Food: Strong stuff

Past your salad days? Indulge in the bitter pleasures of endive (for adults only). Photograph by Jason Lowe

I couldn't believe it, the first time I tasted salade frisee in a French restaurant. Ergh! Kugh! Big spit. It was truly vile: bitter, stringy, spindly and, most definitely, nothing like lettuce. But I was 16. Bitter is difficult at 16. You want your own grilled fillet steak (bravely requested medium-rare) in a posh restaurant at 16, with chips and garnish and your first green salad. And you would hope that the latter - which, to be honest, you never really wanted anyway - didn't resemble a slimy pile of galling dead triffid. I bet you there aren't many lads of 16 today who would want a rocket salad either.

I grew to like most of the bitter salad leaves. Rocket, however, isn't really bitter, it's just brutally unsubtle. Even when there are just a few leaves of it in a green salad (which, just now, there always seems to be) it bullies all the other leaves into submission. And as for a pile of rocket leaves all on their own ... I'd rather eat Trill. And why do so many people cook it now, too? It's in risotti, mashed potatoes, soups and pasta, offering up nothing more than a dull and damp astringency. Will no one rid us of this turbulent tendril?

Andrea Riva, the superbly suave, cashmere-cardied and Hermes- necked proprietor of Riva restaurant in Barnes, south-west London, recently offered me one of the bitterest leaves of all. It is called puntarelle, and resembles a longer, greener and sturdier version of the bleached frisee, but without the frillier bits. To the uninitiated, who might chance upon it piled up alongside other relatives of the famiglia chicorium (in, say, the Campo dei Fiori market in Rome, where puntarelle is esteemed as the winter salad treat), it could easily be dismissed as a quirky sort of weed.

True to tradition, Riva dresses the whiter, less bitter leaves of the puntarelle (having previously soaked them in very cold water) with a perky anchovy and garlic dressing. This oily balm gently ameliorates the astringency of the leaves, transforming the salad into something complete and properly finished. If only the simplest of British restaurant salads - whether it be a tumble of cos, watercress, little gem or a few leaves from the heart of a humble round lettuce (fat chance, in these days of whispy towers of teetering lollo and lovage) - might be so thoughtfully lubricated and tossed. Mind you, even I found puntarelle a little difficult.

Any day now, I feel sure, carefully cellophaned stocks of puntarelle will hit the salad shelves of your local "sewpermarket", but I bet you will only get a few strands of it in your pre-packed sachet. Incidentally, it never fails to amuse me how the warmly spoken, erudite and legendary Derek Cooper (presenter of the essential Food Programme on Radio 4) insists on this quirky pronunciation of the word "super"? Of late, I have been concerned that Jenny Murray has also adopted this strange practice. Is it Scottish? I feel moved to phone Feedback.

Now then, one of the most customary ways in which to deal with a frisee salad is to mix it with lumps of stale bread and dress it with a cautiously balanced emulsion of red-wine vinegar, olive and walnut oils and seasoning. It may seem an obvious instruction here, but please, always allow the salt to dissolve (by whisking) in the vinegar before adding any oils. If you do not follow this simple procedure the salt crystals have no option but to hang suspended in the oil until such time as they lazily descend into the vinegar below, by which time you may have added far too much salt, not being able to taste it through the oil.

Salade frisee, serves 4

1 bushy head of frisee (curly endive), outer darker green leaves removed

1 small traditional baguette, one day old

1 very fresh clove of garlic, peeled

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

salt and pepper

5-6 tbsp (approx) walnut oil

2-3 tbsp (approx) olive oil

Using a pair of scissors, snip the tendrils of frisee into a bowl and then tear them apart with your hands. Wash well, drain, return to the bowl and cover with ice-cold water. Leave to soak while you deal with the bread.

Rub the baguette with the clove of garlic, rasping it over the bread- crust until all its oils and scraps of pulp have deposited themselves on the surface making it sticky to the touch. Cut the baguette into irregular chunks (2cm-ish) and deposit them into your favourite salad bowl.

Whisk together the vinegar and seasonings in a small bowl until the salt has dissolved, and then gradually start to incorporate the oils until you are happy with the taste. Spoon half the dressing over the chunks of bread and toss together. Leave to soak in for a few minutes. Drain the frisee and dry in a tea-towel. Add it to the salad bowl, pour over the remaining dressing and mix all together with your hands until glistening. Good with big steak.

Braised trevise or raddichio with mozzarella, serves 4

It is not often that one thinks of cooking "salad". This is a shame, as simple braised lettuce (little gems are perfect here), stewed Belgian endives (or witloof as it so called in Flemish) and the dark-red Italian raddichio and trevise are all delicious when cooked. I mean, if you are happy to eat raw cabbage in coleslaw, or raw spinach leaves in a salad with avocado and bacon, why not cook a lettuce? After all, the French have been braising whole lettuces and adding shreds of them to a dish of peas for as long as anyone can remember.

4 large heads of raddichio or trevise

olive oil

salt and pepper

juice of 1 small lemon

1 whole buffalo mozzarella, thinly cut into approximately 8 slices

freshly grated Parmesan

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4; also heat an overhead grill. Cut the raddichio or trevise in half and remove most of the white core - but not so that the leaves become loose and detached. Generously coat the bottom of a large oven-proof dish with some of the oil and lay the vegetables (cut-side up) on top. Lubricate with a little more of the oil, squeeze over the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until just tender and a curiously unappetising shade of brown! This cannot be helped and is a sure sign that they are nearly cooked.

Remove the foil and cover the raddichio with the slices of mozzarella. Spoon a little of the oily juices over the cheese and return to the oven uncovered. Bake for a further 10 minutes until the cheese has melted. Place the dish under the grill to finish the cooking, which will be complete when the cheese is bubbling and lightly burnished. Serve up at once, handing freshly grated Parmesan at table.

Warm endive salad with crisp bacon, potatoes and anchovies, serves 4

I guess this intensely savoury salad falls neatly between the two previous ones, being both a salad and also partly cooked - once some frazzled bits of bacon are tossed together with their hot fat among the leaves. This action wilts the salad slightly, making it slippery, warm and juicy.

8 small waxy potatoes, scrubbed clean

8 small heads of endive (chicory, witloof), leaves separated, rinsed and dried

a small handful of flat parsley leaves

olive oil

1 clove garlic, chopped

6 rashers of pancetta or streaky bacon, cut into slivers

2 tbsp sherry vinegar

6 fat pink anchovy fillets (Spanish are best), chopped into small bits

freshly ground black pepper

First steam or boil the potatoes until tender. Drain and allow to cool for a few minutes. Once manageable, peel the skins off with a small knife and cut into small chunks. Set aside. Put the endive leaves into a large glass or china bowl, together with the parsley. Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a frying pan and saute the potatoes with a little salt until they start to turn golden. Just towards the end, add the garlic and toss together for a minute or so. Lift from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Keep warm.

Fry the bacon slivers in the same frying pan until crisp and frazzled. Pour the contents, fat and all, over the endive, add the potatoes and garlic and toss all together quickly. Now add the vinegar to the hot pan, allow to bubble briefly and stir in the anchovies. Spoon over the salad, grind over some pepper and serve. Note: If you think it necessary to add more salt (scrunched Maldon, preferably) or olive oil, feel free

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