Chicory, especially the red variety, reminds me of the plump buds currently opening on my local magnolia trees. The rose-maroon of the chicory fades when you cook it, and its gentle bitterness softens in the heat of oven or grill. I slice each chicory bulb in half from root to pointy tip, turn them in a little olive oil and place them, cut side down, on the hot griddle. I lift each one with the kitchen tongs, peeping at their progress, and turning them on to their backs to brown a little more. The heat brings sweetness and turns their leaves to silk. They are then transferred tenderly to a serving dish with slices of Italian oranges, crisp-fired onions and, sometimes, folds of San Daniele or Parma ham as thin as parchment.
I am old enough to remember when chicory came in waxed blue paper to shield the infant shoots from the sun. The paler the better for these leaves, so they stay crisp and the tips remain primrose rather than green. The pink variety is probably at its most beautiful when served raw, but I like the deep red-brown that comes from applying a little heat. Cooked in a deep pot with a generous slice of butter, the merest dash of sugar and a splash of water (or stock or vermouth) the leaves will eventually caramelise to a luscious mouthful. The bitter-sweet juices are sublime. That is assuming they get this far, of course, and I haven’t munched them, rabbit like, straight from their brown paper bag.
I used up the last of the “hungry-gap” veg this week, too – parsnips, some big old swedes and maincrop carrots in a somewhat ceremonial goodbye to the season, blanching the roots to tenderness then tucking them up to bake sweetly with cream and thyme. As the juice pooled over the accompanying grilled gammon steak and its rim of butterscotch-coloured fat, it felt very much like a swansong to winter-spring, the longest of the culinary seasons. The new green shoots are here at last.
As you cut the skin from the oranges – you’ll need your sharpest knife – catch all the juice you can. It is good in the sherry vinegar dressing. I sometimes serve an orange salad with nothing but a few drops of sherry vinegar sprinkled over. Serves 4 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 tbsp
Peel the onion, then thinly slice it. Warm the oil in a shallow pan and let the onion cook until golden brown. Do this slowly, stirring regularly, until you have a nut-brown tangle of onions. They must be soft and sweet and brown. Take your time because this sweetness is essential to the balance of the dish.
While the onions cook, prepare the orange. Remove the peel carefully with a very sharp knife, making certain there is no white pith remaining. Slice the orange thinly, catching and reserving any escaping juice as you go, and set aside. Remove the onions from the pan, transferring them on to a sheet of kitchen paper.
Get a griddle pan hot. Slice the chicory in half lengthways, then place in the empty onion pan, turning them with kitchen tongs, coating them in the seasoned oil. Place them on the hot griddle, cut side down and leave for 4 minutes or so, until they lightly colour, then turn and let them cook on the other side.
Mix together the oil and sherry vinegar, adding any reserved orange juice and season with black pepper and a little salt. Place the hot chicory on a serving dish, tuck the orange slices among them, then scatter the onions over. Spoon over the sherry vinegar dressing.
I do think it is a good idea to steam the vegetables to partial tenderness before you bake them. They cook to a deep, sweet softness that knocks even the toughest of the late winter roots into submission. Serves 4
olive oil 4 tbsp
carrots 250g, mixed colour
double cream 400ml
thyme sprigs 10
grain mustard 2 tbsp
Peel the parsnips, then cut them into slices about 5mm thick (roughly the thickness two £1 coins on top of one another), then do the same with the swede.
Warm the olive oil over a moderate heat in an ovenproof baking dish. Add the parsnips and swede and let them brown lightly on both sides. You may well have to do this in several batches, removing them as they become ready, and perhaps adding a little more oil if necessary.
Scrub the carrots – it really isn’t necessary to peel them – then slice and cook them in similar fashion. Return the lightly browned roots to the pan, cover with a lid and let them cook for about 10 minutes.
Pour the cream into a large jug, add the thyme sprigs, a grinding of pepper and a little salt then stir in the mustard. Layer the partially cooked root vegetables – they should be just short of tender – in a baking dish, then pour in the cream. Bake for about 35 minutes till the vegetables are fully tender and the cream is bubbling between them.
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