Real Food Encyclopedia | Chicories and Endives

Closely related species in the Cichorium family, this group of bitter greens is 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. The various handles for the assorted Cichoriums include: Common chicory (succory, coffeeweed); Sugarloaf; Belgian (French) endive; Radicchio (red chicory, Italian chicory), of which there are several Italian-named varietals (here’s a fun list of them); Escarole (batavia, endive, ‘scarole, broad-leaf endive); and Curly endive (frisée). All are bitter, leafy veggies that come in a rainbow of colors — and all of which are delicious.

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.

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Fun Facts about Chicories and Endives:

  • 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.”
  • In the 18th century, coffee became very popular and as a result, very expensive. Chicory root, roasted and ground, became a common substitute. 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 (like WWII), but adulteration was also used to dupe the consumer.
  • Chicory coffee is especially popular in New Orleans (also called “Creole coffee”). It is usually about 30 percent chicory to 70 percent coffee. It’s said to be less bitter than full coffee, and also has a reduced caffeine content, since chicory is caffeine-free.

What to Look for When Buying Chicories and Endives

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. Frisée heads look like 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).

For 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.

It’s worth noting that 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.

Sustainability of Chicories and Endives

Pesticides and Chicories and Endives

Look for different varietals of chicory and endive at your local farmers’ 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  Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

Chicory and Endive Seasonality

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

Eating Chicories and Endives

Storing Chicories and Endives

The most commonly seen 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 and 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 with Chicories and Endives

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 and bakes them in the oven. Radicchio is commonly grilled and is 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 parmigiano, blue, goat and sheep’s milk cheeses. They are also frequently paired with creamy beans like cannelloni.

Avoid cutting chicories and endives with a knife, since 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 them for braising.

Cooking with Less Waste

Preserving Chicories and Endives

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.

Chicory and Endive 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 B-5), 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.