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Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Chicory – coffee from your backyard

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Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were fans

By Bob Confer

Drive along any rural road in Western New York and you will find the summer and early fall landscape graced with the beautiful sky-blue flowers of the chicory. Often considered by some to be a weed (beauty is in the eye of the beholder), it is a strong-willed plant that can survive some of the driest soils of the year and abundantly at that – many local pastures are chock full of the flowers.

It’s a sight best seen in the morning. Many flowers will pop up on one plant, but each flower lasts only one day. On the brightest days the fresh flowers will close by noon and wilt by day’s end. So, imagine if you will, how blue our fields would be if those flowers held out for a week or more as do the asters, the other bluish flowers of the dog days.

The plant, though, is hardy and has serious staying power. That can be a good thing, as chicory offers many uses beyond its eye-catching beauty. A native of the Old World, it was brought here for both drinking and eating.

Coffee from your backyard

 Centuries ago, chicory caught on as a substitute for coffee, a hot commodity that was impossible to enjoy in the volume that the world consumes today. With slow-moving ships as the only way to move the coveted beans and agriculture of bygone days unable to yield what it does now, people had to find creative ways to stretch their beloved coffee supply.

The root of the chicory was the perfect product for that. By itself, it is a fair coffee substitute. It’s strong, although not as strong as the blackest coffees. It also has a biting, even nutty, flavor that some folks compare to hazelnut.

Mixed with coffee, though, one barely notices the chicory flavor and even today millions of pounds of dried chicory root are mixed with coffee. You might often consume it without even knowing it. The rumor mill has said before that Tim Horton’s coffee contains chicory (accounting for its addictive flavor), but that’s highly doubtful.Chicory is caffeine-free and, as an additive, studies have shown that it tempers coffee’s stimulant effects. Two substances in chicory, lactucin and lactucoprin, are proven sedatives.

If you would like to make your own chicory coffee, it’s a pretty easy task. Dig up the roots, scrub them and slowly roast them in a partially-open oven. You must roast them until they are crisp and can break between your fingers, which will show the darker insides.  Once they are at that point you can grind them and store for later use, either straight up or mixed with your favorite coffee.

Chicory greens are healthy eating

The roots aren’t the only part of the plant that’s edible. The leaves have excellent value as well and are actually quite healthy: Every 100 grams of the leaves contains 86 milligrams of calcium, 40 milligrams of phosphorous, 0.9 milligrams of iron, 420 milligrams of potassium and 4,000 international units of Vitamin A.

If you’ve ever harvested dandelions, you know that the younger the leaves are the better they taste, as older leaves can be bitter. The same holds true for chicory.

If you pick them when they are old, you can eliminate the bitterness by boiling them, draining off the water, and then simmering in a second batch of water.

Young leaves, though, can be consumed in a salad. And, realize this: When you are paying big bucks for trendy greens like “radicchio” or “Treviso” you are buying a variety of chicory … yes, you aficionados of fine cuisine, you are eating, as some folks put it, a “weed.”

A plant of controversy

 Chicory led to what might have been one of the earliest pure food laws in the 1800s. In England, coffee distributors were doing the immoral act of selling alleged coffee at coffee prices that was mostly composed of roasted chicory. When you start watering down foodstuff, especially coffee (don’t mess with people’s coffee!), and people find out, angry consumers equal an angry government. So, the Crown demanded that coffee producers start listing chicory content on their packages.

One shyster in Liverpool slyly got around this: He roasted chicory until it was dark brown, ground it and then formed it into ersatz coffee beans that he sold as pure coffee. Tricky.

Even here in the United States, chicory created a controversy of its own.

There was a scandal in Thomas Jefferson’s presidency when it was found out that he had been in communication with the Brits in 1809, a few years prior to the nasty War of 1812. After getting through the initial drama and fears of Jefferson being a turncoat, investigators had discovered that all he was doing was reaching out to the International Board of Agriculture in London to get chicory seeds for none other than George Washington.

 Nowadays, though, nobody has to sneak around to get chicory. It’s everywhere, and probably in your own backyard. It might be time to give it a try and see what the hubbub was about. Make our Founding Fathers proud.

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