At The Crossing Of Bitter & Sweet

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Arugula watercolor by Robert Morris

Reveling In Chicory, Endive & Radicchio

Chinese medicine practitioners often note that Westerners don’t know how to “eat bitter”. The phrase refers both to foods, such as bitter tea, bitter greens, and bitter melons, and to the capacity to withstand hardship. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, as the insanity unrolls through the news and social media; are people who are willing to wear a mask, willing to limit activities, willing to exercise social distancing especially able to suck it up and ‘eat bitter’? Are those who can’t seem to find that capacity less resilient? Too afraid? Too…weak? It’s curious that for some folks, doing a few simple things that have a clear potential to reduce risk of harm for individuals and communities reportedly feels like showing weakness. For others, compliance in itself apparently feels way too much like risk or harm. I’m baffled by the weird intersection of angry, tough-guy, aggressive refusal and apparent remarkable fragility that prevents cooperation for the greater good.

Turns out that during 1918’s deadly influenza pandemic, the same scenario played out in America; an ‘Anti-Mask League’ led angry, violent protests against closing down schools, bars and dance halls while the pandemic raged and people died in terrifying numbers. Scientists and health experts tried in vain to explain that simple precautions like wearing masks reduced the spread of the disease; statistics were valueless to people who wanted to party. Today, in spite of the refusers, millions of people are wearing masks, withstanding discomfort, eating bitter for the common good and feeling better for it.

The Bright Side Of Eating Bitter

As we do our civic duty, we’re also bonding in solidarity, both with each other and against the insanity. I’m proud of the Wall Of Moms who came together to protect peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors, first in Portland, now in cities across the country where BLM protests are under attack both by infiltrators bent on violence and federal secret police, also demonstrating vicious violence against peaceful, unarmed citizens and journalists who are simply exercising their First Amendment rights. I’m proud of Dads With Leaf Blowers who are learning how to return aerosol volleys of tear gas and other warfare chemicals, sending toxic sprays back to the senders. I’m proud of the hockey stick wielders who deftly lob tear gas canisters back at the anonymous feds, and the bucket brigades who submerge and defuse the canisters. I’m proud of every single person who wears a mask in public. Thank you. Thank you.

The Delicious Side Of Eating Bitter

This seems like an excellent moment in history to learn to eat bitter greens, not as a grim duty but with enjoyment for their flavor complexity and health benefits. Some countries, from China to Italy, have been doing this for millennia, appreciating bitter greens and herbs as tonics and digestive aids as well as intriguing elements in savory meals. While they haven’t previously formed an important part of the American diet, bitter greens are making a splash on the trendy culinary scene. Red and green and in between, chicory and endive are joining radicchio and frisee in farmers markets and upscale grocery stores. Savvy gardeners can easily grow their own, getting the best flavor and texture as well as the biggest nutritional boost. Happily, now through August is prime time for setting out starts for cool season harvesting.

When you plant them out, give each start about a foot of space for early croppers (precoce varieties) and allow a little more room for late varieties, which can spread their wings a bit wider. When you harvest, the outer leaves come off, revealing the beautifully shaped heads, rounded or elongated. In the kitchen, these classic Italian greens add a pleasant piquancy to sliced tomatoes, green salads, and steamed vegetables. Grill a few endive heads, split lengthwise and lightly rubbed with oil, alongside salmon or trout for a bitter-sweet, lightly caramelized accompaniment. Next time you grill poultry, lightly char-grill some red chicory (aka radicchio), again split and oiled and sprinkled with rosemary and thyme, for a spunky side. Or try this astonishing salad of Italian greens with sweet ripe figs and tangy feta.

A Late Summer Salad

Smoky-sweet dressing and succulent ripe figs balance the tart, mildly bitter crunch of endive and arugula in this simple yet stunning salad. Use soft goat cheese if you prefer, and add spinach and Romaine to mellow the mix even further.

Bitter Greens With Figs and Feta

1 shallot, finely chopped
3 tablespoons fruity olive oil
1 cup chopped chicory greens
8 figs, cut in quarters
Pinch each sea salt and smoked paprika
1-2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses
3 cups shredded endive, arugula, & frisee
2 cups shredded spinach & romaine (optional)
1/2 cup stemmed basil
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

In a saute pan, combine shallot and 1 tablespoon oil over medium high heat and cook to the fragrance point (about 1 minute). Stir in chicory greens, salt and smoked paprika and saute until barely tender (2-3 minutes). Remove from heat, add figs and toss gently to coat. In a small bowl, whisk together remaining oil and pomegranate molasses to taste. Toss shredded greens with basil, arrange on four plates and divide figs between them. Top with feta and drizzle with pomegranate dressing. Serves four.



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4 Responses to At The Crossing Of Bitter & Sweet

  1. Lauren says:

    Hi Ann,

    Thanks as always, for your lovely and, bittersweet, post. I wonder if you know of a local (North Kitsap) source for pomegranate molasses.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Lauren, I got my pomegranate molasses at Central Market, but check Trader Joe’s as well. I’ve also found it at several smaller grocery stores that carry Indian and Indonesian spices and condiments. It’s always fun to explore and try out unfamiliar ingredients, but if you can’t find it, use unsulfered molasses instead, just a little less of it, and balance the flavor with a little rice vinegar.

  2. Dorothy Lindquist says:

    Hi Ann,
    I want to tell you how much we have enjoyed your helpful book, “Organic Gardening Design School”. We moved into our new home in 2004 and the entire lot had been bulldozed down to the bare dirt and there was s steep bank behind our house. We had other things to consider because we were retired and we wanted a low maintenance garden. Your ideas helped us to create a sustainable garden we could enjoy all four seasons. I loved your idea of the sun bowl effect. It was perfect for our patio area. I also incorporated your idea of plant communities so that garden tasks were manageable. I really appreciated the low maintenance during the pasf few years because I have had several surgeries and was not able to enjoy my gardening. We live in Port Orchard so if you are ever in our area we would love for you to stop by for a visit. My e-mail address is

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Thanks, Dorothy, how lovely to hear that your gardening has been so successful. It’s wonderful that your garden still continues to nurture and please you even if you aren’t able to be as active as you were. That’s definitely true for me as well; my gardening style has matured along with my aging body! When we get past the pandemic it would be lovely to visit your garden but until then, I’m staying very close to home and keeping social contacts very limited, as I live in a community with many vulnerable members (including me!).

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