It was the ancient Greek poet Sappho who first coined the term bittersweet. Sappho’s original word glukupikron is actually the inverse of bittersweet, but in the middle of winter, when Fifth Crow Farm’s baby head lettuces are replaced by radicchio and escarole, bitter is definitely what comes to mind. Thankfully the varieties of chicory we’re bringing into the Bi-Rite produce department this month hold sweetness and bitterness in perfect balance.
Taking chicories out of the box and putting them on display is one of the greatest pleasures of this time of year. Lusia Radicchio, with its shades of dusky lavender to pale green speckled with burgundy; Treviso Radicchio, so dark it can be almost black with elegant, skeletal lines of pure white extending thin arms up the long leaves from the base; Puntarelle like prehistoric creatures, with nobs and bumps poking out from the light colored center between thin leaves. We found an Escarole from Martin’s Farm this week that was the size of a small goose. They also sent us a Pan di Zucchero that was over a foot long!
Over the last few years the number of farmers growing chicories has increased from only a few to over a dozen. Because chicories are best in the cold, wet months, almost all of the chicories we bring in will be grown locally and sourced directly from the farmer. The aforementioned Martin’s Farm in Salinas is our very own gallery of variation even among one kind of plant. It’s not uncommon to find a tiny finger of dark purple Treviso in a box with a foot long one with red leaves. County Line in Petaluma grows gorgeous Lusia Radicchio. In Sonoma, Oak Hill Farm is growing beautiful round frisée that fade from their dark outer leaves to almost yellow centers.
Chicories express a whole range of flavor between sweet and bitter. Generally, the paler the leaves, the sweeter the chicory. This holds true for chicory such as Puntarelle that has both dark and light parts. The tender, blanched heart is sweetest, perfectly complimented by gently bitter green leaf tips. The play between bitterness and sweetness is part of the glory of these greens. The properties of different chicories can be pitted against one another to bring a dish into balance. Using escarole and the sweet Puntarelle hearts tame Chioggia. You can cut Treviso leaves into long, thin strips and use it almost like you might use coarsely ground black pepper. Roasting or braising is another beautiful way to prepare radicchio. Char adds depth of flavor and texture. Single chicories can also be used in multiple ways. I like braising or adding the dark outer leaves of escarole to stew and eating the blanched center leaves raw.
It is an honor to be able to bring such a winter abundance of greens from local farms to Bi-Rite guests. You may see a few varieties of chicory at the market through March, but the peak of the season is now. Every produce clerk will have their own way of savoring this bittersweet ingredient— make sure you chat with any of our helpful staff when you come in. We love introducing our guests to new and exciting food!