Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Chicories & Endives

What is it with bitter greens and confusing naming conventions? A couple of weeks ago I discussed the zillions of aliases for rapini. This week, I’ve been assigned to write about another group of bitter vegetables – chicories and endives. Closely related species in the Cichorium  family, this group of bitter greens is also involved in linguistic misunderstandings due to the multiple (confusing) names of their many variants. Different names are even given to the same species depending on how the plant is grown (more on this below), and in the case of the Belgian variety, called “endive” in the US but botanically grouped as chicory. One botany book I read said, “[t]he correct names for various species and forms of Cichorium are somewhat confused and should not be taken too seriously.” I will heed the well-spoken advice of Food Plants of the World and won’t take names too seriously here – but for clarity’s sake, I can tell you that the various handles for the assorted Cichoriums include:

Chicories (Cichorium intybus):

  • Common chicory (succory, coffeeweed)
  • Sugarloaf
  • Belgian (French) endive (witloof)
  • Radicchio (red chicory, Italian chicory), of which there are several Italian-named varietals
  • Puntarelle (Catalonian chicory)

Endives (Cichorium endivia):

  • Escarole (batavia, endive, ‘scarole, broad-leaf endive)
  • Curly endive (frisée)

All are bitter, leafy veggies that come in a rainbow of colors – all of which are delicious. (Although there seems to be a passionate anti-frisée contingent, of which my husband is, sadly, an active participant. Even VH1 gets into the frisée-hating game. Google “hate frisée” to see more frisée-related rants.)

A Brief History

The ancestors of both species – chicory and endive – are native to the Mediterranean basin, although there is some speculation that their native range extended into Asia as well. Several sources indicate that both chicory and endive were domesticated in Egypt as far back as 4,000 years ago, though apparently no archaeological evidence exists to support this. Chicory is also said to be one of the “bitter herbs” traditionally eaten for Passover, symbolizing the bitterness of the Jews’ slavery in Egypt. The University of California reports that the first archeological evidence of chicory consumption comes from Bronze Age Switzerland. Both chicory and endive were also widely consumed in ancient Greece and Rome, but food historian Alan Davidson notes that it was likely the wild varieties of chicory that were gathered and eaten, while endive was probably cultivated.

In the 18th century, coffee became super popular – and, as happens with new trends, super expensive. A number of different substances were experimented with to create a coffee substitute (including acorns – here’s a recipe – you’re welcome), but chicory root, roasted and ground, was the most palatable. The consumption of chicory coffee, and/or the adulteration of real coffee with ground chicory root, was a common practice during times of reduced transport (think WWII), but adulteration was also engaged to dupe the consumer, as this sort of hilarious 19th century debate from British Parliament discusses.

Also in the 18th century, a Belgian farmer perfected the French-discovered practice of “forcing” chicory roots: stored in a dark place and covered with soil or sand, the roots produce a blanched (chlorophyll-lacking) head. Belgian endive and radicchio were thus born.

Factual Nibbles

  • Thomas Jefferson was one of the first to grow chicory – he called it “succory” – in the US (in the late 18th century), having been given seeds by George Washington. He used the plant as both animal fodder and as a table green. In Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, he said, “I consider it one of the greatest acquisitions a farmer can have.”
  • An enterprising man in Rome has developed a puntarelle cutting tool that apparently makes quick work of the labor-intensive puntarelle-prep process, described here.
  • Chicory is used as a sweetener in the food industry, and is commonly marketed as a healthier alternative to sugar.
  • Chicory coffee is especially popular in New Orleans (also called “Creole coffee”). It is usually about 30 percent chicory to 70 percent coffee, but various proportions exist. Adding ground chicory to coffee is said to lessen the bitterness of the brew. It also reduces the caffeine content, as chicory is caffeine-free.

Cultivation

Cichorium endivia and Cichorium intybus are both in the Asteraceae (daisy) family – most chicories have lovely blue flowers reminiscent of daisies. You’ve probably seen common chicory growing by the side of the road and in fields, because the plant has become naturalized throughout much of the US. Cultivated chicories and endives prefer cool temperatures and tend to bolt and become unpleasantly bitter in warm weather. Both Cichorium varieties are very cold hardy – in fact, I brought home variegated chicory seeds from a trip to Italy one year; planted in the late summer for a fall crop, they were still going strong into the following spring.

Belgian endive and radicchio varieties are “forced sprouts” grown from a taproot of the plant, in conditions without light, in order to deprive them of chlorophyll (“blanching”). The “heads” of Belgian endive and radicchio are technically called “chicons.” Growing Belgian endive is a multi-stepped and (dare I say) crazy process that involves special dark room growing “caves,” hydroponic-like fertilizer solutions and lots and lots of labor. See a video of the process in the upper right (if you dare).

Other chicories and endives, including escarole, curly endive (of which frisée is a type) and Radicchio di Castelfranco (the type I brought back from Italy) are “leaf” varieties – they don’t generally form tight heads and aren’t forced like Belgian endive and the other radicchios. However, these leafier varieties are frequently blanched, sometimes by simply tying the loose-leaved heads together (so the inside of the head isn’t exposed to light). Blanching makes the leaves less bitter and more tender. Here’s a handy picture that shows the different varieties.

Seasonality

The best chicories and endives are winter veggies – cold weather makes them much tastier.

Environmental Impact

The bulk of commercially grown Belgian endive is grown in California, and many Belgian endives seen on your grocer’s shelves are imported from...you guessed it – Belgium. Look for different varietals of chicory and endive at your local farmer’s market for less-traveled specimens – though admittedly they are rare. (Small family farms across the country are getting in the Belgian endive-growing game, so you may be able to find local ones in your area.) Still fairly uncommon veggies in the US, neither chicories nor endives make an appearance on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. (*Check out our Vegetable rule of thumb.)

Characteristics

Belgian endive is usually torpedo-shaped, with white leaves tipped in light yellow. A red version of Belgian endive is also being grown in California. Radicchio varieties include the commonly seen radicchio di Chioggia (dark red, round and about the size of a grapefruit) and the less common, stunning radicchio di Treviso. Radicchio’s red color becomes more pronounced in cooler weather; the blanching process employed for all types of radicchio does the same. Escarole looks a lot like a head of loose-leaved lettuce, with rounded leaves. It’s usually the darkest green in color. Frisee heads look like crazy light and dark green frizzy wigs (no, seriously), while curly endive is just slightly less frizzy (but still curly). Puntarelle, if you can find it, looks a lot like skinny dandelion greens (dandelion is a relative).

What to Look for

For heading types like Belgian endive and radicchio, look for tight heads that feel heavy for their size. All chicory and endive varieties should be free of black or mushy spots, with very few (to no) brown or wilting leaves. 

Nutrition

In general, chicories and endives are nutritional powerhouses. Radicchio’s vitamin K levels are off the charts (the vitamin is essential for blood and bone health). It is also a decent source of folate, vitamin C and copper. Endive is also very high in vitamin K and is a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, thiamin, pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), riboflavin, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, copper, zinc and dietary fiber. It even contains quite a bit of protein. Chicory roots are high in inulin, a type of dietary fiber that is good for bowel health and has preliminarily been linked to lowered triglyceride levels. Chicory roots also contain lactucopicrin, which has a sedative effect.

What to Do with It

Storage

The heading varieties of chicory – Belgian endive and radicchio – store exceptionally well in the refrigerator. Keep them loosely wrapped in a paper towel in your fridge’s produce drawer for at least a week (or more). Frisée is the delicate flower of the group – it tends to brown quickly, so use within a couple of days. Escarole is slightly hardier and can be stored for three to five days in your produce drawer.

Cooking

Chicories and endives are frequently served raw in salads in the US, but they are also delicious cooked – they are excellent braised, grilled, steamed and sautéed. Belgian endives are delicious grantinéed (baked with butter and cheese). A famous French preparation blankets them with béchamel sauce and ham (you had me at “béchamel”) and bakes them in the oven. Radicchio is commonly grilled – especially delicious paired with balsamic vinegar. Escarole is a regular in southern Italian (and Italian-American) cuisine (the name ‘scarole is an Italian-American variation) and is commonly braised with garlic

Like other bitter veggies, chicories and endives pair well with assertive ingredients, like garlic, anchovies, lemon juice and chiles, and are brilliant with all kinds of cheese, including parmesean, blue, goat and sheep’s milk cheeses. They are also frequently paired with creamy beans (think cannelloni).

If you’re lucky enough to find chicory roots, you can make your own chicory coffee (and read about chicory lattes being served up in – where else? – Brooklyn). Naturalized common (wild) chicory can be foraged and is quite common throughout much of the US.

Pro Tips

Avoid cutting chicories and endives with a knife – they oxidize quickly and turn an ugly brown. Instead, tear the leaves with your hands. The outer leaves of frisée and escarole heads are frequently tough and very bitter – rather than discarding, save in order to braise.

Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar though Preservation

Basically, you can lacto-ferment just about everything, and escarole is no exception. Cooked escarole can also be frozen. Sadly, the other members of the chicory and escarole families are fairly perishable and aren’t easily preserved.

Recipe

Curly Endive Salad with Crispy Prosciutto, Boiled Eggs and Almonds

This is kind of a riff on a classic French bistro salad – frisée with lardons and poached eggs. I prefer the less spiky curly endive, but frisée (a type of curly endive) or escarole can be substituted. The almonds and prosciutto add a bit of crunch, and the assertive dressing stands up well to the bitterness of the escarole. Toss in chopped radicchio or Belgian endive for a delicious addition. Funnily enough, the curly endive was labeled “chicory” at my local greengrocer.

Ingredients:
1 head curly endive or escarole, tough outer leaves discarded (or reserve for another recipe – see Pro Tip above)
2 slices prosciutto, roughly chopped
2 boiled eggs, quartered (see note)
1/3 cup roasted unsalted almonds, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, pressed or finely minced
Juice of ½ ; lemon
3 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
X tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Method:

  1. Wash and thoroughly dry the curly endive (or escarole). Core it and tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Set aside.
  2. Place a small, heavy frying pan over medium-high heat and add the chopped prosciutto. Cook and stir until the prosciutto has rendered its fat and become crispy, about X minutes. Remove from heat and drain on paper towels.
  3. Make the dressing: Whisk together the pressed garlic clove, lemon juice and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Slowly drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil, whisking constantly, until the dressing is well combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper. 
  4. Toss the curly endive (or escarole) thoroughly in the dressing. Top with boiled egg slices and scatter with almonds and crispy prosciutto bits.
    Serves 4.


(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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