Chicory / endive / witlof (borrowed from Dutch ‘wit’ white ‘loof’ leaf) the plants can be a red or white variety but the paleness of their leaves comes from being ‘forced’ or grown under the cover of darkness – like forced pale pink champagne rhubarb.
This little leaf is a surprisingly versatile and complex little number – what you might call the ultimate ‘pale and interesting’ – with hidden talents to boot. Once salad leaf, then vehicle, then slow cooked revelation – and she packs a punch – texturally interesting and with the ability to take on the big boys flavour wise. Keep her in your fridge over xmas you have the makings of some very special dishes.
The leaves are really crisp and slightly bitter when raw and are lovely paired with equally crisp and crunchy apple matchsticks, tarragon, parsley and a simple dressing. Their bitterness and refreshing bite means also work really nicely as a foil to rich meats and nuts.
Their beautiful boat shape also makes them the perfect vehicle for interesting toppings – and as the leaves have such a pronounced flavour they can happily take on other strong flavours – a really creamy blue cheese and walnuts or smoked mackerel and horseradish pate, for example.
Today, however we are going to cook with them, which might seem like an odd thing to do to what is essentially a salad leaf – but it actually work really well. You might often find them braised in cream, garlic and stock and served with roast game and meat. Today we are going to caramelise them with the lovely flavours of orange, oregano, a really wonderful vinegar and of course butter.
Cooked this way you coax out hidden sweetness from these otherwise bitter leaves and give them a whole new lease of life and character. No longer crisp they instead become soft and yielding, with an interesting depth of flavour lingering from the slight bitterness that exists in their raw state.
With bitterness comes complexity – think dark chocolate and coffee to name but a few that we laud for their bitterness – the reason these things are so delicious is that they have layers of flavour which the bitterness plays a part in. Different parts of your mouth and your taste buds get to work when there is a mix of sensations both from flavour and texture. This unassuming little leaf actually has a lot going for it…
This is a great side dish for the autumn and winter months but I also really like to cook a dish and then warm it up the following day when the flavours have had a chance to mingle and deepen, scattered with chopped toasted hazelnuts and dotted with a soft goats cheese. Served with some toasted sourdough drizzled with a good olive oil you don’t need anything else for lunch. Individual ones would be a great light lunch for friends served this way as well.
2-3 heads of chicory
A large knob of butter
A glug of Willy’s Apple Cider Vinegar with Honey and Turmeric (or the same of plain apple cider vinegar and a tsp of honey)
3-4 sprigs of fresh oregano
Juice and zest of half an orange
Salt and pepper
Make it lunch by adding:
Soft goats cheese
- Pre-heat your oven to 190C (170C fan)
- Slice the chicory into halves or quarters lengthways and place into a snug fitting baking dish
- Slice the garlic and tuck the pieces in between the leaves
- Glug over the vinegar (and honey if using) and squeeze the orange juice over as well
- Season with salt and pepper and scatter with the oregano sprigs
- Dot over the butter generously and place uncovered into the oven for a total of 30-40 minutes (turning a couple of times to keep the pieces from catching and burning)
- For the last 5 minutes of cooking scatter the leaves with the orange zest
- The chicory should be completely soft to the point of a knife and be nice and caramelised and look and smell appealing
- Serve immediately as a side dish or to turn it into a substantial lunch scatter with some toasted hazelnuts and dot with a soft goats cheese
- Lovely with toasted sourdough drizzled with olive oil to mop up the juices
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