As plants go, the chicories are a confusing family. There’s “common chicory,” the roadside weed and cheap substitute for coffee. There’s “true endive,” which includes frisee and escarole. There’s “leaf chicory,” which includes radicchio, and, just to make things extra screwy, Belgian endive, which we sometimes just call “endive.”
Whatever you call them, there’s one thing all the chicories have in common, and that is their bitterness. The most aggressive is frisee, which when young and pale lends a pleasant “bite” to your salad mix. But let it grow too long into its frilled, dressy adulthood, and it becomes bad-tempered and formidable, like a vegetable Miss Havisham. You might as well stuff your mouth with dandelions.
But on the other end of the spectrum is escarole, which you can find hiding unobtrusively and inexpensively in the supermarket produce section, where it is pretending to be a lettuce. Forever underestimated, escarole has all the virtues of its pretty, bitter stepsisters without the worst of their faults.
When you release it from its rubber band or twist tie and let the many-layered petticoat of leaves fall open, revealing a heart of spring green and snowy white, escarole is drop-dead gorgeous. Its leaves are swooping, smooth and graduated in color, with none of the spiky, toothy edges that serve to warn you when a plant bites back. Like the thick, curved leaves of the Belgian endive, escarole leaves are sturdy enough not to fall apart like wilted lettuce under heat, so you can saute or simmer or braise them and still be rewarded with a tender crunch, or at least a kind of yielding heft.
And its taste? Escarole is loaded with secret sugars that emerge when it’s cooked (it’s a little like an onion that way). While raw escarole has a springy, vegetal quality, a bit like a mild romaine, with heat it seems to mellow and ripen in flavor, growing, like Cinderella, only the sweeter for its ordeal.
Although perhaps the most familiar use of escarole is in the rustic white bean soup of Tuscany, where its meltingly tender final self merges with a bit of pecorino or Parmigiano, you can also braise it on its own or with a scattering of golden raisins (as you might with Swiss chard). In its crisp, unaltered form, it stands up to hearty ingredients in a salad. And you can even roast it under high heat and mix it into pasta.
To be truthful, I don’t actually mind a little bitterness. The first chicory I ever tasted was a Belgian endive. My mother handed me a leaf and said, “Try it,” in the carefully neutral voice I now know meant she expected me to hate it. I nibbled a little, and then promptly winced and fled. But five minutes later I was back. It was a dangerous taste, yet one I could control. For a while, it became a habitual snack — one raw leaf of Belgian endive, nibbled with excruciating slowness.
Indeed, for all the sweet and subtle charms of escarole, you too may find yourself occasionally craving the hard stuff. Don’t worry. Dandelion season is around the corner.