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Bitter greens for the bitterly cold season

It’s fitting that in January, with its bitter weather, bitter leafy vegetables such as endives and escarole are at their peak quality and flavor.

What’s that — you don’t like bitter leaves? It’s true bitterness is the hardest taste to appreciate, compared to sweet, sour, salt and umami. But it’s also the result of compounds that are exquisitely good for you.

Bitter foods can cleanse and detoxify the liver and help the body remove the low-density cholesterol that causes vascular and digestive inflammation. And bitter greens are nutrient-dense, providing vitamins A, C and K as well as potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc.

So what are the bitter greens? Many of the most potent aren’t green at all, but red. And most are in the chicory family, those tall roadside weeds with light blue flowers that bloom in summer in Sonoma County and which are ubiquitous across Europe and North America. They are one of the wild progenitor species from which our bitter greens have been bred over the centuries.

The commercial descendants of those wildings and other chicory species are radicchio, endives, puntarella (an Italian specialty with edible stems), dandelion leaves and escarole. There are many others eaten in cultures around the world, but these are the most common types in the United States.

Of these, radicchio is currently enjoying a culinary moment. It’s sometimes called Italian chicory because its several cultivated types were bred in northern Italy. They’re a fixture of Italian cuisine up and down that peninsula and increasingly so here in the states.

The most common type of radicchio sold in local stores are the red-and-white balls of tightly knit leaves usually labeled simply as “radicchio.” Their variety name is rosso di Chioggia, meaning a red chicory from Chioggia, a town south of Venice on the Adriatic coast. They’re not as bitter as their cousin, rosso di Verona.

If you find green or yellow radicchio varieties at one of the few farmers markets open all winter — for these bitter herbs are meant to be grown and eaten when everything else that’s edible has died back — call yourself lucky. A variety called Castelfranco is often considered the best-tasting radicchio of all. It has thin, crisp leaves flecked with red; the head resembles a tulip and it has a mild, icy-sweet bitterness.

If you’re extra-lucky, you might find rosso di Treviso Tardivo, which translates to “late red from Treviso,” in stores during the winter. It has elongated, variegated red leaves with white ribs that taste more delicate and less bitter than the ball-shaped rosso di Chioggia. Raw Treviso adds vivid color and a juicy crunch to salads. There’s an early type called rosso di Treviso Precoce that you might find in late fall and early winter.

You can use any radicchio in stir-fries. Or cook it like cabbage, which will cause it to lose some of its bitterness. But who wants that? After all, the raw bitterness suits the raw season.

Bitter pairs well with sweet, so consider serving this winter salad with duck, pork or lamb and a side dish of squash or sweet potato. Sabrina Currie came up with this delightful salad.

Radicchio and Orange Salad

Makes 4 servings

1 head of radicchio

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

1 large navel orange

12 large green olives

10-12 basil leaves

Remove the outer leaves of the radicchio and rough chop the head.

Toss the chopped radicchio with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.

Cut away the orange peel from the top and bottom of the fruit and squeeze some juice over the salad. Peel the orange, dig out segments and add them to the salad.

Add the olives. Tear basil leaves to bits and add them to the salad. Toss everything again and serve.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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