The truth is that whenever I get back from Italy, for a while I have food withdrawal symptoms. I desperately long for a certain ingredient that can only be found there, I dream of market stalls, ricotta nostrana and my aunt’s lemon trees. For a while, I wander around the British supermarket aisles and cast disapproving glances at tins of baked beans and pre-sliced bread. Luckily for me, with the notable exception of the longing for proper ricotta, these feelings disappear pretty quickly. The Italian salame in my fridge might be helping me in this process. The day after I landed back in England and only a few hours before the UK welcomed the new year, I bought two chicory heads*. B. and I were in a big supermarket and while he reached the understandably crowded booze aisle, I headed for the fruit and vegetable section. Having survived another Christmas food binge, closely followed by what I imagined to be a night with at least (erm) a few tipples, I wanted to make sure that on January 1st, back at home, I had all the necessary for a longed-for salad. As is often the case during the holidays, the shelves were half empty, with the exception of an incredible amount and variety of members of the cabbage family, carrots, apples and citrus fruits. I grabbed what I could and then, just as I was mentally settling for a cabbage and carrot stir fry, I saw a lone packet of chicory.
Two thoughts then crossed my mind. First, “salame!” (Which could have been related to the above mentioned item I knew I had in my fridge). This was closely followed by “chicory is bitter just like radicchio“. The consequences of these thoughts were, in this order: we bought the chicory, I halved it, pan fried it and topped it with a slice of salame, it was so bitter that I refused to eat it, I thought better and cooked it. And this is the result. Despite admitting complete admiration to whoever enjoys partially-cooked chicory, I am now of the opinion that chicory ought to be cooked to be appreciated. The rough bitterness is smoothed into a firm but gentle taste that marries very well with a bit of sweetness, in this case from a bit of apple, a bit of meaty fat and a lot of black pepper. To make things a bit different, I used some pizzoccheri, a type of pasta made with buckwheat flour, which I had left from a previous trip to Italy. Any pasta will do, though.
* The BBC informs me this is called endive in the US, and also goes by the lovely name of witloof. Witloof!
Prepare a non-stick pan on the stove on a low heat. With a thin pointed knife, cut the casing of the sausage and discard. Break up the sausage meat in small chunks into the pan with your fingers. Slowly cook the sausage chunks until all the fat has been released and they are starting to form a little golden crust. If the sausage you have bought has a ow fat percentage, you might need to help it along with a little vegetable oil. In the meantime, peel and core the apple and cut into small chunks or slices, depending on your preference. Cook these with the sausage when this is starting to brown, until the apple has softened up and has some golden bits here and there. While the apple cooks, wash the chicory heads, halve them lengthways and chop them. When the apple is cooked, add the chicory to the pan with a pinch of salt and gently wilt the leaves, stirring every now and then. Don’t be tempted to increase the heat or you’ll risk browning the chicory. While the chicory is cooking, grind some black pepper into the pan. Feel free to follow your taste, but be generous. Cumberland sausages are peppery but you want the end product to have the distinct black pepper smell and taste. Once the chicory has wilted, turn the heat off.
In a big pot of boiling water, add the pasta and cook, making sure the water in the pot keeps boiling. Don’t trust the pasta packets with regards to cooking time. Fish one pasta out of the pot after 5 minutes and cut it in half: does it have a white line in the middle? Probably yes, in which case keep cooking. Try the pasta often to get used to what texture the pasta has at different cooking stages. Drain when al dente, with a bite to it, and return either to the pan where you cooked the condiment, or, if this is too small, to the pot. In this case, add the condiment to the pot. Once pasta and condiment are together, stir them gently on a low heat for a minute or so, until evenly mixed. Serve with some freshly grated Grana or Parmigiano, if desired.