Fabulous, Fantastical, Frenetic, Frizzy Frisée
“Johnny had always wanted to dine at Chez Panisse….we saved up for seven months…The meal, of course, was spectacular. We ate frisée au lardons, halibut in broth, and guinea hen with tiny chanterelle mushrooms. I’d never eaten any of those things before.”Samin Nosrat, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
May and June, especially if you are lucky enough to frequent a Real Greengrocer, are the most likely months in which to find frisée (it grows between April and September, but it can be damaged by heat which makes it woody and bitter so avoid it if there’s been a hot summer) – it’s often also called curly endive. Occasionally you may find it bagged in a supermarket (often mixed in with other leaves) but a few weeks ago I was looking determinedly for it in order to use it with the apple and pecan salad with goes so well with the Nick, Bob and Mark apple and pork pie and failed.
Weeks later, here in Sardinia, I was delighted to spot a veritably riotous head of this particular type of endive (more commonly known as chicory in North America) and pointed to it enthusiastically. The greengrocer looked doubtful… “why not have this one instead?” she asked, concerned, pointing to a flatter less rumbustious variety beside it “this one is more dolce…. The one you are pointing to is more …amaro”. She was advising me against my choice because of its bitterness, which is an acquired taste.
How to use frisée
So, aside from the delightful curliness of the frisée (only the romanesco beats it in the culinary beauty stakes in my book), its other benefit, as the helpful greengrocer explained, is its intriguing bitter, peppery taste.
1. with something sweet
It goes very well when combined with some source of ‘sweet’ – apple, raisin, a sweet prosciutto, or a dressing made with honey. It has a slightly nutty taste so it’s also good with nuts and nut oils – hence my determined search for it for the apple and pecan salad. You can make this salad which uses apple to supply the sweetness the frisée needs as a foil.
2. with pancetta
In How to Eat Nigella Lawson suggests making a classic frisée au lardons “add hot, fried, diced pancetta or lardons. Make a dressing by adding Dijon mustard, more oil, and some red wine vinegar to the bacony juices in the pan. Then, onto the warm, tossed salad shave some parmesan or other hard cheese and toss very lightly again.” In fact the marriage of frisée and lardons is generally acknowledged in the culinary world, usually with a mustard dressing, croutons, and topped with a poached egg. This is known as a salade Lyonaise.
“Many of Madame Léa’s recipes still appear on the restaurant’s menu, including her salade lyonnaise. I asked Rabatel if he knew its origins. “Who knows?” He shrugged. “It could have been the washerwomen who invented it.” In the days before refrigeration or washing machines, he said, laundresses carried loads of soiled clothes to the river’s edge, along with picnics of bacon, hard-boiled eggs, and bread. Perhaps, Rabatel suggested, they gathered wild dandelion leaves along the way and tossed everything together into a big salad at the lunch hour. ……
Madame Léa’s version, as interpreted by Rabatel, arrived in a large glass bowl with sides cloudy from vinaigrette. Inside, a pile of curly frisée leaves tumbled with slivers of lardons, garlic-rubbed croutons, and a soft-boiled egg gently broken so that its yolk trickled into the receptive crags of lettuce and bread, the whole just overdressed à la française. I took a bite, and the tang of vinaigrette hit my palate, followed by the flush of bacon and something else deep and sumptuous. Smoked herring?”Ann Mah, Mastering the Art of French Eating
3. with roast or fried potatoes
How to buy and store frisée
Frisée means ‘curly’ in French, and this fantastical form of endive is also known as curly endive and sometimes escarole or escarola. It keeps well in the fridge for up to a week in a ventilated bag. If you buy a head it will need dividing and washing (tear with your hands, don’t cut with a knife), but its curliness also causes it to retain water, so make sure you dry it well before using (go here for a good salad spinner).
Prepare it just before eating as it tends to wilt.
Make sure the leaves are green rather than yellow at the ends, yellow ends indicate that the lettuce is past its sell-by date.
Alternatives to frisée:
There’s nothing quite like frisée but it’s sometimes difficult to find, and because growing it is labour-intensive it tends to be expensive. Instead you could try a mix of radicchio (for the bitterness) and rocket or watercress (for the pepperiness) together with some gentler tasting leaves. Frisée itself has quite a strong taste and often works well both economically and taste-wise in a mix of other salad leaves.
Even more difficult to find is the winter green, puntarelle, the bitter inner stalks of a type of Catalan chicory. In fact, frisée is more of a substitute for puntarelle rather than the other way around. The leaves look like dandelion leaves. When you trim, cut, and soak in iced water they curl up.
Follow this link for more on puntarelle.