Bitter is in our opinion the most exciting flavour profile in cooking right now. This flavour can seem alarming at first but it’s all about how you cook with bitter flavours and what you pair with bitter ingredients. Charring and searing for instance are wonderful ways of managing the bitter edge of bitter ingredients.
The bitter leaves we are most familiar with cooking are the tight torpedo like chicory, which looks like some sort of cabbage/lettuce hybrid. It can be confusing when choosing your bitter leaves to navigate all the different names and varietals that are out there such as endive, witlof, radicchio or puntarelle.
All of these are similar and closely related but to keep things simple I have used the two most widely available which are the Belgian endive, which is white/yellow green with tightly packed leaves. This is almost always just referred to as chicory in this country so that is what we will refer to it here.
The second is radicchio which is the name chicory gets when it is of the red/purple variety. Chicory is wonderful, almost addictively bitter and juicy, it also happens to be beautiful especially if you can find a mix of red and white varieties to use together.
The following recipes are a good example of the different ways of using chicory, eaten raw in a salad, charred on a steaming grill pan or baked in the oven. The bitterness can be balanced out by using sweet or salty ingredients like honey, pickles, goats cheese, fruit like pears, nuts and dried fruits.
This salad is simple, relying on the bitterness of the chicory, aniseed freshness of fennel, sweetness of the dill and earthy sharpness of the pickled walnuts. Instead of salad dressing, a little squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt is all that is needed, although a small drizzle of honey will balance out the bitterness if it isn’t to your taste.
4 chicory/radicchio heads (try get 2 of each variety red and white)
1 large fennel bulb
1 tbsp of chopped dill
1 tbsp of chopped parsley
2 pickled walnuts, sliced thinly
Juice of 1 lemon
Pinch of salt
Drizzle of honey (optional)
Separate the leaves out from the chicory until you get the heart which you can throw into the compost bin.
Cut the end off the fennel bulb, remove the stalks at the tops, reserving any of the herb for garnish. Slice in very thin rounds from the bottom to the top.
Mix the chicory leaves and fennel in a large salad bowl with the chopped herbs, juice of one lemon and a good pinch of salt. Leave for a couple of minutes so the fennel in particular softens slightly.
Arrange in two bowls with the sliced pickled walnuts and fennel herb on top.
Quartering radicchio or chicory and roasting it in a hot oven is a great way to enjoy these bitter leaves. The oven softens the body and slightly chars the outer leaves giving you a mellow bitter flavour that retains its incredible juiciness.
We like to drizzle the quarters with balsamic vinegar which further balances out the flavours. For this recipe we used a creamy soft goats cheese like the Ardsallagh one you buy in little tubs but you could also use a good crumbly one as well.
4 radicchio, cut into wedges
Salt and pepper
6 sprigs of thyme
200g soft goats cheese like Ardsallagh
2 tbsp pine nuts
Handful of chopped parsley
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees celsius.
Place the radicchio wedges on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and season generously with salt and pepper. Toss gently to coat and sprinkle over the pine nuts.
Roast in the oven for 15 minutes until the edges of the leaves are slightly charred and the pine nuts golden brown.
Assemble on a large serving plate. Place dollops of goats cheese around and on top of the radicchio and lastly sprinkle over the chopped parsley.
This is a wonderful warm salad of juicy steak and chicory. Slightly charring the radicchio will soften the leaves and take away some of the astringency. The dressing we use is basically a type of chimichurri which compliments the steak perfectly but also balances out the flavours of the radicchio with garlic and vinegar notes.
300g new potatoes, halved
2 radicchio or chicory (or one of each), quartered lengthways
2x 200g sirloin steaks
3 spring onions, sliced finely
A handful of watercress, baby leaves or rocket
1 large bunch of fresh parsley, chopped
2 tbsp of oregano or marjoram leaves
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
120ml olive oil
3 tbsp of red wine vinegar
Bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil, add potatoes and a good pinch of salt. Simmer for 8 to 10 minutes until just tender. Drain and set aside.
Season the steaks and the chicory quarters with salt and black pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
Heat a grilling pan or griddle over a high heat and cook the chicory for 2 to 3 minutes, turning halfway through. The radicchio should have char marks from the griddle.
Cook the steaks for one to three minutes on each side depending how rare or well done you want them. Remove from the grill pan, place on a board and roughly chop into strips.
For the dressing whisk together the spring onions, chopped parsley, chopped oregano, crushed garlic, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper.
Mix the warm potatoes with the radicchio, mixed leaves and steak slices, cover generously with the dressing and serve.