It is fitting that in January, with its bitter weather, bitter leafy vegetables like endive and escarole are of the highest quality and taste.
What is it – you do not like bitter leaves? Its true bitterness is the hardest taste to appreciate compared to sweet, sour, salty and umami. But it is also the result of connections that are exquisitely good for you.
Bitter foods can cleanse and detoxify the liver and help the body remove low-density cholesterol that causes vascular and digestive inflammation. And bitter vegetables are nutrient dense and provide vitamins A, C and K as well as potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc.
So what are the bitter greens? Many of the most potent are not green at all, but red. And most are in the chicory family, the tall roadside with light blue flowers that bloom in summer in Sonoma County and are ubiquitous in Europe and North America. They are one of the wild ancestral species from which our bitter greens have been bred for centuries.
The commercial descendants of these wildings and other chicory species are radicchio, endive, puntarella (an Italian specialty with edible stems), dandelion leaves and escarole. There are many others that are 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 several cultivated types were bred in northern Italy. They are part of Italian cuisine up and down the peninsula and increasingly here in the states.
The most common type of radicchio sold in local stores is the red-white balls of densely knitted leaves, usually labeled as “radicchio”. Their variety name is rosso di Chioggia, meaning a red chicory from Chioggia, a city south of Venice on the Adriatic coast. They are not as bitter as their cousin, rosso di Verona.
If you find green or yellow radicchio varieties at one of the few farmers markets open all winter – for these bitter herbs are meant to be grown and eaten when everything else edible is dead – call yourself even lucky. A variety called Castelfranco is often considered the best tasting radicchio of all. It has thin, crisp leaves with red spots; the head resembles a tulip and it has a mild, icy sweet bitterness.
If you’re extra lucky, you might find rosso di Treviso Tardivo, which translates to “late red from Treviso,” in stores in the winter. It has oblong, variegated red leaves with white ribs that taste more delicate and less bitter than the spherical rosso di Chioggia. Raw Treviso adds vibrant colors and a juicy crunch to salads. There is an early type called rosso di Treviso Precoce that you may find in late fall and early winter.
You can use any radicchio in stir. Or cook it like cabbage, which will make it lose some of its bitterness. But who wants it? The raw bitterness suits the raw season.
Bitter goes well with sweet, so consider serving this winter salad with duck, pork or lamb and an accompaniment with squash or sweet potato. Sabrina Currie came up with this lovely salad.
Radicchio and orange salad
Serves 4 servings
1 main radicchio
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 large navel orange
12 large green olives
10-12 basil leaves
Remove the outer leaves of the radicchio, and chop the head roughly.
Flip the chopped radicchio with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.
Cut the orange peel away from the top and bottom of the fruit and squeeze some juice over the salad. Peel an orange, grate it and add it to the salad.
Add olives. Grate the basil leaves and add them to the salad. Turn it all over again and serve.
Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.