greens and Greens and Chicken Brick Sandwich. (Lisa Wiliams)
Chopped greens are used to make Fried Italian Greens and Greens and Chicken Brick Sandwich. (Lisa Wiliams)
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By Lisa Williams, Sweet & Spicy

In the past couple years of writing this column, I usually try to include themes of heritage and family tradition.

In the final summer of my mother’s life, as she lay bedridden, she still wanted to know what vegetables and fruits were ready to eat. She asked how the corn was and did we have strawberries? Those questions are the heritage of someone who lived through the Great Depression and who spent most of her life growing the food she cooked.

When I traveled, she’d ask the same questions: What do they eat? What’s in the grocery stores? Mother never traveled much, but she was interested in how people lived their lives in the kitchen. And I am, too.

The same curiosity leads me to visit grocery stores and food markets whenever I travel. Often my favorite souvenirs are edible — jams and mustards, hard to find cheeses, special cookies.

On a recent trip to see family in northeast Ohio, I visited two specialty Italian grocery stores. Rulli Bros. is more like a full-service supermarket, but with an extensive array of products for Italian cuisine. There’s one very long aisle just for pasta. My souvenirs included a scoop to make perfectly round meatballs without needing to get your hands messy (I don’t think I’ve ever made meatballs, but I’m set for when the times comes).

I also picked up “Traditions: A Book of Favorite Recipe” from Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a church in Youngstown, Ohio. The introduction says “ethnic diversity is beyond doubt one of the greatest distinctions of our great Mahoning Valley.”

And it’s true that part of the world was once among the most ethnically diverse in the entire United States, owing to the vast number of workers who flowed to the steel mills and related industries.

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This diversity was reflected in the types of food items my in-laws would bring when they came to visit — perhaps there’d be local favorite Schwebel’s rye bread, pierogies handmade by Eastern European church ladies or a highly prized loaf of kolachi, a walnut-filled Slovak pastry. It’s also known as a nut roll or potica, but in Youngstown, it’s pronounced KO-LACH-EE.

When I began visiting this area more than 20 years ago, I discovered a dish that seems particular to Italian American restaurants in the Mahoning Valley. Fried Italian greens is escarole cooked, then stir-fried in olive oil with lots of garlic. There’s optional heat from crushed red pepper, pickled banana peppers or roasted banana peppers preserved in oil.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed sampling many versions of this side dish as each restaurant has its own twist.

Fried greens are used in a panini-like chicken sandwich I ate at Jimmy’s Italian Specialties, a restaurant and grocery store that is on the “must visit list.” When you enter Jimmy’s, you first meet eye to eye with an imposing cookie counter, and, honestly, all willpower goes downhill after that. Down from the cookies is the pizza counter.

Jimmy’s is a bustling place, even in the time of COVID-19. You can grab lunch and then take home ingredients for dinner, including fresh pasta, bags of frozen escarole and many types of traditional cookies.

Because this trip was fresh on my mind, I am sharing my version of fried greens. You can eat them as a side dish or put in a sandwich just as they serve at Jimmy’s. I don’t own a panini press, but I am rather proud that I rigged up two cast iron skillets to achieve an approximation of pressed-down crispiness.

The third recipe is for a lattice crusted ricotta pineapple pie, something I found in the “Traditions” cookbook. A chilled creamy-sweet pie seems just right for these warm days.

Fried Italian Greens

Nearly every Italian restaurant in the Youngstown, Ohio, area serves its version of Italian greens. Escarole is the most popular green used, but you’ll also see curly endive and occasionally spinach. For these photos, I used curly endive. You can usually find escarole and curly endive year-round at Hy-Vee.

2 heads of escarole or curly endive

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1/2 cup water, vegetable broth or chicken broth

1/4 cup olive oil

4 cloves garlic, finely minced (or more, to your taste)

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 to 1/3 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese

Rinse greens well to remove any grit. Chop into pieces no larger than 1/2 inch. Place greens in a large skillet or saucepan with cover. Add water or broth and salt. Turn heat to medium high and toss the greens as they begin to wilt. Reduce heat to medium low and cover the pot. Allow greens to simmer slowly for about 30 minutes.

Drain the greens in a colander. Reserve the liquid for soup or drink it as pot liquor.

Return greens to pan. Over medium high heat, add oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. Let this cook for a couple minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the greens, tossing well so the flavored oil is distributed well.

Remove from heat and sprinkle with grated cheese. Serve with additional cheese and crushed red pepper.

Variation: Italian Greens and Beans

This is one of my favorite ways to turn Italian greens into a main course. Add one can of drained white beans to the greens as they are frying in the olive oil. You can use Great Northern, cannellini or chickpeas. Serve with cheese and more hot pepper.

Source: Lisa Williams

Chicken and Greens Brick Sandwich

This sandwich is inspired by Jimmy’s Italian Specialties. In addition to subs, calzones and pizza, the menu at Jimmy’s includes intriguingly named “brick” sandwiches, which are grilled under a panini press. The greens and chicken version featured fried greens, a breaded chicken breast and provolone cheese between a housemade round sandwich roll.

Round sandwich roll — hamburger bun or a larger tenderloin bun will work, though they are not as chewy as the bread used at Jimmy’s

Breaded chicken breast, breaded chicken sandwich patty or breaded chicken tenders, which have been cooked.

Italian greens

Sliced provolone cheese

Olive oil

Two heavy cast iron skillets, one larger than the other.

Assemble sandwich: On bottom slice of bread, place one slice of provolone cheese, then the chicken, then the greens. Top with second slice of roll. Brush top and bottom of sandwich with olive oil.

If you have a panini grill or other type of machine, grill the sandwich until the cheese melts and the bread is golden and crispy.

If you don’t have a panini grill, heat two cast iron skillets over medium high heat. Place on the larger skillet. Wearing heat proof gloves or oven mitts, cover the top of the sandwich with the bottom of the smaller skillet. Now press down very firmly. You should hear it sizzling. After about one minute, check to ensure the bottom of the sandwich isn’t burning. Flip and press to get the bottom nice and crusty. Serve immediately.

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Source: Lisa Williams

Ricotta-Pineapple Pie

Numerous versions of ricotta-pineapple pie exist — some more like cheesecake and with graham cracker crusts. This double-crust version is creamy and lightly sweet.

Crust:

• 3 cups flour

• 1/3 cup sugar

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 1/4 cup water

• 1 cup butter

• 1 teaspoon baking powder

• 1 whole egg

Filling:

• 2 pounds ricotta

• 6 egg whites

• 1 teaspoon vanilla

• 6 egg yolks

• 1 1/2 cups sugar

• 2 20-ounce cans crushed pineapple, well drained

• 1 egg to brush on crust.

Mix dry ingredients with butter. Beat egg in water. Pour into dry ingredients. Dough will be very soft.

Beat ricotta, yolks, sugar and vanilla for 10 minutes. Then add crushed pineapple. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Roll crust out into 3 (8-inch) pie pans. Save extra dough for lattice top. Pour in filling. Make lattice top. Brush top with 1 egg beaten well with 1 tablespoon water. Bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and cool, then chill in refrigerator for at least one hour.

Source: Jennie Dalessandro, “Traditions” cookbook

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