Bitter leaves like chicory are a still largely untapped vegetable, one that supermarkets at least seem reluctant to stock. Farmers markets and green grocers seem a better bet if you want to pick some chicory buds up but even then they haven’t taken off in the way you’d expect given how Instagram friendly they are.
Apart from their obvious beauty, they have that wonderful quality of being both addictively bitter and refreshingly juicy at the same time which makes them perfect for creating salads which not only taste and look great but also are substantial and filling.
Chicory is a forced crop, grown in darkness, a little like rhubarb is. This gives it the perfectly white bodies and yellow or red tipped leaves. During the winter months we are perhaps over indulged with sweet, starchy root vegetables with creamy flesh that sticks to the pallet and clings to belly. Chicory is here to offer a much welcome bitter crunch to wake up our taste buds.
It is at its most mouth watering bitterness when eaten raw in a salad and benefits from sweeter, warmer flavours like honey and mustard in a dressing. When cooked, it loses some of its bitterness but retains its juiciness and depending on how you cook it can take on some deeper more interesting flavours.
I have included two different ways of cooking with chicory, one where you braise it in the oven with lots of butter and the other on the stove top, caramelised boldly with icing sugar.
The final recipe is a salad using radicchio, which isn’t chicory but is a wonderful Italian bitter leaf that will give you a similar effect. Radicchio has the wonderful bitter flavours but a far more delicate texture.
When shopping for chicory or radicchio, look for firm bodies and leaves which aren’t wilting or brown. Bitter leaves don’t keep very well so use them as you buy them and don’t leave them in the fridge, where they’ll soon turn brown and soggy.
This is a rather devilish recipe that uses icing sugar to make a quick caramel to coat the chicory in while it bubbles away on a stove top. The sugary sweetness of the caramel would be out of place in almost any vegetable dish, but curiously the chicory, with its particular juicy bitterness can hold up as the perfect counterweight.
Lashings of good aged balsamic and an optional sprinkling of feta complete this simple side dish. We like to serve this alongside things like sticky pork ribs and barbecued or rotisserie chicken. It can also be served alongside other vegetables of course.
4 chicory cut in half
25g of icing sugar
Good quality balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
100g Feta (optional)
Place a medium sized frying or sautéing pan on a medium high heat and add the icing sugar to pan.
Allow the sugar to melt, and brown on the pan until a caramel forms. You are looking for a medium brown colour and be very careful not to let it turn too dark.
When the caramel is the right colour immediately add the butter allowing it to foam and loosen the caramel. Add the chicory halves and move them around the pan making sure they are well coated in the sticky caramel butter.
Season lightly with sea salt and black pepper and leave to sizzle on the pan, turning often for just three or four minutes.
Serve with a good drizzle of balsamic and feta if you like.
Braising is a smashing technique for cooking chicory. The bitterness will mellow and deepen in the oven and the flesh will become irresistibly tender — smothered in molten butter.
This is a simple recipe that gives you maximum flavour and the result is a dish that is both impressive looking and delicious tasting. This can serve as a side dish for any type of fish, but also would work well with chicken or even steak. A truly versatile side dish.
4 chicory heads, cut in half
Handful of parsley, chopped
1 lemon, sliced thinly
Sea salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 180C.
Slice the butter into thin strips and arrange a few lines on the bottom of a medium sized baking dish or tray. Arrange the chicory halves, tightly packed on top of the butter and then put the remaining butter slices in, around and on top of the chicory. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Arrange the slices of lemon on top and place in the oven for around 45 minutes.
You can cover with a piece of buttered grease-proof paper if it looks like the chicory or lemon slices are taking on too much colour. After 45 minutes the chicory should be tender at which point you can remove from the oven and cover with a good handful of parsley.
Use a spoon to baste the tops of the chicory all over with the lemony butter.
Check for seasoning and serve as an accompaniment to anything from roast chicken to fish or beef.
This is a gorgeously vivid salad, which shows off a gorgeous kaleidoscope of colours, textures and flavours.
This array of qualities is especially impressive considering how low maintenance this salad is, it can be arranged in a couple of minutes, requiring absolutely no cooking, just a chopping board and a sharp knife. Even the dressing is extremely paired back.
The result however is a symphony of very good things and will provide a good solid lunch with very little quilt attached.
Zest and juice of one lemon
80 ml extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
Handful of parsley, chopped
Small handful of oregano, chopped
1 large radicchio, outer leaves discarded
1 fennel bulb
10 green olives (either pitted or stone in)
150g good quality feta
80g of salami, cut into thin slices
Sea salt and black pepper
Remove the base and any wilted or browning outer leaves from the radicchio and cut in half. Chop each half, roughly until you have a nice bunch of chopped radicchio leaves which you can leave aside in a bowl while you prepare the other ingredients.
Remove the stalks and base of the fennel and slice very thinly. You can reserve the fennel herb at the top of the stalks to garnish, if present. Add the fennel to the bowl of radicchio along with the chopped parsley, oregano, salami slices, lemon zest and olives, season lightly with salt and pepper.
To make the dressing, simply mix together the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, red wine vinegar and finely chopped shallot. Drizzle over the contents of the bowl and then arrange into two good sized serving bowls or plates.
Crumble over the feta at the end and garnish with some of the reserved fennel herb, some parsley and oregano.