by Sarah West
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.