Winter surprise: Strange as it seems, it's the perfect time of year for making salads

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Skye Gyngell shares her chicory tips

Early February may seem an oddtime to be thinking about salad leaves. Cold days seem to call for warm dishes with plenty of carbohydrates for extra fuel.

However, some of the most beautiful leaves are available during these winter months and it would be a shame to ignore them. Most of them fall under the generic name of chicoria. The chicory family, which encompasses the endive and the common chicory, produces an extraordinary array of leaves and flavours.

The three main varieties of endive (also known as Belgian endive and witloof) are frisée, curly endive and escarole. Common chicory includes radicchio and puntarelle. All have a languid beauty and distinctive, bitter after-taste, which works so well with an array of other ingredients also now in season, such as citrus, pomegranates, game and sweet cold-water fish.

It's complex to grow some of these plants at home – a fact that seems to have discouraged growers from cultivating some of the easier varieties. And if, for whatever reason, you can't grow your own, they are best sought from specialists.

Most are as good grilled or roasted as they are raw. Radicchio or trevisse cooked on the grill and finished with sweet, aged balsamic vinegar is one of winter's most elegant tastes.

Raw in salads, they lend texture as well as flavour and provide a clean counter-balance to richer food. Of course, if you're worried you could still be hungry, you could always begin with some of these dishes as starters before moving on to a heavier main course. That way it is possible to have the best of both worlds.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627

Salad of white dandelion, rocket, smoked eel and horseradish

I love the rich, sweet flavour of smoked eel. It works well with horseradish, whose peppery heat offsets that richness. The bitter, intense flavour of winter leaves works so well here.

Serves 4

200g/7oz smoked eel
1 small bunch of rocket
1 head of white dandelion
1 tbsp good-quality capers
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
The juice of half a lemon
50ml/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp freshly grated horseradish
160ml/51/2fl oz crème fraîche

Lay the eel on a board and gently run your hands over the fillet to locate any bones. Eels tend to have quite a lot, and they need to be removed. The easiest way is with tweezers. Once as many as possible have been removed, break the eel into one-inch pieces with your hands.

Wash the salad leaves and gently pat dry. Rinse the capers well and roughly chop. Place both in a bowl and season with salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. Toss gently to coat the leaves. Fold the grated horseradish into the crème fraîche and season well with salt but no pepper. Stir.

To serve, arrange the eel on four plates. Top with the dressed salad and finish with a generous dollop of horseradish. Serve with a wedge of lemon for people to squeeze over the eel themselves. '

Puntarelle with mint, anchovies and mozzarella

Serves 6

1 small bunch of basil, leaves only
1 bunch of mint, leaves only
6 good-quality anchovy fillets
2 tbsp good-quality red wine vinegar
120ml/4fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 head of puntarelle
6 very fresh balls of buffalo mozzarella

Place the basil and mint leaves in a blender and add the anchovies, vinegar, olive oil and a few grindings of black pepper. Blend until smooth. Taste; it should be salty because of the anchovies, but also vibrant and fresh due to the herbs. Set aside while you prepare the puntarelle.

Break off the puntarelle's pretty outer leaves to leave the inner bulb. Slice as finely as possible. Place in a bowl and spoon over enough dressing to generously coat the slices. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Divide the mozzarella among six plates and arrange the puntarelle salad alongside it. Drizzle with a little more dressing and serve immediately.

Wilted escarole with goat's cheese and hazelnuts

Serves 4

1 head of escarole
50g/2oz unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A small squeeze of lemon juice
1 tbsp Parmesan, grated
1 bunch parsley, very finely chopped
4 slices chewy, peasant-style bread
1 garlic clove
80g/3oz goat's cheese
1 tbsp hazelnut (or walnut) oil
12 hazelnuts, toasted and roughly chopped

Take the inner leaves of the escarole and wash gently. Pat dry. Melt the butter over a low heat and add the leaves. Stir until they begin to wilt. Season with salt and pepper, lemon juice and Parmesan. Cook for two minutes. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with the parsley. Grill the bread on both sides, then rub the garlic clove over it while it is warm. Place on a serving plate and spoon the leaves over. Crumble the cheese on top. Finish by drizzling with hazelnut oil and scattering with the nuts.

Salad of blood oranges, Bayonne ham, artichokes and castelfranco

Castelfranco is possibly the most beautiful leaf of all. Its crimson-flecked, pale yellow leaves have a vaguely bitter flavour that works well with crab and lobster as well as citrus and toasted nuts. Here, I have used it with its seasonal partners, artichokes and blood oranges. The artichokes are served warm, in the Italian fritto style. To check if the corn oil is hot enough, drop a small piece of bread in – it should sizzle.

Serves 4

500ml/17fl oz corn oil
4 globe artichokes
The juice of half a lemon
2 blood oranges
10 leaves of castelfranco
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
50ml/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
2tbsp small black olives
A few sprigs of rosemary, leaves only
8 slices Bayonne ham
A few drops of 'tradizionale' balsamic vinegar

Prepare the artichokes by breaking off the tough outer leaves. Cut off the top third of the artichoke leaves and then take a small spoon and scrape out the fluffy central choke. Cut the stem off at the base and place the remaining artichoke in cold water with a little lemon squeezed into it – this will prevent it from discolouring. Repeat with all artichokes.

Slice both ends from the oranges and stand them upright. Cut away the skin and pith and slice into 1/8-in rounds. Wash and pat dry the castelfranco. Tear into lovely, uneven strips with your hands, place in a bowl and season with a little salt and pepper. Squeeze over the juice from the ends of the blood oranges that were discarded earlier. Dress with a few drops of the olive oil – just enough to coat.

Chop the olives roughly. Place in a bowl and add the rest of the olive oil. Chop the rosemary and add to the olives. Stir, add a pinch of salt and stir again.

Heat the corn oil, drop in the artichokes and cook until golden-crisp. This will take a good couple of minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.

To arrange the salad, lay the cut blood oranges on a plate. Top with a little castelfranco, some Bayonne ham and the artichokes. Finely spoon the olives over the top. Finish with a drop or two of balsamic vinegar and serve.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's food sourcer on where to find the freshest leaves

Home Grown Direct, based in Surrey, currently has red and white chicory and radicchio available as part of its box scheme. www.homegrowndirect.co.uk

Portobello Foods buys in Italian chicory and radicchio direct from specialists at the Milan market. Varieties include puntarelle and the delicate radicchio di castelfranco. Tel: 020 8980 6664

Seeds of Italy sells more than 30 varieties of chicory, radicchio and endive seeds, including chicory barba di cappuccino, chicory bianca di Bergamo and the rose-shaped radicchio di Treviso black svelta. www.seedsofitaly.com

Association Kokopelli sells heirloom chicory, radicchio and witloof seeds including dandelion violet, grosse pommant seule and Chioggia a Palla Bianca. www.kokopelli-seeds.com

'Cool Green Leaves and Red Hot Peppers – Growing and Cooking for Taste' by Christine McFadden and Michael Michaud (Frances Lincoln, 1998) is excellent reading material on this subject

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