Chicories grab your attention. These furled, bitter plants, which pop up when cold weather hits, come in all shapes, some resembling roses, or peonies, or lilies with ruffled petals. Some look like torpedoes or tiny footballs; others resemble scraggly mops of hair that could belong to a Muppet. (Look at a large head of frisée—you'll see.) In winter at the farmers market, cooks gravitate toward their glossy leaves, which might be pink, burgundy streaked with bolts of white, or a dappled chartreuse, their bold colors a rare break from winter's root vegetable pallor.
But the fervor over chicories is about much more than just their looks. "Chicory varieties offer taste and texture that lettuce never can," says Chris Field of Campo Rosso Farm, who sells chicories at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. Field and his partner, Jessi Okamoto, offer a wide range of Italian chicories and always sell out well before market hours are over.
From Seattle to Detroit, chefs are cooking with chicories in new and unexpected ways. Chef Vartan Abgaryan embraces the bitterness of chicory leaves in his Escarole Shakshuka. "I love bitter flavors because, as a cook, bitterness forces you to balance it out with acidity and sweetness," he says. Mary Celine Bui, executive chef of Van Da in New York City, is drawn to chicory root, which for her invokes a distinct nostalgic aroma: the toasted nuttiness of Vietnamese-American corner-shop coffee. "In combination with milk, chicory works really well when you want a strong roasted flavor without the extra caffeine," Bui says (see "Just Brew It," below). Elsewhere across the country, chefs are pickling chicories and stuffing them into tuna melts, basting them with schmaltz, and even baking them into cakes.
In addition to offering vivid color and freshness during the lean months of the year, winter chicories are an important source of income for farmers in the off-season. Siri Erickson-Brown, owner of Local Roots Farm in Duvall, Washington, which supplies many of Seattle's restaurants, says: "From a farmer's perspective, winter vegetables are so heavily brassica-dependent that it's hard to do good crop rotation. You're only trying to rotate kale and cabbage? No. You've got to put something else in there, and chicories of all kinds are a good way to break up the crop rotation cycle." According to Cassie Woolhiser, an organizer of Seattle's annual Sagra del Radicchio festival and Chicory Week campaign (which took place virtually this past October), locally grown chicories represent an important, more sustainable alternative to lettuces, especially in the Northern states. "It costs so much in fossil fuel, synthetic fertilizer, pesticide and fungicide, and human labor to produce lettuce and other tender salad greens [in the Southwest] for the whole country year-round," Woolhiser says. "Radicchio grows in cooler climates, is less input-heavy, and tastes great."
All chicories are descended from wild chicory, a blue flowering plant with a long taproot that grows all over the world, with a major presence in Europe and Asia. Within the chicory genus, there are two main cultivated species, endives (Cichorium endivia), which include curly endive, frisée, and escarole, and chicories (Cichorium intybus), which include the confusingly named Belgian endive, radicchio, and puntarelle.
Thought to be native to Sicily, escarole is a broad-leaved endive that grows in large heads with ruffled leaves. The outer leaves are darker and more bitter; the inner leaves are pale, buttery yellow, and sweet.
Intensely bitter curly endive (pictured at top left) has a more compact head with lacy-looking leaves that are tough in texture with a peppery bite. Its pale, milder heart is sometimes marketed as frisée.
Frisée is the name for types of curly endive with loose heads of strongly curled, skinny, frizzy, soft-textured leaves. They’re sometimes blanched (grown in darkness) to accentuate their tenderness and pale color.
Colorful radicchios hail from Italy, and many of them have protected geographical indication (PGI) designation, which means varieties must be grown in a certain place to be called by a certain name.
Castelfranco, from the town of Castelfranco Veneto in Northern Italy, has large, fluffy heads of feathery-looking chartreuse leaves streaked with magenta. Their bitterness is mild, and the leaves are soft but retain a delicate snap.
Chioggia, the most common radicchio in the U.S., has tightly packed leaves with a uniformly crisp texture, and a bitterness that’s noticeable but not too aggressive.
La Rosa del Veneto has soft, light pink leaves. Cooking them softens their intensely bitter flavor, though it also makes their color fade; they’re at their prettiest left raw.
Rosso di Verona, the result of new breeding techniques developed in the 18th and early 19th centuries, is a striking and very bitter chicory. It has tightly packed crimson leaves, sturdy white midribs, and heads shaped like squat footballs.
Treviso has narrow red leaves with thick white ribs. It comes in two varieties: precoce (early) and tardivo (late). The heads of the latter (pictured above) are especially fun—they look like little squid, with the long, spindly leaves resembling
Also known as witloof, which means "white leaf" in Dutch, these torpedo-shaped chicories (pictured above) have light, triangular leaves that are sweet and juicy, with a satisfying snap and just a trace of bitterness. They are white because they are grown buried in sand, in complete darkness—a technique developed in the mid-19th century by the head gardener of the Botanical Garden of Brussels, Frans Bresiers. Exposing the heads to light causes greening and increased bitterness; when shopping for them, seek out the palest leaves available.
Also known as Catalogna, this chicory comes from Central and Southern Italy. The plant has dark green leaves and pale, bulbous, hollow stalks that form the core of the plant. Although people do eat the leaves, which are like less bitter dandelion greens, the stalks, which resemble asparagus spears, are the famous part of this plant—they are juicy and crunchy, with a gentle bitterness.
While the otherwordly stalks of puntarelle are captivating, they (and other specialty chicories) can be tricky to source. Don't let that discourage you from preparing these recipes—all can be ordered from specialty purveyors, like Baldor; found at farmers markets; or substituted with varieties available at many grocery stores. Taste varieties for bitterness, then adjust the acid or sweetness to reach a balance that's pleasing to your palate.
Chicory roots have long been dried, roasted, and ground to make a bitter drink that resembles coffee but without any caffeine. The Dutch developed methods for making a chicory root beverage in the 1700s. In 1766, Frederick the Great, who ruled the Kingdom of Prussia, banned the sale of coffee. He feared that an increased consumption of imported coffee over German beer would cause economic troubles, so his subjects were left to drink a coffee alternative, made from Prussian-grown chicory root. In the next century, Napoleon created a large- scale embargo against British trade, including coffee, to promote consumption of French products, and chicory coffee became a popular drink in France. It stayed popular after Napoleon’s system collapsed in 1814, traveling with the French to Louisiana, which is how New Orleans–style coffee came to be. Its place in the city was cemented when, during the American Civil War, Confederate ports were blockaded, making imports like coffee scarce. Southerners stretched the coffee they had with ground chicory and dandelion roots. While chicory coffee is prized for its taste, it comes with health benefits, too: Chicory roots are high in inulin, a dietary fiber that has been proven to benefit gut health and lower cholesterol.