Embrace your inner bitter

Dec. 30, 2021

Say hello to bitter salads and vegetables after the rich indulgences of Christmas

Bitter is a flavour that sweeps away the cloying feeling of too many Quality Street and the last of the Christmas pudding. We need bitter. It's clean and refreshing (and that's the closest you'll find me coming to that overused phrase 'clean eating'). Bitter flavours stimulate the appetite and serve as a digestive. And, handily enough they're in season in the winter months when bright, crisp vegetables on a farmers market stand are a cheering sight.

Bitter may be a challenging flavour that grow on us. As a child I can certainly remember wanting to like black olives because I thought they were sophisticated. There are steps of bitterness, from rocket and turnip and radish tops to bolted lettuce leaves; If you grow your own lettuce and they flower, you'll know how bitter the leaves taste. Many of us embrace bitter in the form of coffee, dark chocolate and bitter cocktails. Give bitter vegetables a chance too.

The group of bitter vegetables is a small one; most of the bitterness has been selectively cultivated out of many vegetables. In her brilliant book Bitter, food writer Jennifer McLagan describes bitter as 'a cultured, intriguing and sophisticated taste, with a dangerous side.'

What to look out for;

You won't be able to miss radicchio's bright red colour larded with white veins. Radicchio cooks into semi sweetness with an edge of bitterness. Perfect in salads (see below) or as the star of a risotto. 

Curly Endive sometimes called frisee is the bright bushy head of salad with lacy leaves. In the classic French recipe it's served with lardons, poached egg and a Djon mustard dressing. Tone down its bitterness by mixing with softer salad leaves or peppery watercress. You'll also find other varieties of endives at our markets.

Puntarelle in Jane Grigson's wonderful Vegetable Book, it's called asparagus chicory and was announced in Thompson & Morgan in their 1976 catalogue. It's obviously been a slow starter. Punterelle takes more preparation than just rinsing.   It's delicious with Bagna Cauda and as a simple salad with blood oranges, or cooked to fully bring out its bitterness.

Catalogna chicory. look out for bunches of this with their distinctive dandelion like leaves.

Turnips and turnip tops. Turnips tend to be sweet/bitter. They're delicious raw, sliced thinly into salads, pickled (think about beetroot pickled turnips middle eastern style) and deserve centre stage when braised and caramalised.                       In this country we rarely sell turnip tops in their own right, but some of our farmers do grow them. If you buy a bunch of turnips don't throw away the leaves. Use them as a pasta dressing cooked down with garlic and anchovies.

frisee lettuce