Winter Chicories Add Earthy Bitterness to Dishes
Pair them with porchetta or add to salads with a little sweetness for a winter treat.
Photos by Lori Eanes
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Some people don’t like chicories, because they’re too bitter. But for Joe Schirmer, farmer and owner of Dirty Girl Produce, the earthy, nutty, bitter flavors that these stark, cool-weather beauties possess is almost addictive.
“Every five years I’ll have a big chicory trial patch and do a whole bunch of them,” Schirmer said. “But they’re still not very popular. Most people don’t know what they are. At the markets, people ask all day, ‘Is that cabbage? Is that a lettuce?’”
In the winter, the sheer variety of chicories can set a farmer’s market shopper adrift. Garnet-shaded radicchio and endive, dappled Castelfranco, Treviso, frisee, and puntarelle are all among the many chicories one may find.
“Winter is the best time for all of them,” Schirmer said. “The way they head-up with an inner blanched center, they get juicier and less bitter.” Winter is the time you can really pull off dandelion-esque puntarelle, he added. “The cold weather keeps it from flowering, and it becomes this bulbous, cabbage-like thing.”
Schirmer has tried out more than 30 varieties of radicchio at his farm in Santa Cruz County, but he feels he knows very little about the many varieties that come from Europe. “A good Italian seed company may have over 50 varieties, and you don’t know what they are until you grow them,” Schirmer said. “When chicories come from Europe and Italy in particular, they get renamed these American washed-out names like Sugarloaf. And they lose their history, their uses, and how to prepare them.”
Romney Steele, chef and co-owner of the Cook and Her Farmer in Oakland, remembers her grandmother using a long, curly type of endive as a digestive aid after dinner; she simply snacked on a leaf or two.