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Alan Tangren: Make a choice of chicories

Alan Tangren
Columnist

Dear Alan: I’m getting a little bored with my usual choice of salad greens. At this time of year they seem a little tired. What can I use until spring greens come back in season?

Alan: One of the joys of late winter are the abundance of crisp, colorful chicories to use in salads and for cooking. They come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Belgian endive, radicchio, frisée, curly endive and escarole are all members of this varied family.

Belgian endive has small, elongated tight heads that are pure white with a bit of yellow at the edges of the leaves.

Radicchio is easy to identify with its beautiful round or elongated heads of dappled maroon-red and white leaves.

The fine textured and frilly heads of frisée have dark green outer leaves surrounding a central cluster of leaves that are blanched to a pale yellow. Curly endive is coarser than frisée, with less blanching in the center

Escarole will have big leafy loose heads with dark green outer leaves and blanched centers.

With the exception of Belgian endive, which is available all year, chicories are at their best and most abundant in the cool moist months of fall and winter. This is when they have stored up plenty of sugar to temper their bitter background flavor.

Most chicories are field grown, but Belgian endive spends one summer in the field, producing big leafy green tops and a large tap root. In the fall the plants are harvested, tops chopped off and the roots are kept in cold storage until they are needed, to be “forced” in the dark to grow the small tender white heads.

When shopping for chicory, look for heads with bright and fresh looking outer leaves, with no wilting or browning. The hearts of loose-leaf varieties should be pale yellow, almost white. The cut stem ends should look fresh, not brown or dried out.

When shopping for Belgian endive and radicchio, you have only the outer leaves to guide you. The edges of the outer leaves of Belgian endive should be a pale shade of chartreuse. Radicchio should look fresh ad vibrant.

Refrigerate chicories in a plastic bag as soon as possible after purchase. Protect Belgian endive from exposure to light or it will turn green and develop a bitter flavor. I usually wrap it in a kitchen towel before refrigerating.

Prepare chicories shortly before serving or cooking. Cut off the stem end and remove any loose or bruised outer leaves.

For salad, discard the green outer leaves of curly endive or escarole, or save for wilting and braising. I usually give frisée a “haircut” to remove the darker green ends, then cut above the base to release the frilly leaves. Give a quick rinse and drain or spin in a salad spinner.

A mixed salad of radicchio chiffonade (cut head in half and cut cross slices about ¼-inch thick), frisée, and Belgian endive cut on the bias is colorful and refreshing.

The slightly bitter flavor and crunchy texture of raw chicories works beautifully with rich, fatty foods. Use in combination with nuts, apples, cheese and smoked fish, or on the side with duck confit, paté, or liver toasts. Dress with a vinaigrette of olive oil with red wine and balsamic vinegar.

Individual leaves from Belgian endive make great canapés to hold crab salad, salmon mouse, or crème fraîche and caviar.

The tender leaves of escarole give body to a warm salad, tossed over heat with olive oil, garlic and a splash of vinegar.

Grill wedges of radicchio and serve with Italian salsa verde or add to citrus risotto. Or braise whole Belgian endive in the oven with chicken stock, butter and fresh herbs.

Hearts of Escarole with Apples and Roquefort

This is a perfect combination of sweet, bitter and savory

Serves 4

1 large head escarole or frisée

1 crisp eating apple, Jonagold, Honeycrisp, etc.

¼ cup broken up walnut pieces, toasted at 350°F. for 5 minutes

6 tablespoons olive oil or walnut oil

2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar or white wine vinegar

Salt and pepper

2 ounces crumbled Roquefort or other blue cheese

Remove the outer dark green leaves of the escarole and darker ends of the inner leaves. Cut into 1” pieces and wash and spin dry. Peel, quarter, core and slice the apple. Rub toasted walnuts in a kitchen towel to remove loose skin.

Whisk together oil and vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Toss apple and escarole together with the vinaigrette. Sprinkle with the walnuts and cheese.

Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at alan.tesskitchen@gmail.com.


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