Friday 15 December 2017

Eat shoots and leaves: Bitter crunch

It's not just chefs who love the raw, tangy taste of chicory, says Susan Jane Murray; it's also great for our livers

Chicory is a shy vegetable. One rarely spots it socialising in our supermarket trolleys, but it's guaranteed to appear on many a city restaurant menu -- braised chicory with pickled walnuts; chargrilled chicory with blue cheese; caramelised chicory with toasted hazelnuts and cranberry. Chefs love it. As do our livers. Its distinctive sharp taste affords it quite the reputation as a useful gall bladder tonic and digestif.

Those of you conscious of your calcium intake -- or getting scolded by your doc -- will benefit from chicory's rich vitamin K content, known to assist with proper calcium absorption and ossification. Couple that with its immune-boosting carotenoids, bioflavonoids and modest vitamin A content, and we have quite the snazzy little leaf.

So how can we spot it among all the other frilly greenery our markets confound us with? Like lettuce, chicory is sold as a head. It has a curved, slightly bitter white leaf. I've yet to decipher a difference in taste between the various colours its tops sport -- red, purple, green and yellow. As if spotting it wasn't difficult enough, it can be sold as witlof, radicchio and the Belgian endive.

Restaurants tend to use elaborate preparation techniques for chicory, which I have a natural aversion to in my own kitchen. Lengthy cooking just mellows its tanginess and robs its catalogue of vitamins. I favour speed and nutrition, so I leave it fresh, raw and crunchy. You'll know chicory has passed its best if its white leaves are limp or wrinkled. The older it is, the more bitter it becomes -- a little like us, really.

Crunchy Citrus Salad

Oranges are at their most succulent this time of year. No pips or impossibly tight skin to peel. Just bouncy, iridescent little juice-bombs. I have been through a half-dozen navel oranges this morning already. But I remain hideously thirsty, so I plan to pillage the other half-dozen before my beau returns to find them. Suddenly, they've become more precious than that last Rolo.

You will need:

2 small heads chicory

2 handfuls walnuts

1 orange

200g (8oz) crumbly goat's cheese

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon smooth Dijon mustard

Handful chives

Gently pull the leaves from the chicory heads and toss into a large bowl with the walnuts. Walnuts are much crunchier straight from the fridge, and keep for longer if stored there. Their high omega-oil content makes them susceptible to rancidity under the lights of supermarket shelves, so seek out reflective foiled packets. I get mine in Lidl, or in their nutshells from my local farmers' market.

Peel your orange, and divide each segment into two or three pieces. You can remove the white pith if patience is your forte. Or if your kids are severing your nerves -- little fingers are talented kitchen aids! Pithless orange segments look much glossier and radiant. Add to chicory and finish by carelessly crumbling your goat's cheese over the top.

To make the dressing, whisk the olive oil, balsamic and Dijon together. Chop chives, add, and whisk once more. Drizzle over the chicory salad and softly toss everything with clean hands. If you use a spoon, you'll risk bruising the chicory, squishing the orange segments, and mushing the goat's cheese. Besides, getting messy in the kitchen is gloriously cathartic.

To serve, pile high in the centre of a large plate with the goat's cheese tumbling down the sides. Serve immediately, before puddles of dressing begin to accumulate underneath, and your glorious tower starts to slip.


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