I have long been on the side of Homer Simpson: you don’t win friends with salad. And now, after spending a year in France, I have to admit … I was wrong.
I have become partial to the simple green salad that follows a main course, I use salad leaves instead of crostini for an aperitif and I will even eat a salade composée as a main meal. I now know that salads are not just for the health conscious, nor should they be confined to the summer months.
Witlof and its close Italian cousin radicchio, were great market discoveries that indulged my new interest in all things leaf. Making their appearance during winter, they are eaten both raw and cooked. Their leaves are crisp, meaty and versatile.
Perhaps more similar in appearance than in genus, they look, as Maggie Beer so eloquently describes them, like “an elongated tulip, with more tightly packed leaves.” Radicchio with a deep red-wine tint and witlof is creamy white with a soft, apple-green colouring around the edges.
The chicory family, under which they both fall, is complex. Not only are there many varieties (round, narrow, curly, not to mention the root that has long been used as a coffee substitute), but there also appears to be a lot of international confusion surrounding the names.
Witlof is simultaneously referred to as endive (France), witloof (Belgium), Belgian endive (USA) and chicory (UK). Radicchio appears to be a little more standardised: varieties are named for the towns and regions where they are cultivated: for example radicchio de Verona (large round heads) and radicchio de Treviso (the tulip-like variety that appears here).
Witlof and radicchio de Treviso look alike for a reason, they are cultivated in a similar manner. Just like white asparagus, the leaves are grown away from the sunlight, stopping the affects of chlorophyll and thus them developing a rich green colour.
They are both mildly bitter, due to the presence of intybin, which is a stimulant for both the appetite and digestion. Radicchio is slightly spicier and a little acidic. Their bitterness can be used to great advantage by contrasting flavours in a dish, for example the bitter leaves with sliced sweet apple, salty blue cheese and a drizzle of walnut oil.
The crisp leaf provides a great textural contrast to a bowl of soft green leaves. Their strength also means the individual leaves can be used as a replacement for a biscuit or grissini and served with smooth dips.
If you find the bitterness too much, they will mellow when grilled or roasted: try braising endives in butter and a little lemon juice, or cut the radicchio vertically, drizzle with olive oil and grill on the bbq until soft (great served with lamb). The gorgeous red leaves of the radicchio are also found on pizzas and in risottos across Italy.
Select and store …
Choose witlof and radicchio de Treviso that are firm, shiny, slightly swollen and unblemished. They are very delicate, so a little brownness around the stalk is not dire. Keep in mind the more developed the green colouring the more bitter the taste. Store for up to two days in a plastic bag in the fridge. To prepare, remove the tough outer-leaves. With the witlof you may want to remove the core with a small, sharp knife. If chopping witlof for a salad, chop at the last minute, as it will discolour. Generally one small head per person is sufficient.
Radicchio and endive love …
Olive oil, cheese (in particular blue cheese), butter, anchovies, apple, pear, nuts (in particular walnuts), lamb, rabbit, vinegar, risotto, oranges, crab, game, liver, cream, butter.
Braised witlof –
Place the witlof in a tightly fitting buttered cassserole, add a few tablespoons of water and some lemon juice. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and allow to cook gently for half an hour or until soft.
You can do away with the water (and compensate with more butter), but you have to cook it at a lower temperature (and keep an eye on it). This method will take around 15 minutes longer.
Pull the leaves from the stem. The natural boat-like shape of the leaf is a perfect canapé cup, place inside a small scoop of crab meat mixed with crème fraiche or some goats’ cheese, chopped walnuts and chives. Alternatively you can simply serve the leaves to dip into an anchoiade (an anchovy mayonnaise) or duck rillettes.
Roasted witlof wrapped in prosciutto -
Wrap witlof in prosciutto and place in a buttered oven tray, cover with béchamel sauce, a scrape of nutmeg and some parmesan and bake in a moderate oven untiltender (around 20 minutes)