What is Chicory?

A relative of endive, chicory has curly, bitter-tasting leaves that can be eaten raw or cooked like greens. Roasted, dried chicory root is added to coffee for aroma and flavor, and is popular in New Orleans, where the brew is called Creole coffee. There appears to be little evidence of the roasted root being used until around 1800, when the Italians and the English used it as an additive to coffee, presumably to enhance its bitterness and possibly to adulterate it with a lower cost commodity. Roasted chicory root contains no caffeine and there are some opinions that indicate roasted chicory root counters the stimulating effects caused by coffee, justifying its inclusion. Due to the excessive use of roasted chicory as an adulterant, the English passed a law in 1832 forbidding it as an addition in coffee. Then, due to consumer demand from those who had developed a liking for it, the law was repealed in 1840, with the proviso that chicory would be declared as an ingredient on the labelling.

Plant Description

Chicory looks like two plants in one, having broad, light-green, lance-shaped lower leaves resembling spinach and small, sparse upper leaves clasped to a tangle of branching stalks that grow to 6 ft. (1.8 m) high. Attractive, pale-blue flowers the shape of daisies bloom in clusters of two or three on the tough higher stems. These flowers will close by the time the bright midday sun has bathed them, yet remain open on cloudy days, providing one of nature’s many compensations to dull weather. While the more mature, dark-green, lower large leaves are extremely bitter, young, pale leaves are milder and can be used readily. Chicory is a perennial with a long tap root similar to a dandelion and it is this tap root which is roasted and used as an additive to coffee. Belgian endive is the name often given to the blanched, white vegetable form you will see in many greengrocer’s shops, the flavor being succulently refreshing and appetizingly bitter with a crisp mouth-feel. and east to southern Russia, China and Japan. In the northern United States it is so prolific it is considered to be indigenous. Blanched chicory, called ‘barbe de capucin’ by the French, and also known as ‘witloof’ in Belgium, is made by depriving the plants of light, thus making them creamy white and virtually devoid of bitterness. This is achieved by cutting the tops off the plants about six months after planting. The roots are then placed upright in a box and covered by 6 in. (15 cm) of light, sandy soil and kept in a moist, dark place that is warm. As the new leaves grow they develop as pale foliage looking like an elongated lettuce heart of creamy-colored leaves about 6 in. (15 cm) long. Exposure to light during this process will bring yellow to green color to the leaves and increase the level of bitterness. Roasted chicory root is made by digging up the tap roots, after which they are washed, cut, dried and broken into small pieces prior to roasting. This process creates a caramelization of the sugars and gives chicory, as used with coffee, its characteristic taste.

Buying and Storing

When buying fresh chicory, look for the palest heads as the greener they are the more bitter they will be. Taste a piece prior to using and if there is some undesirable lingering bitterness, blanch the chicory by pouring boiling water over the leaves in a colander and allow to drain. Roasted chicory root is usually sold in granular or powder form, both of which will attract moisture so are best purchased and stored in airtight packs and kept in a cupboard away from extremes of heat and humidity.

Cooking with Chicory

The young, fresh leaves gathered from chicory plants growing in the garden make an excellent addition to a green salad. Blanched chicory, bought as a vegetable and crisped in icy water, may also be added raw to salads imparting an appetizing bitterness and cool crispness. Chicory can be served raw and quartered as crudité, or separated into individual leaves that make good boats for holding dips, salsas and finely chopped salads. It works well with creamy mixtures and blue cheese in particular – try it in the classic French salad of Roquefort, walnuts and pears. Orange and sultanas are other good partners. Alternatively, cook it. Halve, brush with oil and grill, braise by packing it in a buttered casserole and adding some stock, or cut it into chunks and sauté it on the stove top. Chicory develops a slippery texture and brown-grey colour when cooked but also a sweeter, mellower flavour that particularly benefits from the addition of butter.

Health Benefits of Chicory

Chicory is one of the richest sources of vitamin A which is very useful for the eyes. The addition of juices of carrot, celery and parsley to chicory juice makes it a highly nourishing food for optic nerve and the muscular system. It can bring amazing results in correcting eye defects. Half a liter to one liter daily of this combination has frequently corrected eye troubles within a few months, to the extent that normal vision was regained, making the use of glasses unnecessary. – The flowers, seeds and roots of this herb are medicinally used in the treatment of liver disorders. About 30 to 60 ml of decoction of the flowers, seeds or roots can be used three times daily, with beneficial results, in the treatment of torpidity or sluggishness of the liver, biliary stasis or, stoppage of bile, jaundice and enlargement of spleen. Endive or chicory juice, in almost any combination, promotes the secretion of bile and is, therefore, very good for both liver and gall bladder dysfunctions. Chicory is a natural laxative. It is, therefore, beneficial in the treatment of chronic constipation. A decoction of chicory seeds is useful in treating obstructed menstruation. The herb chicory, in combination with celery and parsley, is very helpful in anemia. It is an effective blood tonic. The combined juices of chicory, carrot and celery are most helpful in asthma and hay fever, provided milk and foods containing concentrated starches and sugars such as white rice, white flours, macaroni, sweets, pastries and cakes are eliminated from the diet. Powder of the dry root in doses of half a teaspoon, mixed with honey if taken thrice daily, is a good expectorant in chronic bronchitis.

How to Grow Chicory

The way you go about growing chicory will depend on whether you plan on using its root, grown as a coffee alternative, or its leaf, which is used in salads. To harvest the root, simply dig it up once the plant is grown. The leaf can be picked and eaten at the end of the summer, blanched to minimize bitterness, or forced and enjoyed during the winter months.

Planting Chicory

Prepare the soil. Chicory does best in well-drained soil that is rich in nutrients. However, chicory will also grow in other soils if they are enriched with plenty of manure and organic fertilizers. Sow the chicory seeds 8 inches to 1 foot apart, and 1 inch deep. Do this early, in late spring to early summer, about a month after the last frost. Wait for your crop to sprout, and thin the seedlings so that they are no more than 9 inches apart. Germination time for a chicory plant is anywhere from one to three weeks. If you would like to harvest your plant and use the root, you may do so after four months. The leaf may also be picked from the garden and used in a fresh salad.

Forcing Chicory Shoots

Prepare pots for planting your chicory roots. These should be filled with a fine soil, such as sand, and stored in a cool, temperature-controlled shed. Cut the root on a diagonal, 1 to 2 inches above the crown. Plant the trimmed roots so that the crown is 1 to 2 inches above the top of the soil. Place another upturned pot over the top of the root. Block the pot’s holes to stop sunlight from touching the plant. Harvest the tender little leaves after about six weeks. These shoots are valued for their mild flavor and soft texture.

Other Names

succory, witloof, Belgian Endive
FRENCH: chicoree
GERMAN: zichorie, indivia, hindlauf
ITALIAN: cicoria, radicchio
SPANISH: achicoria

Scientific Name

Cichorium intybus
Fam: Asteraceae

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