Seasons by the Sea: Bitterness for the Cold

Embracing and taming the greens of winter
A mélange of bitter greens — in this case, escarole, radicchio, and endive — can be used raw or cooked to create different flavor profiles. Laura Donnelly

A civilized dose of bitterness is good for you. 

I am talking about bitter greens such as radicchio, endive, escarole, and chicories. Crunchy, aggressive, and somewhat bitter salads go remarkably well with rich and hearty winter dishes. Bitter greens also completely change their personalities when cooked, becoming slightly sweet and nutty. 

While researching these underappreciated and underutilized vegetables, I was rather flummoxed to see that they are often lumped together as a category with peppery greens such as arugula, watercress, and tatsoi. There is a big difference between bitter and peppery. A lot of people do have an innate aversion to bitter tastes, but these tastes can add depth and complexity to salads, pastas, and more.

Do you appreciate espresso, dark chocolate, citrus rind with a bit of pith, or Campari? These all have a whisper of bitterness. Try some of the aforementioned greens and you will discover that you can play nice with them, or play rough. For instance, you can balance and soften them by combining with starchy things such as polenta, rice, or potatoes. You can smooth them out with dairy products like butter, cheese, and yogurt. Try lightening their intensity with sweet flavors from honey, fruit, caramelized onions, or good aged Balsamic vinegar. Fats like avocados and eggs marry the flavors.

To play rough, go bold on bold with anchovies, garlic, chili flakes, bacon, capers, horseradish, and hard cheeses like Parmesan and pecorino. A good example is broccoli rabe with orecchiette, garlic, chili flakes, sausage, and Parmesan cheese. Lastly, for the truly bitter-averse, heat mellows the harsh edges of greens like collards.

Europeans — the French and Italians in particular — adore bitter greens. According to Deborah Madison in her book “Vegetable Literacy,” as of 2013, 70,000 acres were devoted to the growing of Belgian endive, a.k.a. witloof, in Europe. Fewer than 4,000 acres were grown in America. Belgians consume about 18 pounds per person per year, the French eight pounds per person per year, and Dutch seven pounds. Americans consumed four leaves per person per year, which comes out to less than one ounce. Sad.

Endive is a wee bit pricy but there’s good reason for that. Please also keep in mind that there is no waste and you don’t even have to wash every leaf. Belgian endive is double grown, first from seed in the spring, defoliated and dug up in the fall, and then the taproot, with its nutrients, is kept in cold storage. Then the root is replanted indoors and kept covered with soil or sand or grown hydroponically in the dark. This can take almost a year, resulting in a delicate, crunchy, and tender texture. Once exposed to light in the market, however, endive begins to turn bitter and lightly green. It is all counter-intuitive to what we think of as farming and gardening, which require light and warmth. These thrive in cool darkness.

How the heck did someone figure this out? According to Edible Sacramento, this process was accidentally discovered in 1831 by Jan Lemmers. He left chicory roots in his cellar, planning to roast and drink them as a coffee substitute, a common practice at the time. He forgot a few of the roots, they sprouted leaves, and hey, who doesn’t want to taste something mysterious that grew in their dark, damp basement?

The red-leafed radicchio is so ancient that Pliny the Elder wrote about it. Each type is named after where it is grown in the Veneto region: Treviso, Chioggia, Tardivo, and Castelfranco. This bitter vegetable is best in smaller doses, shredded finely in salads, mixed with other greens and dressed in an assertive vinaigrette. When cooked, it turns brown but is mellowed and delicious. Try grilling radicchio, then topping it with Gorgonzola cheese or mozzarella, combine it with creamy white beans, or fold it into a risotto.

Frisée is a popular green in French salads, usually served with a garlic-Dijon mustard dressing, croutons, and a fried egg on top. Another oft-seen version is with Roquefort cheese and toasted walnuts. Again, playing nice and rough, with both fatty taming ingredients and those that stand up to the bitterness.

Escarole is one of my favorites. I learned what to do with it from my mother’s best friend, Fanny Brennan. Peel off all the greener outer leaves (about two thirds of the head) and set them aside to saute in olive oil with garlic or cook in a soup with beans. The pale, inner leaves are more tender and barely bitter. These get a shallot dressing. On top of this, place some roasted (never boiled!), peeled, and sliced beets in a mustard vinaigrette. This salad is so pretty and healthy.

Another one of my favorite recipes is from Florence Fabricant’s “Pairings” column in The New York Times, which she adapted from Mix restaurant in New York City. This recipe is meant to be paired with a Cuvée de Prestige Champagne. The translation of “Cuvée de Prestige” is “super duper expensive,” ha ha ha. Wouldn’t it be interesting to splurge on such a champagne and skip the caviar on a special occasion, replacing it with this rather humble yet intriguing dish? She suggests beginning with oysters, then a mild green salad, and something citrusy for dessert, all pairing nicely with the fancy Champers.

Don’t be afraid of bitter greens, they are remarkably good for you, and are so well suited to this time of year.

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Radicchio with curried cream cheese, left, and an escarole and beet saladLaura Donnelly