AndyTalk: The Bitter Truth About Frisee -- aka Curly Endive
There's a restaurant in my neighborhood that used to offer a "Frisee and Spinach Salad." The current name of the salad on the menu has reversed the greens: it lists spinach first and then frisee. I fear that I'm to blame.
Frisee is one of my favorite greens, and when my salad came out with 99 percent spinach I sent it back for more frisee. Don't get me wrong, I like spinach, but frisee has more character, and by that I mean flavor. When I order I always ask if I can have an all-frisee salad. I have a one in ten shot of getting my salad sans spinach. I know that frisee costs a little more than spinach, but it's not like I'm asking for an upgrade to steak.
Most of the greens in the chicory family, including frisee, are a little bitter and they have more texture than lettuce. When buying frisee and its chicory brethren I opt for smaller heads (which are more tender) and white and lighter green leaves (which are less bitter).
There will be a blend of the two colors in every head, but more white than green is a good thing. Belgian endive, also known as Witloof Chicory, follows the same green-is-bitter rule
When cooking with frisee I work with the bitter. By this I mean that I don't try to mask bitter flavors. I think that our taste buds are happiest when we combine each of the four primary tastes (in the same way that four-color printing results in better pics.) Bitter augmented by sweet, sour, and salty adds up to a pretty tasty salad. That's why bitter old rhubarb makes a tasty pie filling when you add some sugar, a little lemon juice and a pinch of salt.
For a great summertime frisee salad I'm partial to including some thinly sliced fruit such as apricots and/or strawberries for the sweet, rice wine or balsamic vinegar for the acid, a dab of jam, a splash of olive oil and a pinch of kosher salt to round things out. Basically I build the salad to complement the frisee.
The most iconic frisee dish is a Frisee and Lardon Salad. It's something I enjoy eating out, but never make at home. The lardons are crisped hammy bacon bits that have both crunch and chew. They're caramelized, which means they're just barely sweet. When made right this salad is on the short list of things I'd like to have at my last meal. That's probably why I don't make it at home -- no one should have to cook his last meal.