Chicory: From Coffee to Plate

You may know lowly chicory’s well-dressed cousins by different names, and they should end up on your plate—or in your cup.

by Dawn Combs
PHOTO: NumeralForce/Flickr

Every once in awhile, a cultivated vegetable crosses paths with a lowly weed along a branch of the family tree. The chicory species (Cichorium intybus) is one such plant that we know by a variety of names and wouldn’t otherwise know were related.

Radicchio Is Chicory

Here in America, you will find strips of radicchio in some salad blends for color. In the Mediterranean, where chicory originated, you will find this leafy vegetable added to pasta of all sorts for the main course. Radicchio forms its red color best in the absence of light, so it is helpful to blanch them in the garden by covering them at the end of their development.

Endive & Belgian Endive Are Chicory

The endive has found its way onto many high-end restaurant menus. The delicate color is brought on by growing in the dark or below the soil surface, but without this treatment it is a common green.

Catalogna Is A Chicory

Many grocery stores have begun to stock “dandelion greens,” and in almost every case these greens are not true dandelion but, instead, their cousin Catalogna.

Wild Chicory

Wild chicory is the same species as the vegetables listed above. It’s the first plant I learned to call chicory before I realized that it had so many relatives. This common weed sports one of the only truly blue flowers in my summer landscape.

The History & Medicine Of Chicory

To say that any of these plants is common would be a mistake. Chicory is one of the oldest known plants, written about and “prescribed” often in the ancient world. All of the chicory relatives’ roots can be made into a coffee substitute, though the wild chicory is perhaps best known for that purpose. All of them produce edible and medicinal greens that are high in vitamins A, B, C and K. These greens are highly prized as forage due to the content of an essential oil that repels worms in the digestive tract.

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I have said often that I love a plant with some history. Chicory certainly delivers. It has served as the mainstay of many a rebellion. Anywhere coffee has been banned or blockaded, chicory has stepped up and filled the gap. In one well-known locale, New Orleans, after the blockade during the Civil War, folks simply never let go of the tradition of drinking chicory coffee. If you head down to Bourbon street even today you can get a cup.

In the fall, after the flowers have come and gone, I go in search of the chicory plants. The root is easily dried and once there it can be saved for teas or roasted to prepare for use in your morning coffee. The root is a prebiotic, containing a high amount of inulin. This supports its long use as a digestive tonic. In fact, all parts of all of these plants are bitter. The bitter component is particularly supportive of the gallbladder and liver. It is particularly useful for helping to clean the blood of uric acid crystals and cholesterol. This makes it very helpful in the case of gout.

Some of you may already be planting some form of chicory in your vegetable garden. Why not add a drift of the wild chicory to an unused area of your property? Fresh chicory coffee is really worth it, and the health benefits speak for themselves. The plant can be a bit invasive, so choose wisely where it will go. It likes full sun, but it isn’t too particular about water or soil.

Chicory has some upper crust representatives and some common relations which gives us a wide variety to choose from. I think a little chicory in some form in the diet most days could do all of us a lot of good. In a culture that is bereft of bitters on the plate, chicory delivers fresh leaves, flowers and roots that can be harvested throughout most of the season. If we don’t seed it, at the very least we should all leave it where it is when it volunteers in our garden.

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