Chicory

Family: Asteraceae (Compositae)
Genus: Cichorium
Species: intybus

’Tis the season when the weather turns our thoughts to hot beverages and we reach out our hands for all manner of rich, festive foods. People, however, cannot live by cocoa and sugar cookies alone. We need a few healthy things between sips and bites of seasonal sweets. Thankfully, there are winter vegetable crops available this month that offer a range of complex tastes and deep colors to tempt our taste buds and brighten our tables. Among the most interesting of these are the chicories.

The green leaves of the wild Cichorium intybus, native to Europe and Africa, were gathered by ancient peoples as food. Cultivation of chicory didn’t begin until the 1500s, when breeders began to develop less bitter varieties and to capitalize on chicory’s tendency to produce “surprises”— pretty red leaves—on occasion. Today, leaves of C. intybus are often mixed with leaves of Cichorium endivia and the common names “chicory” and “endive” are used interchangeably in the marketplace. The seeds are combined, too, in many packets with names such as “mesclun,” “European salad mix,” “gourmet salad greens,” or just “field greens.” These are all easy and quick to grow. In fact, they’re often termed “cut and come again” salads because the gardener can harvest individual leaves as they’re needed or cut the whole plant off an inch above ground level and know it will grow back for another harvest two weeks or so later. If you prefer the leaf-harvest approach, sow the seed thickly in a 4' by 4' block rather than rows, in rich, fine soil that’s been cleared of all weeds. One patch this size produces an ample amount of fresh, tasty greens through most of the spring and the fall. The chicories and endives both prefer cool temperatures and do less well during the hot summer months.

Today the varieties of cultivated chicories—the true C. intybus—give us plenty of choices for the number of ways this versatile plant finds its way to our table. There are green chicories, both loose-leaved and heading. The shape of the leaves can be round or long, their edges curly or frizzy or saw-toothed or smooth. Their color can range from lime-green to deep green with tinges of red. And thanks to the work of plant breeders through the centuries, their taste is now more “sharp” than “bitter.” The asparagus chicory—’Catalogna’, sometimes called “catalogue chicory” in this country—has long, thin white stalks and very narrow leaves. ‘Sugarloaf’ is a heading variety. The texture of its broad, tender green leaves is reminiscent of romaine. The vigorous `Magdeburg’ has large, stiffly upright broad leaves and a substantial root, shaped like a carrot, that can be two inches across at the top and dip twelve inches into the soil. All parts of the chicory plant are edible. The ‘Magdeburg’ roots are cooked and eaten as a root vegetable—prepared in any way you’d treat parsnips, turnips, or rutabagas—or sliced, dried, ground, and then roasted into what some call an “amendment” and others call an “adulteration” for coffee. It all depends on your point of view. Admittedly, we in the northern U.S. aren’t accustomed to chicory-laced coffee. But to Europeans, it’s a familiar taste. This use for chicory root was discovered in the 1700s when coffee was very rare and very expensive. Many people continue to appreciate the special flavor and richness that chicory brings to coffee. Don’t discount the idea until you’ve tried it in Europe or sipped a cup in New Orleans—perhaps to accompany a warm beignet at the Café Du Monde.

A subvariety of ‘Magdeburg’ is ‘Witloof’, the prime candidate for the special cultivation techniques that result in what is typically known as “Belgian endive”—that tightly packed head of very pale leaves sold for a very high price in the specialty section of the produce department. You can produce this at home. It’s somewhat tedious—but worthwhile if you like the texture and taste.

Right next to the “Belgian endive” in that specialty section you might find “radicchio,” a red-and-white wonder with heavyweight leaves. Radicchio is a chicory too. The one you spot might be ‘Guilio’ or ‘Rossana’ or ‘ Chioggia’—seeds for the first two are widely available to the home gardener, while the third is the most commonly produced commercial variety. To retain its brilliant red color, radicchio is grown under cover. Your home crop may tend more to brown—but it will taste just as good and probably better, particularly after it’s been sweetened by the first frosts of fall.

Cichorium intybus has a great deal to offer. It’s fun and easy to grow—although to harvest your own, you need to start seeds between the month before the vernal equinox and the month after the summer solstice. Console yourself now by spending some time reading about chicory’s interesting history. Take a few taste tests, try a few recipes, and put the varieties you like on your 2005 plant list. Besides wonderful salads, you’ll be rewarded with pretty blue flowers from the chicory plants you don’t harvest. They’re the same ones you see all through our area. Yes, chicory has naturalized here and grows wild—but with so many good varieties available from seed, you won’t need to spend time foraging by the side of the road.

Happy holidays to all—and to all, a great 2005 gardening season.