Bitter Greens

Radicchio, escarole and other members of the chicory family like frisée and Belgian endive are often called bitter greens, but their bitterness is slight and pleasant, a perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of pears, roasted roots or squash, nuts or cheese. And sautéed or grilled these bitter greens mellow, taking on their own sweetness. I began harvesting my radicchio and escarole a month ago and will continue enjoying them both raw and cooked as the days darken and fall turns to winter.

Radicchio and Escarole in garden

These sturdy-leaved greens will grow year-round, but I prefer to plant them in mid-July for harvest from late September on.  Not only do they go with the rich fruit and vegetable flavors of the fall and winter kitchen garden, they actually gain a little sweetness as temperatures drop.  For this year’s radicchio, I planted Fiero, a tall, slender Treviso type and Indigo, a round-headed variety, and for escarole I planted Natacha, starting two dozen of each indoors on July 18th and setting them out August 5th, spacing the plants twelve inches apart in rows a foot apart. When winter rains begin, I’ll cover the plants with a low plastic tunnel because while cold doesn’t hurt them, rain will make them rot.

While radicchios form winey red, round or upright heads, escarole spreads out into great rosettes of light green leaves. Also known as Broad-leaved Batavian, its outer leaves are truly broad and quite succulent, but hidden in the middle, blanched by these outer leaves, is a center of creamy yellow, crisper, smaller leaves.  When I harvest a head of escarole I imagine both a sauté and a salad and wash the leaves accordingly, ending up with a big pile of outer leaves to sauté and a smaller pile of inner leaves for salad, two equally delicious treats.

Escarole salad

Escarole saute

The other night I added sliced Highland pears, crumbled Gorgonzola cheese and roasted hazelnuts to the inner leaves of escarole and dressed this bitter, sweet, pungent and nutty combination with sherry vinaigrette. The next night, I sliced the outer leaves into ribbons and sautéed them in olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes, added some cannellini beans and served this mix on pasta. Either alone as a side dish or mixed into a pasta sauce or soup, sautéed escarole keeps some of its pleasant bitterness but gains a mellower, sweeter flavor.  It’s a good thing one head of escarole offers both raw and cooked options; I would have a very hard time deciding between salad and sauté.

Radicchio is also delicious both cooked and raw, continuing the preparation dilemma.  As with escarole, cooking mellows the bitterness and brings out the nutty flavors, but raw offers beautiful bitter with sweet salad possibilities.  Radicchio’s dark red color, so pretty in salads, fades with cooking but the mellowed, slightly smoky flavor of grilled radicchio more than makes up for appearance.

Radicchio marinated

Radicchio grilled

To prepare radicchio for grilling, slice the head into halves or quarters, leaving the stem intact to hold the leaves together.  Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  You can grill it right away or let it marinate for up to an hour before grilling.  I usually wait at least twenty minutes to let the oil seep into the entire head.  To grill the prepared heads, heat a gas grill to medium, place the heads cut side down for about four minutes then turn.  They are ready in eight to ten minutes.  The slightly charred and faded leaves aren’t very pretty but they are delicious.   Last week, I served grilled Fiero radicchio with wild mushroom risotto and diced and roasted Delicata squash, a perfect blend of fall flavors.

For the prettier side of radicchio, there are salads.  For one the other night I sliced a round head of Indigo into strips, added diced, roasted Delicata squash, roasted hazelnuts and a few leaves of mache and dressed the mix with Balsamic vinaigrette.  This is a salad to keep in mind for Christmas.

Radicchio salad in bowl

Grilling, sautéing or tossing with whatever fall fruits and vegetables are on hand are my standard methods for preparing bitter greens, but for enticing variations on each of these methods as well as some new directions I’m eager to try recipes in Deborah Madison’s latest cookbook, Vegetable Literacy (2013).  Of the dozen recipes she offers for the chicory family, two appealing choices for salads are “Shredded Radicchio with Walnut Vinaigrette, Hard-Cooked Egg, and Toasted Bread Crumbs” and “Radicchio, Escarole, and Red Mustard with Golden Beets and Avocado.” For cooked, there’s “Treviso Radicchio Gratin” and “Escarole and Potato Hash.”  The hard part will be deciding which recipe to try first.

Winter Salads

Red, green, and white are colors I associate with this early winter season.  They show up in Christmas lights, gift paper, ribbons and wreaths.  In hedgerows, there are rose hips, hawthorne, holly and snowberry.  And on the table, there are salads from the winter garden where radicchio, red mustard and kale, mache and arugula, escarole and curly endive offer more versions of the red, green and white of the season.

With winter salads in mind, I planted these greens in summer and fall, beginning with kale in mid-July, continuing with escarole, endive and radicchio in early August and the others, mache, mustard and arugula every few weeks from mid-August until late September.  In an August post I wrote about planting many of these greens:

Now they are mature, growing slowly if at all in the cooler temperatures and shorter days of our coastal northwest winter.  I keep the escarole, curly endive and radicchio covered in a low plastic tunnel because the rain will cause them to rot.  The kale, mustard, arugula and mache are fine in the rain though I cover them as well when nighttime temperatures head for the low twenties.

Escarole: “Natacha”

Radicchio: “Fiero” and “Indigo”

Mache: “Verte de Cambrai”

Arugula and Red Giant Mustard

Harvesting these greens is pretty straightforward.  With kale, mustard and arugula, I snip off individual leaves and the plant continues growing. With mache, escarole, curly endive and radicchio I harvest the entire plant by cutting it off at the base.  The mache rosette is usually free of any tough or yellowed bottom leaves but the others often have some weathered and tough outer leaves that I pull off and compost.

Washing the individual leaves is easy in a salad spinner.  Washing the full plants is a bit more complicated.  After rinsing the mache rosettes, I grasp the rosette root side up in one hand and with the other hand slice across the plant about an inch or so above the root stem.  The now separated leaves wash and dry easily in a salad spinner.  I use the same approach with the much bigger escarole and curly endive plants.  The one variation is that after cutting off the root end I separate the outer leaves from the smaller, creamier-colored inner leaves.  I use the inner leaves for salad and save the larger outer leaves to sauté in olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes.  Finally, the radicchio heads are usually tightly wrapped, so after trimming off the root and outer leaves, I simply slice or tear the leaves of the head as I would cabbage.

Each of these greens has a distinctive flavor.  Kale is earthy, arugula is peppery, mustard is, well, mustardy.  Mache is nutty and escarole, curly endive and radicchio are all pleasantly bitter.  The flavors mix well together and are especially pretty with their shades of red, green and white.

Sometimes though I’ll enjoy just one all by itself heaped into a salad bowl.  For dressings, I like simple vinaigrettes made with sherry, cider or white wine vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil so that the flavors of greens stand out.

I often stop here, with a delicious, leafy salad.  But, there are winter roots and fruits that mix wonderfully with these greens.  Turnip, celery root, beets, apples and pears all add further flavors and textures as well as red and white colors to the greens.  The other day, I sliced some Gilfeather turnip into matchstick-size pieces and added them and some diced winter pears to a mix of escarole and mache.  The soft, sweetness of the pear and the crisp, pungency of the turnip blended perfectly with the bitter escarole and nutty, mineral flavored mache.  I used cider vinegar vinaigrette.

Another favorite winter salad is celery root and apple with mache or arugula.  I slice the celery root into matchstick-size pieces and marinate them for an hour or so in a mix of white wine or cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, salt and finely diced shallots.  For a pound and a half of celery root, I use a quarter cup of vinegar, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and one to two tablespoons of minced shallot.  Then I add diced red apples, mache or arugula and four to six tablespoons of olive oil.  It’s a beautiful red, white and green salad.  A few toasted pecans or hazelnuts add one more delicious flavor.

Finally, beets, boiled, peeled and diced or peeled, diced and roasted are a perfect addition to any of these greens, both for flavor and for color.

On these dark December days with seed catalogs arriving daily, it’s tempting to look ahead to the first tender salads of spring but right now and for the next few months are perfect times to enjoy tasty winter salads.