How rough and bitter get better

Ari LeVaux

Photo by Ari LeVaux
Photo by Ari LeVaux

Winter can be a challenging time for leaf lovers. The tender, bountiful garden foliage of summer is long gone, and seasonal winter options are generally a more fibrous lot, like cabbage and kale. Even the spinach is chewier. From a health perspective you could probably use the extra fiber, but nonetheless, serving wintergreens takes more forethought than plopping a bowl with leaves in it next to some bottles of dressing.
Some seasonal leaf lovers, meanwhile, swap their greens for reds in winter, in the form of plants in the chicory family, like radicchio. While these cool weather heads pack plenty of crisp and crunch, they are also tender. The big challenge radicchio presents is it can be extremely bitter. Like “roughage,” bitter foods are often abnormally good for you, too. We have likely evolved to be sensitive to bitterness because many poisons are bitter, but some of our favorite foods are too, like coffee, chocolate and beer. In addition to the bitter intoxicants in the foods above, many nutrients are bitter as well, including a broad class of molecules present in radicchio called phytonutrients. We learn to make exceptions for these bitter, beneficial foods, and grow to appreciate their challenging flavors.
Thus, the connoisseur of seasonal greens must decide between roughage and bitterness. To help navigate this forked road, I’m giving you two recipes, one for our fibrous friend the kale, and one for our bitter bro the radicchio. Both recipes address the main ingredients’ key challenges and make them palatable, and both do it with citrus, which is also in season right now.

Radicchio Wraps
In this recipe we adorn the beautiful radicchio leaves with other bitter flavors, including walnuts, olive oil and chunks of grapefruit. White grapefruit is the best option here than sweeter pinks, but white grapefruit is becoming harder to find these days, as they’ve been phased out in favor of sweeter varieties, notes Jennifer McLagan in her awesome cookbook Bitter. McLagan is not a fan of this development, nor of the general tactic of using sugar to tone down bitterness.
“Bitter makes you stop and think about what you’re eating,” McLagan told me. “If it’s sugary sweet you just jam it down your face.”
Bitter is a distinguished, subtle flavor that should be appreciated, not covered up or avoided, McLagan writes, a flavor duly respected in the Japanese word shibui, which describes a tangy bitterness. “When people are described as shibui,” she writes, “the image is of a silver haired man in a tailored suit, with a hint of a bad-boy aura about him. “So bitter is a cultured, intriguing, and sophisticated taste, with a dangerous side. Who could be more fun to cook or to dine with?”
Instead of neutralizing the bitterness with sweet, she recommends pairing bitter with salt or fat, to elevate and celebrate that shibui.
Thus, top radicchio leaves with a mix of crushed walnuts, white grapefruit pieces, crumbled feta and olive oil. Bacon bits add some salty fat as well, if the feta isn’t enough. Whole pitted olives, and perhaps other goodies from the fresh olive bar, belong in there as well. Eat them like tacos, using your hand to close the leaf around the goodies and deliver them properly to your mouth.
The salt and fat from feta, olive oil and bacon pair with the bitter tones of the radicchio, walnut, olive oil and grapefruit. This repetition of bitterness is not redundancy, as the similarities combine into a smooth continuum, a quality that professional tasters call “amplitude.” In foods with high amplitude, it is difficult to discern where one flavor ends and another begins. Many successful products like Heinz ketchup or Hellmann’s mayo are known for their flawless amplitudes.
Science, in other words, is what holds that radicchio wrap together.
Although bitterness is coming at you from all sides, it doesn’t taste like a bitter dish. Nor does it feel like winter when you eat it. With the juicy grapefruit, creamy the cheese and crunchy nuts adding their textures to the mix, it tastes more like a jazz party in your mouth, with a hint of shibui.
If one ever did want to tone down the bitter in their radicchio, soak the leaves in water for a half hour. The water will take on the bitterness, and can even be poured over ice for a refreshingly bitter sip.

Now, about that coarse kale...

Massaged Kale Salad
Like a loved one who acts callous after a hard, stressful day, this kale simply needs a rub down in order to soften up. Squeezing and rubbing the leaves with your hands will break the cells, releasing enzymes that begin cutting up those fiber chains.
This action is enhanced by the use of salt and lime juice, along with some olive oil to lube the process. The acid and salt help break down the fibers as lime juice and salt work their way into the leaves, establishing their flavors. Vinegar, while acidic, makes a terrible substitute, flavor wise, for lime. Other citrus, like lemon, orange or grapefruit, works as well, though lime is best.
For a decent-sized bunch of kale, use about ¼ cup olive oil, a half-teaspoon of salt, and two tablespoons of lime juice.
Mix these in, and proceed to squeeze, twist, wring, press, and maim the kale with your hands. The exact motions are fairly intuitive. The kale volume will shrink dramatically. Keep at it until it doesn’t seem to shrink or soften anymore.
You now have massaged kale, which you can start eating now, or use as an ingredient in a more complex dish. If you choose the first option, simply adjust the seasonings and go. I highly recommend at least adding some toasted pumpkin seeds on top.
As a more advanced salad, massaged kale goes well mixed with parsley (non-massaged), and the fiery pungency of raw garlic and onions, along with feta or Parmesan cheese.
Now that you know how to balance away the bitter and rub away the rough, you’ve no excuse for avoiding seasonal greenery in winter. Or reddery, as the case may be.