The people who shaped modern food have consistently selected against nutritional value, writes Jo Robinson in her fascinating new book, Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. We all know we're supposed to add vegetables to our diet, she argues, but given the state of modern vegetables, that's not usually enough. The vegetables you consume should be as nutrient-dense as possible, and as a general rule, the most nutrient dense foods are usually the strongest flavored and least domesticated.
"Early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil," she writes. These seed savers chose the least bitter specimens to replant, at the expense of their and our health. "It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste."
Phytonutrients are biologically active, plant-derived compounds associated with positive health effects, even if they don't taste like doughnuts.
If bitter is indeed better, perhaps it's time we rethink our relationship to this difficult flavor. It's a shift that might not be as hard as one would think. The first time I tried beer, for example, I thought it was horrible, largely thanks to the bitterness. But as my body began to associate the flavor of beer with getting hammered and hanging out with similarly inebriated coeds, those same bitter beer flavors began to invoke feelings of expectation, comfort and delight.
Something analogous can happen with dietary bitter greens, thanks to a whole-body understanding of how good they will make your body feel. For some, this flavor becomes like the burn from a set of pushups, a la "no pain, no gain." For others, like my sweetheart, who I'll call Shorty, bitter is truly sweet. She eats radicchio like some people eat potato chips, dipping the leaves into an oily dressing as she goes.
Shorty is the exception. Americans consume more servings of iceberg lettuce per week than all other fresh vegetables combined (not including potatoes), Robinson notes. Iceberg is the poster child for modern agriculture's nutrient drain. It's about as bland and non-bitter as water, and nearly as pale as the ice formation it's named after.
"The most intensely colored salad greens have the most phytonutrients," Robinson writes. "The most nutritious greens in the supermarket are not green at all but red, purple, or reddish brown. These particular hues come from phytonutrients called anthocyanins ... Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants that show great promise in fighting cancer, lowering blood pressure, slowing age-related memory loss, and even reducing the negative effects of eating high-sugar and high-fat foods."
Taking Robinson's telltale signs to their logical conclusion, one might expect radicchio, with its dark purple leaves, to be among the most nutritious greens of all. And indeed they are, just a few steps behind radicchio's wild cousin, the dandelion, which contains an even richer supply of nutrients—just make sure any gathered specimens haven't been fortified by neighborhood dogs, or with added fertilizers or pesticides. Endive and escarole are also in the same family, as is chicory, their wild progenitor.
If you're not a bittervore like Shorty, or aren't the type to make peace with the bitter side of your sustenance, there are some easy ways to soften, obscure and even put the bitter flavors to work.
Adding chopped dandelion greens or radicchio to a salad of paler, milder leaves like lettuce can add depth to the salad's flavor, as the mellow leaves dilute the pain. If such a salad is still too bitter for your taste, consider a sweet or creamy dressing, like honey mustard, or even ranch. "Fat is one of the best antidotes to bitterness," Robinson writes.
Indeed, what isn't fat the best antidote for?
Another worthy approach to consuming bitter greens is to combine them with other bitter foods, which can create a bouquet of bitter flavors. This works best with bitter foods that also have redeeming characteristics to counter their inherent bitterness. Walnuts, for example, are astringent, but have a compensating oiliness. Grapefruit's bitter flavors are balanced with tart and sweet.
Here's a salad recipe that blends bitter red and green leaves with grapefruit and walnuts. It's a bright, unexpected gathering of components, with each one's bitter side adding to a smooth, bitter bouquet.
Ingredients (for four servings):
2 heads radicchio
About the same amount of other greens, such as dandelion, endive, escarole, lettuce or lambs quarter.
Two or three pink grapefruits
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1 cup walnuts
1/2 cup olive oil
coarse salt and pepper
optional: smoked or baked salmon, fried scallops, bacon or other protein; perhaps a soft goat cheese
On low heat, dry roast the walnuts in a heavy pan, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until they brown. When the nuts cool, crush them.
Peel the grapefruits and separate the fruit from the membrane. Do this over a plate that catches all the juice that drips. Give the fruit a little squeeze so more juice comes out. You want about 1/2 cup for the dressing.
Wash, dry and chop the radicchio and other leaves, about as finely as coleslaw. Mix with the onions, grapefruit pieces, walnuts and optional animal proteins. Whisk together the olive oil and grapefruit juice, and dress the salad.