The season of rich food is upon us once again and, much as I love comforting winter dishes sometimes a contrast is called for. Required even. It is for this reason that I have come to grow a wider and wider range of chicories and radicchios in the winter vegetable garden. Both raw and cooked the bitterness of chicory offsets the heaviness of winter food, stimulating the tastebuds and refreshing the appetite.
‘Belgian Witloof’, the roots of which I lifted a couple of weeks ago, have been replanted in covered pots in the toolshed to force them. I’m hoping they’ll produce pale chicons in time for Christmas Day. ‘Variegata di Castelfranco’, the pale green, red-speckled chicory, makes the prettiest winter salad. Sharply pointed radicchio ‘Rossa di Treviso’ and ball-shaped ‘Palla Rossa’ with their blood-red leaves set off by pristine white ribs both lend themselves particularly well to grilling or roasting.
This year I have grown two new varieties ‘Grumolo Rossa’ and ‘Rosa Isotina’ for their rosy pink inner leaves, to add variety to mixed salad bowls. All can be eaten raw or cooked. In salads they combine well with citrus, apples, pears, cheeses and toasted nuts. Braised on the stovetop or baked in the oven with oil, lemon and a spoonful of honey they cook to a sticky, caramelised sweetness, the edge knocked off their bitterness.
There are two varieties of leaf chicory I grow specifically for steaming or boiling. ‘Selvatica del Campo’ (meaning ‘wild of the fields’ and the closest to the dandelions from which it has been bred) and ‘Rossa Italiana’, with a decorative, deep red midrib, which looks good on the plate. Both of these are dressed simply with olive oil and lemon juice, perhaps a little garlic or chilli. No matter how much of them I cook, we find we could always eat more.
The most unusual chicory of all, and one we never see in the market here, although I used to find it in London, is ‘Puntarelle Catalogna Brindisina’, a form of chicory that has been bred to produce fat, hollow flower stems over leaves. Puntarelle is in season from October to February, and the plants from my first, early June sowing, are just reaching their peak. They are best from now until February, but the older plants can become tough and more bitter as the season goes on.
In Italy puntarelle is prized as a winter salad vegetable to the extent that there is a special tool, the taglia puntarella, specifically designed to make a quick job of cutting the finger-like shoots into fine ribbons. When soaked in iced water these lose some of their bitterness and curl delightfully, giving the salad its distinctive appearance. The traditional, punchy dressing for Puntarelle alla Romana is made simply from anchovies, garlic, oil and vinegar. A less forceful one can be made with lemon juice, but I prefer the kick that vinegar gives it.
Due to the fact that the flowering stems are jam-packed at the base of the plant, they are self-blanching and not as bitter as most of the leaf chicories. So what is most particular about puntarelle is not its flavour, but its texture, which is crunchy, juicy and toothsome, and more like fennel than anything else, but without the aniseed flavour, of course. This textural contrast can be heightened with the addition of other vegetables and fruit with crunch; finely sliced fennel, kohl rabi, radish, apple, celeriac or celery, the latter of which I had the foresight to harvest earlier this week, before the frosts wilted them beyond salvation. I use only the tenderest yellow hearts, also self-blanched, and not the tougher, green outer stems, which will go into the stockpot.
The dried olives came home with me from Greece and are not strictly traditional, but this salad will take small nuggets of saltiness alongside the anchovies, so a handful of capers (salted, not brined) wouldn’t go amiss. The olives should be dried or roasted, if possible, Kalamata if they are the most easily available, but not those preserved in brine. A few soaked raisins would make a sweet addition, while toasted pine nuts would bring a richer note. To make the salad vegan, leave out the anchovies and make the dressing with a couple of teaspoons of good black olive tapenade.
This is an excellent salad to rouse the appetite at the start of a meal, or served as a refresher after a substantial main course. Tonight it will accompany a baked Kabocha pumpkin filled with a mixture of cream, crème fraîche, goat’s cheese and sage. Like a chaser, each bracing mouthful will allow us to revisit the soft, creamy squash with tastebuds revitalised.
Seed of all the above-mentioned chicories and radicchios are available from Seeds of Italy.
1 large head of puntarelle
150g palest inner celery hearts and leaves
16 anchovy fillets in oil
1 clove garlic
4 tablespoons best olive oil
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
16 dried black olives
Salt & black pepper
Remove the best of the outer green leaves of the puntarelle and trim off the bases, reserving the tops. Cut off the flower shoots. Discard the large, hollow basal stalk. Cut each flower shoot in half lengthwise and then into very thin slices. Put them into a bowl of iced water and leave for at least half an hour, preferably longer.
Destone the olives. Chop them and half of the anchovies coarsely.
Crush the garlic clove and the remaining anchovies in a mortar until you have a smoothish paste. Add a little oil to loosen things if necessary. Add the chilli flakes, the rest of the oil and the vinegar, salt and pepper and whisk to emulsify.
Dry the puntarelle well, then put into a salad bowl with the thinly sliced celery hearts and celery leaves. Add the olives and anchovies.
Dress the salad. Mix thoroughly. Serve immediately while still cold.
Recipe & photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 2 December 2023