by Veronica Worthington
Photo by Borodach/iStock Photography
Finally, those knee-deep weeds in the garden have died off. There are a few left that are looking quite fresh though, little rosettes of deep green scattered along the borders of fields. Some people call weeds wildflowers and encourage them to grow, which may be how we ended up with so many of them. Many of our common weeds are European, most likely brought by the colonists as either opportunistic seed heads stuck on their luggage and skirts or purposely carried to the new world to be planted in their kitchen gardens as food and medicine. All plants have redeeming qualities, many really are worth cultivating.
My vote for the all time best weed goes to chicory. You may be familiar with chicory as a coffee substitute, but what else do you know about the plant, other than it is that pretty blue flower on long, stiff stems, scattered along the roadside in summer?
Chicory is very nutritious. It is very high in calcium, dietary fiber, iron, manganese, magnesium, niacin, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, thiamin, zinc and vitamins A, B6 and C. It contains no cholesterol. Well worth eating. But chances are you won’t find a recipe with chicory in it. Perhaps that is due to the taste in the wild. If you eat the first leaves in early spring, you may be able to tolerate them with a little vinaigrette, but let them go too long or they get rough and tough and bitter. In Biblical times and earlier, chicory leaves were used as a spring tonic. Often blended with other spring greens like dandelions (another very nutritious weed), this tonic would right the intestinal wrongs of a long winter fare of very dried, fairly nutrient-deficient foods. Indeed, we know today that the root of chicory contains inulin, an indigestible carbohydrate that encourages beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract. The list of the nutritional attributes of chicory is long and it is worth incorporating into our diets.
The genus Cichorium contains two important species, intybus (a European native) and endiva (native to southern Asia and northern China). C. endiva is responsible for the salad greens we know as endive and escarole, gourmet vegetables grown much like a lettuce. The other species, C. intybus, encompasses our wild, roadside herb chicory, radicchio and witloof. These Cichoriums are also grown as salad greens. Common names for these varieties of var. foliosum include endive, radicchio, Belgian endive, French endive, red endive, sugarloaf or witloof. Although leaf chicory is often called “endive”, true endive (Cichorium endivia) is a different species in the genus.
The common chicory that grows on roadsides, root chicory (Cichorium intybus var. sativum) has not gained the respect it deserves. It has been cultivated for centuries, not only as a tonic herb and a coffee additive or substitute, but it also has been used since ancient times as animal fodder since it stays green and succulent well into the coldest months of the year and its roots can be harvested and stored. Recent studies indicate that ingestion of chicory by farm animals results in reduction of worms, which has prompted its widespread use as a forage supplement today. Only a few major companies, mostly in New Zealand, are active in research, development and production of chicory varieties and selections.
Chicory’s blue flowers may also be white or pink depending on the acidity of the soil. The flower not only indicates pH, but also the suitability of the soil to produce other root crops. Because chicory produces a long taproot similar to a carrot, it grows best in deep, loose, sandy soil. Under cultivation in rich, light, well-manured ground, the roots can become quite large. Chicory can be planted in the spring or the fall, but don’t plant earlier than May, as it will bolt. The warmer the weather gets, the more unpalatable the leaves become, so it should always be harvested in cool weather.
Planting chicory in the fall will give the plant a jump-start for growth during the cool seasons. Roots may be harvested when they are good size, taking care when digging up the roots. It is best to let the roots air dry for two or three weeks. Slicing them in half or quarters helps; the thinner the slices, the faster the roots will dry to a crispy brown. Placing the roots on low heat in the oven will also speed up the process. After they are completely dry, grind and add to your morning brew. Start with just a little bit and increase the amount until you find the flavor that suits you.
If you want to grow wild chicory into little colorless lettuce heads, trim the leaves to about an inch and then dig up the roots, dry them off and store in sand in a cool dark place for two to three weeks or longer. To force them to grow again, take a few roots and place in a pot that is about twice the length of the root. Fill the pot with sand or a sterile medium, leaving eight inches between the soil and the top of the box and water. Place a cover of some sort on the box to exclude the light. Set the pot in a warm, totally dark room, or cover with another pot with no holes. In no time, you should have some blanched chicory heads.
Radicchio (C. intybus) resembles lettuce in appearance, although it is not in the lettuce family. It forms tight heads of leaves furled around a central core and grows low to the ground. Radicchio makes a startling splash of color in the garden, and its natural bitterness makes it less subject to predation by garden pests.
Belgian endive, also known as French endive, witloof or white leaf, is a leafy vegetable that looks like a thin cylinder of tight, pale, almost white leaves. It is somewhat unusual in that it is not naturally found in nature but instead is cultivated by forcing a second growth from the cut roots of chicory plants as described above. The process of growing the Belgian endive is labor intensive, as it involves several stages. First, chicory seeds are sown and allowed to take root. After the roots are well established, the chicory leaves are harvested, and the roots are carefully pulled from the ground. The Belgian endive is then forced; that is, it is grown in darkness from the cut roots. The emerging endive must be kept beneath the soil, or covered by straw, to preserve its whiteness. Only the extreme tips of the leaves are allowed to emerge, gaining exposure to light and turning green. There is also a variant with purple leaves. The Belgian endive may be eaten baked, steamed, boiled, grilled or raw. Steaming is generally preferred to boiling as less water is retained by the tightly-wrapped leaves.
The discovery of Belgian endive is a curious one. In 1830, Jan Lammers returned from the Belgian War of Independence to his farm near Brussels. He had stored chicory roots in his cellar while he was away, intending to dry and roast them and use them for a coffee substitute. This practice, common in nineteenth century Europe, is the same one that resulted in the creation of world-famous New Orleans-style coffee. But farmer Jan’s chicory roots—resting for months in the dark, damp environment—had achieved a different result. They had sprouted small, white leaves. Curious, he tried the leaves and found them to be tender, moist and crunchy, with a pleasant, slightly bitter taste. Witloof (white leaf ) chicory was discovered and it took another 16 years before witloof cultivation was refined enough to grow the vegetable commercially. This labor of botanical love is attributed to a gentleman named Brezier, head of the Brussels Botanical Gardens, and resulted, in 1846, in “Brussels endive” displayed for sale in the market stalls of the city. Endive took the world by storm when it was introduced in Paris in 1872. It quickly became so popular that it was nicknamed “white gold.”
About a century later, a young American named Richard Collins, bent on becoming a specialty farmer, made his own discovery of endive while working in the kitchen at a California/French restaurant called La Salle in Sacramento. By 1983, Rich had begun commercial production of endive in Vacaville, California.
The other species of the Chicorium genus, C.endiva, includes curly endive, asparagus chicory and escarole. True endive, a salad vegetable since antiquity, is cultivated in several broad-leaved and curly-leaved varieties and is also called escarole. Each looks and tastes radically different, and can be used in different ways. Like all members of the chicory family, endive also has a slightly bitter flavor, but the intensity of the bitterness varies depending on the cultivar being grown and how it is handled.
Escarole (C. endiva) is commonly called endive. It is an interesting salad green that can make the difference between an ordinary and an outstanding dish. The leaves are tender, with a relatively mild flavor and a crisp texture.
Curly endive, also known as frisee, is the arch-nemesis of some salad lovers; like cilantro or arugula, it’s a love-it or hate-it food. Frisee lovers prize its lacy texture and sharp taste. People who loathe this green complain that it’s like eating bitter feathers, and they will meticulously pick it from salads.
Asparagus chicory, also known as radichetta or catalogna, is a bitter leafy green from Italy used in both cooked and raw forms. It can sometimes be difficult to find outside of Italy aside from specialty growers. Seed companies may offer an assortment of catalogna cultivars with various properties, ranging from extremely leafy to distinctively colored, or with red stalks instead of the more conventional green. The plant has tender long stems which grow in a loose head and produce very ragged leaves. Some cultivars also have smaller leaves and thicker stems than others, making the plant look more asparagus-like.
Like many leafy greens, endive can turn quite bitter and woody if it is allowed to stay in the field too long. Young endive is tender and flavorful, with a much more delicate flavor. Older endive can be overwhelmingly bitter. When endive has been allowed to progress to this stage, it can be salvaged through cooking; salting the endive and rinsing it well in several soaks of cold water before cooking can sometimes draw out the bitterness.
I have grown many types of chicory over the years as a winter salad crop. Radicchio Rossa di Treviso has been my favorite, a classic tall Italian radicchio, upright with red and white striped leaves with large pure white stems. As with all the red radicchios, cold weather will produces the best color. It tastes much like the round little radicchios in the grocery store but is much easier to grow. Many types of chicory are perennial so I grow the same Trevisos in large pots year after year. They can be grown in unheated greenhouses all winter, throwing out magnificent specimens in the earliest days of spring.
Chicory is a great option for those of us who are committed to eating seasonally. From a multitude of cold loving varieties come a million winter recipes.
Veronica Worthington is an organic farmer who raises heirloom vegetables for market, heritage breed sheep for wool, and Runner ducks and Plymouth Rock chickens for companionship in West Dennis.