Cicoria, or chicory, also known in English as ‘curly endive’, is a staple of the central and southern Italian diet, or at least so it was traditionally. People from Campania like Angelina were said to be especially fond of leafy green vegetables, so much so that they were sometimes called mangiafoglie, or ‘leaf eaters’ (just as Tuscans are sometime called mangiafagioli for their love of beans). Leafy greens were affordable and could even be scavenged from the countryside. That frugal tradition continues even today; I can remember when I was living outside Rome it was not unusual to see people out in the fields, leaning down here and there to pick up some wild chicory or other greens for their supper.
The health effects of eating your greens were unknown in the old days—in fact, if you read some of the classic older texts like Artusi, you will find that greens were considered poor substitutes for more solid sustenance like meat. These days we know that leafy green vegetables are healthy but, unfortunately, they are no longer super-affordable peasant food. One of the ironies of modern life is how the staples of the underprivileged, vegetables like arugula or radicchio (which is a form of chicory, by the way) have become expensive items that ‘regular’ folks can scarcely afford. But green chicory at least can still be had at a reasonable price and, if you ask me, it is one of the more delicious vegetables. It is crisp and slightly bitter when eaten raw in a salad, while it develops a pleasantly soft texture and almost sweet flavor when cooked. Cicoria is a standard side or even main dish on central and southern Italian tables. (Angelina practically lived off the stuff!) But it also makes for an excellent condimento for pasta.
Pasta with chicory is quick and easy to prepare, perfect for a weeknight supper. You just follow the usual in padella technique that we have featured before:
- 500g (1 lb) pasta of your choice (see Notes)
For the condimento:
- 500g (1 lb) chicory
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
- Salt and pepper
- A pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
- Olive oil
Trim the chicory of any wilted external leaves, wash it well (the heart often has sand) and parboil in abundant well salted water until just tender. Remove the chicory from the water, cut it up roughly and sauté it in olive and garlic, seasoned with salt and pepper and, if you like it spicy, a bit of peperoncino.
Add your pasta, cooked very al dente preferably in the same water in which you have already cooked the chicory, to the skillet with the sautéed chicory. Add a bit more of the pasta-vegetable water and mix well, allowing the pasta to absorb the flavors for a minute or two, by which time most of the liquid should have evaporated and the chicory will have partially ‘melted’ into a kind of sauce for the pasta.
Serve immediately. No grated cheese is called for.
Some recipes for pasta with chicory call for a bit of anchovy, as you might add to broccoletti (broccoli rabe) but, as much as I love anchovies, I find that their saltiness clashes with the sweetness of the chicory. There is also a version in rosso, where you add tomatoes to the olive and garlic to make a quick sugo di pomodoro before adding the chicory. You will also find recipes that call for topping the pasta with grated cheese (usually pecorino) which I don’t particular feel the need for, but it is no doubt a valid option.
As for the pasta, I would recommend a ‘stubby’ kind like penne (pictured here) but you will also find recipes for pasta with chicory calling for bucatini (aka perciatelli).