10 January 2011

Bitter greens in salads

One of the best salad greens we get here in France on a regular basis is scarole — escarole in English and it's sometimes called that in French too. We've been enjoying it for the past few weeks, and it's a wintertime product. It's a member of the chicory family, along with frisée (curly or frisée endive) and endive (Belgian endive).

The chicory family gives salad greens that are on the bitter side. Much of the bitterness of the original plants has been bred out of them by selective propogation, but some remains. Often they are "blanched" — in other words, protected from sunlight so that they leaves are whiter and more tender. Other bitter greens, from different plant families, are pissenlit (dandelion leaves), cresson (watercress), and mâche (lamb's lettuce). All these are treated the same way in French salads.

A standard French salad of escarole and red beets

To counter the slight bitter taste, people make salads of escarole, frisée, or Belgian endive that include sweet, salty, or other strong-flavored ingredients. The classic salade lyonnaise, for example, is curly endive with smoked pork lardons (bacon) and a poached egg, with a vinegary dressing. Hard-boiled eggs pair with Belgian endive or escarole salads, and so do cheeses like Roquefort or cubes of Gruyère or Comté. The saltiness of bacon or cheese mutes the bitterness of the greens.

Often the dressings served with bitter greens of this type are made with a good amount of garlic or shallots, which also take off the bitter edge. Sometimes garlic croutons, called chapons, are added to the salad for both their crunchy texture and their taste, which are good with the bitter greens. Walnuts are very good in these bitter salads too, for their sweetness and nuttiness.

Smoked pork lardons and a garlicky vinaigrette dressing
make another standard French escarole salad.

Mild lettuces like batavia (green leaf lettuce), laitue (Boston lettuce), or feuille de chêne (oakleaf lettuce) are too tender and delicate to stand up to such strong, assertive ingredients. The more tender lettuces are usually just dressed with a mild vinaigrette, made with less vinegar and more good oil, and sometimes flavored with fresh herbs or a little chopped shallot.

One salad ingredient that lends sweetness to bitter greens is betteraves (beets or beetroot). Beets are tossed with Belgian endive, frisée, escarole, watercress, or, especially, mâche. The beets themselves are usually dressed first with vinaigrette and chopped shallots. Red wine vinegar goes especially well with beets, and toasted walnuts are good in a salad with them and escarole or frisée, for example.

Escarole, beets, vinaigrette, and good bread... oh là là

The nice thing about beets in France is that you normally buy them already cooked. They are sold out of a paper-lined crate at the markets and even at the supermarket, but sometimes you get them shrink-wrapped (sous vide). They are a standard item and available everywhere. Buying them pre-cooked means you are saved the long cooking time they require. One of my French books says that raw beets need to be boiled for three hours!

That's a very long time and I think that the raw beets we get today don't need more than about an hour's cooking, whether in boiling water or wrapped in foil and roasted in the oven. In her cookbook from the 1920s (I think), the woman who called herself Tante Marie wrote this about beets:

Tante Marie says beets are better cooked in a slow oven,
where their sugars develop more fully. She says to leave
them in the oven to cook for at least seven hours!

Roasted for seven hours! I bet the beets are really good cooked that way, but the instructions date back to a time when the kitchen stove was also a source of heat for the whole house. There was always a fire going in the kitchen when the weather outside was chilly. So you had the luxury of putting beets in a place in the oven where they wouldn't burn and leaving them there all day, or overnight.

If you can get endive, escarole, or frisée (curly endive) where you live, try them in salad with the flavor ingredients they are served with in France. They are good for you, interesting in texture and taste, and they make a good change from everyday tossed salads.


  1. Back in early November, I baked beets, like I would sweet potatoes, in a 400°F oven, wrapped in foil, for an hour and a half. They were perfect. When cooked, I peeled them, cubed them and seasoned them just with a little olive oil. That way they keep for a while in the fridge.

    As for the sweet potatoes, it takes only one hour for a perfect baking.

  2. Hi Ken,

    Here in western NY state, (buffalo and rochester areas) we enjoy cooking escarole on the stove top with a liberal helping of extra virgin olive oil, minced garlic, a little chicken broth and cooked cannelini beans. (if you dont have cannelini, any white bean such as great northern would be fine). when done, top with grated parmesan cheese. very delicious and very common in italian families (including mine!) wonderful served with italian bread to soak up the "juice".

  3. Hi Ken, have you got a microwave?
    If so, cook your beetroot in that in a covered glass vessel that will hold what you wish to cook [and add a couple of tablespoons of water]... but DO NOT top and tail the beets [stops them leaking] Use full power for eight minutes [that is for 1lb unpeeled at 900/1000W - we've got two micros, one of each full power and it doesn't seem to make much difference.] Test them by seeing if a knife will push freely in - same as when boiling them. If not, repeat, but for four minutes, etc. It depends entirely on size, density and quantity and there is no set rule.
    The cooked beets come out ready to peel and have lost nothing to the water.... they are really sweet.

  4. Wonderful ideas for salads, which I love. I've never heard of this paring of beets and endive. I cook beets in the microwave, too and also celeriac. I get a lot of both from the farm we belong to.

  5. Thanks, fellow readers for good cooking hints- you, too Ken. I'm in the mood for beets and will go buy some when our snow melts. I'm staying put today though, except for helping dh shovel our driveway.

  6. frisee aux lardons is my favorite salade. I wonder if the blanched lettuce has less nutrients than if allowed to be in the light...

  7. Thank you all for the cooking tips. May be ,now, I will cook beet roots more often.

    Usually I make a meal by boiling potatoes and eggs and then mix the sliced beets to the sliced potatoes and eggs together with a vinaigrette.

  8. Since it is on the chilly side right now in SoCal, I have been roasting tomatoes, red peppers, onions, garlic, eggplant and zucchini. "Roasted vegetables ratatouille" is delicious. It is a good excuse to have the oven on for few hours anyway.
    (Trader Joe's sells beets already cooked, sous-vide, but roasting them makes them sweeter. I will try Tim's microwave method too).

  9. Like nyyankeegirl, I learned
    the wonders of escarole by
    sauteing in olive oil with
    chopped onion&garlic. When
    softened, I added a few eggs
    and scrambled them into the
    escarole. Cut open a wheel-
    shaped Italian bread into
    sandwich segments slathered
    inside with a bit of butter
    and fill with the escarole.
    The olive oil and butter
    absorbtion in the bread makes for a delicious moist
    sandwich...don't count the

  10. We cook lacinato kale using nyyankeegirl's technique.

    I wonder if the beets available long ago were giant tough things that needed to be cooked for hours.

  11. I don't know about the taste (never had this salad) but it certainly looks delicious.

  12. I just came across your blog searching for info on St. Aignan and I'm loving it. My husband (originally from NC too) and I will be staying there this summer as we explore the Loire. Thanks for all the fun stories!

  13. Thanks to everyone for the great ideas and tips. I'm going shopping soon in our Australian heat and am going to make one of the delicious salads for dinner this evening!

  14. All, I know I've had escarole soup before, but it was long ago, and I haven't ever cooked escarole myself. I've cooked many other lettuces, however, with good results.

    CHM and Tim, I don't cook beets often because I think the pre-cooked ones here in France are so good and so convenient. I've even cooked them in the microwave before, but mostly I cook them in the oven like CHM does. In California I always bought raw beets.

    Now when I buy raw beets, I eat them raw — grated and dressed like carottes râpées. Delicious.

    Chrissoup, I guess that was the case with beets in earlier decades. They must have been pretty tough to need such long cooking. I do like oven-roasted vegetables in general, that's for sure.

  15. Hello Peter, get in touch when you come to the Loire Valley and we'll get together for a coffee or a glass of wine somewhere. Send a e-mail...

  16. Carottes et betteraves rapées dressed with vinaigrette and a generous pinch of cumin is my absolute fave.

  17. I agree with you about the Crapudine beet that one gets in the supermarkets and on some market stalls... excellent... and peel easily. We've just finished a beetroot and onion salad made using locally bought cooked Crapudine and local Red Onions. Made for Christmas in quantity and intended to be used up slowly [slower than we've managed this time.] The longer it marinades in the dressing the better it gets!


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