The Case for Bitterness: Cooking With Bitter Greens, the Italian Way

Embrace the season's bitter greens, complex and invigorating, with three regional Italian recipes
January 25, 2021 Updated: January 26, 2021

The holidays have come and gone, as have the rich, stodgy foods of the season. When you’re surrounded by Christmas lights, decorations, and jolly music, all you crave are fatty meat stews, warming creamy soups, and decadent chocolate cakes.

But now that the festivities are over, what are left are winter’s frigid temperatures, cold, clear skies, and biting winds. This is when I find myself craving foods that reflect the season: crisp, clear, and bitter.

A taste for bitterness is the last acquired in the development of the human palate, as in nature, bitterness is usually associated with poisonous foods. Babies instinctively love anything sweet and fat, a way of stocking up essential calories to survive.

As we grow up, we realize that not all bitter foods kill us. We find they can be interesting, palatable, and even exciting. So, we move from milk chocolate bars to an appreciation for dark, with a sprinkling of sea salt. We crave a well-brewed coffee in the morning, or a hoppy craft beer to end the day. Our palates become more refined, and we gladly nibble on walnuts and olives, no longer push away broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, dandelion greens, radicchio, artichokes, and grapefruit.

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Grilling radicchio turns the crisp, bitter leaves meaty and smoky. (Giulia Scarpaleggia)

Benefits of Bitter

Bitter ingredients make food interesting. Fresh lemon or grapefruit peel balances the sweetness of white chocolate, just as dark caramel gives a deeper note to a chocolate ganache. A dusting of unsweetened cocoa powder works magic on fatty meat stews, not to mention how a bitter-tart cranberry relish can uplift a roast turkey.

Bitterness plays especially well with umami and fat. Shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano, for instance, are a perfect partner for thinly sliced raw artichokes, or a peppery, feathery salad of radicchio and arugula. Salt-cured prosciutto or Spanish jamón Iberico behave similarly in balancing bitter flavors.

Fat also tames the bitterness of many vegetables, making them easier to appreciate. A creamy blue cheese, such as gorgonzola, complements radicchio beautifully. Stir a few pieces into a radicchio risotto—or swap it for a few dollops of sweet, milky mascarpone—or toss a bowl of pasta with stewed radicchio and taleggio.

Nuts work as well, so be generous with walnuts and hazelnuts when you make your next raw kale salad.

Extra-virgin olive oil, which has a naturally bitter note, is typically the fat of choice for Italians. Blanched or boiled bitter greens, such as turnip tops, escarole, or kale, gain so much flavor when sautéed in a garlicky, chile-infused olive oil.

Epoch Times Photo
Bitter escarole, tamed by a medley of Mediterranean flavors, is the protagonist of this savory Neapolitan pie. (Giulia Scarpaleggia)

The Italian Way

Italians tolerate bitterness better than many. Think about our love for amaro, a bitter liqueur that often closes a meal—Amaro Lucano or Amaro Averna, for example—or acts as a key ingredient in an aperitivo drink, such as Campari. We took this love affair with the bitter so far as to concoct Cynar, a liqueur made from 13 herbs and plants, including artichoke, the epitome of bitterness.

Now that your CSA box is brimming with bitter leaves, it’s the perfect moment to delve into bitterness, the Italian way—putting a bottle of your best extra-virgin olive oil to good use.

Grill radicchio tardivo until nicely charred and drench it with extra-virgin olive oil. Dress escarole with Mediterranean flavors and stuff it into a savory pie. Twice-cook turnip greens and serve them with fresh orecchiette, tossing it all together with garlicky olive oil.

Bitter flavors will make these winter days more bearable, and definitely more interesting.

RECIPE: Grilled Radicchio Tardivo

RECIPE: Orecchiette con le Cime di Rapa (Orecchiette With Broccoli Rabe)

RECIPE: Pizza di Scarola (Escarole Pie)

Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan born and bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” She is currently working on her sixth. Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com