The Many Uses of the Chicory Plant
A Country Living Culinary Adventure to Reap Chicory's Benefits
It’s getting to be that time of year when wildflowers appear a-plenty along roadsides everywhere. As I drive along, I like seeing the colors appear and trying to figure out what all those plants are. Lately, I noted a sea of pale blue and I wondered: what is that? A quick search and I found my answer; the Chicory plant.
I knew the Chicory plant was on the edible plants list, but I couldn’t remember what parts of the plant were edible or how to prepare them. It was time to do some research. I love learning new things, especially about foraging and understanding the plants growing around me, so I was excited to do some reading.
About the Chicory Plant
Often called a “blue dandelion,” the Chicory plant has a lot in common with its cousin, the dandelion. You can eat the flowers, leaves and root of both plants. They will both add bitterness to your salad mix, but can be blanched to lessen that effect. The dandelion flower is less intense than the chicory blossom. Some say you can add the pretty blue flowers to a salad; others say they are too bitter.
Like many weeds, this perennial blooms summer into early fall. It is hardy and often found growing places where you wouldn’t expect flowers to thrive. Chicory is commonly seen near roadsides, in highway medians, at the overgrown edges of fields and even in gravel filled areas where nothing else can make it. It’s everywhere! I took this photo waiting on the light on the highway off-ramp.
Interestingly, there are a number of weeds on the edible plants list growing along the state route where we live. Not only will you find chicory plant, but also the milkweed plant, Queen Anne’s lace, honeysuckle, thistle, staghorn sumac and wild grapes. If you know what you are looking for, you can find plants to make everything from wine to jam and lemonade to medicinal remedies.
Chicory has been utilized for its therapeutic qualities as far back as the Ancient Egyptians. I recently learned about how Chicory plant has been used throughout time as a home remedy for headaches. It’s also been used to relieve water retention issues, to reduce inflammation and to assist with digestive problems. The leaves, in particular, are rich in vitamins; particularly iron, calcium and copper.
There is a very informative full nutritional profile available on the Food Facts website. This site points out the chicory plant, particularly its root, as a good source of Vitamin A (114 percent of your recommended daily value) and Vitamin C (40 percent of DV).
Harvesting the Chicory Plant
There is some debate over whether these plants should be harvested if they have been absorbing car fumes along the roadside, but that’s a choice you’ll have to make for yourself. Many roadsides are also sprayed with chemicals. I figure our country road, even though it’s a state route, gets a lot less traffic than the highway, and they don’t spray much of the road by us. So I’m going start my harvest there.
As I set out with my shovel and my bucket, though, I find that the plants along our stretch of the road aren’t very big. Because my husband mows so regularly, they don’t get a whole lot of time to re-grow. I need a spot that’s kind of neglected and doesn’t get mowed often. Back to the drawing board …
I get in my car and drive further down the road. I don’t have to go far before I come upon a huge field that has a really lush stand of Chicory plants at its edge. I park my car and get out with my shovel and buckets. The farmer sees me and comes up, “What’s going on young lady?” he asks. I respond, “Would you mind if I dig out some of these weeds at the edge of your field?” He looks at me incredulously. I go on, “I want some of this Chicory plant so I can try to make coffee with it.” He smiles and says, “Go for it. You can have all the weeds you want. Have fun!”
He turns and walks away as I set to work. I want the whole plant so that I can try all the various parts: flowers, leaves and root. That means I need to loosen the soil all around the base of each plant so that I can pull out as much of the long taproot as possible. I pick a nice big plant to begin with and jump on my shovel to get it deep into the soil on all sides of the Chicory plant. Then I grab the stem near the base of the plant and yank. It slides out nicely, with just a little resistance. Continuing in this way, it doesn’t take me long to collect two big buckets of plants. With everything loaded back into my car, I wave at the farmer and head home.
After arriving home, I start to pull my Chicory plants apart. I take the flowers off and put them in a bowl.
I pick some of the freshest looking leaves off and put them in a different bowl.
Then I take a serrated knife and cut the roots free from the plants. This is a challenge! The roots are tough.
When I examine my harvest, I have one really nice big root and lots of much smaller ones.
Most of the resources I read said the roots should really be harvested in the fall so probably if you are patient and wait until the proper time, you’ll get more for your effort. I’ll work with what I got though.
I put water in my buckets and use a good old scrub brush to clean the roots. They are caked in wet dirt so this takes some time.
Once clean, I bring the roots, leaves and flowers inside. The latter two I stick in the fridge until I’m ready to make my salad. The roots I leave out on the counter to dry a bit. Now the real fun begins!
A Chicory Salad
As I mentioned above, the leaves of the chicory plant are edible, though bitter. They are supposed to be more tender and less intense in the early spring. I’m a little late on that (it’s late June as I’m writing) but I’m going to give it a try anyway.
I have a lot of good salad items in my garden now, so I’ve decided to make a lunch salad with Chicory leaves and flowers added to it.
I gather my ingredients from the garden: lettuce, sweet peppers, a watermelon radish, a few small beets and a cucumber.
The beets I boil, peel and chop.
Everything else I just clean and cut up. To this, I add the chicory greens and a few of the lavender chicory flowers, both rinsed well.
For a dressing, I make a batch of the Chive Balsamic Vinaigrette featured in my story on garlic infused white wine vinegar.
I won’t lie, those greens were bitter! The flowers weren’t so bad, but I would only add a few pieces of the greens, chopped up into small pieces if I had them again. Another option is to get them earlier in the spring, when their flavor is supposed to be more tolerable. Or, like dandelion greens, you can cook them, which helps lessen the bitterness. My dad recounts memories of his grandmother cooking dandelion greens and pokeweed leaves in bacon fat and how it was always so delicious. You can see his mouth start to water when he talks about it.
If you have a lot of flowers, you can also try pickling them. I found an interesting recipe, but didn’t have enough flowers to try it.
A Coffee-Lover’s Adventure: Chicory Root Coffee
As a coffee lover, I was intrigued when I heard about this plant that could be used to make a coffee-like drink or could be mixed with coffee to enrich flavors. I had to try it!
To make chicory coffee, you have to roast the roots. So I gathered up the roots I had cleaned earlier, chopped them into smaller pieces and laid them out on a cookie sheet.
I set my oven to its lowest possible temperature: 170 degrees. I put the roots in the oven and went about my day. Occasionally I came in and turned the roots, but mostly it just took time.
The roots cooked for about seven hours and when they came out they were totally dried out and smelled amazing. I wish I could somehow make this a scratch-and-sniff story so that you could share in the mix of nutmeg and cocoa that filled the oven after I took out my cooked roots.
The last step is to grind it up into a powder. For this, I used a small coffee grinder. It didn’t grind it into a super fine powder, but it did a pretty good job for a simple little machine. It’ll be good enough for the French Press.
I poured the ground, roasted roots into a jar for storage. Tomorrow I will give it a try mixed with some coffee.
I became a coffee drinker while living in Milan my junior year of college so the only coffee I drink is espresso. I have a little macchinetta di caffe that I got in Italy, which I use every morning. So my first experiment was chicory espresso. I prepared my coffee as usual but filled the strainer cup with half espresso and half chicory root. It tasted very similar to what I usually drink but maybe with a bit more spice to it.
Next I wanted to try straight chicory coffee using a French Press. I measured out 1/4 cup of my ground up roots and put them in the bottom of the French Press. Over that I added several cups of hot water that I prepared in the tea kettle.
I let it steep about eight minutes then pushed down the strainer.
It looked more like a tea than a coffee but that’s ok.
I poured some in one of my mother’s lovely little tea cups and gave it a try. Whew! It was strong … earthy … bitter! A little sweeter helped tremendously. It did have the same after taste as coffee does, that slightly bitter taste at the back of your mouth. I could see why people mix it with coffee or, in times past, used it as a replacement for coffee.
My final experiment was kind of like a chicory mocha. I added a teaspoon of cocoa to my cup and filled it back up from the French Press. I mixed it together well and drank a little. Now that I could drink regularly. The sweetness of the cocoa offset the bitterness of the chicory plant to make quite a nice drink. And you get the Vitamins A and C from the Chicory plant while enjoying the flavor of the chocolate.
I hope you learned something new from my little country culinary adventure.