In addition, in January, with its bitter weather, bitter leafy vegetables such as endive and escarole are of the highest quality and taste.
What is it – you don’t like bitter leaves? Its true bitterness is the most difficult taste to assess when compared to sweet, sour, salty, and umami. But it is also the result of compositions that are especially good for you.
Bitter foods can cleanse and detoxify the liver and help the body remove the low-density cholesterol that causes inflammation of the blood vessels and digestive tract. And bitter green is nutritious and provides vitamins A, C and K as well as potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc.
So what are the bitter greens? Many of the strongest are not green at all, but red. And most of them belong to the chicory family, those tall weeds with pale blue flowers that bloom in Sonoma County in summer and are ubiquitous in Europe and North America. They belong to the wild ancestral species from which our bitter green was bred over the centuries.
The commercial descendants of these wildlings and other chicory species are radicchio, endive, puntarella (an Italian specialty with edible stems), dandelion leaves, and escarole. There are many others eaten in cultures around the world, but these are the most common types in the United States.
Of these, Radicchio is currently enjoying a culinary moment. It is sometimes called Italian chicory because its various cultivated varieties were bred in northern Italy. They are an integral part of Italian cuisine on this peninsula and increasingly also here in the States.
The most common type of radicchio sold in local stores are the red and white balls made from tightly knitted leaves, usually referred to simply as “radicchio”. The name of the variety is rosso di Chioggia, which means a red chicory from Chioggia, a town south of Venice on the Adriatic coast. They are not as bitter as their cousin Rosso di Verona.
If you find green or yellow varieties of radicchio at one of the few farmers’ markets that are open all winter – because these bitter herbs are meant to be grown and eaten when everything else that is edible has died – consider yourself lucky. A variety called Castelfranco is often considered to be the best tasting radicchio of all. It has thin, crispy leaves that are mottled red; the head resembles a tulip and has a mild, icy-sweet bitterness.
If you’re luckier, you might find Rosso di Treviso Tardivo, which translates as “late red from Treviso”, in winter. It has elongated, variegated red leaves with white ribs that taste more tender and less bitter than the spherical Rosso di Chioggia. Raw Treviso gives salads lively color and juicy crispness. There is an early species called Rosso di Treviso Precoce that you can find in late fall and early winter.
You can use any radicchio in stir-fry dishes. Or cook it like cabbage, which will make it lose some of its bitterness. But who wants that? After all, the raw bitterness goes well with the raw season.
Bitter goes well with sweets. So serve this winter salad with duck, pork or lamb and a side dish of pumpkin or sweet potato. Sabrina Currie came up with this delicious salad.
Radicchio and Orange Salad
Makes 4 servings
1 head of radicchio
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon of red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 large umbilical orange
12 large green olives
10-12 basil leaves
Remove the outer leaves of the radicchio and roughly chop the head.
Mix the chopped radicchio with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.
Cut the orange peel off the top and bottom of the fruit and squeeze some juice over the salad. Peel the orange, dig up the segments and add to the salad.
Add the olives. Pluck the basil leaves and add to the salad. Swirl everything again and serve.
Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at [email protected]