Bitter is Better: An eater’s guide for the chicory connoisseur

radicchio on a table

Chicory has been around as long as civilization itself. The University of California documents archaeological evidence of chicory dating back to the Bronze Age. It is also apparently one of the “bitter herbs” cited in the Bible to be eaten for Passover, and the ancient Greeks and Romans consumed it copiously. Native to Europe, North Africa, and West Asia, the aggressive flavor and versatility of these bitter lettuces certainly made an impression wherever they spread, whether the hardy magenta leaves of radicchio, the crisp stems of puntarelle, or the roots used to stretch out coffee in France during the Napoleonic era and in the United States during the Civil War. Chicory even has a history with the Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson was one of the country’s first chicory farmers, cultivating seeds given to him by George Washington. Overall, chicories are powerfully nutrient rich, packed with vitamins A, B, C, and K, as well as calcium, copper, iron, potassium, manganese, zinc, and dietary fiber.

Belgian Endive. Cichorium endivia. This white, oblong-shaped leaf curves into light yellow tips at the end. Also called French endive or witloof chicory, Belgian endive has a waxy texture on the surface and a light crispiness when bitten into. Because of its shape, it is a great spoon-like vehicle for dips or hors d’oeuvres. Endive is one of the mildly bitter, juicy chicory varieties. See: Braised Belgian Endive.

Escarole. Cichorium endivia. Dark green, leafy, and assertively bitter, escarole is an Italian favorite, appearing often in soups, as a companion to beans, or as a side dish. Also called Batavian endive, scarole, and broad-leaved endive, it’s the greenest leaf of the chicory bunch. See: Escarole Salad with Concord Grapes.

Frisee. Cichorium endivia. Like the name suggests, these are those greens with the “frizzy” heads. Sometimes called curly endive, curly chicory, or chicory endive, these have a crunchy stem, light frilly leaves, a yellowy-green color, and a sharp, bitter flavor very much like their relative, escarole.

Pan di Zucchero. Cichorium intybus. Literally “sugar loaf,” pan di zucchero is among the sweeter varieties of chicory. Its light green and white appearance and hardy, crisp texture is similar to romaine, which makes it a great candidate for a Caesar-like salad and grilling.

Puntarelle. Cichorium intybus. A fleeting winter favorite, this chicory is marked by thin, light green stems. Sharp, bitter, and crispy, it is a favorite in Rome when prepared with anchovy and lemon. The dark green leaves, which stand out in contrast to the light stems, have a softer texture but an equally powerful flavor.

Radicchio. Cichorium intybus. Its red color makes it the flamboyant, nonconformist member of the chicory clan, while its bittersweet flavor, wide availability, and versatility—it can be served raw, grilled, sautéed, or roasted—make it one of the more common types to find on the plate. It also goes by Chioggia, red chicory, and red Italian chicory. See: Radicchio Salad With Creamy Castelvetrano Olive Dressing

Reprinted from The Book of Greens: A Cook’s Compendium by Jenn Louis with Kathleen Squires, with permission by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, © 2017.

Chicory photo by Bruce Cole