Leaf chicory, as well as the type known as radicchio, is a frilly beauty when found in a winter salad, though it can sometimes have a slightly bitter edge that some find too aggressive. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm explains where this flavor comes from, and how to sweeten its personality.
This is the season for chicories. At the moment they are the speckled Lusia types. We have had trouble with the quality of the seed, so there is a lot variation in the field, and we are only able to harvest about 10% of what we planted, which is way below the 90% harvested in the past. We are not happy with the state of seed, to put it mildly. In February, we will have longer meditation about the genetics of chicories, and what we are doing to address the problem.
As with Bette Davis and the lyrics of Sondheim, the bitterness in chicories is always a matter of interpretation and taste; some revel in it, others recoil. Varieties and individual plants vary as well. The bitter compounds are in the white latex of the sap and are water soluble, so the problem is easily addressed. Tearing the leaves lengthwise and immediately soaking them in iced water draws out the latex and eliminates almost all of the bitterness. Soaking for 20 minutes or so is generally enough.
If you are planning to braise the chicories, quarter them lengthwise and immediately soak in ice water. As with latex paint, if the plant's latex starts to set up and dry, it is no longer water soluble, so having soaking water ready before you tear or cut the heads is important. The ice is critical to the process because the cold shrinks the vascular tissue, forcing the latex out of the leaf. Lukewarm or cool water is useless for the task, so don't skimp on the ice.
For a salad, a lemon-based dressing adds a bit of sweetness. Cutting vinegar with a bit of orange juice also works. An anchovy fillet squeezed through a garlic press and mixed into the dressing is another fine addition. As a forage crop for livestock, chicories have higher protein content than even legumes such as alfalfa, as well as a hefty dose of minerals. As a result, in recent years seed companies have been offering a greater range of forage chicories, apparently with better seed quality than we see in the varieties grown for human consumption. Regardless, you can't go wrong eating these fine winter greens, right Elsie?