FOOD The subtle cool of chicory
At this time of year, when green salad is struggling for survival, the chicory family, which includes radicchio, endive and escarole, comes to the rescue. The most familiar is Witloof, or Belgian, chicory: tightly closed shoots forced in the dark to blanch them to tenderness, with an enticing blend of bitterness and sweetness (at the Criterion recently I ate a plate of separated chicory leaves with a walnut dressing and creamy chunks of blue cheese, a beautifully stark rendition typical of Marco Pierre White's "no-frills" approach).

Radicchio I have almost given up on in salad because of its unpredictable bitterness but, when used in a risotto, braised or slowly wilted, it becomes slippery and luscious; the bitterness is then subdued and very appealing. The downside is that the rich vermilion which attracted you in the first place turns to a dull red. But this is a small price to pay for a vegetable that salutes the bitterness of other ingredients, such as olives, vacherin cheese, Seville orange juice and, more curiously, beer - as you will see below.

Witloof chicons, too, cook up beautifully. Slice them finely and sweat in butter, add a dash of white wine and cook to reduce it, then cover with double cream. Season, and cook over a low heat until you are left with a thick, creamy puree, a fraction of the original volume, that is utterly delectable. Use it to fill a hollowed- out squash before baking it, or - unseasonally - to fill a cooked artichoke heart, topped with a poached egg or sauteed mushrooms. I have also used chicory puree as the base for oeufs en cocotte, and I like it with grilled fillets of sole and seared scallops. Alternatively you can stir in grainy mustard, and serve the puree with guinea fowl or chicken, and some leeks.

This makes good use of the larger heads: chicons do come in varying sizes. Should you want to encase them in a thin blanket of air-dried ham before baking them with a bechamel sauce, you will need smaller heads. But you can always cut down large ones by removing the outer leaves, to keep for some other use.

Northern Italians take their chicory seriously. According to Anna del Conte, in The Classic Food of Northern Italy (Pavilion, pounds 19.99), there are three favourite varieties: Treviso, Verona and Castelfranco. I remember displays of the long, spindly red Treviso as being an integral part of Trento market - that, and the long trestle tables piled high with different varieties of wild mushrooms.

Red Treviso is occasionally found in good greengrocers here. It is, in fact, a pink version of Witloof, and is not overly bitter. I think it is best wilted and then braised with pulses: the dry, sweet and mealy beans complement the faintly bitter, silky leaves.

It was Sally Clarke, the chef and restaurateur, who, some years ago, alerted me to the notion of wilting chicory and endive. This makes especially good use of any outer leaves. You can use curly endive, broad-leaved escarole, Belgian chicory or red Treviso. Wilt them in a frying pan with butter or olive oil, garlic and seasoning, and serve as an accompanying vegetable.

The bitterness of these winter leaves, incidentally, is supposed to be addictive, or at least an acquired taste. And I can remember when I didn't like olives.

Chicory and avocado Caesar salad, serves 4

I have mixed feelings about playing around with a salad as perfect as Caesar but chicory, like cos lettuce, is an ideal blend of crisp stalk and leaf, and avocado makes a voluptuous partner. The Parmesan should be finely grated, rather than powdered.

for the dressing

2 eggs (size 2)

half garlic clove, peeled and chopped

2 tbsp lemon juice

2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

150ml/5fl oz extra virgin olive oil

salt, pepper

for the salad

2 slices white bread, cut into 1cm/half-inch cubes

olive oil for frying

450g/1lb small Witloof chicons (Belgian endive)

3 avocados

55g/2oz freshly grated Parmesan

First prepare the dressing: bring a small pan of water to the boil and cook the eggs for one minute; remove and cool under cold running water, then shell them into a liquidiser, scooping out the cooked white that lines the inside of the shell. Add the remaining ingredients for the dressing, and whizz until you have a pale and creamy emulsion.

Cut the bread into 1cm/half-inch cubes. Heat enough olive oil in a frying pan to shallow fry the bread, add the cubes and cook, tossing constantly, until they are golden and crisp. Remove from the pan, and cool on kitchen paper.

To serve the salad, slice the bottoms off the chicory heads, remove any damaged outer leaves, and separate the remainder. Arrange these on a large serving plate. Halve each avocado and extract the stone, incise the skin into quarters and peel it off, then slice halves into thin strips. Mix these in with the chicory.

Pour the dressing over the salad, and lightly mix in the Parmesan. Scatter with croutons and serve the dish straightaway.

Braised radicchio and chickpeas, serves 4

This would be nice eaten with a youngish goats' cheese and some crusty bread. Were you to turn a blind eye and open a tin of chickpeas instead then the dish would qualify as fast - but there would be a difference in quality.

175g/6oz chickpeas, soaked overnight in 4 times their volume of water

2 heads radicchio

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

12 tsp minced red chilli

3 garlic cloves, peeled

5cm/2in strip of orange zest

1 bay leaf

140ml/5fl oz white wine

200g/7oz tomatoes, skinned and chopped

salt, pepper

to serve

1 tbsp orange juice

1 tbsp lemon juice or Seville orange juice

85g/3oz black olives, pitted and halved

6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Place the chickpeas in a large saucepan with plenty of water, bring to the boil and simmer for about one-and-a-quarter hours, until tender. Leave them to cool in the water and then drain.

Trim the radicchio, removing damaged outer leaves, and cut into segments about 1cm/half-an-inch wide. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and sweat the radicchio until it turns a dull red. Add the chilli, garlic cloves, orange zest, bay leaf, chickpeas, wine and tomatoes, bring to a simmer, then cover, and cook over a low heat for 15 minutes. Stir the mixture halfway through, mashing the tomatoes down. The chickpeas and radicchio should be sitting in a small amount of well-flavoured liquor. Discard the zest, bay leaf and garlic and cool for about ten minutes.

Season, stir in the orange and lemon juice, and add the olives. Serve warm or at room temperature, with the olive oil poured over and a scattering of parsley.

Radicchio-filled pancakes with white beer sauce, serves 4 (12 pancakes)

For this dish, the icing on the cake would be a few drops of black or white truffle oil, added at the table. Use an unassertive beer such as the excellent Hoegaarden, which is mild enough to appeal to non beer drinkers like me.

for the pancakes

175g/6oz plain flour

pinch each salt and sugar

280ml/10fl oz milk

140ml/5fl oz water

2 eggs (size 2), plus 2 egg yolks

40g/112 oz melted butter

for the sauce

25g/1oz unsalted butter

20g/34 oz plain flour

140ml/5fl oz double cream

140ml/5fl oz milk

200ml/7fl oz vegetable stock

85ml/3fl oz white wine

55ml/2fl oz white beer

salt, pepper

for the filling

2 heads radicchio

25g/1oz unsalted butter

175g/6oz (excluding rind) vacherin or ripe Brie

In a bowl, whisk together all the ingredients for the pancakes except for the melted butter and leave to stand for 30 minutes, then stir in the melted butter. Meanwhile, make the sauce: melt the butter in a medium- size, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the flour and cook for 1-2 minutes. Combine cream, milk, stock and wine and gradually whisk into the roux, then return to the heat and stir until it thickens. Cover and simmer over a low heat for 30 minutes. Season, and add beer.

The quickest way to cook pancakes is in two frying pans. You may need to grease them initially with vegetable oil; thereafter the butter in the batter should be sufficient. Cook pancakes over a medium heat. Ladle batter into each frying pan so the base is lightly coated; the pancakes should be 18-20cm/7in in diameter. After a minute or two, when the top of the pancake is dry, turn it over and cook the other side. Stack on a plate.

Remove the outer leaves from the radicchio, halve, cut out tough stalks and slice thinly. Melt the butter in a frying pan and sweat the radicchio until it has turned dull in colour and is limp. Reserve this.

Preheat the oven to 190C (fan oven)/200C (electric oven)/400F/gas mark 6. Roll up the pancakes with some of the radicchio and cheese in each one, and lay them side by side in a gratin or shallow baking dish. Pour over the sauce and bake for 20-30 minutes, until the sauce has turned golden in patches

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