How I came to love the chicory family

Endives are good in salads, but they are pretty damn fantastic when coo ked, says Simon Hopkinson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I used to hate chicory. But the first chef I worked for noticed my dislike and, being a mildly sadistic Frenchman, forced me to eat chicory to such an extent that I finally came around to accepting it. Eventually, I grew to love everything about t he damned vegetable.

The bleached, pale-yellow torpedo-shaped chicory is, of course, most commonly known by its French name endive. Chicory seems an old-fashioned name now - and is more synonymous with Camp Coffee (marvellous for making quick coffee ice-cream, by the way). The name may be largely adopted from the French, but the taste of the vegetable is mainly the work of the Belgians - who call it witloof. It was they who discovered how to force it, like rhubarb, in the dark. This causes the vegetable to stay white and retain a sweetish taste; if allowed to grow in the light, the leaves would turn green and the endive would become extremely bitter. So when you see chicory in its box at the greengrocer wrapped in that dark-blue paper, this is also to keep the light out. Ihave known people who have tried growing chicory at home in black dustbin liners, with a fair degree of success. The dark remains important even after the vegetable has been harvested, and when storing chicory, wrap it up in something impenetrable and keep it cool.

The chicory family does not stop here, however, and neither does the multiplication of names. The English curly endive is what the French call chicoree frisee. You know this one well. The feathery, spindly ones that you buy in the summer are not so bitter and are often referred to as spider endive. Come winter, the frisee in the shops is more gnarled and spiky, with a pronounced bitterness that is too much for some people. I love it with a mustard dressing, frazzled bits of bacon, croutons a nd a soft-boiled egg. If you wish to tone down the bitterness, then add some chicory (endive, witloof ... ) leaves. Their juiciness and tender crunch provide a good contrast and in fact are lovely as a salad in their own right - a dressing of coarse grai n mustard being particularly good here.

Then there are the red-leaf chicories. Radicchio is the best known, but for me it has a disappointing taste in its raw state when torn up and added indiscriminately to salads. Cooked, however, it is something else altogether. One of the best things I have ever eaten was a dish of some grilled radicchio with olive oil, fontina cheese and a sprinkling of fresh white truffles. But you have to watch the initial grilling: the papery bits of radicchio can catch fire, so use plenty of olive oil for insulation.

Trevise is the longer and more spindly cousin of the round radicchio. It has an infinitely finer taste with a bitterness that can sock you one, and it is equally good raw or cooked. There is also a strain of the ordinary endive that has leaves tinged with red. It looks quite pretty, but that's about all, and, as with all strains of red-tinged vegetables (purple broccoli, red skinned potatoes, red onions), the hue in cooking is reduced to a muddy brown, though the flavour remains good.

Another offshoot of the chicory family is batavia, or escarole, which is mildly puckering until you get to the central, greeny-white parts. It looks like a shaggy lettuce and is usually eaten in salads, though it may be cooked with much success. Braise it gently in a similar fashion to the braised endives below, but cook for a shorter time. It will also need trimming and cutting into manageable pieces. If you have ever cooked braised lettuce - and liked it - then this is a dish for you.

Braised endives When braising endives never be tempted to add water during any stage of the cooking. Some recipes suggest blanching to expel bitterness. This is nonsense. The water-content is sufficiently high and the juices that flow out of the vegetable simply concentrate and intensify as it cooks. And we are talking slow cooking here: braising should never be rushed. You may find it curious that adding lemon juice to something inherently bitter should accentuate the sweetness, but it does.

Ingredients: 110g/4 oz butter 8 small, or 4 large endives, trimmed, and the hard little core at the base removed salt and pepper juice of 1 large lemon Preparation: Pre-heat the oven to 325F/170C/gas mark 3. Melt the butter in a shallow, solid-bottomed dish that will take the endives in a single layer. When the butter is foaming add the endives, turning them thoroughly, and season. Turn the heat down to low and gently colour the endives on all sides until glossy and richly golden. Pour in the lemon juice and turn up the heat a little. Cover with foil - or put on a lid - and place in the oven for 40 minutes. Take out, remove cover and turn the endives over. Cover once more and cook for a further 30-40 minutes. Ideally the endives should be a bit sticky and have crusted edges - a good way to achieve this is to remove the cover for the last 15 minutes of cooking time. (Beware, thoug h, there is nothing worse than an endive that is hard in the middle.)

Serve these delicious vegetables with some finely chopped parsley sprinkled over them and eat with plainly roasted game such as pheasant, or wild duck.

Alternatively, if you roll these cooked endives in thin slices of ham, cover with some rich cheese sauce, top with breadcrumbs mixed with a little parmesan and bake in the oven, you will enjoy one of the nicest suppers possible.

Grilled radicchio with olive oil, buffalo mozzarella and parmesan Serves 4

Choose large radicchio for this dish as they are going to be cut in half. The olive oil does not have to be extra virgin, or even plain virgin: good quality pure olive oil is fine where the oil is to be used as a cooking medium. (Increasingly, I see extra virgin oil called for when it is completely unnecessary. Save the good stuff for pouring over dishes and for dressings). Fresh buffalo mozzarella is well worth tracking down, but if you cannot find it then use an alternative, good quality Italian mozza rella (not Danish).

Ingredients: 4-6 tbsp olive oil, maybe a little more 4 large radicchio little salt and much pepper 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely slivered 6 anchovy fillets, cut up small 2-3 mozzarella cheeses, depending on size parmesan Preparation: As with the braised endive recipe, use a suitable stove-top dish for this. Pre-heat the grill. Cut the radicchio in half lengthways, splitting the core in half, but not cutting it out, as with the endive, or the radicchio will fall apart. In the gaps between the leavesinsert at random the garlic and anchovy. Heat 3-4 tbsp of the olive oil until medium hot and put the radicchio halves in one by one, cut side uppermost. Very lightly salt, and generously pepper them. Cook at a gentle sizzle for 5-10 minutes until the radicchio starts to wilt slightly underneath, and turn brown. Turn off the heat. Cut the mozzarella as thin as you can and drape a slice or two over each half of radicchio.

Drizzle a little more oil over the surface and put the dish under the grill until the mozzarella is bubbling and speckled with golden blisters. Serve immediately. Hand around large quantities of freshly grated parmesan and a few lemon wedges. Be warned, this is a messy dish to serve!

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