Herbalists and other healers have long championed the bitter taste of certain herbs and garden greens. Yet the majority of North Americans still shun these essential foods, preferring salty and sweet over the equally important sour and bitter.
On this side of the Atlantic, it’s all too common to see ‘greens’ like ruby red radicchio and pale, sleek endive languishing at the edges of plates. With their aggressive, bitter, sometimes sour qualities, it is hard to become instant friends with these mean greens. But on second bite, their clear, fresh taste is refreshing and stimulating, not to mention healthy for body and brain. It is generally agreed that bitters support the heart, small intestines, and liver, as well as reducing fever.
As one of the four tastes – sweet, salty, bitter and sour – bitter is now gaining some culinary respect and beginning to take its rightful place in our meals.
The astringent taste of greens such as endive, chicory, sheep sorrel, radicchio, dandelion, and yellow dock awakens the palate and primes it for more balanced tastes in the meal to come. The digestive tonic action of bitters promotes the secretion of hydrochloric acid which aids digestion, so take them at the start of a meal because a small, light salad of bitter greens is an excellent tool for whetting the appetite.
Scientists say that we have about 10,000 taste buds, with each one lasting not much longer than a week before it is shed and regenerated. Taste buds are clusters of cells on the tongue and in the mouth that relay the four tastes to the brain. Some ancient traditions link the four tastes to mental effects on the body. For example, a balanced intake of bitter flavours is thought to encourage honesty, integrity, optimism and a loving heart. Not bad for a friend that started out as a bully in the kitchen.
Truth is, while the bitter taste alone is positively influencing our body and brain, the greens themselves are delivering vitamins A and C, fibre, iron, and calcium, all with low caloric impact. This combination of physical and mental benefits should be enough to begin a new dawning of respect for the scowling bitter bites.
Bitter Greens – A Primer
“To make a good salad, is to be a brilliant diplomatist.” – Oscar Wilde
Diplomatic to a fault, the lettuce family of leafy greens are not strong enough in taste to be included in the category of bitters. Use the widely expanding varieties of lettuce for after the meal or between courses to cleanse the palate, just not in place of the bitter greens. The trend now is to snip the tiny, premature leaves of regular-sized greens and bring them to market in their miniature state instead of allowing them to grow to their normal size. This makes a great looking salad – albeit more costly – but the taste is milder and sweeter and the bitter digestive and anti-inflammatory benefits are compromised.
Only the following full-sized greens are mean enough to qualify for the bitter list so use them fresh and crisp in salads or sandwiches, and wilted in favourite vegetable dishes. Mixing milder tasting varieties with the more pungently bitter ones is an easy way to become accustomed to strong flavours, but for the very best in health benefits you will have to bite the bullet and embrace these bitter babies on their own:
• ARUGULA – also called rocket or rugola; green or red in colour, oak-shaped leaf; nutty, peppery, hot and sharp in taste
• BEET GREENS – have purple-red veins and bright green flesh on the leaves; very tangy with a hint of mustard and beet
• BROCCOLI RAAB – also known as rapini; looks like an immature broccoli with tiny broccoli-like heads and long broccoli-type leaves. Use both leaves and florets; taste is similar to turnip.
• WATERCRESS – is widely available in stores in season, grows wild in streams, taste is hot, sharp, and biting.
• DANDELION – the taste is moderately bitter if wild dandelions are picked in spring before flowering (delicious eaten raw in salads and sandwiches), or buy organic dandelions all year round at health food stores (great for steaming and stir-frying). Dandelion leaves stimulate the liver to eliminate waste and toxins.
• ENDIVE – has narrow leaves, white at the base and pale yellow-green at the tips; bitter. Belgians first cultivated this green in 1845.
• FRISE – has stiff, short, skinny leaves with curly edges, may be green or blanched with white stems and yellow-green tips; mild, slightly bitter flavour.
• KALE – has large deep green leaves, curled at the edges; resembles broccoli in flavour but with a peppery, bitter finish.
• MIZUNA – has long, jagged, bright green leaves with a sharp, clear taste.
• MUSTARDS – have red or green leaves; pungent with a hint of hot mustard and horseradish flavour.
• NASTURTIUM – round, disc-shaped leaves and bright yellow-red-orange flowers; hot, peppery taste with a hint of horseradish
• RADICCHIO – is part of the chicory family, has red leaves with white veins; sharply bitter, tart taste, perhaps the most bitter of all the greens listed here.
• SHEEP SORREL – leaves have a long oval shape; piquant, tart and tangy with a citrus overtone, sorrel was once considered to be poisonous due to its taste.
• SWISS CHARD – has broad, fan-shaped green leaves, wide white stems and veins (some have red veins); mildly bitter.
• TATSOI – has round, deep green, waxy leaves; zippy, slightly bitter taste,
Bites • Salads • Dressings
Bitter Bites: One of the easiest ways to keep bitter spring greens for later use is to parboil them (coarsely chop and drop into boiling water for one to two minutes; drain well), cool and then freeze in 2- or 4-cup amounts. Frozen greens can be used with chicken broth for soups, and added to pasta sauces, stews, and casseroles.
Sour Salads: Adding apple, apricot, raisins, or other sweet flavours actually defeats the role of the bitter component in the diet. You are better to start training your palate with small doses, and work up to full size servings once you have come to fully appreciate the clean, astringent essence of bitter greens.
Choose crisp, deeply coloured leaves, free of yellow and brown edges. Rinse under cold water and dry in a salad spinner or by patting dry with a clean towel (it is important that they are dry so that the dressing adheres to each leaf, and if storing, so that the leaves do not wilt). Cut out the core or the tough stem and tear into bite-size pieces. Ideally, it is best to clean and dry only enough for immediate use, but if storing, wrap leaves loosely in clean cloth or paper towels and refrigerate for up to 3 days. (I like to measure greens by the handful, but to be precise one serving of salad is made with 2 cups rinsed and dried greens.)
Dour Dressings: The role of dressing here is not to sweeten or disguise the bitterness of the greens, but to moisten and lend a slight acidic note to the otherwise sharp and pungent leaves. Vinaigrette – a blend of oil and acid – is the very best dressing for salads made with bitter greens. Do not be tempted to add honey, fruit puree, maple syrup, or other sweet flavours.
Fresh pressed virgin olive oil is fine, but the lighter vegetable oils like safflower, grape seed, hemp or sesame seed can be mixed with it for a better blend.
Freshly pressed lemon, lime, or grapefruit juice, good quality herb or wine vinegars, and even dry, fruity wines offer a tasty shot of the acid needed for a great vinaigrette.
Use 1 tablespoon oil and 1 teaspoon acid for every serving (2 cups) greens. Mix the dressing right in the bowl using a wire whisk or fork, then toss the dried leaves into the dressing and serve immediately. You can toss the salad right at the table in order to be sure that the greens will not wilt once they are dressed.
It is simply one of those ironic quirks of nature that a balanced mental attitude and open, good-natured spirit is encouraged by the scowling, puckering piquancy of grating greens. I guess you just have to grin and bear it…all the way to a healthy, happy disposition.
Simple, healthy, and a great way to start a meal, use just radicchio or a combination of radicchio and other bitter greens in this recipe. (Makes 4 servings.)
- 4 heads radicchio
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 2 Tbsp lemon juice
- salt and pepper
- 4 Tbsp grated Gorgonzola cheese, optional
Greens and beans are a balanced combination of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. This is a perfect spring soup. Use sorrel and chives or other green herbs that are just now emerging from their long winters’ sleep.
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 sweet onion (Vidalia or Bermuda), coarsely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 stalk each: celery, carrot, parsnip, scrubbed and coarsely chopped
- 6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- 3 Tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 can (10oz/540g) white beans or chickpeas or lentils
- 3 cups packed, shredded greens: mustard, dandelion, Swiss chard, or a combination
Gather dandelion in the spring when the leaves are young and tender and the bitter astringent quality is still present but not overpowering. Be sure to snip from areas that have not been exposed to chemical pesticides and car exhaust.
- 4 cups packed fresh, washed dandelion greens
- 4 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 sweet onion (Vidalia or Bermuda), coarsely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger
- 1 each: green and red pepper, julienned
- 2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1/2-lb cooked whole wheat or soba noodles