Do you ever find yourself passing by certain odd looking fruit and veg in the supermarket because you’re not entirely sure what to do with it? Chicory has always been one such elusive vegetable for me. Part of the dandelion family, it’s a forced crop, grown in complete darkness – which accounts for its blanched white, yellow-tipped leaves. Chicory has a distinctive, cigar-like shape and the crisp leaves have a mildly bitter flavour. Many varieties are cultivated for salad leaves or for their roots which are baked, ground, and used as a coffee substitute.
There are three commonly eaten popular varieties of chicory:
- Radicchio usually has variegated red or red and green leaves. Also known as red endive and red chicory it has a bitter and spicy taste, which mellows when it is grilled or roasted. Largely eaten in Italy and Greece, it’s often used to add colour and zest to salads.
- Sugarloaf looks similar to cos lettuce, with tightly packed leaves.
- Belgian endive, known in Dutch as witloof “white leaf” endive and chicory in the UK. It has a small head of pale green coloured, bitter leaves. It is grown completely underground or indoors in the absence of sunlight in order to prevent the leaves from turning bright green and opening up. The plant has to be kept just below the surface of the soil as it grows, only showing the very tip of the leaves. It is often sold wrapped in blue paper to protect it from light and so preserve its pale colour and delicate flavour. The smooth, creamy white leaves can be served stuffed, baked, boiled, cut and cooked, or simply enjoyed raw. The tender leaves are slightly bitter, the whiter the leaf, the less bitter the taste. Belgium exports chicory to over 40 different countries but the crop is also British grown and widely available in our supermarkets between January and March.
Chicory is a great source of vitamins and minerals including; zinc, magnesium, iron, and potassium. It comes with a wealth of health benefits. Chicory contains inulin, which is a powerful probiotic that’s been shown to ease digestive problems. It can also prevent heartburn, reduce arthritis pains, detoxify the liver and gallbladder, prevent bacterial infections, boost the immune system, and reduce the chance of heart disease. As if that’s not enough, if you’re struggling to sleep, chicory can also be used as a natural sedative.
But what to do with it? If you fancy trying something a little more adventurous than simply throwing the leaves into a salad, why not try this tasty side dish?
- 1 tsp coconut oil
- 1 small red onion
- 1 tsp maple syrup
- 1 large head of chicory
- Pinch of fennel seeds
- Pinch of caraway seeds
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Half a lemon
- Heat a teaspoon of coconut oil in a heavy based frying pan.
- Chop the onion in half and slice each half thinly. Add to the pan and lightly fry for 10 minutes until it begins to soften. Add the maple syrup.
- Remove any damaged outer leaves and slice the chicory into quarters. Add to pan with a pinch of fennel, a pinch of caraway seeds and salt and pepper to taste. Continue to cook for 10-15 minutes until the chicory softens and slightly browns.
- Serve warm with a squeeze of fresh lemon and twist of black pepper.