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Asparagus chicory is a bitter leafy green from Italy which is used in both cooked and raw forms. It can sometimes be difficult to find outside of Italy, except from specialty growers, but since the plant is extremely hardy and easy to grow, it can easily be cultivated at home.
Two common alternate names for asparagus chicory are radichetta and catalogna, and the greens may sometimes be sold under these labels. Seed companies may off an assortment of catalogna cultivars with various properties, ranging from extremely leafy to distinctively colored asparagus chicory with red stalks instead of the more conventional green.
The chicory family encompasses an assortment of plants which are cultivated for their edible roots, like common chicory, or their leaves, as is the case with endive and asparagus chicory. All of the plants in the family share a distinctive bitter, slightly peppery flavor which can add a level of complexity to many dishes. Like other dark leafy greens, chicory also is a valuable addition to the diet, since it is packed with vitamins and minerals.
The common English name for the plant comes from the vague resemblance it has to asparagus. Asparagus chicory has long, thin stalks with deeply lobed dark green leaves. Some cultivars really do resemble a bundle of asparagus, while others are more leafy. Superficially, many asparagus chicory cultivars look like dandelion greens, leading some consumers to call them “Italian dandelion greens.”
Raw, asparagus chicory can be used in salads just like arugula and other bitter greens. The younger the leaves are, the more tender and the less bitter they will be, allowing home gardeners to select for less peppery specimens when they are making raw salads. Asparagus chicory can also be cooked in sautes and stir fries or grilled. The peppery flavor will be retained through cooking, along with some of the crunchiness of the stalks.
The plant is extremely frost tolerant, allowing gardeners in northern regions to cultivate it in the spring and summer while others can grow it almost year round. It grows readily from seed, as long as the seeds are placed in well drained soil and watered on a regular basis. After the plants start to mature, they should be thinned to allow the strongest asparagus chicory to mature. Gardeners can cut off individual leaves as needed, or remove entire heads of asparagus chicory. In the case of older plants, do this with caution if the plant is being eaten raw, since it can be astoundingly bitter.