Widely grown in Europe for its root, chicory is a Mediterranean herb used as a coffee filler or substitute. In North America, this plant, also known as blue-sailors, grows wild. It is a blue-flowered herb with a long white root. The leaves of the plant are known as endive, and are found in salads, as either a vegetable or a green.
The thick chicory root is roasted and powdered to be added to coffee. The origins of adding it to coffee as a filler and flavor enhancer began as early as the 15th century. The tradition spread to the French, and it became common in parts of Europe where coffee could not be grown or because it was cheaper.
Eventually, chicory became quite popular in the U.S., specifically in New Orleans. Unlike coffee, it does not contain caffeine. The root tends to have a flavor like chocolate.
The salad versions of chicory come in broad and curly leafed varieties. The narrow-leaved version is also called curly endive and the broad leafed variety is also known as escarole. The outer leaves are green and have a bitter taste. Inner leaves are lighter in color, even white, and have a mild taste. Endive is often added to blander lettuces in a salad to add flavor.
Chicory roots that are forced to produce blanched, tight heads, are known as Witloof chicory, also called French or Belgian endive. This is blanched and used as a salad vegetable. Chicory leaves, rather than roots, are more commonly used in the U.S. In Belgium, France and Holland, it is frequently a salad vegetable ingredient.
The roots, if stored in the refrigerator, can be kept for several months. When selecting endive heads, cooks should look for a crisp, bright green color, and no brown areas. Chicory greens look similar to dandelion greens, and the young, tender leaves are preferable. When selecting chicons, or chicory heads, shoppers should look for very tight, pure white specimens that are approximately 1 inch (2.54 cm) thick and about 4 inches (10.16 cm) in length. To store endive and greens in the refrigerator, cooks can place them in plastic bags and they will keep for about ten days.
Chicory is purported to have several health benefits, including possibly aiding in digestion. Because it contains a compound called inulin, a soluble fiber, it may assist digestion by aiding the probiotic bacteria in the digestive tract.