Friday, 18 December 2009

Perfect weather for forcing chicory

When salad is scarce, homegrown chicory is a great resource. Because it is grown indoors it is an ideal winter crop for fair weather gardeners who don’t like going out in the cold. I don’t mind having a break from the allotment in winter as even a quick visit to my rather exposed site means icy winds and raw red hands. This doesn’t mean I have to stop gardening. This is the perfect time to bring in your chicory roots and pot them up for forcing. This week I seized the chance of a bright morning and went and dug up the chicory plants I sowed in July. If you haven’t got chicory ready for forcing don’t despair just read on to find out what its all about and put them on your seed list for next year. I’ll leave all the sowing information until 2010. Even if you don’t want to force chicory there are lots of chicory salad ideas at the bottom of this page.
Forcing chicory

If you’ve never forced chicory and a wondering what it’s all about here’s a quick explanation. To force a plant is to make it grow in unnatural conditions (deprived of light) in order to produce faster growth (and paler vegetables). Rhubarb and chicory are both commonly forced vegetables. The chicory that probably first comes to mind is the pale yellow-tipped bulb known in Belgium as witloof, and this is the most reliable forcing chicory. But the red-flecked Italian variety, Rossa di Treviso, is the one I’ve gone for this year. To do all this you have to actually dig up a plant and bring it indoors. You may face resistance from other members of your household who think that bringing large pots of soil into the house is not a good idea. For some people (my husband is one of them) opening a cupboard that usually contains coats and finding a big tub of damp black earth is deeply disturbing and in his case, enraging. I find that serving up lots of different delicious chicory salads helps overcome this response.

Because of our very mild November I’ve had to wait a bit longer this year but generally its fine to do your digging up after the first frost. First dig the roots up carefully. Then trim the leaves down to the roots. Shorten the roots to about 8-10cm. My plants are smaller than other years so I didn’t have much shortening to do but I am still optimistic that I should get some leaves from them.

I don’t have a potting shed so I did my potting up by the kitchen sink but the kitchen table would be fine too. First I got some fairly deep plastic plant pots. Then I filled the pots with old potting compost. I used the handle of a wooden spoon to make holes in the soil and popped the lopped chicory plants in so that just the stub of leaves was showing. I gave them a quick water and put them in a cold, dark cupboard. Then I covered them with an old tea towel as I my coffee sacks seem not to have survived our house move. Old coffee sacks are very useful for storing potatoes and covering chicory and coffee bean sellers will usually sell you their old coffee sacks very cheaply. I get mine from the Monmouth Coffee Company. When the danger of children rootling through cupboards looking for presents has passed I’ll move them to a warmer cupboard. When this happens the heat will cause the chicons to swell and bulb up in about 2-3 weeks (I'll post some pictures). The chicories in the cold will take much longer and by gradually bringing my crop in from the cold I stay in charge of growth. If you have limited space, lay the roots down in damp sand and pot them up as you need them.

Eating your chicory

The bitter, crunchy leaves of raw chicory need strong balancing flavours - rich and creamy cheeses such as goat’s cheese or Roquefort are perfect. The latter is particularly good in the bistro salad mainstay of walnut, chicory and apple. Chicory also stands up well to strong tasting, oily chunks of smoked eel or fish. Salty crispy flavours are another good foil for chicory - crisp squares of bacon and the soft yolk of a poached egg and frisée form another classic salad combination. Sweet sharp juices such as lemon, pomegranate or blood orange combined with creamy nuts such as hazel or walnut work well, as do the tart sour-sweet tastes of balsamic or sherry vinegars and capers. The peppery leaves of rocket and watercress contrast very successfully both in colour and taste. To make the most of chicory’s rigid form you can use the individual leaves of pale Belgian chicory as an alternative to toasts for holding dips such as Swedish prawn skagen with dill in a creamy dressing.

Blanched dandelion, caper and rocket salad

With the bitter taste of dandelion and the peppery taste of rocket, this salad is a good match for smoked mackerel or hot-smoked salmon fillets. If you want to get fancy try growing the striking looking red-ribbed dandelion, with its dark red spine edged by green foliage.

Serves 4 as a side dish

for the dressing
3 tablespoons of single cream
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1 teaspoon of finely grated lemon zest
sea salt and pepper

for the salad
2 blanched heads of dandelion (make your own by putting a flower pot over some dandelions for a week)
a small bunch of rocket, approx. 100g (flowers too, if possible)
1 tablespoon of capers

Whisk the salad dressing ingredients together and set aside. Wash the salad leaves carefully and dry them. Leave them wrapped in a napkin or paper towel in the fridge until you are ready to assemble the salad.

Arrange the rocket, dandelion and capers in a bowl. Pour over the creamy dressing. Sprinkle with rocket flowers if you have them.

Other chicory family salad combinations

Witloof, Roquefort, slices of pear (or apple) and toasted walnuts.
Crisp green apples cut into thin slices, chicory, watercress and Stilton.
Raddichio, blood orange segments, goat’s cheese and toasted walnuts.
Slivers of smoked eel, baby beetroot or slices of larger beets, chicory and watercress.
Raddichio, toasted walnuts, goat’s cheese and pomegranate seeds.
Dandelion and sorrel.
Frisée, crispy bacon, poached egg and chives.
Chicory, beetroot, orange segments and walnuts.
Beetroot, chopped fine herbes (ideally parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon, but parsley and chives will do too) and endive
Chicory, boiled waxy potatoes, shallots and parsley

Or try, X. M Boulestin’s (the early 20th Century food writer) Salade Carmen – chicory, celery and beetroot in a French dressing made with cream and lemon juice instead of vinegar.

The following makes a mustardy vinaigrette that goes very well with chicory-based salads:
Whisk together:

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
sea salt and pepper

Braised chicory

Cooking chicory well so that it is soft with caremelised juices takes care and patience. You will need an hour or so to get the chicories perfectly cooked through. Depending on what kind of vessel you use you may also need to add a very small amount of water. If you find the chicories too bitter you may feel you need to add a little sugar.

1 chicory per person
lemon juice
sea salt
1 tsp of sugar (optional)

Remove any tired looking outer leaves and give the chicory a quick wipe with a clean tea towel. Thickly butter a heavy pan or any nice bit of earthenware that can go on the stove top. The chicory should fit snugly into the pan. Dot a little more butter (1 teaspoon per chicory head) on top and the sugar if you prefer things a little less bitter. Cover with a piece of buttered parchment paper and the lid. Cook over a low heat, turning the chicories every 15 minutes until the chicories are tender and a pleasant golden colour. If they look like they are catching, add a very small amount of water. After about an hour test the chicories with the point of a knife to make sure they are tender all the way through. Squeeze over some lemon juice and season with salt.

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