Chicory is an age-old herb that was originally used medicinally.
Just about any visitor to New Orleans has tasted an obligatory cup of the city’s signature blend of coffee and chicory. But chicory’s varieties and uses extend far beyond a slow Sunday brunch at Café du Monde. Chicory, also known as succory, blue-sailors and ragged-sailors, is a hardy perennial native to Eurasia but was transplanted and now grows naturally throughout North America, south to Florida and west to California. It is common along roadsides and in other wild, untamed areas, especially in limestone soils. All species in the genus Cichorium are native to Eurasia. The words chicory, succory, Cichorium and intybus are all derived from Greek or Latin names for the herb.
Chicory resembles dandelion in its deep taproot and rosette of toothed basal leaves; unlike dandelion, it puts up a stiff, hairy flower stalk clothed sparsely with small, clasping leaves. Stalks may grow 2 to 5 feet tall and branch several times. Stalkless flower heads 1 1/2 inches wide form singly or in twos or threes in the axils of the stem leaves in midsummer. They are clear blue (or, rarely, pink or white) and consist of 16 to 20 strap-like, toothed ray flowers. Blossoms are primarily bee-pollinated and open early in the morning and close about five hours later. Linnaeus, observing this tendency, planted chicory in his floral clock in Uppsala, Sweden. (There, the flowers opened at 5 a.m. and closed at 10 a.m.) Flowers may stay open longer on cloudy days. The herbalist Mrs. C.F. Leyel has observed that “the lovely blue color of the petals is changed into a brilliant red by the acid of ants, if placed on an ant-hill.” The plant tops make a dyestuff that produces a variety of colorfast yellows and greens, depending on the mordant used. In the language of flowers, chicory symbolizes frugality.
For at least 5,000 years, people have cultivated chicory for its medicinal benefits. According to the “doctrine of signatures” (a renaissance theory that a plant’s appearance indicates its healing properties) the milky sap of chicory demonstrated its efficacy in promoting milk flow in nursing mothers, or perhaps diminishing it if it were too abundant; it seems to have been prescribed for both conditions. The blue of the blossoms and their tendency to close as if in sleep at noon (in England) suggested the plant’s use in treating inflamed eyes. The bruised leaves have been poulticed on swellings. Root extracts have been used as a diuretic and laxative, and to treat fevers and jaundice. The second-century physician Galen called chicory a “friend of the liver,” and contemporary research has shown that it can increase the flow of bile, which could be helpful in treating gallstones. Laboratory research also has shown root extracts to be antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and slightly sedative. They also slow and weaken the pulse and lower blood sugar. Leaf extracts have similar, though weaker, effects.
Chicory came early to the United States with the colonists as a medicinal herb, but Thomas Jefferson and others grew it as a forage crop. Because it doesn’t dry well, it was usually cut and fed green to horses, cattle, sheep, poultry and rabbits.
A compound called maltol (3-hydroxyl-2-methyl-4-pyrone) from chicory (as well as larch bark, pine needles and roasted malt) is used in baked goods to intensify the flavor of sugar 30-to-300-fold.
The appreciation for chicory as a culinary herb dates back at least to Roman times, and growers over the years have developed dozens of improved cultivars that scarcely resemble the scrawny roadside weed. These include heading chicories such as radicchio; loose-leaf chicory; root chicory, grown either for cooking like parsnips or for roasting to make a coffee substitute; and witloof, or Belgian endive, the roots of which are forced to produce elongated shoots called chicons. (The vegetable known as endive — not to be confused with Belgian endive — belongs to the annual or biennial C. endivia and is cultivated for its leaves. Curly-leaved forms are called frisée, while broad-leaved forms are known as escarole or Batavian endive.)
Forcing roots, usually done indoors in the dark, produces tops that are more tender and less bitter than those grown outdoors would be. This technique prolongs the gardening season in areas with cold winters. Storage temperatures can be manipulated to keep new chicons coming for several months.
Chicory is a good source of folic acid, necessary for the formation and maturation of red blood cells and in the synthesis of DNA; potassium, which is required for the contraction of skeletal and heart muscle and for the transmission of nerve impulses; and vitamin A. One of the traditional bitter herbs of Passover, it is eaten as a spring tonic in many cultures.
Today, with the plethora of cultivated varieties available, wild chicory is seldom seen in the kitchen, but wild-foods enthusiasts who know how to prepare it enjoy its lively flavor in several forms. The young basal leaves taste almost identical to dandelion greens. The white underground parts of the earliest leaves are good in salad or cooked as a potherb. Later leaves are apt to be bitter, but simmering them with several changes of water will decrease the bitterness. You also may cover the basal leaves with a flowerpot to blanch them. When cooked, the roots taste like parsnips, but they are almost too skinny to bother with. Instead of boiling them, however, you can scrub them and roast them slowly until brittle and dark brown inside. Grind and brew them like coffee or blend with regular coffee. The resulting beverage tastes much like coffee but doesn’t contain caffeine.
The sight of wild chicory growing in cracks in the pavement suggests that it will grow just about anywhere. Cultivated forms appreciate well-prepared, rich garden soil. They grow best in cool weather; where winters are mild, you can sow seed of some varieties in the fall for a spring harvest. Check the catalog or packet instructions for the best time to plant in your area. Chicory grown for forcing may be planted in early summer. In fall, cut the tops off, dig the roots and pack them in boxes of moist sand or peat. Hold them at 35 to 40 degrees until ready to force, then raise the temperature to 50 to 60 degrees. Keep them in darkness under flowerpots or opaque plastic and slice off the chicons when they are about 6 inches long. The roots may yield a second or even a third crop. Pests and disesase are not a problem.
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