In addition to my favorite varieties of radicchio and escarole I grew another chicory this year, a sugarloaf type from Fedco called Pan di Zucchero. It’s wonderful and definitely my new favorite chicory. Growth habit, hardiness and flavor are all reasons I wish I’d grown a larger crop of this delicious bitter green. Next year I will and I’ll also try two other sugarloaf varieties, Virtus, offered by Johnny’s and Borca offered by Adaptive Seeds.
As the Fedco description suggests, sugarloaf chicory looks like “romaine lettuce crossed with napa cabbage.” Unlike escaroles and curly endives, which grow outward in great sprawling rosettes, sugarloaf chicories grow upright to about a foot tall, their leaves wrapping tightly around each other to form dense loaves. Like the leaves of escaroles and chicories, the leaves of sugarloaf chicories are green at the edges and creamy yellow near the center.
One of the reasons I wanted to try this vertical chicory is that I’ve really liked the elongated, upright Treviso radicchios like Fiero. In a winter garden, this upright, tightly wrapped habit makes the individual plants easier to mulch and less likely to rot. Delicious as they are, the loose, open leaves of escarole and curly endive sit right on top of mulch and over time begin to rot even when I tie them up.
The upright habit and dense inner leaves of Treviso and Sugarloaf also help them withstand temperatures in the teens and low twenties. After our two recent blasts of deep cold, I was very happy to find that even though the outermost leaves were a bit battered both the Treviso and the Sugarloaf inner leaves were as delicious as they were before the freeze. I’ve read about a gardener in Vermont who covers her Sugarloaf chicory up the sides and almost over the top with a mulch of dry leaves. I think I will try that the next time really cold weather is in our forecast. Though I cover these greens in a low plastic tunnel to protect them from rain, I want to do anything else I can to keep this tasty chicory available for the kitchen.
Pan di Zucchero means sugar loaf in Italian and sugarloaf is the name that English and American gardeners use for this chicory. In France gardeners call it pain de sucre. What these names are telling us is that of all the bitter greens, sugarloaf has a little more sweetness to go with its bitterness. It’s a slightly milder bitterness than its cousins offer, and like its cousins it’s delicious raw, braised or grilled.
I’ve been using it raw in salads, alone or with pears, nuts and Gorgonzola cheese, with sherry or red wine vinaigrette. For a Christmas-themed salad, its light green leaves are lovely with the wine red leaves of radicchio.
To cook it, I’ve braised the outer leaves in olive oil and garlic and served them as a side dish or as part of a pasta sauce.
We’ve also sliced the heads in half, brushed them generously with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and ground black pepper and grilled them. Braising and grilling bring out the sweetness even more and grilling adds a smoked flavor that reminds me once again that I need to grow a lot more sugarloaf chicory next year.