@thecityman 's ever curious mind and good questions got me thinking it was time for a thread on growing chicories. I really love growing and eating chicories. I’ve only really scratched the surface of the world of chicories, but I’d like to share what I do know. They’re like lettuce, but a little more challenging. There’s a huge diversity in growth forms (heading, non-heading, balls, frilly, long) and parts harvested (leaves, heads, roots, swollen flower stalks). Varieties can be ready in as little as 55 days, or as long as 4 months plus a post-season forcing period.
Eating them is a treat, too! They all have varying degrees of bitterness, which lends itself well to standing up to (and complementing) rich flavors such as bacon, anchovy, cheese, and vinegar. Most of the Italian varieties (where the largest diversity is) are usually cooked, though many are suitable for raw use. A few are even primarily used raw.
There are two species of chicory Chicorium intybus includes radicchio, Italian dandelion, pan di zucchero, puntarelle, and others. This is also the species where the roots are used roasted as a coffee additive in parts of the South, and has naturalized in much of the country. These chicories tend to be more bitter and most varieties that I’m aware of are often (if not always) cooked. They are biennial and will flower in the second year. Chicorium endivum includes endive, escarole, and frisee. These are much more common in the grocery store, and they are milder. There’s still a bit of bitterness, but it’s more subtle than the intybus varieties. These chicories behave more like lettuce and will flower in the same year they are planted if allowed. Of the two species, endivum is generally easier to grow, but pan di zucchero and Italian dandelion from the intybus group are pretty darn easy.
Growing chicory is much like growing lettuce. They are cool season crops, but they are much more sensitive to warm temperatures (especially heading varieties) and most are best grown for the fall rather than the spring. There are some that I’ve read are best for spring, but I haven’t tried them yet. Many varieties of radicchio will not head up properly if temperatures are too warm. I like to start them ahead in plant trays and transplant them out to the garden. Most varieties are fine with some frost, so I try to time it so they’ll be reaching their harvest right around then. Some varieties (like puntarelle) don’t like frost, so you want to err a little earlier, and some radicchios really need to be hit by a few hard frosts. I plant them out in the summer, and keep them well watered and moderately fertilized.
Another thing to note is that it can be hard to source accurately labeled seed for some of these, the Italian varieties in particular. There are categories within categories of these, so a buyer for a seed company might not order quite the right thing. The most reliable source I’ve found in the US is growitalian.com. They directly import the seed packs from an Italian seed company, so you know you’re getting the right stuff.
I’ll also detail a few varieties of chicory I have experience with.
Frisee endive This frilly, frizzy, kinda wiry chicory is one you’ve probably encountered. It’s usually included in mesclun mixes for texture and volume. It’s pretty easy to grow, ready in 55-65 days and forms a loose head. For best results, the heads should be blanched by placing a pot over them or tying up the outer leaves about 10 days before harvest. The flavor of these are mildly bitter with some sweetness, and they have a nice wiry texture. The classic preparation is salade Lyonnaise, which is just this endive tossed in a warm bacon and shallot vinaigrette with a poached egg on top.
Italian dandelion (usually just called “chicory” in Italy) one of the most commonly encountered intybus chicories and one of the easiest to grow. They look a lot like oversized dandelion greens. Since you don’t have to worry about getting it to head up, it’s pretty straightforward. These aren’t well suited to raw salads (IMO) and are best sauteed or braised, then served as a side dish or tossed with pasta or mixed into risotto.
Radicchio I’ve grown a few varieties of this. There is a huge diversity of radicchio out there. Most of what we see in the US are the red and white, ball-shaped Chioggia and Verona types. There are varieties that are long, rose shaped, squid-like, or round, and they come in reds, greens, pinks, etc. While you usually see radicchio in salad mixes for color and flavor, I like them best roasted, grilled, or sauteed. I’ve grown Chioggia types, early Treviso types, and late (tardiva) Treviso types. The first two are relatively straightforward so long as you get your timing right. They will head up by themselves so long as the weather is in the right temperature range. However, it’s not 100%, especially in eastern North America. If you spring for the newer f-1 hybrids, they have a much higher rate of nice tight heads. The Treviso tardiva varieties are a little more interesting. You have to let them grow and bulk up, then get hit by some hard frosts. At this point, you dig them up and put them in a pot (or traditionally in a crate with spring water running over their roots) in a dark space at 55-65 degrees. In a few weeks, the new heads will grow out from the roots. A lot of other radicchios can be forced in this manner, especially if you’re having trouble getting them to head up.This radicchio is especially beautiful and delicious (see picture below). I like it roasted or on pizza.
Pan di zucchero This is a very easy heading type, with a self-blanching green head. The flavor is relatively sweet, but in my opinion is best sauteed. I’ve also seen this referred to as a type of radicchio.
Puntarelle this is a whole class of chicories that is grown for its swollen flower stalks. It’s my current white whale that I haven’t quite figured out. It needs to be harvested just before frost, so timing is critical. I almost had it this year, but some persistent slugs delayed me by about 3 weeks. Anyway, this chicory is used by slicing the swollen stalks finely and soaking them in salted water. They then curl up and are tossed in a salad with anchovy. The good news is that if it doesn’t work out, the leaves are tender enough to be used like Italian dandelion.
So, that’s what I have to offer on the subject of chicories. Who else is growing them? Like I said, I’m no expert, so I welcome any comments or corrections. I’d especially love to hear from some of our members in Europe @Luisport @Oepfeli @mrsg47 to see what I got wrong, some other ways to prepare them, and any corners of the chicory-verse that I may have missed.