Radicchio, that expensive and somewhat bitter-tasting salad ingredient from Italy, is decidedly beautiful. It is also difficult to grow to perfection. All too often what was to become a tightly formed head develops in my garden into a loose bunch of astoundingly bitter leaves, even when I plant in fall, as is recommended.
Though I still experiment with new varieties of radicchio from time to time, I've found its relatives to be every bit as interesting in salads and much more reliable when it comes to producing an edible fall crop. Unlike other salad greens such as lettuce or spinach, they germinate readily in warm summer soil and mature their robust flavors to perfection in the cooler temperatures of autumn. And chicories are virtually a disease- and pest-free crop, at worst attracting only a few slugs and snails.
The radicchio relations I focus on here include the chicories that form green heads, in some varieties very large, in others diminutive, as well as the assorted Catalogna chicories, some of which are grown for their slender toothed leaves and others for their hollow flower shoots that vaguely resemble asparagus. As with all chicories, they prefer cool temperatures between 55° F and 75° F, but they are more tolerant of both heat and cold than radicchio, hence their wide adaptability. All of these chicories (as well as Belgian endive and the coffee substitute, Magdeburg chicory) are classified by botanists as Cichorium intybus. These plants are technically perennials, but when destined for the kitchen are usually treated as annuals or biennials.
Each of these "other" chicories has its own unique flavor, though always overlaid with at least a touch of the bitterness characteristic of the species. How pronounced that bitterness is depends both on the variety, the stage of growth and the weather at harvesttime. The leaves of young seedlings are not as bitter as those of mature plants, for example. Chicories picked in the cool weather of early spring or late fall are quite delicious, but warm temperatures can render any variety pretty much inedible. That dash of bitterness, if not too overpowering, is a welcome change from the rather sweet and bland flavors of common salad greens. By the way, chicories are extraordinarily high in vitamin A and also provide a fair share of vitamin C and calcium.
This chicory somewhat resembles a very tightly headed Cos lettuce, growing up to 14 inches tall and weighing as much as two pounds. It can be harvested as individual leaves or allowed to form a head, and with both techniques, it can be grown as a cut-and-come-again crop. When the head is allowed to mature, the tightly packed nugget of inner leaves is naturally blanched so it's slightly sweeter than the outer leaves--hence the name "sugar loaf." These silky golden inner leaves are a favorite in my California kitchen, though I generally mix them with milder lettuces when preparing winter salads. The leaves can also be braised briefly in broth to make a delicious vegetable dish.
For prime fall harvest, sow the sugarloaf chicories about 80 to 90 days before your first expected fall frost -- late July to early August in my USDA Hardiness Zone 9 garden. In the North, this can mean planting in June, so you may have to shade the seedlings to keep them from bolting in the heat (or wait until after the summer solstice).
These plants are hardy, surviving temperatures of 20° F or a little below, so in mild climates, you can harvest into the winter. Where winter is more severe, harvest until the first hard frost, then cut plants back to a half-inch and mulch deeply to keep the crowns from freezing. Early the following spring, remove the mulch; the plants will promptly resprout. Harvest the leaves when they're four to six inches tall. You can sow crops for overwintering up to 40 days before the first fall frost--plants that are at least three inches across by the first hard frost will survive. Or, harvest the heads in the late fall and store them in the refrigerator or root cellar, where they will keep nicely for a month or more.
To develop to full size and succulence, sugarloaf chicories need good soil and enough space. Prepare the bed with compost and a balanced fertilizer (as for lettuce) and sow seeds several inches apart in rows some 18 inches apart, later thinning the seedlings to stand a foot apart in the row.
Sugarloaf chicories are offered under several different names, including 'Sugarloaf', 'Snowflake' and 'Crystal Hat'. I've found little difference among them, though Crystal Hat and Snowflake are said to be a little hardier than the others.
Another type of green chicory, Grumolo grows into a pretty dark green rosette up to six inches tall and eight inches wide. For optimum flavor, it's grown in fall so the plants will stay fairly small. The young leaves of this chicory add a delicious and sharp bite to salads and are sometimes included in the popular mesclun salad mixes.
This is a fast grower and also hardier than the sugarloaf types. It's easily taken temperatures of 18° F here in my garden. Sow a month or so before the first expected fall frost. This will allow harvests in late fall (and into early winter where winter temperatures aren't severe). Start harvesting again in spring as new leaves form on the overwintered plants, which should be mulched in the colder zones. Prepare the soil as for sugarloaf chicory, but sow the seeds only an inch apart in rows spaced at six to eight inches. Harvest the young plants when they reach two or three inches, or snip a few leaves at a time from each plant, allowing the plant to continue to produce tender new leaves.
This group of chicories can be somewhat confusing, but the adventurous gardener--and cook--will find them interesting and useful, nevertheless. The sorts of Catalogna chicories called Italian dandelion (or sometimes Cicoria Catalogna) produce, not too surprisingly, weedy-looking plants with narrow, deep green, toothed leaves punctuated by a white midrib. 'Catalogna Frastagliata' is a commonly available variety. The plants can grow into 18-inch-tall bunches, but the leaves are tastiest when young, used in salads or as cooked greens seasoned with garlic and olive oil. This is a fast-growing and fairly hardy crop, and can be grown just like Grumolo chicory in spring or fall.
The other sort of chicory usually included in the Catalogna group is the asparagus chicory or Puntarella. When young, this plant looks just like the Italian dandelion type, but eventually sends up from its center an inch-thick shoot that does, to some extent, resemble an asparagus stalk. (The Italian dandelion chicories also produce edible shoots, but they tend to be thinner and quite leafy.) The variety sold (or described) as asparagus chicory produces relatively straight, smooth stalks; Puntarella makes fantastic thick, twisted shoots.
Growing Asparagus Chicory
Sow this type of chicory six to eight inches apart in rows two feet apart. It requires a fairly long growing season to produce its shoots. I've found it works well to plant it in midsummer for a fall harvest. Or, seed in early fall, allowing the plants to become established before the first hard frosts, then heavily mulching them for protection from winter's cold.
In earliest spring, these chicories come quickly to life, sending forth leaves that are soon followed by the curious stalks. Cutting back the first shoot to appear encourages the plant to bear a cluster of 10 or more new stalks all at once. Harvest these hollow shoots with a knife, taking the tender top six inches or so of each one. These tips may be sliced raw into salads, contributing both an unusual texture and flavor, or steamed until barely tender. The harvest lasts up to six weeks, but eventually the new shoots that form are too small and tough. In summer, asparagus chicory's pretty (and edible) blue flowers, typical of all the chicories, brighten the garden.
Janet H. Sanchez grows many vegetables and ornamental plants in her Santa Rosa, California garden.