The Fat of the Land

Month: December, 2014

Chicories

The bitter end of the flavor spectrum often gets a bad rap—literary connotations of resentment, coldness, and malevolence certainly don’t help, reinforcing our dismissal of bitterness as unequivocally undesirable in our food and elsewhere. While bitter may deserve its reputation as our least-trusted flavor (many poisonous plants contain bitter alkaloids we are conditioned to reject), avoiding all things bitter is like leaving out an entire musical scale, notes that could add poise and complexity to the melody of your meal.

Winter is the season of the chicory, bitter’s eccentric clan of delightfully edible (and delicious) cold-hardy greens. Both Mediterranean natives, Italy is the chicory’s biggest fan, and the country that has most extensively explored the genetic and culinary possibilities of this species. This winter, make like an Italian and cut winter’s sweet, starchy certainty with a sprinkle of rousing bitter greens.

sugarloaf

Sugarloaf

Named for their dense, loaf-shaped heads of tightly packed leaves, sugarloaf is chicory masquerading as lettuce. They have a touch of sweetness—thick midribs and blanched hearts yielding a juicy, bitter crunch that finishes with citrus-like sugar. Their sturdy leaves and palate-cleansing liquor do well dressed in strong flavors like anchovy, mustard, tarragon, or lemon (add a pinch of sweetener to your vinaigrette to tone down chicory’s bitter notes). Roughly chopped, sugarloaf stands up to braising or simmering; added to clear broths with vegetables or to white beans in their cooking liquid, they make for a simple, warming meal.

radicchio

Radicchio

Technically a whole category of chicories, radicchio usually refers to the deeply pigmented, cabbage-headed sort whose burgundy red splash became ubiquitous in salad mixes of the late 90’s. Uncooked radicchio offers stunning visual appeal and robust flavor. Heat mellows its bitter notes but also muddies its color; if you are drawn to a head of radicchio for its redness, know to use it raw. Sliced thinly, radicchio accents creamy pasta, gratins, or coleslaw with a splash of tonic red and adds depth to sweet grains like farro or barley. There are few places a tangle of radicchio doesn’t fit, especially in heavy, starch-forward winter.

frisee

Frisee

A member of the endive branch of the chicory tribe, frisee (also known as escarole) is a lettuce-like head of finely cut green leaves whose center begins to self-blanch at maturity (or can be forced to do so more extensively when the head is covered with an overturned bowl). Coral branch of the salad bowl, frisee adds visual texture to mixed greens. Dressed in nothing but vinaigrette and salt, frisee makes an elegant, palate-cleansing garnish to roasted meat, strong cheeses, or pizza fresh out of the oven.

Treviso

Treviso

A type of radicchio, Treviso’s name refers to the region of Italy where this chicory was cultivated to distinction. The contrast of its mild, slightly pithy midrib and sharply bitter, wine-colored leaves has earned Treviso a cult following in European markets. Ranging in form from long and narrow to curled, medusa-head tangles, Treviso leaves are often left whole on the plate to cup a spoonful of salad or add a line or two of architecture. Cut in half and lightly dressed, Treviso heads braise or grill to perfection, a preparation that tames their bitter edge but (like radicchio) dulls their red. Using raw chicories is often a game of contrasts: slice into ribbons and toss with caramelized delicata wedges and a sharp vinaigrette for a dish that embodies bitter-sweet.

Dandelion

Dandelion Chicory

Not a dandelion at all, dandelion, or Catalogna, chicory does bear a strong resemblance to that familiar garden weed. Though some farms forage true dandelion greens from their fields, bundles of large, arrow-headed leaves with light green stems are more likely this looseleaf chicory. Eaten raw, their powerful bitterness suits only the hardiest green eater. Sautéed, simmered, or creamed, dandelion chicory flavors like an herb, adding tonic, vitamin-dense greenness to even the richest of dishes. Need a simple New Year’s breakfast to strip away the old year in a few cleansing bites? Top garlicky sautéed dandelion chicory with a poached egg, letting the silky yolk coat each purifying bite.

The Larder

Richard_Earlom_The_Larder

Somewhere in your kitchen, you have a larder. Although the word stems from a Latin term for rendered pig fat (morphed through old French to signify a cool, closet-like space where meat was held between killing and cooking), larder has come to mean, quite simply, the place where we keep our food. Sometimes it is the kitchen counter or pantry. Often it is the refrigerator, the cabinets, the basement or garage. It can be ornate, utilitarian, cluttered, beloved, or irrelevant.

Popularized again for its game-strewn associations of still-life-worthy abundance, the larder is called upon by today’s restaurants, specialty grocers, and food writers to signify an older way of eating, when food came from a specific place and belonged to a certain point in time. Unlike the shelves of a modern grocery store, the larder was a portrait of the season—pheasants, apples, squash, carrots, cabbage—it was a clock, a calendar, an edible phenology. And, in this way, its shelves were draped in simple, ageless poetry no refrigerator can rival.

In a technology-induced reversal, we are now more familiar with food in stasis than food in gradual decay. The larder embodied pause, an extra day or two before the meat or milk really lost it. Modern-day canned goods keep for startlingly long, stamped with expiration dates that evoke distance and unimagined futures. The metaphor is palpable—the historic larder kept us close to the limitations of the world as we have known it, the 21st Century canned goods shelf links us to a future that will have technologies and words we have not yet dreamed of. Times change.

Though our own larders may seem dull by comparison (stone slabs and heavy wooden doors replaced by flimsy prefab cupboards and magnet-speckled refrigerators), they maintain their role as the place where our food waits. We put it there and it waits for the moment, sooner or later, when we will call upon it. We will snack on it or cook it or give it away. In the meantime, it expresses, as any collection does, a fragment of our inner lives.

If you have ever tried cooking in someone else’s kitchen, you know instantly what I mean when I say it’s like trying to speak a new dialect. Ingredients, like words, come together to tell a story. We all have our favorite words, the stories we tell best. Our personal larders reveal them: our preferences, aspirations, habits, and routines. An ingredient essential to your kitchen may be absent from your friends’. We take our own truths for granted and, faced with unfamiliar cupboards, we come to know our own with renewed devotion.

By extension, our neighborhoods, cities, regions, and ecosystems are shared larders, places we are drawn to for the flavors we identify with or are captivated by. Cuisine itself is a larder—a conceptual storeroom in which we keep the cherished foods, those we’ve sustained by necessity or design, that symbolize the abilities and values of our landscape and palates.

For farmers and gardeners in our region, the field itself is a larder; seeds started late summer are now grown to size or near enough, waiting in the dark cold of December and January, standing by to feed those who still prefer the freshly plucked over the nationally (and internationally) distributed. And though they must settle for less in the way of variety, the curators of such a larder keep an anchor in the same harbor from which that word came, a world where food belongs to a place, where it exists in the same time as our breath and our thoughts, where its story is not anonymous.

There is no better or worse larder than the one that fits your agenda and helps you live the way you’d like to live; it’s there whether or not you keep it with intention. And though our larders will, inevitably, change in form over time, it remains true that food is a vessel of culture. Our choices shape our story; what we grow and cook and keep keeps us.