The bitter lettuce family
Chicories are a close relative of lettuce and come in many different forms, but what unites them is their bitter, earthy taste. Within the family there are the frilly fancy lettuces, curly endive (or frisée) and escarole to the tightly packed leaves of the witloof (also known as Belgium endive). You’ll also find their baby leaves in many mesclun or salad mixes, as they add a wonderful contrast of flavours.
These beautiful bitter leaves add complexity and interest to dishes. Bitter is one of the five tastes and thus can balance out a dish’s sweet, salty and sour flavours.
Witloof and radicchio (sometimes known as Italian chicory) are great for the kinds of salads that require poached eggs and bacon and go equally well in a creamy soup or a citrus-accented salad. Braise, grill or roast, as cooking will mellow their bitter flavours.
Cheese, especially the classic pairing of blue cheese, goes beautifully with them. From either in a stuffing of raw leaves or a cheese sauce poured over baked leaves.
Sweet sherry vinegars or aged balsamic vinegars make gorgeous dressings to the raw or cooked versions. And fresh grapes or sweet currants offer a lovely contrast to their bitter notes.
Other foods that pair well with chicories include apple and walnuts; olives, including herbaceous olive oils; salty pancetta; orange; honey and dates.
The word witloof is Dutch for white leaf. These small, cylindrical heads of lettuce with tightly packed pale leaves are also known as Belgium endive and chicory.
Grown just beneath the soil in dark rooms, which stops chlorophyll from developing and keeps the leaves white.
A red-leafed variety of witloof. It adds an interesting colour and taste to winter and spring salads. Note, it does not keep its brilliant colour when cooked but turns a vaguely blue-ish grey, purple so is best when used in salads, added to crudité platters, or used as the base for canapes.
Curly Endive (Frisée)
Unlike Belgian endive, with its tightly closed heads, curly endive, also known as frisée (pronounced, friz-aye), looks a bit like an untended lion’s mane.
Most commonly used in fresh salads, it is tasty when quickly sautéed and drizzled with a bit of strong vinegar, such as sherry or balsamic.
Looks much like a large, sturdy head of buttercrunch lettuce. It has a similar crunch, too but a much more assertive flavour you would expect from the chicory/endive family.
Escarole is great torn into bite-size pieces for a salad and stands up well to bold dressings. Whether in salads or cooked, escarole pairs particularly well with egg. Also, try it grilled or broiled for a powerful accompaniment to roasted or grilled meats.
Chioggia radicchio looks like a small cabbage with a magnificent magenta shot leaf. It has a slightly astringent flavour that breathes life into salads.
Store in the chiller as you would other lettuces, ideally in an airtight container.