Curly endive is the one salad green that grows in my garden all year round. It's my essential salad green. Right now the plants are going to seed. They have shot up into tall spikes with small purple flowers.
But there are still frilly green leaves for the taking, further down the stalks. Chicory is also still growing, with big, smooth, bitter tasting leaves.
I love bitter salad greens, but I’m aware that some people don’t like them. They are an acquired taste.
Bitter is a flavour that doesn’t feature much in the everyday New Zealand diet. Our foods tend to be sweet, sour and/or salty. And green vegetables in particular tend to be bland. Perfectly shaped, bright green, crunchy – but boring in flavour. I think this is a great pity.
Rocket is another interesting salad green, but my tastebuds don’t think it’s primarily bitter – rather, it’s peppery and hot. The same goes for cress and mustard greens.
The most common bitters in everyday food are coffee, dark chocolate and marmalade. And Brussels sprouts, but many people don’t like those.
The benefits of bitter
There are good reasons for including bitter food in our everyday diet: bitter flavours play an important role in stimulating the digestive system. Bitter herbs are central to herbal medicine traditions worldwide. In Northern Europe there are traditional bitter digestive tonics, which are taken before or after meals to improve digestion. Swedish bitters is one of these. Gin and tonic is a remnant of this practice.
Bitter taste may also sometimes indicate poison – which could be why many people are suspicious of bitter. Many medicines are bitter.
My favourite curly endive alongside a Soggy Bottom pie from Hamilton Farmers' Market.
Growing bitter greens
The best way to get interestingly flavoured salad greens is to grow them yourself. I find endives and chicory easy to grow, because they’re not munched by snails or caterpillars. (Unlike the tender lettuce seedlings.) The seeds for the endives in my garden originally came from Kings Seeds, but they are now self-seeding all over the place. I don’t have so much luck with radicchio, which is another bitter green. The slugs seem to enjoy eating holes in the beautiful red and white leaves.
You can also forage for greens. Many wild greens are bitter, especially dandelions and puha or sow thistle. The flavour is much milder in spring, but they can be eaten all year round. (See my post on eating greens for more about this.)
Ways to enjoy bitter greens
My philosophy of eating bitters is to take care with balancing the flavours. I don't try to hide or disguise the bitter taste. But I think if it's not used subtly, bitter can be overwhelming.
A few bitter leaves in a green salad is a wonderful taste experience. I wouldn’t usually fill a whole salad bowl with bitter greens. I chop a handful finely and mix them with milder leaves. I'd toss it with a good olive oil vinaigrette. (See below for my salad dressing recipe.)
Or, I might put a couple of leaves in a sandwich with mayonnaise, or peanut butter. Bitter flavours go well with fatty food.
Curly endive leaves are great with bacon and tomato in a classic American BLT sandwich. Or in a burger. Or with felafels and hummus.
Steamed brussels sprouts are superb with roast lamb and gravy. The bitterness balances out the sweetness and fat of the lamb.
Cooking bitter greens, e.g. turnip greens or collards, reduces the sharpness somewhat. But I still like to balance the flavour with a creamy sauce or gravy, if there isn't already a creamy and/or fatty element in the rest of the meal.
A few bitter leaves go well in an Asian-flavoured stir-fry.
Dressing for bitter green salad
Mix together in a jar:
Three parts extra virgin olive oil to one part vinegar
a pinch of mustard powder
a pinch of sugar or a tiny blob of honey
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Dandelions: bitter greens in the wild. Photo by Dani Edwards.
This recipe comes from Elizabeth David’s classic French Provincial Cookery (Penguin, 1976). It’s a good example of bitter plus fatty food.
Tear dandelion leaves, or other bitter salad greens, such as curly endive or chicory, into bite-sized pieces and place in a salad bowl. Fry a few little cubes of streaky bacon until the fat runs and pour this over the dandelion leaves while it's hot. Quickly add two or three tablespoons of wine vinegar to the remaining fat in the frying pan, let it bubble, then pour over the salad leaves. Mix and eat quickly.
Bitter gourds, which are also called bitter melons, are common in the cuisines of south China, Burma, India, Indonesia and other parts of South East Asia. In her Encyclopedia of Asian Food (a gastronomic goldmine) Charmaine Solomon writes: “Although it is an acquired taste, the bitter flavour can be very attractive in combination with spices.”