Chicories, a Favorite Type of Horta since Antiquity

Chicory illustration. Photo: Public domain

Chicories are some of the most flavorful greens which can be eaten raw in salads or cooked lightly and served in the classic Greek way drizzled with Greek extra virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon. In the Northeast United States, they are available in September and October for those interested in eating seasonally. Among the varieties are common chicory, Belgian endive, curly endive, also known as frisee, escarole, and radicchio. Closely related to lettuces, chicories have a nice bitterness to them that spices up your average salad and everyday meals. Make sure to wash them thoroughly since the curly varieties and escarole can trap grit and no one likes gritty salads or greens.

Common chicory is native to the Mediterranean region and is one of the earliest cultivated plants. The ancient Roman poet Horace cited the greens as one of the main foods in his diet in his Odes from circa 30 BC, making chicory one of the earliest plants recorded in literature. Chicory leaves in Greek cuisine are often boiled and served as horta. The boiling removes some of the bitterness of the chicory leaves. Raw chicory leaves have a tremendous amount of vitamin K, which helps with blood-clotting and prevents excessive bleeding. Chicory leaves are also a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin A, C, E (alpha tocopherol), riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, pantothenic acid, calcium, potassium, and manganese, among other nutrients.

A typical folk remedy, chicory has been used for everyday ailments such as gastroenteritis, sinus problems, and even cuts and bruises. Because of its inulin content, chicory may also help with weight loss, improving bowel function, and overall health. It is also known for its toxicity to internal parasites and in New Zealand where the ratio of sheep to people is 30 to 1, it is often added to animal feed to keep the sheep healthy.

Radicchio is sometimes called Italian chicory and though known from ancient times. the Italians cultivated it over time to produce the varieties found in today’s supermarkets. It can be eaten raw in salads, grilled, roasted, and sautéed.

Boiled Chicory Leaves (Horta)

1 bunch chicory leaves

Water

Greek sea salt

Greek extra virgin olive oil

Lemon

Rinse the chicory leaves and set aside. Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium high heat. Add a teaspoon of salt and the chicory leaves. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the chicory leaves are cooked to desired tenderness. Remove from heat and transfer the cooked horta to a serving bowl, drizzle with olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon to taste.

Grilled Radicchio Salad

2 heads radicchio, Treviso variety about 1 pound

2-4 tablespoons Greek extra virgin olive oil

Greek sea salt

2-4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup crumbled feta, optional

Radicchio Treviso. Photo by Michel Chauvet, via Wikimedia Commons

Heat the grill to medium high heat. While the grill is heating up, wash and trim the radicchio of browned edges on the stem. Pat dry. Cut the radicchio in half lengthwise and brush all over with the olive oil. Cook on the grill, cut side down for about 4 minutes or until the edges are nicely browned. Using barbecue tongs, turn the cooked radicchio over and sprinkle the grilled cut side with some salt. Continue cooking until the radicchio is wilted and browned nicely, about 4 minutes more on the grill. Transfer the cooked radicchio halves to a platter or cutting board and chop into bite sized pieces for the salad. Transfer the cut radicchio to a salad bowl and drizzle with the balsamic vinegar and additional olive oil and salt, if preferred. Top with crumbled feta, if using, and serve warm or at room temperature.