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All About Chicories

All About Chicories
Members of this family of pleasantly bitter greens have a range of uses, from salads and braises to grilled side dishes. Salads are rarely made with chicories alone. They would taste far too bitter, unless wilted with a warm dressing. Try mixing the bitter greens with milder butterhead varieties, such as Bibb or Boston, or oakleaf. Chicories are also good in salads containing nuts and fruits.

Since the late 18th century, certain types of chicory have been cultivated specifically for their large tap roots, which, when roasted, ground and steeped in water, produce a dark brown, bitter beverage resembling coffee. Chicory is traditionally added to coffee in New Orleans to produce the familiar local brew.

The chicory family includes Belgian endive, curly endive, escarole, frisée and radicchio.

Belgian Endive
This chicory is grown in two steps. First, it is planted in a field and harvested, and the tops are cut off and thrown away. The roots are then placed in a dark room for a few weeks, where they sprout and are carefully tended to produce the torpedo-shaped shoots we know as Belgian endive. The leaves of this tender, white cylindrical green have a pleasingly mild, bitter flavor that is a desirable addition to salads, and they can be stuffed with mild fillings for hors d'oeuvres, while the whole head is sometimes braised or even grilled. Red-tipped Belgian endive, which has the same flavor and adds pretty color to a salad or cold platter, is appearing in specialty markets these days.

Buy firm, fat, crisp heads (usually about 6 inches long) with tight, unblemished white leaves ending in yellow (or red) tips. Green tips indicate that the endive is not fresh. The cut end should look fresh, with no browning. Wrap Belgian endive in plastic, a soft kitchen towel or paper toweling to prevent bruising and refrigerate. Belgian endive keeps for 3 to 5 days, but it is best if used on the same day you buy it. Rinse gently, first separating the leaves if called for in the recipe.

Curly Endive
A close cousin of escarole (see below), this frilly, somewhat bitter green is also known as chicory or curly chicory. It has narrow, spiky, finely curled leaves and a creamy white heart. Used primarily in salads, it is often tossed with olive oil and lemon juice. This green is available year-round; select crisp heads with good color. Slip curly endive into a perforated plastic bag and refrigerate for up to 4 days.

Escarole
Also known as common chicory, broad chicory or Batavian endive, escarole has loose, broad, green, tangy outer leaves, wide white stalks and a yellow-green heart. The leaves can be chopped and mixed with other salad greens, cooked as a green, or added to soups or pasta sauces. Buy crisp, green heads with no browning. If too many of the leaves look thick or tough, pass on that head; those leaves will taste unpleasantly bitter. Escarole is most plentiful in the early spring and fall, although it is available year-round. Store in the refrigerator in a perforated plastic bag for up to 4 days.

Frisée
French cooks have long used this flavorful green in salads; it is especially nice with pears and walnuts or as a bed for grilled chicken or fish. It is basically slightly immature curly endive, with smaller heads and a more delicate and tender leaf. Select and store in the same way. Frisée is available year-round.

Radicchio
A variety of chicory native to Italy, radicchio is characterized by its variegated purplish red leaves and bitter taste. The sturdy raw leaves hold up well in a salad, and their assertive flavor is nicely matched with cheeses, cured meats, anchovies, olives and capers. The leaves, which darken when cooked, can be sautéed with garlic and anchovies for a side dish, a pasta sauce or a pizza topping, or the heads can be grilled.

Winter through early spring is the peak season for radicchio, although it is available most of the year in many locales. Look for a head with a white core that is firm and has no holes or blemishes. Avoid those with moist leaves. Store in the refrigerator in a perforated plastic bag for up to 1 week.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion (Time-Life Books, 2000).