This is an old European gardening trick used to decrease the bitterness and increase the tenderness in chicory varieties like endive and radicchio. The practice causes the foliage to emerge with no chlorophyll leaving behind only white leaves tinged with yellow or red. The results, referred to generally as chicons, are delicious. In Tucson, when the summer is brutal to most of our green crops, this trick can provide you with some homemade fresh greens to enliven the boring greens you might need to purchase at the grocery store when your garden is lacking.
Forcing in general means causing a plant to produce out of season. Involved in this process also is a technique referred to as blanching. Blanching is depriving a plant of light which causes it to emerge with a minimum of green in the foliage. When we talk of forcing chicories indoors, the assumption is that we are blanching too (blanching is also a cooking term that means lightly boiling).
Blanching can be done in season as well. Celery, rhubarb and cardoon are often wrapped to blanch the stems. Sometimes these crops are entirely covered to blanch the entire plant. There are specific pots designed for just this purpose with a lid on the top for peaking at results.
- Some soil medium (can even just be pure peat or sand, but almost anything works).
- A container that is at least a foot tall, with tray.
- A dark space in your house.
Go out into the garden and carefully excavate chicory plants. They can be any variety of chicory, though there are many varieties that are specifically bred for forcing and the results are generally better. The results will be as diverse as the chicory can be, which is a lot. Endive, radicchio, and puntarelli work well for this purpose.
- Carefully snip off the tops leaving only the roots and maybe just a smidgen of foliar stem above.
- Plant the results in your soil medium and water in well. You can pack plants in pretty tight, but try not to have roots touching each other.
- Store your potted result in a dark cupboard, closet or wherever you can afford the space. If you have no enclosure, use burlap or dark fabric to cover the pot. Keep pots watered.
- Wait and be patient. How long it takes to produce the chicon (forced chicory) is dependent on the variety, size of the taproot, and a variety of other factors. Results are somewhat more unpredictable in our climate because in most places this is done in winter. However, our harsh season is the summer and the time to do forcing and the results are usually surprisingly good. Watch for insect infestation or other problems.
- When you are satisfied with the results, snip the chicons from the root at the base (low enough so you don’t loose too many of your outer leaves). The roots should be able to reproduce chicons a few more times, though each resulting chicon crop will probably be somewhat inferior to the last.
Browse the best source for chicory (Franchi Sementi, also known as Seeds Of Italy) and select the varieties that have a lot of white in the stem and are somewhat head-forming. These make the best forcing chicories. There are MANY to try. The Europeans have been eating forced chicory for centuries and the diversity they offer is staggering.
Other crops to force in summer in a similar manner: sea kale and rhubarb. Celery, cardoon, and fennel can be grown this way too but can be given more light.