HIKERS AND Sunday drivers often admire the cheery blue flowers of the chicory plants that line country roads as summer tends toward autumn. Most people know H chicory, too, as a salad green or as a root roasted to enhance the flavor of coffee. But rarely do people link the three together to recognize that the leafy head at the greengrocer, the sweet brown toasty root and the familiar weedy flower all come from one and the same plant.
Botanists call it cichorium intybus, while horticulturists have worked their brand of alchemy to produce the wide-leaved, bitter greens that add pungent contrast to the salad bowl. But to find a wild chicory plant in spring or fall, before or after it sprouts its bloom, you'll discover that it grows long thin leaves reminiscent of dandelion greens rather than the broad leaves of the commercial varieties.
Many people, particularly those of Italian descent, take advantage of nature's bounty and gather wild chicory greens throughout their growing season. These greens sprout up in mid-spring, bushy indicators that chicory plants will line the country roads all summer. Like many other edible weeds, they become more bitter and fibrous as they grow, but then they just require a bit of tender care in cooking.
After the summer solstice, chicory leaves cling to a flowerstalk that emerges from their center, shooting straight up a foot or so, bearing those bachelor-button-blue flowers that bloom all summer long. They're shy, as blossoms go: They like moist, cool mornings and often close up by noon.
By summer's end, chicory has set seed, and the tall flowerstalks dry out to straw. At this point, a second set of tender chicory leaves emerges, sometimes from the same root that earlier flowered, sometimes from new roots alongside. Chicory greens are traditionally a springtime gathering, but you can find just as many tender chicory greens in fall.
Fall is the time to gather chicory roots for roasting for hot beverages, too. Plant sugars will winter over in the chicory root, ready to spring forth in new growth next season. Those sugars are what give the chicory root its characteristic flavor, and you will smell them as the root roasts.
Take a strong shovel with you, because the plant grows from woody taproots that plunge deep into the soil. Take clippers, too, to trim off falling flowerstalks. Often you can gather young greens and roastable roots in the same excursion, so you may want to take along two separate containers.
Dig up as much of each chicory root as you can. Tap off unnecessary dirt and rubble, and keep gathering -- what looks like a large quantity of chicory roots amounts to considerably less once trimmed and roasted.
At home, scrub the knobby roots under running water and cut them into one-to-two-inch lengths. Though the uncooked interiors are white, they will turn a rich, toasty brown on roasting. Set the pieces on a cookie sheet and roast them in an oven set to 250 degrees for about one hour. As you begin to notice the sweet roasting smell, keep a watch on them. Thicker root pieces may take longer to cook than thin. You want to toast but not char them.
Once toasted, the chicory root chunks can be ground using any convenient means. A strong blender works quite well. Many coffee grinders are up to the task. A food processor can be used, too. As with coffee beans, you basically want to shred these roasted roots to a fine enough consistency so that you can brew a cup of steamy hot brown liquid by dripping or perking, not by boiling the brew.
Many cooks combine roast chicory root with their coffee, finding that it sweetens the brew while extending the more costly coffee. And some enjoy the bittersweet flavor of chicory on its own.
Gathering chicory root for roasting is time-consuming and may not produce your money's worth, if you compare prices of the ground roast chicory available in bulk at the health food store. Indeed, one can buy grocery store brands of coffee already laced with this flavorful root, but ironically -- with all the chicory that lines our roadways -- much commercially used chicory comes from Europe these days.
For a taste of good ol' American chicory in your coffee, gather it yourself. In addition to making good coffee, it makes a good excuse for spending a few leisure hours in the clear autumn air.
OLD-FASHIONED CHICORY GREENS (4 servings) 6 strips bacon 1 medium onion, diced 3 garlic cloves, peeled 3 to 4 cups chicory leaves 1 cup water 1 teaspoon salt Fry the bacon until fat becomes translucent. Remove from skillet and cut into slivers. Keep grease hot and add diced onion and garlic cloves. Toss until lightly browned.
Meanwhile, clean 3 to 4 cups of tender chicory leaves and chop if desired. In saucepan, bring 1 cup water to a boil and add 1 teaspoon salt. Immerse greens into boiling water and bring again to boil. Then add the bacon slivers, browned onion and garlic, and bacon fat. Cover and simmer until greens are tender, about 15 minutes. Discard garlic cloves before serving.
HARVEST TIME SALAD (8 servings) 8 tart apples, cored and diced 2 lemons 2 cups chicory greens 1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds 1/2 cup toasted sunflower seeds 3/4 cup raisins 1/4 cup flaked coconut 1/4 cup raw wheat germ 1/4 cup diced shallots or onion 1/2 cup plain yogurt 1/2 cup mayonnaise
Toss diced apples in juice squeezed from lemons. Wash chicory, pat dry and chop greens into bite-sized pieces. Dice onions very fine. Mix all ingredients together in yogurt and mayonnaise, then experiment with seasonings: dash of molasses and cinnamon; dash of vinegar, salt and curry powder; crumbled sage; or other combinations.
CHICORY DUMPLINGS (Makes approximately 12 dumplings) 1 cup chicory leaves 1/2 cup boiling water 1/4 cup sour cream 1/8 cup wheat germ 1/8 teaspoon salt 1 egg 1/2 cup whole wheat bread crumbs 1/4 cup onion, diced Dash of cayenne, sage and rosemary Oil for frying
Add chicory leaves to the boiling water, cover and simmer over low heat about 10 minutes. Then strain and dice cooked leaves. Add remaining ingredients (except oil) to the diced leaves and whisk. Let sit 15 minutes. Shape into 1-inch balls and fry to golden brown in a light cooking oil.
HOME-GROWN CHICORY GREENS
When you gather chicory root, save some to keep alive in your cellar or on your windowsill. Prepare a porous soil mix -- one part vermiculite or perlite to one part potting soil. Provide pots at least seven inches deep. Trim off old flowerstalks and any large leaves, then plant fresh roots into soil. Be sure of adequate contact between soil and roots by tamping down and watering when first potted. Then water whenever the surface soil feels dry to the touch. Fresh greens will sprout soon and often, throughout the winter if you treat them with a little care. The plants need only partial sunlight, and may even be deprived of light for blanched greens.