Food

Lettuce’s Bitter Rival: Chicories

Lettuce's Bitter Rival: Chicories

Image credit: Istock

If the chicories were a bunch of catty girls, they would be snarky about lettuce. Lettuce gets all the attention, served at every table. It gets the research funding. There are hundreds of varieties, with new ones each year.

So what’s wrong with chicories, which are, after all, related to lettuce by plant family? Though varied, chicories tend to be less improved and more like their wild ancestors. Their flavors are strong, often to the point of bitterness. Some people like that, for with the assertive taste comes an impressive package of vitamins, minerals, fiber, inulin (a low-glycemic fiber) and other nutritional signposts. But you can also tame their bite by growing them in cool weather and by excluding light, which blanches them. These plants are worth getting to know.

The words “chicory” and “endive” are often confused. One of the two important chicory species, Cichorium endivia, contains the popular frisée endive, sometimes just called frisée because of the fine, frizzled texture of its slightly flattened heads. Planting them closely, as little as eight inches apart, will crowd them just enough to bunch up their centers and blanch them a bit, but they tend to be milder-tasting than most endives anyway.

The other true endive is escarole, which makes great big heads with large, wavy leaves. My favorite way to eat it is the Italian way: simmered and drained, then sauteed with olive oil and garlic. But both frisée and escarole are popular in winter salads, too, especially in France. There they are blanched in the field by placing white, plastic, dome-shaped hats over their centers for a week, a practice I have imitated successfully by inverting clay flower pots over them, with a flat rock set on top to weight them down and to cover the hole. In winter markets, you’ll find both of these blanched beauties side by side with their centers glowing pale gold.

Meanwhile, back in Italian markets, you’ll find radicchios that are more glam than any butterhead or romaine, whether they’re the long, red-striped type from Treviso or the pale-green, red-streaked ones from Castelfranco. These are members of the other chicory species, Cichorium intybus, which also contains the green, conical Sugarloaf type and the long, toothed greens known as Italian dandelion, puntarelle or Catalogna. Radicchio lovers appreciate its bitter edge (as well as its bright colors) in salads, but you can tame it by brushing it with good olive oil and putting it on the grill. For heads to harvest at summer grilling time, grow varieties such as Indigo, bred to form heads without having to be cut back first, as was traditionally done with older varieties.

The other C. intybus I love is witloof chicory, also called Belgian endive (even though an endive it is not). Witloof means “white leaf” in Flemish, and you’ll find these elegant white pointed heads in most markets. Here’s how to create them at home. Plant the seeds in June, and let them grow into big, green, bitterly inedible plants. Dig them when frost threatens, taproot and all, and cut the foliage back to just one inch. Store them in the fridge in a black plastic bag, where the cold will keep them from sprouting prematurely. When you’re ready to force some, bring them out and set them upright in buckets of sand. Cover them again with the black plastic bags, and place them in a warm but very dark spot. The little white heads that sprout from the roots will soon be yours for the cutting, to enliven even the blandest salad with their sweet crunch.

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