Pleasingly bitter

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Cicoria is bitter. Like spinach that’s lost a lawsuit. It’s also tangy, slightly metallic, wild and grassy tasting. The vegetable equivalent of a frolic in a field with a handsome heavy metal drummer who forages and writes poetry in his spare time. There’s also sweetness lurking in the serrated leaves and plump stem, some say spiciness too. But it’s the bitterness that prevails, and it’s for this reason I love cicoria. Which isn’t really surprising given how much I like bitter in my pint glass, my carmine coloured aperitivo, my amaro, my marmalade, my salad, my chocolate, my coffee, my life.

Unaccustomed and unqualified as I am, I going to try to put cicoria into some sort of biological and historical context!  I’ll keep it brief I promise. Then we can proceed as usual! You know the routine, I ramble on about running away to Italy and my tedious existential crisis, detail the Roman meal during which I first I ate cicoria and describe how I succumbed to the advances of the man at the next table – eat, pay, shove – before giving you a recipe.

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The cicoria I’m talking about, the dark-green, narrow-leaved shoot above, is a variety of the genus Cichorium intybus called Dentarella or –  for less tongue twisting - Italian dandelion or Cutting chicory. It looks, as you’ve probably noticed, a little like an oversized dandelion with its glossy, slightly serrated leaves. Other varieties of this genus you might be familiar with are puntarelle, deep-red radicchio or the milky white bulbs of witloof we British call chicory. Although related, cicoria is not to be confused with endive, curly endive (called chicory in the US), chicoreè frisèe or escarole. Baffled?  I know!  This is a topic beset by considerable confusion.

Cicoria is the cultivated relative of cicoria selvatica or wild chicorya food foraged and favored since Antiquity. Wild cicoria still thrives in parks, lay-bys and the undulating countryside surrounding the Eternal city. This interview with Sarah May makes for lovely listening for the cicoria curious amongst you.

In Rome it’s still not unheard-of to find a rogue market stall with an heap of foraged cicoria selvatica! Wild tangled greens: primitive, savage and reeking of another time. But these days you’re most likely to find cultivated cicoria, like the bagful at the top of this post, cicoria as bouncy, unruly and gloriously green as a classroom of five-year olds after a sugary snack and a lesson painting pictures of grass.

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Modern Romans, even tiny ones, covet and consume cicoria as passionately as their forefathers, growing, collecting, buying and eating it in enormous quantities. More often than not it’s blanched or boiled – which soothes the bitterness – drained scrupulously and then sautéed or ripassata in olive oil, garlic and possibly chilli: cicoria in padella. It’s then eaten as a contorno (vegetable side dish) or piled generously on warm pizza bianca.

And the meal?  It was nearly eight years ago at a small, idiosyncratic trattoria in Testaccio called Augustarello. A trattoria that has recently reclaimed its rightful position as my favorite place to eat in Rome. Sitting at one of the dozen or so tables in this tiny locale with its frosted windows (to keep prying eyes out) and its bold open kitchen (to allow prying eyes in,) I first ate a dish of cicoria in padella.

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There was no epiphany or foodquake, just a glistening tangle of dark-green cicoria: tangy, slightly metallic, wild, grassy and a beautifully bitter balance to the citrus tinged artichoke and tonnarelli cacio e pepe I’d just eaten and the sweet torta della nonna that was to follow. There was sour, salty, unami, bitter and sweet and Rachel was – unsurprisingly – sated and (extremely) replete. I was also cicoria convinced and converted.

Then later that summer in Apulia – the high heel of Italy’s boot – in the company of my love and his motley crew, I ate a plate of Fave e cicoria, an iconic, poor and simple combination bourne out of necessity and very good taste. The fave (broad beans) in question were peeled and dried fave, or fave secche, another food from antiquity, ivory coloured slivers of beans, like misshapen tiddlywinks.

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The fave had been soaked, drained and simmered idly until they’d collapsed into a soft, soupy mush, a pale puree reminiscent of chickpeas, chestnuts and white beans. Fave too have a discreet bitterness about them. It’s a pleasing bitterness though, which compliments their soft, floury and nutty nature and elevates it into something particular and delicious. The cicoria - sweeter and plumper than its Roman cousin – was simply boiled, drained and dressed with local  oil.

The plate, half fave-half cicoria, half ivory-half green, half-elemental humus-half bittersweet leaves anointed with golden extra virgin olive oil, seemed, on that hot and heavy night near Leece, a near perfect plate.

This is an extremely simple recipe, but one that requires good ingredients and practice, especially when it comes to getting the consistency of the fave right. They should be soupy really and eaten with a spoon. I for one, still need practice. Bread and wine are important here – aren’t they always – as is excellent olive oil.  Now about that frolic!

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Fave e cicoria

serves 4

Adapted from Le Ricette Regionale D’Italia,  Eleonora’s recipe, Elizabeth’s recipe and inspired by this

  • 500 g fave (dried broad beans)
  • 1 kg cicoria (or other bitter greens: cavolo nero, dandelion or leafy chicory)
  • olive oil
  • salt

Soak the fave in plenty of cold water for 8 hours or overnight.

Drain and rinse fave.  Put fave in a pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Skim any white foam what rises to the surface. Lower the flame and simmer fave for about an hour or until they are very soft, tender and have collapsed into a thick mush. The consistency should be that of a very thick soup: dense and creamy but still fluid and spoonable. You may have to add a little more water. Season generously with salt.

While the fave are cooking soak the cicoria in several changes of water, discarding any wilted or bruised leaves and trimming away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the cicoria in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to its leaves, cover the pan and cook over a medium flame until it has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 – 8 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the cicoria.

Drain the cicoria and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible.  Warm some olive oil in a saute pan – with a clove of garlic if you wish – and add the cicoria and a pinch of salt. Stir and turn the cicoria in the oil until each leaf is glistening.

Serve a pile of cicoria either beside or over a generous serving of fave with a little of your best extra virgin olive oil poured over the top. Serve with bread or toast and wine.

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51 Comments

Filed under Beans and pulses, cicoria, food, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

51 responses to “Pleasingly bitter

  1. Rosa

    Hi Rachel. I’m glad you made it round to cicoria as this is one of the first things I eat when I go back to Rome. This looks wonderful! Thankyou for your lovely blog and tastes of Testaccio – much appreciated by an Australian married to an Italian and living in England, trying to juggle all of these cultural and culinary traditions…

    • rachel

      I too know all about juggling culinary traditions (often badly it has to be said). I’m glad I got round to cicoria too, I’m not really sure why it took me so long? It’s great to have you reading along.

  2. Good job on the botanising (although cicoria and frisée are actually reasonably closely related).

    Near where I used to live there was a wild green area that was studded with gorgeous blue chicory flowers when I walked the dog in the morning, all of which had disappeared by mid-afternoon. To begin with I suspected over-zealous pickers. But I learned that chicory flowers have quite a strong daily rhythm, opening early in the morning and closing after noon.

    • rachel

      Ok now I am chuffed and proud (I must admit I was hoping for your approval on this one). A walk in search of cicoria is another one for our list (lunch and bread lesson first though). Rx

  3. I really loved all your recent posts (maybe it’s because I can relate more now that I live in Rome as compared to when I was still sitting at my desk in London reading your posts during my lunchbreak) but this one stands out because I am crazy, passionately and drunkenly in love with Cicoria!

    My one issue with eating out in Italy used to be that everything always seemed so carb or meat-centric, sure, there was mushroom risotto, pasta con ceci, melanzane alla parmigianan and side salads … but I missed the big vegetable centric dishes I got used to in London (no doubt thanks to the heavy influences from the Middle East and the Indian Sub-Continent and, no doubt, Ottolenghi). So for me, discovering cicoria was a revelation. I love all manner of leafy green vegetables, whether it be Thai Morning Glory in a yellow bean sauce, steamed Bok Choi with garlic and oyster sauce or wilted spinach to accompany a piece of pan-fried fish. Having lunch at my boyfriend’s parents one day, there was a plate of cicoria in padella – I must have eaten the entire pan by myself so happy was I to find an Italian dish that satisfied my craving for a plate of green, leafy vegetables!

    Love the idea of the fava ‘hummus’ – sounds like the perfect accompaniment to turn a plate of vegetables into a substantial meal of its own!

  4. As an aside – I adore that picture of Luca in the sink. My two would have turned the tap on full and made a grab for everything on the wall. ‘Like spinach that lost a lawsuit’ – brilliant. x

    • rachel

      Soon after the photo was taken their was an incident with the peeler! Nothing grave, but a bit of a shock for both Luca and I. Sink antics are now heavily supervised. Hope you are all well? xx

  5. Carolle

    I love ciccoria, having eaten it in Rome, I’m not quite sure where I’d find it in the uk. You write with such authority that far more interesting to me -call me nosy if you like- is how many heavy metal drummers have you been frolicing with & if you’ve got any spare can you pass one my way (handsome of course)??!

    • rachel

      Carolle we clearly speak the same language. Lets have a drink (bitter campari) and hatch plans for frolics with drummers.

  6. “Like spinach that lost a law suit.” Love this. Love bitter. Wish I had a dish of fave and cicoria in my hands right now.

  7. All good … very good … all so healthy and satisfying too. Utterly simple and thus difficult to re-create if you ain’t got the right ingredients (esp. the cicoria and the good olive oil). Cleaning the cicoria can be a trifle tedious too … which is why I’d often make it when I knew my mother in law would be coming over for supper. I’d get her to do all the washing and rinsing … so mean of me!

    • rachel

      Tedious and messy with a 17 month old flinging it all over the place. I would like to offer my services though as a cicoria washer supreme at your house, if you will cook it!

  8. Oh, how I do anticipate being regaled with your running away to Rome, existential crisis, and mysterious love-life with a certain drummer-boy, if you don’t mind me saying so. Serious subjects, but good to not wilt under the weight. If Augustarello is your reclaimed favorite shall we go there instead? I read somewhere Cesare was closed on Wednesdays. Pretty photo of the dried beans and lemon stage right.

  9. Christine

    No real ciccoria here in Philadelphia, but I’m sure curly endive (a favorite and always called ciccoria by my Sicilian mother) will do nicely. As an aside, I made my way over to flickr, and Luca is absurd amounts of adorable. I do not know how you stand it.

    • rachel

      I’m sure curly endive will work beautifully. Luca is also extremely cheeky and scarily stubborn! Can’t imagine who he gets it from!

  10. Cle

    Fave e Cicoria is my favourite dish! indeed!
    They look as a woman of Puglia made them! congratulation!

  11. Amy

    Just had to say, I always love reading about your Roman running away and your existential crises. Quite a nice routine!

  12. Like your blog v much. Also loveeeee cicoria (& a pint of bitter). Tweeted the link!

  13. “milky white bulbs of witloof..” ??!! Sounds like something out of Harry Potter. Fava and chicory is a delicious classic. The cleverness of the poor to extract joy from simple resources knows no bounds. Lovely post and recipe. ken

    • rachel

      Ha, it is, brilliant. I am sure you ate your fair share (and some) of fave e cicoria in Ostuni. I am still humming and ahhing over a trip to Puglia this summer. Rx

  14. M

    Well, I don’t know what I did wrong. I made this for my husband a couple weeks ago and he asked if i was trying to punish him.

    • rachel

      Ha, Oh dear. Were you ? At least you didn’t follow my recipe, then I might feel responsible. You husband clearly isn’t a fan of bitter food! Which means he probably isn’t Italian and certainly not Roman! Or is he? Are you? I do hope you made him something nice to make up for the punishment.

  15. I remember reading about this on Elizabeth’s blog last year and now you’ve reminded me that I. Must. Find. Cicoria. And fava beans. This type of simple meal, doused in olive oil, is one of the reasons why I love food.

    • rachel

      I wish I could send you some. Elizabeth’s Cicoria came from her garden I think! The italians are so very good at these simple, resourceful and delicious dishes.

  16. Helena

    I have been reading your blog for a while now, simply love your writing and the way you tell a story rather than just plug in a recipe. I am a Finn married to an Italian and we live in London. This just happens to be my absolute favourite meal and my pugliese mother-in-law makes it just right… Well, it’s a toss between this and orecchiette con sugo. Can’t wait for the summer holidays!

    • rachel

      Hi Helena – A pugliese mother-in-law means you are much more familiar than me with the real thing! Lucky you. So nice to have you reading along Rx
      ps – missing London today – have a pint of bitter for me!

  17. lexan

    hey rachael great post!!! reminds me of my insane infatuation with broccoli rabe which my lovely partner as decided is okay for his slightly picky palette. inspired by you i recently purchased the falconwear enamel set. are you still just as enchanted with it as ever?

    • rachel

      Now lets talk about broccoli rabe…..Yes yes, I am still enchanted and enamored with enamel. Lasgana plans next week which will involve the biggest baking tin.

  18. lexan

    broccoli rabe with garlic pepper flakes orecchiette and spicy sausage is a go to meal at least once a week!!!! im roasting a chicken in my medium pan tonight!
    p.s your posts always bring a little light into my snowy apartment which at 22 and a grad student is always welcome. thank you.

  19. Reminds me of home… though not from Puglia, this brings back memories of eating this dish first at the Awaiting Table, then as often as possible elsewhere in Puglia. What is it about the food there that elicit such cravings?

  20. laura

    Ciao, Rachel. I’m just back from three days in magnificent Ischia where I gorged on friarielli, so your post spoke to me (as it usually does!).
    P.S. I LOVE your rambles and there is nothing ever even remotely tedious about them or the recipes that accompany them.

    • rachel

      Morning – I could do with three days in Ischia eating bitter greens. Your loyalty to my long ramblings means much xx

  21. Chicory greens are eaten in the Southern US as well. I think the ones we have are the same…they look the same, have a bitter bite that some folks, such as I, love. They are eaten with potatoes that are mashed or some other mild vegetable to offset the Chicory bite. They are very old fashioned and delicious. Great Post.

    • rachel

      With mash sounds like my sort of lunch, or supper.

    • Yes, the chicory you find the Southern US is the same. For all those who don’t live in the South, dandelion is almost the same. You can find pretty good dandelion in many good grocery stores. Whole Foods usually has it quite fresh and tasty. Or you can be adventurous and harvest your own dandelion! Plenty of it outdoors.
      Great post, Rachel, love reading your posts!

  22. I love the bitter greens. Love them. Pesto is my favorite way to eat them, especially with meat.

    Also, this time of year makes me especially homesick for Rome. If I come visit, will you buy me lunch at the trattoria?

    • rachel

      Just Lunch! If you come visit I will buy you lunch, dinner and breakfast the morning after. Your wife and son too of course!

  23. Pingback: Brightus bulbous | rachel eats

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