The Bitter Gene: guest post by Adrian J.S. Hale

I was born hardwired with a taste for bitter. I started reaching for espresso and choosing dark chocolate while other kids were living off a steady stream of juice boxes and bananas. When my family saw this, they rejoiced. “Look,” they cried. “She got the bitter gene!”

Now, I know in some families hearing that one had the “bitter gene” over and over might sound like something that would require a therapy fund, but in my Italian side of the family this was a sign that I would have a long, prosperous life. 

I went to a family reunion a few years back and realized just how deep this lore resides. I heard not once, but three whole times about the great, grand somebody-or-other that was poor and lived out on some scrabble-top mountainside. He didn’t have a lot to spare, but luckily, he could stretch what he had by eating the local weeds. Nobody knows exactly how long he lived, but the way my great aunts told it, he was certainly neared 100. When asked his secret, he told them to eat the bitter greens. He was an avid lover of dandelion leaves and wild chicory. 

I agree, Mr. Ancestor. The bitter greens are where it’s at. 

Since moving to Portland, my bitter gene has had a felicitous homecoming. Within a month of moving here, I went to Nostrana and saw that the table nearby was eating a Caesar-like salad with bright purple leaves. Without knowing the deep bitter relationship I was about to dive into, I ordered “what they’re having.” 

Cathy Whims had made the salad I’d been waiting for my whole life; a bitter throb of radicchio kissed with garlic and anchovy, and topped with oil & herb drenched croutons made with torn up rustic bread. Swoon. 

The affair continued when Tasty & Sons moved into my neighborhood and low and behold, I found another radicchio salad to offset my stalkerish visits to Nostrana. Now I could get my radicchio fill right down the street, in and out, with pretty little dots of castelvetrano they had their own version of a radicchio salad dotted with castelvetrano olives and pecorino cheese. 

It wasn’t long before I wanted to have a radicchio salad of my very own, and when I started spotting a steady supply of bright purple radicchio heads at New Seasons, I decided to bring it home. “What are you going to do with the cabbage?” my daughter asked. 

“It’s radicchio,” I said, “And I don’t know yet.” 

I was already pulling things out of the pantry. I didn’t have time that night to make croutons or emulsify anchovies with a plethora of ingredients. I needed to get dinner on the table. The salad I created that night with staples from my pantry has become my go-to when I want something satisfying, yet just sophisticated enough to dress up or down. The best part is, I can make a big batch since the leaves of radicchio are sturdy enough to hold up as a leftover. I’m almost never without a batch to brighten a day that just needs a little bitterness. Another thing I really like about this particular salad is that you don’t have to make the dressing ahead. You simply toss the leaves directly and go about your business. 

When Lane Selman asked me to develop a few recipes for the radicchio sagra booklet, she didn’t quite know my ardent love affair with radicchio. But I’ve often wondered if it’s not because of her that I have such a steady supply of chicories in my arsenal. I could fall on the floor and kiss her for it. 

I had the pleasure of testing the recipes that Lane gathered for the Sagra booklet, and each one is better than the next. She even included that famed first Nostrana salad! And I got to develop a few new recipes, like one based on a radicchio cake that she discovered in Italy. But when all is said and done, this is the salad that I come home to.

Easy Radicchio Salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

If you don’t have the bitter gene, go ahead and cut the leaves into pieces and soak in ice-cold water. But I encourage you to try to stand up to the bitter and see what happens. It could be the start of an adventure. 

1 head radicchio

A few sprinkles of sherry vinegar

Generous pinches of salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Toasted walnut oil

Walnut halves, broken into pieces

Green olives, pitted and chopped

Handful of raisins or currants

Parmesan cheese

Place your radicchio leaves in a salad bowl, the nicest one you have, and splash on a bit of sherry vinegar. Just follow your gut and splash in about a tablespoon or so. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and then go do something else in the kitchen as these ingredients start getting to know each other. 

Right before you’re about to serve, drizzle in some toasted walnut oil and taste. Make sure everything seems balanced, and of course, add a bit more of whatever you think is off. If all seem well, toss in the rest of the ingredients and serve. It goes without saying, these are the ingredients in my pantry. If you have cherries or sultanas instead of raisins, and hazelnuts instead of walnuts, be creative. Enjoy!

Adrian is a writer and a dedicated home baker and cook. She contributed her writing and recipes to the first ever Radicchio Zine, which will be available at the Sagra di Radicchio and other Culinary Breeding Network events in Fall 2019.

Adrian J.S. Hale