Chicories are the most captivating leafy vegetables there are, full stop. They feature odd shapes, brilliant colors, satisfying textures, bold bitter flavors, and some very funny names. They’re also the only tender salad leaves that are in season during the cold months; they thrive in the cooler temps that lettuces can’t stand.
On that note, I’d like to make something very clear: chicories are not lettuce! This happens to be my favorite family of vegetables and I love nothing more than helping people make friends with produce, so it’s with great pleasure that I introduce you to the wonderful world of chicories.
Chicories and Endives
- Chicories are part of the endive family, not the lettuce family.
- Their colors and shapes can vary, from curly to frizzy.
- Two of the most familiar chicories are escarole and curly endive (AKA frisée).
The Mother of All Chicories
You can thank some confusing produce nomenclature for their partial obscurity. It’s escarole and curly endive (AKA frisée) that are true endives. Torpedo-shaped Belgian endive, however, is not actually an endive at all but a type of radicchio.
All cultivated varieties of radicchio, escarole, and endive come from wild chicory (Cicorium intybus var. selvatica), a perennial weed related to dandelion. A familiar summer weed to many, wild chicory has pale blue flowers, a long taproot, and saw-toothed leaves that are edible and intensely bitter, much like dandelion.
Native to Europe and Western Asia, wild chicory got around and can be found in many parts of the world and most of North America; it grows along roadsides and field edges, and can pop up in poorly maintained lawns and pastures. People have been using the leaves and roots as food and medicine since at least 300 BCE (Theophrastus mentioned the edible leaves in his Enquiry into Plants). Physicians all over the ancient world noted its medicinal qualities, and prescribed it to treat gastrointestinal and liver issues, and to ease inflammation. The famous coffee at New Orleans’s Cafe du Monde includes roasted and pulverized chicory root.
Different Types of Chicories
Chicories are spring-summer crops, and they’re the easy group to make sense of. They’re all mildly bitter and versatile, with sturdy leaves that are great both raw and cooked. There are tons of varieties, but there are only two main types, and we classify them by the shapes of their leaves.
- Escarole (Cichorium endivia var. latifolium) are heads of loose, broad leaves with ruffled edges. The outer leaves are thick and green with crisp pale spines, and the inner leaves are buttery in color and texture (no stiff spines on these). Their soft inner leaves are great for salads, but cooking brings out all of escarole’s succulence and removes some of the bitter flavor.
- Curly Endives (Cichorium endivia var. crispa) are loosely-bound heads of skinny leaves that are extremely sawtoothed and scraggly; like a head of escarole that got zapped and frizzed up by a jolt of electricity. Our more commonly known name is frisée; every type of frisée is a curly endive and those names are perfectly interchangeable. They can stand in for escarole in a soup, but they really are best left raw to add texture and bite to a salad. Their curls and crooks hang onto dressing exceptionally well, and they do a lot to pretty-up a plate.
How to Choose Chicories
With escarole and frisée it’s as simple as looks: are they fresh and healthy looking? It’s okay if a few of the outer leaves have some minor wear—a snap in the spine, tears or slightly wilted spots — you can just remove those, no big deal. Avoid anything that’s dry or shriveled, and anything that has brown, soft, or slimy spots.
Where to Buy Chicories
Look for endives in the spring and summer months at your local farmers market. Some grocery stores will have escarole, and many will have frisée. More and more clamshells of hydroponically grown frisée are starting to show up on store shelves year-round. They’re by no means a permanent fixture, but if you’re going to find one of these in a regular grocery store, and out of the regular growing season, it’s likely to be frisée.