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Vermont Chicory Week Celebrates Bitter Greens

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From left: Sophie Cassel, Sophie Howat, Andrea Solazzo with her baby, Lucia Solazzo Dunseith, and Hilary Martin among baby chicory at the Diggers' Mirth Collective Farm - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • From left: Sophie Cassel, Sophie Howat, Andrea Solazzo with her baby, Lucia Solazzo Dunseith, and Hilary Martin among baby chicory at the Diggers' Mirth Collective Farm

For decades, Vermonters have gathered to salute and savor the state's edible and drinkable products. We celebrate the sweetness of maple, the richness of cheese and the abundance of local craft brews.

This week, for the first time, a more obscure foodstuff takes the spotlight: chicory. A crew of enthusiastic friends, farmers and frisée fans have created Vermont Chicory Week to promote the often bitter, sometimes misunderstood plant that's a staple vegetable in Europe.

"Those bitter flavors are not as common in American cuisine," said Andrea Solazzo, director of community engagement at Vermont Foodbank. Acting as an "enthusiastic community member" while on maternity leave, she said, she dreamed up the event with herbalist Sophie Cassel of Red Wagon Plants and Hilary Martin and Sophie Howat, both co-owners of Diggers' Mirth Collective Farm.

Leafy chicory varieties — radicchio, escarole, sugarloaf, dandelion, frisée and Belgian endive, for example — are often mistaken for lettuce or cabbage. But they're members of the Asteraceae (or daisy) family and related to the wild chicory that grows along the roadside and to the chicory root often used as a coffee substitute or additive.

Solazzo said her group was inspired by the Seattle-based Chicory Week, which advocates for bitter greens throughout the Pacific Northwest. For one week each year, according to the event's website, participating farmers and restaurateurs "promote the heck out of radicchio and its place in the PNW food scene," aiming to increase the vegetable's "consumption, production and enjoyment."

"We're all big radicchio and chicory fans, and we were pretty jealous of [Chicory Week] on the West Coast," Solazzo explained. "We wanted to start a similar tradition here, recognizing that they're crops that grow really well in Vermont."

The first Vermont Chicory Week, which runs through Sunday, October 24, began on Monday with a chicory coffee-fueled kickoff in the morning and a growers' roundtable in the evening.

Rounding out the event are tastings at the Old North End and Burlington farmers markets, chicory swag with illustrations by Christine Hill, a virtual cooking class with Seven Days food writer Melissa Pasanen, a bitter digestive class at Railyard Apothecary, a virtual bitter cocktails demonstration with Caledonia Spirits beverage director Sam Nelis, and a DIY "chicory crawl" to sample chicory dishes. (See a recipe for roast chicken with radicchio, shallots and delicata squash.)

Roast chicken with radicchio, shallots and delicata squash - MELISSA PASANEN
  • Melissa Pasanen
  • Roast chicken with radicchio, shallots and delicata squash

Restaurants and food businesses around Burlington and Montpelier are showcasing chicory all week: Pizzeria Ida, Poppy Café & Market, Pizzeria Verità, Trattoria Delia, Miss Weinerz, Bistro de Margot, Barr Hill by Caledonia Spirits, and Dedalus Wine Shop, Market & Wine Bar.

Radicchio is a regular ingredient in the flavor-packed sandwiches at Poppy. Still, the Burlington restaurant created a special sandwich for Vermont Chicory Week. The Bitter Woman features prosciutto, radicchio, endive, arugula, golden raisins, Castelvetrano olives, onion jam, pickled fennel, Parmesan, garlicky bread crumbs and a Caesar aioli.

Each Vermont Chicory Week event is designed to demystify the bitter greens and get people excited about them — something Martin tries to do when customers approach the Diggers' Mirth stand at farmers markets.

"A lot of times, people think the escarole is lettuce," Martin said. "Then it's a backpedaling thing when I correct them, and they're disappointed. But that gives me the opportunity to talk about how wonderful it is."

Showy radicchios, such as the pale-green-and-red-speckled Bel Fiore, are an easier sell, Martin said. The mild variety was a new one for Diggers' Mirth this season, and its pretty, loose heads flew off the stand.

"Sometimes escarole doesn't look dramatic enough to draw attention," Martin added with a laugh.

Chicories aren't a huge crop for Diggers' Mirth at Burlington's Intervale, but the farmers started growing a few on a whim a couple years ago. The varieties they planted — escarole and a tight-headed, purplish-red radicchio called Indigo — grew very well, especially in the cool weather at the beginning and end of Vermont's growing season.

Sugarloaf chicory - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Sugarloaf chicory

Right now, Diggers' Mirth has a small patch of sugarloaf chicory, also known by its Italian name, pan di zucchero. They'd hoped to grow more chicory for Vermont Chicory Week, but the radicchio they planted midsummer didn't survive the heat, and a planting intended for fall harvest was "chomped by deer," Martin said.

Sugarloaf is a great introduction to chicories for wary eaters, though. Its green head looks like a long cabbage, its leaves wrapped around the core in an intricate pattern. "It should be popular because it's mild and sweet. It has even been called 'the gateway chicory,'" Martin said.

Sugarloaf is also among the easiest chicories to grow, along with escarole, said Julie Rubaud, owner of Hinesburg's Red Wagon Plants. Farmers grow it the way they grow lettuce: by transplanting seedlings into the ground and harvesting them when they've grown large heads. But these plants are more forgiving for the home gardener: They can be planted from mid-April through mid-August, they don't need row covers, and they're relatively pest- and disease-resistant.

Escarole's crinkly leaves give each head a variety of flavors and textures. As the plant grows, the dark green outside leaves photosynthesize, but the tender inner leaves don't because they're shaded from the sun, leaving them white or pale pink and less bitter.

"Escarole is a good crop for home gardeners to grow, because a home gardener has the luxury of letting them size up," Rubaud said, referring to letting the plants get larger than they would on most farms. "So you really get to appreciate all those textures, colors and flavors. I love lettuce, but I would take an escarole salad over lettuce salad any day. It feels like a meal."

The chicories we eat today were primarily bred in the last 150 years, likely originating from European farmers who used chicory root as animal fodder, Rubaud explained. When stored, the roots would sprout shoots.

"The farmers discovered that the shoots were yummy to eat in the winter when they were desperate for something fresh," she said. "Like so many delicious things, they just came out of super thriftiness."

Some chicories, such as Belgian endive and Tardivo radicchio, are still grown in a similar way: They're "forced" by harvesting the roots, then manipulating light and temperature to produce delicate leaves. "It's pretty technical and involved, but I would be so psyched if there were home gardeners who wanted to try," Rubaud said. "We could have a study group."

Poppy Café & Market's special Vermont Chicory Week sandwich, the Bitter Woman - COURTESY OF POPPY CAFÉ & MARKET
  • Courtesy Of Poppy Café & Market
  • Poppy Café & Market's special Vermont Chicory Week sandwich, the Bitter Woman

There are many chicories for people to explore, she added. The key to enjoying them is threefold: "It's in how you grow it, how you wash it and then how you dress it," Rubaud said.

Preparation takes a bit of "leaf triage" — washing three times to get everything out of the tight, wrinkled leaves and then separating pale, tender leaves for salad and dark, sturdy ones for braising or grilling. But once it's clean, a single head can make multiple versatile meals. Rubaud even uses radicchio as a base for nachos, inspired by a recipe in Joshua McFadden and Martha Holmberg's Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables.

Solazzo makes a bitter green salad with raw and grilled radicchio, segmented grapefruit, pistachios, "a bunch of parsley, and a mustardy, shalloty dressing," she said.

She also loves her mom's approach to cooking escarole, which involves blanching and sautéing the large green leaves, mixing them with cannellini beans, then eating them on toast, bruschetta-style.

However chicories are enjoyed, "the goal is to commune around this beautiful vegetable, learn more about it, and get it more integrated into our community of eaters and growers," Martin said.

"That's what's amazing about Chicory Week," Rubaud said. "It's a little niche and random, but there's so much to dive into."

After the last few years, there's something poetic about reveling in the beauty of bitterness.

The original print version of this article was headlined "New Leaves"