Anyone who is still avoiding French cuisine because they think its all heavy sauces draped over various seared meats (you've surely dropped your New Year's resolutions by now anyway, right?) needs to become friends with frisèe. Also known as curly endive, frisèe is the leafy green hallmark of some great (and light) French fare. It sadly and frequently gets lost among the flotsam of spring mesclun mixes, its lacey fronds, light green color, and slightly bitter edge barely poking out among baby mustards, romaines, and argulas. Its frilly crown of pale green deserves a more prominent plating. Right now you can get elegant snowballs of frisèe from a few different vendors at local markets. One in particular has a great recipe, which she was happy to share.
Lily Baltazar's (ABC Rhubarb) usually abundant and highly flavorful frisèe crops won't be ready for a bit yet. She's planting later in April. But that doesn't stop her from talking about it.
“Yes, I use frisèe mostly in salads and mix it with watercress, arugula and gourmet greens with a simple dressing of sherry vinegar, balsamic, olive and walnut oil combo, dijon mustard, a clove of garlic and a little salt and pepper,” Baltazar says.
Frisèe's bitter edge can sometimes be a bit heavy for some palates. But when balanced with sweet and savory additions, it changes from overtly herbal to refreshing and substantive, satisfying with big flavor without killing your taste.
The classic addition is a poached egg topper, the rich yolk taming the green like a sauce or heavy cream dressing might. Delicious bacon is a natural, too. We like to lightly toss the leaves in a little bit of the bacon fat — the salt and heft are a perfect match for the plant's mild bitterness. But this time of year, sweet orange slices that have been sitting in a vanilla simple syrup with a little dill make a lighter alternative. Strawberries, too, though pick your baskets carefully. These rains sog up the berries, prompting growers to pick fast and early to save crops. Makes for a lot of white-shouldered and not quite ripe fruit.
Select for non-wilty foliage, which is easier to do when it's still in its original head form and not mixed into a bag. Frisèe has natural flop and isn't rigid. But you'll know the difference between that and a plant that's obviously given up its form. Recent rains have muddied up a lot of the harvests, especially for low growing ground crops like frisèe. Luckily, it's a plant with a lot of negative space between fronds and holds up fine under a vigorous rinse and scrub. Cut off the base and toss into a bowl of cold water and work through the cupped stems to remove the sticky grit. The dirt sinks while the leaves float.