As photographers, as cooks, and as eaters, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton find a lot to love in the gemstone hues and delicate, bitter taste of chicories.
We were on assignment on the Italian island of Chioggia at the southern end of the Venetian Lagoon. It was early spring—cool, wet, lovely. We had the morning free, so we took a walk. At the end of a narrow lane, we peeked over a stone wall and saw a man working in his kitchen garden. He spied us and, with a wave of his hand, invited us into his world. All was quiet in the bare plot, with its faint pattern of rows covered with rotting leaves. Once in, the gardener beckoned us to follow him to the end of a path. There, he reached down, pulling back a mound of dead foliage to present a crimson jewel at its center—radicchio di Chioggia. In the monochromatic setting—a low ceiling of gray clouds; leafless trees; and rich, loamy earth—the white-veined, red-leafed sphere glowed. We were appropriately amazed; the gardener was pleased with his dramatic revelation and with our response. The gesture and image were cinematic and sparked a love affair with chicories.
Back home in New Jersey, we continued our romance with local chicories. All chicories are photogenic; they have curves, color, and texture. How they are grown determines their physiognomy. Red chicories like radicchio have red-and-white leaves in varying shapes. Cold weather and field-growing deepen their color and sweeten their taste. Curly endives like frisée have finely cut, pale green leaves. Escarole has rounded, ruffled leaves and a pale green center with darker green edges. Blanching (withholding sunlight) torpedo-shaped Belgian endive results in its pale leaves; succulent crunch; and delicate, bitter taste. It is a complicated family story with the names endive, escarole, and chicory used interchangeably. Leaving family politics aside, they are all delicious.
In early spring, when we are feeling vegetable-deprived, we crave the sharp taste and crunch of chicory salads. Sometimes we go all out, spooning a pool of rich salmorejo vinaigrette under a variety of chicories garnished with croutons, serrano ham, and hard-boiled eggs. We always chop off the leafy, dark green part of escarole (saving it to cook with white beans) and use only the crisp, pale green heart. On cold evenings, we like to braise radicchio Italian-style with pancetta, tossing it with a tangle of pappardelle and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. But our current favorite is braised Belgian endive in butter and tarragon. This luxurious French classic transforms endive’s nature, rendering it soft and supple while mellowing its subtle bitterness. The final touch—a splash of cream—and the dish is finished. This is going to be a delicious spring.