Check Out Chicory

Try chicory in salads, as a coffee substitute and as an effective natural medicine.

| May/June 2007

  • Many people assume chicory adds a bitter taste to coffee. In fact, chicory fans insist the opposite is true—chicory smoothes out the flavor of regular coffee, removing the bitter edge and imparting a rich caramel flavor.
  • Chicory is a good source of health-boosting bitter compounds that support the liver and digestive system.
    ©2007 Steven Foster
  • Bitter herbs like chicory are remarkable detoxifiers. Chicory contains antioxidants that search out toxic, tissue-frying oxygen radicals in the body.
    ©2007 Steven Foster

The other day I made a new friend—a short, ruddy-complected individual with a pointed head and a feisty nature. No, I’m not referring to Agatha Christie’s little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, but a head of Radicchio di ‘Treviso’. An offspring of the famous chicory (Cichorium intybus) plant, radicchio is one of many characters arising from this deceptively humble roadside weed—a group that also includes the cream-colored endive, another prime salad ingredient. Chicory is a winner, from its whimsical sky-blue blossoms right down to its sturdy roots, which are used as a rich coffee substitute. Complex and exciting, and hoarding some intriguing medicinals, chicory truly is the stuff of great adventures.

And yes, there’s even a Belgian in this story. A long time ago, a Belgian farmer grew chicory for its root (the root is a centuries-old coffee substitute in Europe). He put some of these roots into soft soil in a dark shed and then forgot about them. Three weeks later, the roots had sprouted tight little heads of cream-colored leaves, and voilà—the Belgian endive was born. It soon became a favorite, which we still enjoy today.

Salad Greats

Believe it or not, the pale Belgian endive and the vibrant red-headed radicchio come from the same chicory species, Cichorium intybus. There are at least 40 varieties of this species. The Italians take credit for radicchio, or red Italian chicory, branding them with their locales of origin. For example, ‘Treviso’ is a pointy-leafed red variety from that region, which resembles endive in shape, while ‘Verona’ and ‘Palla Rossa’ are round-headed red radicchios. A related chicory species, Cichorium endivia, produces escarole, which comes in large heads of broad- and curly-leafed greens.

All chicories are bitter, some more than others, depending on the variety and local growing conditions. The other day I was extolling the virtues of chicory to my hairdresser and, somewhat puzzled, she asked, “If it’s bitter, why would anyone eat it?” True, one doesn’t intuitively put bitter things into one’s mouth, but that is where the delicious principle of food contrasts comes in: Bitters like chicory are perfect foils for other flavors. Bitter herbs also aid digestion and help cleanse the body. Blend chicory with other greens, citrus fruits, berries and a tangy-sweet dressing for your salad, and you have the ultimate way to kick things up a notch.

When buying fresh salad chicories, look for compact heads with crispy, unblackened leaves. Refrigerate in an aerated bag or crisper, and eat within a couple of days, as chicory greens spoil quickly.

Substitute Chicory for Coffee

Salads aren’t the only way to enjoy chicory. A steaming mug of roasted, ground chicory root could be called “the Uncoffee.” Europeans have been substituting caffeine-free chicory for coffee since the 1700s. Back then it was much cheaper than coffee and, fortuitously, also good for the digestion. Chicory still can be economical—it is two to three times more soluble in water than coffee is, so less chicory can be used. Nowadays, chicory is frequently included in fancy coffee blends and herbal coffees, or used on its own. Coffee with chicory has been a favorite in New Orleans for more than 200 years. The city’s famous café au lait is made with rich roasted black coffee, chicory and boiled milk. Sometimes roasted chicory is combined with other herbs, such as dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). One popular detoxifying blend contains dandelion root, chicory root, rye, beet root and barley. Herbal coffees are brewed just like regular coffee. And whereas caffeine devotees may not flock to herbal coffees, even a small amount of chicory in their morning java may be a rewarding perk. Chicory root is used in other beverages, too, including appetite improvement teas (although an appetite booster is the last thing many of us need!).

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