Thanksgiving Salads

Our Thanksgiving feast surrounds the turkey, gravy and stuffing with lots of vegetable side dishes: mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, succotash, winter squash, rutabaga, all offering rich, sweet, earthy and pungent flavors as well as soft, dense textures. In past years, to balance these heavier side dishes, I’ve experimented with opposite flavors and textures, most often in salads. Celery root and apple salad dressed with apple cider vinaigrette has been a good choice, both crisp and acidic. It’s pretty, too, with additions of toasted nuts and chopped parsley or arugula. Or I’ve made a simple salad of mache and sherry vinaigrette, fresh green contrasting the other mashed, roasted and pureed vegetables. Some years a guest will bring pickled vegetables or sweet and sour red cabbage and I skip a salad altogether because these acidic flavors work well to balance the richness of the other vegetables. This year, when we’ll have the same line up of rich side dishes, I’ve settled on a radicchio and pear salad, going for the pleasantly bitter flavor of radicchios and the fresh sweetness of the pears.

Radicchio and pear salad was an easy choice this year because the red and green radicchios and the pears from the kitchen garden have been so beautiful.

Radicchios in basket

Radicchios cut in basket

I’ve made this salad several times already. It goes together quickly, easy to do at the last minute.   The green is Sugarloaf chicory and the red is Indigo radicchio. I usually slice the crisp leaves rather than tearing them because it’s quicker and I like their ribbon-like shape. The pears ripening now are Conference and Comice. I quarter them, peel them and then slice them into chunks. Toasted hazelnuts add their sweet, nutty flavor and some crunch. I’ve tried both sherry vinaigrette and balsamic vinaigrette and prefer balsamic because its complex sweetness complements the slight bitterness of the radicchio. Finally, this is a beautiful salad, one more reason to include it on the Thanksgiving table.

Radicchio salad T-day

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Sugarloaf Chicory

In addition to my favorite varieties of radicchio and escarole I grew another chicory this year, a sugarloaf type from Fedco called Pan di Zucchero. It’s wonderful and definitely my new favorite chicory. Growth habit, hardiness and flavor are all reasons I wish I’d grown a larger crop of this delicious bitter green. Next year I will and I’ll also try two other sugarloaf varieties, Virtus, offered by Johnny’s and Borca offered by Adaptive Seeds.

Sugarloaf on counter

As the Fedco description suggests, sugarloaf chicory looks like “romaine lettuce crossed with napa cabbage.” Unlike escaroles and curly endives, which grow outward in great sprawling rosettes, sugarloaf chicories grow upright to about a foot tall, their leaves wrapping tightly around each other to form dense loaves. Like the leaves of escaroles and chicories, the leaves of sugarloaf chicories are green at the edges and creamy yellow near the center.

One of the reasons I wanted to try this vertical chicory is that I’ve really liked the elongated, upright Treviso radicchios like Fiero. In a winter garden, this upright, tightly wrapped habit makes the individual plants easier to mulch and less likely to rot. Delicious as they are, the loose, open leaves of escarole and curly endive sit right on top of mulch and over time begin to rot even when I tie them up.

Sugarloaf growing

The upright habit and dense inner leaves of Treviso and Sugarloaf also help them withstand temperatures in the teens and low twenties. After our two recent blasts of deep cold, I was very happy to find that even though the outermost leaves were a bit battered both the Treviso and the Sugarloaf inner leaves were as delicious as they were before the freeze. I’ve read about a gardener in Vermont who covers her Sugarloaf chicory up the sides and almost over the top with a mulch of dry leaves. I think I will try that the next time really cold weather is in our forecast. Though I cover these greens in a low plastic tunnel to protect them from rain, I want to do anything else I can to keep this tasty chicory available for the kitchen.

Pan di Zucchero means sugar loaf in Italian and sugarloaf is the name that English and American gardeners use for this chicory. In France gardeners call it pain de sucre. What these names are telling us is that of all the bitter greens, sugarloaf has a little more sweetness to go with its bitterness. It’s a slightly milder bitterness than its cousins offer, and like its cousins it’s delicious raw, braised or grilled.

Sugarloaf salad in bowl

Sugarloaf pear salad

I’ve been using it raw in salads, alone or with pears, nuts and Gorgonzola cheese, with sherry or red wine vinaigrette. For a Christmas-themed salad, its light green leaves are lovely with the wine red leaves of radicchio.

Sugarloaf sauteTo cook it, I’ve braised the outer leaves in olive oil and garlic and served them as a side dish or as part of a pasta sauce.

Sugarloaf prepped for grillSugarloaf grilled on plateWe’ve also sliced the heads in half, brushed them generously with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and ground black pepper and grilled them. Braising and grilling bring out the sweetness even more and grilling adds a smoked flavor that reminds me once again that I need to grow a lot more sugarloaf chicory next year.