Spring Chicories (cont)
By: Janet H. Sanchez
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.