Chicory tips

Fed up with buying the same old bags of rocket? Mark Hix introduces a band of leaves with real bite
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When it comes to salad, we're getting more adventurous, but we're still more cautious than rabbits, preferring to munch on innocuous-tasting leaves, rather than anything with a bit of bite. OK, rocket has taken off, but there are many other robust-tasting leaves out there that are commonplace in Italy, Belgium and France and that we could be getting our teeth into. I'm thinking about the refreshingly bitter salad vegetables that are mostly members of the chicory family.

When it comes to salad, we're getting more adventurous, but we're still more cautious than rabbits, preferring to munch on innocuous-tasting leaves, rather than anything with a bit of bite. OK, rocket has taken off, but there are many other robust-tasting leaves out there that are commonplace in Italy, Belgium and France and that we could be getting our teeth into. I'm thinking about the refreshingly bitter salad vegetables that are mostly members of the chicory family.

This sprawling clan includes various types of curly endive, radicchio, treviso, frisée, Belgium endive and others. They're all descended from wild Cicoria selvatica, which is related to the dandelion. What they also have in common is that they taste pleasantly bitter.

What they don't have in common is the same name from country to country or between regions. The same vegetable can be called very different things locally. Market stalls and shops will mark them up accordingly, but it easily leads to confusion. I learned this the hard way when I was consulting for a large dinner recently. I had recommended bitter trevisiano with sweet white asparagus as a starter. The chef I was working with was Italian so knew what he was talking about. Unfortunately, even with two months' notice, the greengrocer still got it wrong and supplied the fatter cos lettuce-shaped treviso. Its full name is radicchio di treviso, after the city of Treviso near Venice where it is grown. All three, radicchio, trevisiano and treviso, have beautiful ruby-red leaves with white spines, though in the case of trevisiano there's more spine than leaf.

White chicory, otherwise known as Belgian endive to us, or witloof to the Belgians themselves, is another one that goes by several different names, and is not to be confused with the other green, curly lettucey endive, aka frisée. The beautifully shaped head of white chicory leaves often comes nicely packaged in blue velvety paper to stop it discolouring. It is blanched - grown in the dark - to stop it turning green, but it also comes in a red version now, joining the carmine-coloured radicchio gang. Making up the third colour of the Italian flag (is that why they like their chicory salads so much?) there's the vibrant, green puntarelle, which comes as a bunch of juicy, dandelion-like leaves attached to the root.

Because they're bitter, a sweet dressing works best if you're serving these leaves as salad. But if you cook them they take on a completely different character - bitter, with a twist.

Dandelion salad with rabbit and black pudding

Serves 4

Although gardeners wage war against them, we rarely eat dandelions. The French grow a larger, more tender, blanched variety especially for eating. Their pissenlit is less bitter, and the green and white leaves make an interestingly punchy salad with a sweet dressing and matched with earthy ingredients like rabbit and black pudding. Try to choose a sweet, softer black pudding like the French one, which sometimes contains apple purée. Previously, when I've given a recipe for braised rabbit, I've recommended saving the rabbit saddle to use in a salad. And now is your chance.

4 wild rabbit fillets from the saddle
150g black pudding cut into 1cm slices
150-200g dandelion, trimmed
1tbsp olive oil

for the dressing

1tbsp cider vinegar
1tsp clear honey
1tsp grain mustard
1tsp Dijon mustard
2tbsp olive oil
2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

First make the dressing by whisking all the ingredients together and seasoning. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan, season the rabbit fillets and cook them for about 11/2-2minutes on each side, keeping them pink. Remove from the pan and leave to rest. Meanwhile cook the slices of black pudding for a couple of minutes on each side.

Cut the dandelion leaves in half if they are long and dress well with the dressing.

Slice the rabbit fillets into 3-4 pieces and arrange on a plate with the dandelion and black pudding.

Spaghetti with chicory and pecorino

Serves 4

If you're making the beetroot dish on the next page, this is a good way to use up the outer puntarelle leaves. Alternatively you could use treviso, radicchio, rocket, dandelion or a mixture of leaves from the chicory family for a quick and simple pasta meal.

300-350g dried spaghetti
Half a bulb of fresh new season garlic, trimmed and shredded
80ml olive oil
A couple of handfuls of puntarelle leaves, or other chicory leaves (see above)
80g butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4-5tbsp grated pecorino

Bring a pan of water to the boil and blanch your puntarelle or treviso leaves for 30 seconds then drain. Meanwhile cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water for as long as the packet says, then drain in a colander. As the spaghetti cooks, heat the olive oil in a pan and gently cook the new season garlic with a lid on for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add the blanched puntarelle, season, add the butter and continue to cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring every so often. Toss the spaghetti with the puntarelle and add half the pecorino. Mix well, season a little more and serve with some extra pecorino.

Caramelised endive tart

Serves 4

As with other members of the family, when endive is cooked it changes its character, making it a versatile little vegetable. It makes a great side dish, or a starter with all sorts of other flavours from oranges to anchovies. We don't take enough advantage of it, really. If only greengrocers and supermarkets gave out recipe cards with veg that we are not quite sure what to do with, it would help us make the most of the more unusual ones.

200g puff pastry, rolled to 1/3cm thick
6-8 heads of Belgian endive, depending on size
60g butter
50ml orange juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the puff pastry into either a 12cm x 24cm rectangle, a 24cm circle, or four 12cm circles. Prick them all over with a fork and leave to rest in the fridge. Remove the root from the endive and any discoloured outer leaves then separate all the leaves. Melt the butter in a thick-bottomed pan, add the endive leaves, season and cover with a lid. Cook on a low heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring every so often until the leaves begin to wilt. Then add the orange juice and continue cooking for about 15 minutes, stirring every so often until the leaves have really softened. Remove the lid and continue cooking until there is no liquid left in the pan.

Meanwhile pre-heat the oven to 200°C/ gas mark 6. Cook the pastry for 5 minutes then turn over and cook for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and spoon the endive evenly over the pastry to the sides. Return to the oven for 10 minutes then remove and serve hot.

Beetroot and puntarelle with anchovy sauce

Serves 4

Puntarelle is another member of the family and one which looks wild and weedy, like a straight-leaved frisée. It's popular in Italy, where it's used on pasta and matched with strong ingredients such as anchovies, or with sweet and sour flavours. That's because both the green leaves and cluster of hollow white stalks in the centre (the best bit) are bitter, although a good soak in iced water will tone down the bitterness.

1 head of puntarelle
4 small raw beetroots weighing about 200-250g in total
2tsp sugar
8 good quality anchovy fillets, chopped
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1/2tsp thyme leaves
2tbsp red wine vinegar
4tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the beetroots in a pan and cover well with water, add half a tablespoon of salt, bring to the boil and simmer for 11/2 hours, or until tender.

Cut the root off the puntarelle and discard any thick green outer leaves. Loosen all the hollow inner stems with the small leaves attached and the remaining outer leaves and immerse in iced water for about 30 minutes, then drain. The outer leaves without stems can be kept for wilting into a pasta with some butter and cheese.

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil with a couple of teaspoons of sugar and simmer the inner stems for 2-4 minutes until they still have a bit of bite, drain and leave to cool.

Meanwhile put the shallots, thyme and vinegar in a saucepan with an equal amount of water and simmer gently for 1 minute until reduced by half, then add the olive oil and season. Peel the beetroots and cut into wedges and arrange on plates with the puntarelle. Mix the anchovies with the dressing and spoon over the vegetables. Serve at room temperature.

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