One of the chicories that I planted in late summer for a fall crop is Sugarloaf chicory. If you aren’t familiar with this vegetable, it is a leafy crop in the same family as lettuces and sunflowers. Sugarloaf makes a tall head, similar to a Romaine lettuce. The inner, packed-together leaves are yellowish in color as a result of not being exposed to sunlight. The outer leaves that fold loosely around the head are darker green. All the leaves are good to eat.
You may have seen seeds for this variety of chicory under another name. In Italy, it is called Pan di Zucchero. In France it is called Pain de Sucre. Some seed companies sell seeds for this type of chicory using these other names.
Sugarloaf chicory in the kitchen
The “sugar” part of the name does not mean that Sugarloaf is missing the bitterness that comes with all the other chicories. It does mean, though, that there is a little sweetness along with the bitterness.
I’ve used the leaves from this year’s plants in salads and as cooked greens, and both versions have been good. This may be because I harvested the chicory in winter. Cooler weather keeps the inherent bitterness of most chicories to a minimum.
One great feature of the Sugarloaf chicory is that it can stand up to cooking without turning slimy like spinach. If texture is one of your main objections to most cooked greens, this is one to try.
Growing Sugarloaf chicory
I grew this chicory as a spring crop one year, many years ago, and it didn’t make the tightly packed head that it is supposed to. This year, as a fall-grown crop, it did. Not heading-up didn’t stop me from using and enjoying the plants those years ago, but harvesting the classic tight heads from my own garden feels like a big win.
Sugarloaf is a long-time-to-maturity crops. It needs close to three months of perfect weather. “Perfect” would, I think, involve no days over about 85 degrees F, and none below 32 degrees F. Since that kind of perfect does not exist in the Southeastern US, where I live and garden, my Sugarloaf chicories have taken four months to mature into those lovely heads of greens.
If you plan to try a spring crop of Sugarloaf, it will be best to start them indoors, in plugs or flats, in the next few weeks. They can be transplanted out to the garden after hardening off (exposure to the great outdoors, an increasing number of hours each day) for a week or so.
The garden soil should have a pH in the 6-7 range, be well-amended with compost, and given an extra boost from a nitrogen-rich fertilizer (try one of the fish fertilizers, or alfalfa).
Soil should be kept moist, but not soggy. Too much water can encourage leaf rots at the base of the plant. If we have another super-soaker of a spring, plants in raised beds may be a bit drier than those in in-ground gardens.
Just like for radicchio, harvest Sugarloaf when the heads feel firm. If plants are left too long in the garden after that point, they may start to elongate, which means they are bolting, which means they are sending up a flowering stalk.
When a plant bolts, it quits putting its effort into new tasty leaves, and switches it all into the flowering stalk. If flowers are the goal, well that’s all ok. If you wanted to eat the lovely leafy part, bolting is not a good thing.
Also growing for harvest in January
Chicories, including radicchios and other chicories (frisée, escaroles), aren’t the only crops still coming to the kitchen from my garden. Also in the garden — still — are more carrots, radishes, lettuces, cilantro, and beets.
None of these are growing in long rows or huge blocks, or in massive quantities, but there is a little bit of everything. I pulled another bunch of carrots yesterday, and it was like finding a rainbow underground.
I also have another shallow planter full of arugula coming along. This crop is to use as a “cut and come again” addition to winter salads, sandwiches, and pizza.
What is growing in your garden?