Friday, December 14, 2012

Crispy salads; in defence of bitterness

Another night of frost, and Molly and I went to look at the scarole. I'm not quite sure what scarole is. I mean, I know it's a salad, that sort of acts as a lettuce, except it grows in winter, and the slugs don't eat it, and it really is much nicer than any lettuce.  It might be a kind of chicory, or it might be kind of endive, but with the turn-and-turn-about of false friendships between English and French on this I'm not really sure which is which of those two things. It is very crispy, and a little sweet and a little bitter.  

I read somewhere once that children's aversion to green vegetables stems from an evolutionary response that rejects any hint of a bitter back-taste as a defence against possible toxins.  I am wary of this as it seems to me to give the fussy little buggers an excuse.  I can clearly remember schooling myself out of this resistance from quite a young age, tempering the bitter with sweet and salt until it became more acceptable.  I have to say in my experience British children are incorrigibly stubborn about this, most that I know won't even touch green peas, which don't seem to me to carry any bitter back-taste whatever; French youngsters seem to be able to take green veg on board far more readily, especially the ubiquitous and rather boring green beans. Our Dutch friend E, who partly introduced us to scarole, quoted a pretty sounding proverb in Dutch the other day which goes something like 'Bitter in the mouth is good for the heart', which may be a bit of folk wisdom that proves sound in scientific terms of antioxidants and such like.  Tom is often quite fussy about anything bitter, but happily eats scarole as a salad entrée every day with nothing more than a light raspberry vinegar dressing and a good dollop of Heinz salad cream.

When we got to the veg garden, things did not look good:

Apart from the fact that the germination rate of the seed back in August/September was decidedly haphazard (we have eaten quite a few already, mind), and there are rather a lot of weeds in my raised bed, the scarole was even crispier than it should be; in fact it was stiff and frosted. (Those are my feet/legs/scarf, of course).

It's said to be frost hardy, but Jean-Paul and his missus, who gave us some very luscious ones a few weeks ago, warned that it was only so much so, and should really be covered with fleece to be on the safe side, which needless to say I didn't do.  

It looked rather as though a harvest of photographs was all that remained, for the frost did pick out the shapes and lines rather nicely, and merited, I thought, conversion to black and white, as the greens are rather livid.

I pulled one up a little later in the day, however, when the frost had lightened but not completely gone, and it recovered remarkably well, only some of the outer leaves going somewhat cellophane-like and frost damaged.  With the blustery wet thaw we've in the last couple of days, they have completely recovered and we enjoyed a whole one, inner and outer leaves, before dinner tonight.

And as for the tatsoi, they aren't big, but they don't seem to mind any kind of inclemency, and the frosts have killed off the flea beetle and green caterpillars that were nom-nomming them to bits.

So steamed, stir-fry or salad, we eat up our greens.


the polish chick said...

greens in december. how quaint! i do love bitters, even though polish cookery doesn't really go in for them a lot.

Roderick Robinson said...

Reading your post for the second time I realised I was one of those "fussy little buggers" who baulked at lettuce and a number of other vegetables (onion, for instance, because of it sliminess). In my own defence let me cite (a) WW2, and (b) the adult conspiracy against children, neither of which you appear to have touched on.

Vegetables weren't rationed during the war and so they were thrust down juvenile throats in compensation for the food that was rationed and which was (inevitably) more attractive. The conspiracy became self-evident the first time an adult was foolish enough to ram home compulsion with the argument "It's good for you." If the child was merely antipathetic up to then that piece of code instantly pushed up resistance to the level of detestation.

For a long time I didn't care for salads, seeing them as fraudulent. It was clear that the microtomed slices of tomato, the odd radish, the dried-up chancre of HB egg were there as camouflage, fooling you into eating a culinary illusion that was 90% lettuce. And lettuce was what? Air in a slightly more solid form. I watched adults pretending to enjoy salads, having first taken the precaution of adding taste via the yellow bottle.

Across the Channel the salad had become an even denser illusion. Camouflage had been dispensed with since the salade verte turned out to be 100% lettuce - and it came in agricultural, if not industrial, quantities. And although I still maintain lettuce is air made flesh - as it were - it requires many kW of energy to convert it into a form the gastric juices can handle. Salade verte should come with the loan of a book as some sort of comfort during a long arid period of mastication.

OK some lettuces are bitter which may or may not provide an adult thrill. And I do not dispute that French children can be persuaded to eat them, though I shudder at the methods of persuasion used behind closed doors.

There is a solution and that's a salad without lettuce. Many would argue that it had then ceased to be a salad, though I would argue one of salad's (minor) problems is semantic anyway. For about fifty years my Saturday evening meal has been accompanied by a tomato salad which (yet another semantic paradox) is part onion. Gradually the word salad has changed for me: it is no longer an unjustified punishment but a melange of contrasting flavours and textures.

I fear I may have broken the butterfly on a wheel and I am already saying my beads in preparation. I don't think this qualifies as a feuilleton, do you?

Rouchswalwe said...

Greens! As a girl, I could be cheered up with a heaping dish of spinach and a few slices of frankfurter sausage.

Anonymous said...

Greens are my favorite food! Over here one of my favorite ways to eat escarole is chopped, sauteed in olive oil until wilted, then sprinkled with salt and grated parmesan.

When my children were little and balky about vegetables I used to give them frozen peas. So sweet, and they loved the frozen-treat-ness of them. I also used to freeze grapes and they loved them too (not that grapes were ever difficult to get into them).

- alison

Unknown said...

I thought that I had heard of scarole. The photographs too ring bells. But after a frutiless search through various English herbals I resorted to Google (silly me, should have tried it first) Laitue scariole is what I found, wild lettuce "almost certainly the ancestor of cultivated lettuces". You must have enjoyed the hunt, as I did my vicarious pursuit. The Google pictures incidently did not seem to match with yours suggesting something with pointed leaves and prickly, but there seem to be a number of different sort of wild lettuce. As I write this I refer back to one of my herbals and under lettuce I find Wild Lettuce. It shows the greater prickly lettuce Letuca virosa and refers to a closley related species, Letuca scariole, that used to be cultivated on a small scale in Western Europe as a source of Lacturcarium, known as Lettuce opium, and in fact used as an adulterant for opium. It is only a mild sedative, but if you and Tom nods off by the fire you will have an explanation.

Setu said...

Scarole is a good starter, but I hope you were offered a bit more than a few green leaves last Thursday for St LUCY's day ! Receive my belated wishes. Now we are given a few extra seconds of light in the afternoon. "A la Sainte Luce, le jour fait un saut de puce..."

Ellena said...

My favorite bitter greens are cooked dandelion leaves, cooled, sprinklered with olive oil and lemon juice.

Jean said...

I've always called this escarole in English, and googling suggests that's right - kind of the wrong way round; escarole sounds more French. Yummy, with or without the e. I love bitter greens. Especially hot with sausages or in salad cold with lardons.