Thursday, December 17, 2009

Broadening My Culinary Horizons with Chicory

Plants in the chicory family include Belgian endive, frisee, radicchio, chicory, and escarole. All have a relatively bitter flavor and can be eaten year round because their growth does not depend on photosynthesis to a point. In fact, the only green one in the bunch is escarole. The others are grown deliberately without exposure to sunlight to avoid etiolation, the process by which they turn green, so that they maintain a milder and delicate flavor. In Belgium, endive is commonly sold wrapped in blue paper, even after the leaves have been harvested, to avoid exposure to light until the very last moment.

Chicory is perhaps the most bitter of all of the ones mentioned and maybe the least common, at least in terms of the home cook. The plant itself is a flowering stemmy weed that produces blue flowers. It is indigenous to India, but also grows commonly all over the rest of the world. It was discovered about 4000 years ago by the Romans that the root could be ground into a paste and eaten - Antony and Cleopatra regularly dined on chicory root. Today, chicory extract is commonly combined with coffee in New Orleans to round out the flavor and to make it more water soluble thereby stretching the coffee. In fact, chicory can be used as a pretty convincing and cheap coffee substitute. Chicory extract also has the healthful benefit of being a precursor to the growth of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system. The only drawback is that it has an extremely bitter flavor that lingers like bad-tasting medicine.

Our sense of taste is only capable of detecting four basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. All of those other things that we claim to taste are more related to our sense of smell than anything. For example, an apple might taste sweet, but smells and "tastes" like - well - an apple. It's not uncommon for us to crave sweet or salty things, and some people really like tart flavors, like lemonade, or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc. Coca-Cola is full of tart acidity that is balanced by sweetness. It's thought that our bodies are genetically "hard-wired" to crave sweet and salty foods along with fat to make us feel as though we're getting proper nutrition. Fast food and junk food manufacturers capitalize on this concept providing delicious food that is high in fat, salt, and sugar, but unfortunately does not nourish our bodies effectively. Very few people, however, seek out bitter flavors. In fact, it's thought that the unpleasantness that we experience when we taste bitter food or drink might be our body's way of telling us that we are about to eat something that is not good for us even though it might have healthful benefits such as in the case of chicory.

Admittedly, bitter is a flavor that I am not all that comfortable with. My preferences lie with salty things. Some cultures however do embrace bitter flavors. Italians love to start their meal with a Campari and soda and eat radicchio salads and escarole sauteed with garlic and olive oil. Hops have been added to beer for centuries by British, Germans, and Belgians, and some styles are even characterized by how and when the hops are added to a brew to help balance the taste. Coffee is another example of something that often has a bitter edge and is pretty much universally appealing. You can also see bitter in the cocktail culture including my earlier mention of Campari, but also with things like vermouth in a martini and the wild success of Fernet Branca lately. With winter weather approaching my thoughts have turned to the plants in the chicory family and how I can embrace that bitter flavor a little more to broaden my own cooking.

The whole idea of eating and drinking bitter things is a good one in theory. In order to have to the best taste experience, theoretically you would want to "activate" your entire mouth by triggering all four of the taste sensations at the same time. The skill of balancing these flavors is one that a great chef has mastered. Sweet, sour, and salty are all obvious, but the use of bitter is highly overlooked. Think of a great beer that has sweet toasty malted character balanced out by just enough bitter hops, or a dark chocolate bar that has just the right amount of sugar. It can be an incredibly satisfying and delicious experience. With all of this in mind, I'm going to try and incorporate the bitter flavors of the chicory plant into my cooking repertoire this winter. I'm hoping I'll be able to grow a little as a cook and find the balance in flavors so that I can develop a more complete and sophisticated approach to flavoring food.

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