Chicory doesn’t necessarily mean chicory. If there’s a shortage of recipes for this family of leaves, it’s perhaps because food writers use up so much space clarifying terms. Chicory is often known as endive, which refers to a variety of the vegetable that looks like a detonated cabbage, and is also called frisée. I use “chicory” to refer to those tight-leaved bullets of bitterness that come in acid yellow or radicchio pink.
The Belgians call it witloof, “white leaves”, after Franciscus Bresiers, head gardener at the National Botanical Garden in Brussels, who left some chicory roots in a cellar, intending to make a coffee substitute. The roots sprouted pale leaves, or “chicons”, that Bresiers found delicious. The procedure – known as “etiolation” – has since been refined. The plants are grown in darkness under strict temperature-controlled conditions: low light prevents the leaves from becoming overwhelmingly bitter.
Whether you’re using yellow or pink chicory, the bitterness is so pronounced it can be hard to identify other characteristics. I’d say it tastes like electricity: thrillingly bleak. And the thick, white, juicy stem and more delicate leaf-edges furnish contrasting levels of crunchiness. Look closely and you’ll see that short, fine hairs cover the leaves, like those on the back of your neck, as though they were evolutionarily adapted to catch crumbs of blue cheese, as in the ubiquitous Roquefort, chicory and walnut salad.
Chicory braised in cream or meat jus is another justified classic. Cooking takes the edge off the bitterness and the crunch gives way to a sumptuous softness – so distinct from its raw form that it almost warrants a different name. One more can’t hurt.•