W here can a cook find brilliant color in the dull, gray days of winter? I look to the chicory family, because winter is when this vegetable really shines. Instead of buying flavorless hothouse tomatoes or pithy radishes that may be weeks out of the ground, I make delicious, bright winter salads with red radicchio, snow-white Belgian endive, and springgreen frisée. Or I might braise, sauté, or even grill chicory for a mellower take on this crunchy, bittersweet vegetable.
Cultivated chicory is leafy or compact
The chicory family embraces a broad group, from leafy escarole to tight heads of Belgian endive and radicchio. There’s also wild chicory, which you see growing roadside in early spring. It’s in fall and winter, though, that we bring cultivated chicories into the kitchen. These include Belgian endive, which grows in 4- to 6-inch cylindrical heads called chicons (pronounced shih-KOHN); big, leafy heads of escarole; frisée (also called curly endive) with its fine, frizzy, almost shredded-looking leaves; and the many types of radicchio: tight, round, magenta-colored heads of rossa di Verona, elongated rossa di Treviso, and the more unusual rosettes of red-, green-, and yellow-spotted Castelfranco. All these varieties share leaves with a dense, crisp texture and a bittersweet flavor that’s deliciously raw or cooked.
Chicory is tastiest in cooler months
Although you’ll find chicories in the market year-round, they develop their best flavor in the fall and winter. Cool weather enhances their sweetness and intensifies their color.
When buying, inspect the stem ends. They should be white, with no more than a trace of browning.
Choose frisée and escarole with firm green outer leaves. You should see no black tips or wilted leaves, and the heart should be white or pale yellow. The inner white leaves are the choicest, tender and sweet.
Look for Belgian endive with snow-white leaves. The tips may be slightly yellow, but neither white nor red endive should have any brown at the edges. Belgian endive is usually expensive because it’s cultivated in two stages: first, seeds are planted and the endive is left to grow a tap root and a crown of green, scraggly leaves. The roots are harvested, the leaves trimmed off, and the roots are replanted indoors in the dark, which forces the growth of a chicon of pale, succulent, sweet leaves. A greenish cast indicates exposure to light and means the leaves will probably taste too bitter.
Chicory makes sprightly salads
Any variety of chicory is exquisite in a winter salad. Chicory combines beautifully with citrus, pears, apples, and fresh sweet root vegetables like turnips and carrots.
Cut and wash leafy chicories just like lettuce. Use only the hearts and adjacent tender, light-green leaves. Save tougher outer leaves for cooking.
Clean radicchio or Belgian endive gently. Discard wilted outer leaves and wipe the heads with a damp towel. Cut out the core from the bottom and peel off the leaves one by one. Or just cut Belgian endive into thin bias strips. Belgian endive’s cut edges quickly brown, so slice it just before serving.
Cooking mellows chicory
When you cook chicory, it mellows deliciously, becoming almost another vegetable entirely. Cut Belgian endive and radicchio in half, rinse and drain them thoroughly, brush them with olive oil, and throw them right on the grill. Escarole works this way, too, as long as you use only the tender hearts or very young, small heads.
Leafier chicories cook better if you blanch them first. Blanching both tenderizes and reduces leafy bulk. Use lots of boiling, salted water. Then you can grill as above or braise. Belgian endive can be braised without the preliminary blanching.
After you buy chicory, you can store it in the refrigerator for several days, wrapped loosely in a damp towel. Keep Belgian endive in the darkness of the vegetable crisper.