These days, the crowd at the Farmer’s Market is like a swarm of butterflies in a field of flowers, everyone jostling for the nectar. The boys and I were catching up on things when I heard a voice grumble from behind me.
“Hey, [Chef Boy] Ari. Can you stand somewhere else? Yer blocking my stall.”
He has long, flowing hair, neck-length beard and sideburns. The sign above his stand says “Fields Of Wrath.” I call him Wrathful Steve.
It is, of course, totally bad form on my part to park in front of his display, yakking over my plastic coffee mug and obstructing serious shoppers. I apologize and move.
Next thing I know, Wrathful Steve tosses a radicchio at me, and not slowly. Deep maroon and bright white, it looks like a cross between lettuce and cabbage, leafy and tight. It bounces off my clumsy hands and pegs my girl Bittersweet in the face. This might be more of a problem if Bittersweet didn’t have a little crush on Wrathful Steve.
Wrathful Steve laments, “Nobody wants to buy these things because they’re too bitter. Can you figure out how to take the bitter out of the radicchio?”
Bittersweet embraces this challenge with the fervency of a Zen monk attacking a koan. Next thing you know, she’s in the kitchen, chopping and mixing and tasting. Finally she emerges with a platter of red-skinned bundles held together by ribbons of sweet onion tops. The radicchio-leaf wraps are filled with a mixture of equal parts pan-toasted walnuts and Granny Smith apples, with crumbled feta, dill, maple syrup and lemon juice mixed in to taste.
The taste reminds me of haroset, an apple/walnut dish traditional to the Jewish holiday Passover. Meant to resemble the mortar with which enslaved Jews built Egyptian cities and pyramids, the sweetness of haroset symbolizes the sweet hope for freedom that helped the Jews survive the bitterness of slavery. Thus haroset is served alongside a dish called “bitter herbs” (aka horseradish), which symbolizes the overall bummer of slave life.
A Passover virgin, Bittersweet must intuit all of this, because rather than taking away the radicchio’s bitterness, her filling works with it. While smothering the radicchio with creamy sweetness, many of the ingredients—including the apple and walnuts—contain bitter elements of their own. This serves to couch the radicchio’s grapefruit-peel flavor in a seamless continuum between sweet and bitter. Out-of-hand delicious it is. Take away the bitter it doesn’t. That is good enough for Bittersweet, but I do not forget the mission. I stay the course of sweetness.
Armed with a wrinkled clipping from Better Homes and Gardens (February, 2004), I read how to rid radicchio of its bitter flavor: Cut radicchio lengthwise into four wedges, removing root end. Soak in ice water for 30–45 minutes. Drain; pat dry with paper towels.
We decide to conduct an experiment to determine if this technique actually works. First, Bittersweet makes two cups of her apple/walnut filling. Then she divides it into two bowls. In one bowl, she adds a cup of chopped radicchio, untreated. In the other bowl she adds a cup of chopped, treated radicchio. We conduct blind taste tests with three people, all of whom select the salad of treated radicchio as sweeter.
Of course, it isn’t necessary to even prepare this elaborate salad. After soaking radicchio in ice water, all you have to do is chew a leaf to realize how sweet it is—versus the untreated leaf that you spat out.
Taking the experiment even further, I soak more radicchio in ice water. Then I change the water (which has taken on the bitter flavor) and add more ice cubes. After another hour I change the water again. All the while, the radicchio keeps getting sweeter, and I can’t stop munching those plain leaves. Finally, I drain the radicchio and put it on a plate in the fridge, whence those crispy, beautiful leaves are quickly munched.
Back at the market, I report the results to Wrathful Steve, who manages to crack a smile.
Then I ask, “So, why do you call your farm Fields Of Wrath?”
He says, “You look around at all these other farms with foofy, happy names, like Harmony Farms, Lamb’s Quarter Farms, Fuzzy Poo-poo Farms…[BLEEP!] that! I wanted a name that was real.”
Just then a cabbage moth flutters onto a head of Wrathful Steve’s sweet cabbage. I make a move to swat it.
“Hey,” he says. “Bugs gotta eat too.”
“You don’t kill bugs in the Fields Of Wrath?” I ask, skeptical.
“Yeah,” he admits, “sometimes I do. But then I pray. I pray a lot.”
Ah, Wrathful Steve: bitter on the outside, sweet on the inside…just like those radicchio leaf wraps.