Escarole is a ‘bitter green’ member of the chicory family that looks like a lettuce, but packs a powerful nutritional punch. And no Italian wedding soup would be right without it.
Escarole has been eaten and cultivated since Egyptian times. Escarole is an excellent addition to soups and salads, providing both flavor and texture. It can also be baked into casseroles, sautéed, added to pasta, or used to wrap meat or fish. [Lightly sautéing or braising escarole is the best way to bring out its sweetness.] In fact, it is easier to find recipes for escarole than growing tips. But grow it we shall!
The escarole plant
Cousin to radicchio, escarole is a subspecies of endive [on-deev]. The endive species is divided between curly endive or frisée (var crispum), with narrow, toothed leaves, and escarole, or broadleaf endive (var latifolia). Being a type of chicory, escarole has darker outer leaves and pale green to white inner leaves. The degree of greenness to a leaf is an indicator of its bitterness. The chemicals that create the bitterness are said to aid digestion. This group of plants also produces a milky white latex than can cause skin irritation for some.
Escarole, and other chicories, are biennial plants grown as annuals. If you allow them to go through their full lifecycle, as I do, the flowers will attract pollinators and you will find escarole turning up everywhere that it can grow!
How to grow escarole
In hot regions, escarole seeds are generally planted in early fall through early spring, successively. This helps avoid bolting, or going to seed, before plants reach full size, and ensures a ready supply of fresh escarole for the kitchen. While they are less likely to bolt than lettuce or spinach, escarole leaves do not taste very good once this process begins.
Escarole is grown much like lettuce, in that it prefers full sun, consistent moisture, temperatures between 50 and 75°F, and a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.8, ideally. Like lettuce, if the soil dries out too much, growth will slow and the leaves will become too bitter to enjoy. Prepare the seed bed by top dressing with aged compost.
Seeds are planted 1/4-inch deep and thinned to 6 to 12 inches apart. Plants growing too close together are more likely to bolt. Side dressing with more aged compost will provide valuable nutrients, retain moisture, and slow weed growth. Escarole also makes a lovely container plant, indoors or out. Escarole matures in 85 to 98 days, depending on conditions.
Escarole pests and diseases
Aphids, flea beetles, beet leafminers, cabbageworms, cabbage loopers, leafhoppers, slugs and snails, and cutworms may feed on your escarole plants, but they rarely cause serious damage. You can use brassica collars to protect young escarole from cutworm damage, and row covers to block many of the other pests. Diseases of escarole include damping off disease, downy mildews, Alternaria leaf spot, Rhizoctonia blight, white mold, leaf rot, and bottom rot.
You can remove outer leaves any time you like, or cut the entire plant off at ground level. Leaving the root system in place feeds the soil microorganisms that help our plants thrive.
Escarole does not freeze well, but many of the recipes that use escarole do, so cook it up and freeze it for later use.
Chicory root coffee may stir you to wax romantic, with thoughts of beignet and jazz dancing across your synapses, but this rugged roadside weed offers far more than daydreams.
Chicory as food
Chicory is a highly versatile plant. It’s slightly bitter leaves are used in salads, the buds can be blanched in boiling water, and the taproots are frequently roasted and ground up as a coffee substitute. Chicory is also grown as livestock feed and is said to combat internal parasites. The leaves of wild chicory and domesticated chicory plants that have been stressed are more bitter than domesticated varieties. You can reduce the bitterness by changing the cooking water 2 or 3 times. If you want to harvest chicory root for a Big Easy beverage, gather them before the flowering stems emerge. These roots can also be cooked and eaten the same as carrots or parsnips. Chicory roots can also be ground into flour and used to make bread, and some brewers add chicory to their beer recipes. How’s that for versatile?
Chicory and nutrition
We’ve all heard how important it is to eat our fruits and vegetables. And a certain sailor has been telling us, for decades, to eat our spinach. You may be surprised to learn that chicory contains powerful disease-fighting compounds called polyphenols. In 2013, the Journal of Nutrition published research that showed adults who consume 650 mg of polyphenols each day tend to live longer and better than those who don’t. This is due to polyphenols’ abilities to protect your cardiovascular system, fight cancer, and reduce inflammation. One cup of chicory contains 235 mg of polyphenols, which is twice the amount found in spinach!
Chicory’s family tree
Family trees can be funny things. It’s like going to a reunion and learning that you are actually related to that person. A member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), chicory (Cichorium intybus) is one of those large, gregarious groups that keeps turning up in unexpected places, and some of the connections aren’t exactly clear. For example, curly endive, Belgian endive, and radicchio are all types of chicory, dandelions and lettuce are siblings, and chicory’s cousins include sunflowers, artichokes, yarrow, chrysanthemums, and even dahlias, as well as sunflowers!
Chicory’s pretty blue flowers have lent it many names: cornflower, bachelor’s buttons, coffeeweed, hendibeh, blue daisy, and wild endive. Like other members of the sunflower family, the flowers are composite and leaves are normally toothed or lobed. The tough, hairy flowering stem is grooved and plants grow 10 to 40 inches tall. Occasionally, the flowers can be white or pink, but this is rare. Flowers appear July through October. Like dandelions, chicory plants have an irritating milky sap that you know as latex.
Chicory leaf types
Many people call leaf chicory ‘endive’, but this is a mistake. True endive (Cichorium endiva) is its own species. The two can, however, cross-pollinate and hybridize, but that only affects the seeds produced that year. There are three types of cultivated leaf chicory (Cichorium intybus):
*Sometimes, chicory receives a special treatment called etiolation. In the culinary world, this is called blanching. [The word ‘blanching' can also refer to a cooking method that submerges food briefly in boiling water, but I digress.] Whatever you call it, this refers to blocking sunlight to all or part of a plant to produce longer stalks (celery), or white leaves (Belgian endive).
How to grow chicory
In San Jose, Californi,, chicory is a cool season crop that can be started in January and February, for an early summer crop, and again in July or August, for an early winter crop. This gives the seeds time to get started before the weather turns too hot or too cold. Chicory grown in our scorching summers tends to bolt, and the leaves are more bitter. A light frost actually reduces some of the bitterness and adds just a touch of sweetness. Seeds should be planted 1/4 inch deep and thinned to 12 inches apart. Avoid overhead watering, as the leaves are prone to rotting.
Chicory pests and diseases
Despite its rugged nature, there are some pests and diseases that can impact chicory. Bacterial soft rot, damping off disease, fusarium wilt, white mold, anthracnose, bottom rot, downy mildews, and septoria blight are all diseases that attack chicory. Aphids, cabbage loopers, darkling beetles, flea beetles, leaf miners, thrips, and slugs and snails may feed on your chicory plants.
Chicory is one of those plants that can grow like a weed. Once established, you can pretty much ignore it until you decide to harvest whatever part you have a hankering for. And, hey, even the flowers are edible!
Curly endive, Belgian endive, or whatever variety of Cichorium strikes your fancy, this is one vegetable that should be part of every foodscape.
If you eat salads, soups, or burgers, curly endive is an excellent addition to your garden. It looks pretty, it tolerates both heat and cold, and, if allowed to go to seed, will decorate your yard with dozens of rosette-shaped edible plants! These cousins to dandelions and sunflowers have much to offer the home gardener. One cup of fresh endive contains 220% of the Daily Value for Vitamin K, 36% folic acid, 20% manganese, and plenty of other nutrients. Endives also add a distinct depth of flavor to many dishes.
There are several members of the endive family. They are all cool season greens, with high nutritional values and varying degrees of bitterness. Now, bitterness is a weird thing. I just read Evolution of bitter taste sensitivity, from ScienceDaily, and learned how the conflict between disliking bitterness protects us from eating toxins and prevents us from enjoying healthy foods is more complex than you might expect. Give it a read!
How to grow endive
Endive is a cool season biennial plant, like lettuce and spinach, that can be grown in sun, shade, or outdoor containers. (It would look nice on an apartment balcony, too!) In the Bay Area, endive can be started in late summer, fall, or winter. The plants are tolerant of light frost, which is about all we get. Plants prefer plenty of sunlight and a soil pH of 5 - 6.8, which is more acidic than we tend to have, but my plants don’t seem to care. Seeds should be planted 1/4 inch deep. Mature plants will need to be 8 to 12 inches apart, unless you are growing Belgian endive, which is another story altogether (below). If plants are too close together, they are more likely to bolt, or go to seed. Water regularly to keep the bitterness to a minimum. Dressing the plants with aged compost once or twice during the growing season adds nutrients needed for the best flavor and growth. (Dressing means putting aged compost around a plant.) When plants are 5 to 6 inches tall, they can be harvested by cutting them off at ground level. The remaining stump will grow another plant for a continuous harvest. Or, you can simply remove outer leaves, as you need them, which is what I do.
Belgian endive, left to its own devices, can be quite bitter. The Belgian endive you see in the grocery store has been blanched to reduce that bitterness. Now, I had always thought that blanching meant a form of cooking (which it does), but it also refers to blocking sunlight from plants. It ends up, the same chlorophyl that allows plants to make their food from sunlight also makes endives bitter. Blocking the sunlight, or blanching, for 2 or 3 weeks before harvesting gives the plants their delicate white color and removes much of the inherent bitterness. To blanch Belgian endive, wait until the plants are 4 or 5 inches tall and the leaves are dry (to avoid rotting), tie a string around each plant, and place a large flowerpot or bucket over each one. Commercially grown Belgian endive is planted very close together, creating a blanching environment, but it’s tricky.
Endive pests & diseases
I have found slugs and snails to be the biggest pests, but even they don’t do a whole lot of damage to my curly endive. Aphids and cutworms may also show up, but, again, the damage is minimal. Apparently, the bitterness that makes endive so healthy for us is also what makes it undesirable to pests. Curly endive has no serious diseases. Broad leafed varieties, however, have a tendency to collect water on the leaves, creating habitat for occasional fungal diseases.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!