Surrounded by the trappings of his trade—cheeses and cured meats, olives and mushrooms, clams and oysters—what is the item that really knocks the socks off Cakes & Ale chef Billy Allin? Chicory, that family of bitter greens including endive, frisee and radiccio.
“I love it. Shell beans—peas—and chicories are my favorite ingredients, hands-down,” he says. “Chicories, that signifies winter to me.”
Perhaps it's not surprising that a chef of Allin’s caliber would love palate-challenging bitter foods, which he discovered at a young age through his food-adventurous mother and her Italian family. But it is intriguing that Allin’s customers are falling for the bitters that he has woven into Cakes & Ale’s ever-changing menu.
Americans have been slow to embrace bitter flavors, which along with sweet, salty, sour and umami (savory or meaty) are the only tastes humans can register. In our culture, sweet and salty are kings—even though much of the rest of the world is just fine with bitter.
The trick, says Allin, is balance. He uses bitter touches to highlight and enhance savory foods and fatty textures, like rich meats. Proteins and sweets both mellow bitter tastes. Pairing bitter with sour, on the other hand—as in the classic combination of chicory and citrus—is like giving your tongue a playful smack on its butt.
A dish on the Cakes & Ale menu right now, a salad of roasted sugar loaf endive and winter squash, marinated beets, a drizzle of walnut oil, and pancetta, has struck a chord with his clientele. On this one plate, bitter mingles with umami, salt with sweet, while a diversity of textures and colors makes everything pop.
“We’re having fun with it, and it’s selling well,” Allin says, confessing that when servers come back to the kitchen with four orders for one table, he drills them about whether guests spontaneously chose the plate or whether they were encouraged to give it a try. “There’s a good balance to a dish like that,” he says. “People are coming in and digging the flavor sensation and the palate sensation.”
You can find a variety of local chicories at farmers markets right now. Look for bags of mixed chicories for salads, sugar loaf endives for braising or roasting, and (in lighter supply) heads of round and Treviso radicchio.
A quick recipe: Billy Allin says anyone can make this simple chicory dish ... as long as they own a grill and are willing to ignore the weather: grilled radicchio, served with grilled steaks, onions and fingerling potatoes. In fact, he served this same combination to friends at home just a few weeks ago. To prepare the radicchio, remove the outer leaves and cut it into generous wedges, leaving the core intact. Brush it lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill on each side, preferably over lump hardwood charcoal, until it shows grill marks and a little char, about 1-2 minutes per side. Remove it from the grill and season with lemon juice and salt. Allin recommends serving the radicchio with a grilled fatty steak, such as a ribeye or New York strip. Thick slices of red onion and halved fingerling potatoes can be grilled as well: Boil the potatoes until nearly done, then brush the potatoes and onion slices with olive oil and season with salt. Just before the steaks are done, place the onions on the grill. When the steaks are done, remove them to rest and add the radicchio and precooked potatoes to the grill.