Larry Lyons: Chicory is more than just a pretty weed

Published 8:26 pm Thursday, July 29, 2010

lyonsUnless you’re in the habit of driving with your eyes closed, you’ve surely noticed the bright blue wildflowers now blooming prolifically along just about every rural roadside.  These are chicory.

You must know of chicory’s reputation as a substitute for coffee. Many years ago curiosity got the best of me and I tried it. I pulled up a bunch of chicory roots, roasted them in the oven, ground them up and boiled them in water just like boiled coffee, which I like. Like most reportedly edible wild plants, I found they didn’t have much going for them. In fact, I’d just kick my coffee habit before resorting to the bitter brew.

What I didn’t know at the time was that not all chicory is created equal. Most of the wild chicory is the plain old variety called common chicory. That most often used for a coffee substitute or addition is a cultivar created especially for the purpose. It’s generically referred to as root chicory and less bitter than the wild variety.

What inspired my curiosity were the tales of Indians, mountain men and early settlers sitting around their fires smokin’, jokin’ and swillin’ chicory coffee. However, that was nothing but errant folklore. Chicory is not native to North America. Its homeland is the Mediterranean region of Europe where for centuries it has been cultivated for a variety of uses. Immigrants brought chicory over with them and it has since become a common weed thriving in wastelands throughout the eastern U.S.

One of the most common uses of chicory is as a food source. Chicory is very closely related to curly endive and is used in much the same ways. Chicory is bitter and their leaves add an essential flavor to some Mediterranean dishes popular in Italy, Greece and Turkey. The cultivated varieties tone down some of the bitterness and the leaves are often used in salad. Another prized part of the chicory pant is the flower bud. When blanched they are called chicons. Some brewers add a touch of chicory to their beer to give it a distinctive flavor.

As previously mentioned, specially cultivated root chicory has some coffee-like qualities (though I believe it’s decaf so why bother?) and is popular throughout the Mediterranean region as well as parts of India, Asia, South Africa and the southern U.S., particularly New Orleans. The roots are roasted and ground just like coffee beans. Some use it as an entire substitute for coffee while others prefer it as an additive to give coffee an extra flavor kick. From time to time I’ve even seen specialty coffee/chicory blends in the local grocery stores.

When economic hard times set in, folks turn to chicory coffee. During the Great Depression it all but replaced the more expensive real coffee. It also fills in when coffee is scarce, like during WWII and during the world wide coffee shortage in the late 1970s.

Chicory is high in fiber and contains a starch-like substance that’s easily converted to sugar, making it suitable for livestock feed. More importantly, it reduces or even eliminates intestinal worms. In some areas it is commonly mixed in with hay to make a cattle health bar, if you will.  Apparently the cattle put up with the bitterness.

Humans haven’t overlooked the medicinal benefits of chicory, either. Ancient Germans used it to treat gallstones, gastrointestinal and sinus ailments. Today some take chicory extract as an herbal health enhancer. It can also be processed into a sweetener, though interest along these lines has been minimal.

If you’re compelled to give our wild chicory a try first positively identify it. Feel free to roast the roots for coffee but I’ll bet once will be enough for that. Otherwise, look for recipes calling for endive and use chicory leaves as an endive substitute. Boiling the leaves lessens the bitterness.  Of course, discard the water. One traditional recipe calls for lightly boiling the leaves and then sautéing them with garlic and anchovies. Folks also use the boiled leaves in pasta and as an herb to flavor meats.

Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications.

He can be reached at