Bitter just needs to be balanced, and since the sap is running, we know what to use!
The sap is running! Today, it is supposed to hit 55 with spring rains forecast! Warm days and cold nights in late winter and early spring in Vermont mean the precious gold of our region is flowing through the veins of the trees. Our first crop of the season never comes fast enough. This is the season of hope for green leaves and blooming flowers, while we enjoy sugar on snow and stacks of pancakes with syrup.
Start with bitter
So sweet, but do you enjoy bitter foods as well? I know some shy away, like my sister Jan, but when balanced with a little sweet or a little sour, the possibilities are amazing, and maple is perfect in the balancing act.
On my list of “delicious bitter” are coffee, broccoli rabe, darkest chocolate, grapefruit, marmalade, Campari, charred foods on the barbeque, bitter melon, and bitter greens, including dandelion, mustard, collards, kale, nettles, arugula, radicchio, and chicory, both the leaf and the forced sprouts we refer to as Belgium endive. There is more than one little bottle of bitters sitting with my condiments! I rarely drink any soda, but when I was a kid it was Moxie all the way.
Good for you in many ways
Bitter foods are often thought of as therapeutic (consider the warm spices turmeric and ginger) and they offer a unique highlight to many a meal. They enhance appetite, and aid in digestion. Often, bitter elements are used to balance out foods that are really rich or fatty, that is why a creamy, cheesy omelet tastes so good with a salad of bitter greens dressed with a tangy vinaigrette.
A little balance please
It’s always a balancing act. Grilling the radicchio and endive adds some char, which can increase the bitterness, but the cooking process brings out the sweetness in the vegetables as well.
This salad, or side dish, is made with sweet onions, sherry vinegar, and sweet, dark maple syrup to mellow the bitter. Crushed red pepper flakes are optional, but add a bit of heat and interest. My sister is not a fan of the bitter, but she’ll eat this salad without too much grumbling!
You can make all the elements of this dish in advance and assemble just before your meal. Leftovers are great as well! Served warm or room temperature, there’s a little bitter, some sweet, a touch of salty and sour, and don’t forget the char. It’s all good!
A Platter of Bitter Delights with Maple Vinaigrette
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tsp. dark maple syrup
- 2 large sweet onions, sliced
- 3 heads of Belgium endive
- 1 head of radicchio
- 1 lemon, sliced thinly
- 1/3 cup dried tart cherries
- Arugula or other greens of choice
- 2 tbsp. sherry vinegar
- Zest and juice of one lemon
- 4 tsp. dark amber maple syrup
- 1 tsp. grainy mustard
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, optional
- 1/3 cup chopped pecans, maple glazed if possible*
- Parmesan or vegan Parmesan
Fire up the grill, or your grill pan over medium high heat. You can also do this in cast iron. Combine the olive oil and the maple syrup and whisk well.
Cut the endive heads in half, and the radicchio into 6 or 8 sections (depending on the size) taking care to keep the core end in tact so they don’t fall apart in the grilling process. Slice lemons as thin as possible, and the onions fairly thick. To hold them together, you can pierce with a long skewer you have. Brush the radicchio, endive, onions, and sliced lemons with the oil/syrup mixture. Season lightly with salt.
Place flattest sides of the radicchio and endive on the hot grill (indirect side) or in the heated pan and immediately reduce the heat to medium. Cook for a few minutes, until a peek under reveals brown marks and the heads start to soften. Turn and cook a few more minutes, turning of the heat. You don’t want to scorch too much and add too much bitterness, but a little char is desired.
Remove and set aside. Do the same with the onions and lemons; they will take a little longer.
Make the dressing by placing all ingredients in a jar and shaking like crazy. Add salt and pepper to your own liking. You can add a bit of hot sauce if the red pepper does not provide enough heat.
Assemble your salad any way you like! It’s all about your own preferences. You can place all the ingredients out on a platter and let folks choose what they want, or make it composed. It is great placed warm on a bed of lovely arugula and topped with the cherries, pecans, and either a nice salty Parmesan or vegan alternative, or creamy local goat cheese. For more maple flavor, a tiny drizzle of syrup at the last is perfect.
*Maple Glazed Pecans
In a non-stick skillet over medium-high, combine 2 cups pecan halves and 1/2 cup dark amber maple syrup. Immediately reduce to medium, and cook for five or six minutes, hovering over it so it doesn’t burn. When thick and liquid reduced, remove to parchment paper. Don’t let this go too far, or it will burn or the syrup will crystalize. Ask me how I know this. Sprinkle with a little sea salt and let cool thoroughly. If the stick together, you can easily separate them.
Toss these on salads, side dishes, desserts, morning cereal, or eat them straight up! You can also add some fresh herbs, rosemary is particularly delicious!
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