CHicory, especially the red variety, reminds me of the bulging buds currently opening on my native magnolia trees. Chicory’s pink color fades as it cooks and its gentle bitterness softens in the heat of the oven or grill. I cut each chicory bulb in half from root to pointed tip, toss in a little olive oil and place cut-side down on the hot griddle. I pick them up with kitchen tongs, watch their progress, and turn them on their backs so they brown a little more. The heat brings sweetness and turns its leaves into silk. Then they are carefully placed on a platter with slices of Italian oranges, crispy onions and sometimes parchment-thin folds of San Daniele or Parma ham.
I’m old enough to remember when chicory came in waxed blue paper to protect the young shoots from the sun. The paler the better for those leaves, keeping them crisp and keeping the tips primrose rather than green. The pink variety is probably prettiest when served raw, but I like the deep auburn that comes with a little heat. Simmered in a deep saucepan with a generous knob of butter, the tiniest pinch of sugar, and a splash of water (or broth or vermouth), the leaves will eventually caramelize into a delicious bite. The bittersweet juices are sublime. Assuming, of course, they get that far and I haven’t rabbit-eaten them right out of their brown paper bag.
I also used up the last of the “hungry-gap” veggies this week – parsnips, some big ole swedes and staple carrots in a somewhat ceremonial farewell to the season by delicately blanching the roots and then pinning them together to sweeten them with Cream to bake and thyme. As the juice spilled over the accompanying grilled ham steak and its rim of caramel-colored fat, it felt very much like a swan song to winter-spring, the longest of culinary seasons. The new green shoots are finally here.
Roasted red chicory, orange and caramelized onions
As you cut the peel off the oranges—you’ll need your sharpest knife—snatch as much of the juice as you can. It’s good in sherry vinegar dressing. Sometimes I serve an orange salad sprinkled with just a few drops of sherry vinegar. For 4 people as a salad
White Onion 1, large
olive oil 2 tbsp
blood oranges 2
red (or white) chicory 6, medium
For the dressing:
olive oil 3 tbsp
sherry vinegar 1 tablespoon
Peel the onion, then cut into thin slices. Heat the oil in a flat pan and fry the onion until golden brown. Do this slowly, stirring regularly, until you have a nut-brown onion tangle. They must be soft and sweet and brown. Take your time because this sweetness is essential for the balance of the dish.
While the onions are cooking, prepare the orange. Carefully remove the peel with a very sharp knife, being careful not to leave any white skin behind. Thinly slice the orange, catching and discarding the juice that comes out and set aside. Remove the onions from the pan and place on a piece of kitchen paper.
Get a grill pan hot. Halve the chicory lengthways, then place in the empty onion pan, turn with kitchen tongs and brush with the seasoned oil. Place them cut-side down on the hot griddle and allow to rest for about 4 minutes, until lightly colored, then flip and allow to cook on the other side.
Mix the oil and sherry vinegar, add the reserved orange juice and season with black pepper and a little salt. Put the hot chicory on a serving plate, sandwich the orange slices in between and sprinkle the onions on top. Drizzle over the sherry vinegar dressing.
Root vegetables and mustard gratin
I think it’s a good idea to partially soften the veggies before baking them. They cook to a deep, sweet softness that will bring even the hardiest of late winter roots into submission. Served 4
parsnips 400 gr
Swede 400 gr
olive oil 4 tbsp
carrots 250g, mixed color
double cream 400ml
sprigs of thyme 10
grain mustard 2 tbsp
Peel the parsnips, then slice them into about 5mm thick slices (about the thickness of two £1 coins stacked on top of each other) and do the same with the rutabagas.
Heat the olive oil in an ovenproof casserole dish over medium-high heat. Add the parsnips and swedes and brown lightly on both sides. You may need to do this in several batches, removing them when done and adding a little more oil if necessary.
Peel the carrots – there’s really no need to peel them – then slice and cook in a similar manner. Return the lightly browned roots to the pan, cover with a lid and cook for about 10 minutes.
Pour the cream into a large pitcher, add the sprigs of thyme, a pinch of pepper and some salt, then stir in the mustard. Layer the half-cooked root vegetables – they should just be soft – in a casserole dish, then pour in the cream. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the vegetables are quite tender and the cream is bubbling between them.
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