Chicory is the cool kid on the winter salad block. It belongs to a ravishing and rewarding family of overwintering plants, and it can be found in many shapes, sizes and colours. Radicchio is chicory ; so are curly endive, frisée, escarole and catalogna. Even dandelions come from the same stock.
Sown in autumn, chicories go right through the winter. When left to brave the elements outdoors, they develop a brilliant intensity of colour (carmine red, dark glossy green), depending on the variety. If, on the other hand, the plants are dug up at the beginning of winter, the leaves are cut back to the bone, the roots replanted indoors and grown beneath the soil without exposure to light, they develop heads of tightly packed, ivory-white leaves fringed with yellow. This practice, known as blanching, was discovered by accident in the 1850s in Belgium – which explains why the plant is known in some parts as Belgian endive.
Bitterness is one of the hallmarks of the chicory family. Somehow it’s just what the body craves in the winter months, providing a welcome fillip in the midst of all those rich, stodgy foods and creamy sauces. Most of us meet the chicory family in salads, where that bitter touch can be beautifully offset with a sweetish dressing – Balsamic or blood orange juice are both fine additions to regular vinaigrette, or use them to deglaze the pan after flash-frying cubes of fish or shellfish to toss over your salad. Sweet and rich ingredients (beets, avocado) also make welcome counterpoints, and a generous platter of multi-coloured chicories interspersed with slivers of apple, pear or kumquats or a scattering of pomegranate seeds is a treat for all the senses.
Finally, don’t forget that this robust vegetable takes kindly to a bit of a roasting. This mellows it beautifully, particularly when finished with a good dollop of cream and grated cheese (think pecorino or Parmesan). Here’s a few ideas to get you started.
SALAD OF MIXED LEAVES WITH BEETS, CHICORY, AVOCADO, POMEGRANATE AND TOASTED PUMPKIN SEEDS
A salad that’s as alluring as it is delicious, a bit of a hit at a recent workshop: red and green salad leaves, beets and avocados with pomegranate seeds on top. Even confirmed beet-haters risk their Pauline moment!
6-8 radicchio leaves
Mixed salad leaves (lamb’s lettuce/baby spinach/chard/rocket etc.)
2-3 heads white chicory (Belgian endive), finely sliced
3 small beets, cooked and peeled
Seeds from half a pomegranate
A handful of pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
6 Tbsp olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
Pinch of sugar
- Wash and spin all the leaves.
- Arrange the radicchio leaves in plates or soup bowls, or on a large, flat dish. Place some mixed leaves and sliced chicory in/on each radicchio leaf.
- Cut the beets in half and then in thin slices and arrange them over the salad(s).
- Cut the avocado in half, remove stone/pit and cut in wedges. Arrange over the salad(s).
- Extract the pomegranate seeds from half the fruit (see this cool video for one way to do it).
- Place the pumpkin seeds in a small heavy pan without oil and toast gently, shaking the pan, till fragrant and lightly coloured – they will start to pop around. Don’t let them burn!
- For the dressing, whisk or blend together all ingredients till well mixed and spoon some over the salad(s).
- Scatter pomegranate and pumpkin seeds on top.
WINTER WARM SALAD OF CHICORY AND LAMB’S LETTUCE WITH RED MULLET, SCALLOPS OR SHRIMP
Love the flavour/colour/texture contrasts in this winter salad – you can get all the leaves ready but do the flour-dusting and frying of the fish at the last minute so it’s super-crisp and fresh.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine or cider vinegar or lemon juice
Salt and pepper
A pinch of sugar
250g/8 oz red mullet filets OR 8 scallops OR 250g/8oz peeled, raw shrimp
A handful of winter salad leaves (lamb’s lettuce, baby dandelion leaves)
2 small heads of Belgian endive (ideally, 1 white and 1 red)
2-3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tbsp olive oil
Juice of 2 blood oranges
Sprigs of fresh herbs (chervil, chives, dill) or sprouted seeds (cress)
- For the vinaigrette, whisk together the oil, vinegar (or lemon juice), salt, pepper and sugar in a small bowl or jar. Set aside.
- Trim the red mullet filets and remove any bones with tweezers. Slice them on a slant to give lozenge-shaped pieces. If using scallops, separate the meat from the corals and peel away the muscle band that attached it to the shell (if this has not been done for you). If using the corals (the usual practice in Europe), prick these with a pin so they don’t explode on frying. Wash fish and shellfish and pat dry with paper towels.
- Trim the root ends from the endives and separate the leaves. Arrange leaves in a star shape in soup bowls, alternating the colors.
- Finely slice any trimmings from the endives and pile these up with the lamb’s lettuce and dandelions in the center. Sprinkle on the vinaigrette.
- Shortly before serving, put a handful of flour in a plastic bag, add salt and pepper, put in the shellfish or fish and shake to dust lightly in flour. Tip into a colander and shake off any excess flour. Don’t do this too far ahead, or the shellfish/fish will absorb the flour and make a gluey mess.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy pan, toss in the shellfish or fish and fry very briefly – 1-2 minutes – turning once. Arrange over the salads.
- Tip the blood orange juice into the pan with 1 tablespoon oil, turn up the heat and let it bubble up to thicken and reduce, scraping up any nice fishy bits.
- Spoon the reduced blood orange dressing over the salads, sprinkle with fresh herbs or sprouted seeds of your choice and serve at once with crusty bread.
CHICORY SALAD WITH LAMB’S LETTUCE, KUMQUATS AND AVOCADO
A feast for the eyes and the palate this one, with lovely sweet-sour-crunchy contrasts
½ teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon coarse-grain mustard
2 tablespoons walnut vinegar
6 tablespoons walnut oil
A pinch of sugar
About 250g/8oz mixed salad leaves (lamb’s lettuce, rocket, baby spinach etc.)
2 small heads white chicory (Belgian endive)
1 small radicchio
A handful of walnuts
Sprigs of dill
- For the dressing, place the salt, pepper, mustard, walnut vinegar, walnut oil and sugar in a jam jar, cover with a lid and shake vigorously till smooth and emulsified.
- Wash and spin dry the salad leaves.
- Remove outer leaves of Belgian endive and slice very thinly lengthwise.
- Shred the radicchio finely.
- Wash the kumquats and slice them wafer-thin.
- Peel and pit the avocado and cut in segments.
- Arrange the sliced chicory, salad leaves and shredded radicchio decoratively on a large serving plate, add finely sliced kumquats and avocado segments, scatter walnuts and dill on top and spoon the dressing over.
GRATIN OF CHICORY WITH WALNUT PARMESAN CRUMBLE AND PARMA HAM
Cooking chicory mellows it and brings out a little sweetness to counteract the bitter elements – lovely baked with with a crunchy crumble loosened up with Greek yogurt
2 teaspoons brown sugar
3 large heads white chicory (Belgian endive), halved lengthwise
1 thick slice sourdough or country-style bread, crusts removed, cut in cubes
2 tablespoons walnuts
50g/2oz grated Parmesan or Pecorino
1 teaspoon thyme
Salt and pepper
5 tablespoons Greek yogurt + 2-3 tablespoons milk
75g Parma other cured ham, sliced
Optional: flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- Melt the butter with the sugar in a heavy frying pan or sauté pan – if you have one that will go in the oven, so much the better.
- Fry the endives, face down first, then the other sides, until golden brown and a little softened.
- Place the bread cubes, walnuts, grated cheese, thyme and salt and pepper to taste in a food processor and process to crumbs. Stir in the yogurt and enough milk to give a porridge-like consistency.
- Spread this mixture over the endives (refrigerate if not baking immediately)
- Heat the oven to 200C/400F and bake the endives for about 15 minutes or until tender when poked with a skewer and the topping is bubbly.
- Lay the ham on top – it will subside agreeably into the hot endives and the warmth will release some of its cured flavour without cooking it.
- Sprinkle with parsley if wished, and serve warm.
[A version of this piece was first published on Zester Daily.]