When it comes to cuisine, we don't do "bitter" very well in New Zealand, which may explain why chicories are so overlooked as a vegetable, here. I suspect that the other reason we know little about them is that they come in such a variety of forms, each with its own use, that it all gets a bit complicated and we tend to give up on them before we've even started. As a chicory devotee, I do want to encourage you to try this exciting vegetable so, if you'll allow me to simplify things as much as I can, sit tight and follow the following!
Chicories are very ornamental. They come in green and red varieties (and sometimes a combination of both) and there are two main forms: loose-leafed and heading. Both kinds can be used for salads although some varieties are more suited to cooking than others (I hope you're still with me!).
The loose-leafed varieties available in New Zealand are almost all in the endive family. They look gorgeous with very frilly leaves that are green on the outer layers and, when blanched, a pale lemony-yellow in the middle. To obtain the pale centres, it is necessary to tie the mature leaves closed with a soft cloth so that the new growth coming on is protected from the light. Endive can be served in salad or braised lightly in olive oil. Endive seeds are available from Kings Seeds.
There are several other types of loose-leafed chicories but they are difficult to obtain in New Zealand. Cichorium Intybus 'Red Rib', is a Greek favourite where it is one of the main ingredients in spanikopita (spinach and feta pie) and horta (mixed greens sautéed in olive oil and doused in lemon juice). Alas, Kings Seeds no longer stock it but the very keen may be able to track it down from a supplier of farm seed as it is still used in pasture mixes on dairy farms. If travelling overseas, you may spot the seed for sale in a garden shop or super market. If it is kept, sealed, in its original packet (which must bear its horticultural name), and declared on arrival at the airport, my experience is that NZ Customs will allow you to bring it into the country. The other loose-leafed variety is Puntarella, which I have not found in New Zealand. Perhaps if we all pressure Kings Seeds, they may stock more loose-leafed varieties.
Now to the heading forms of chicory, which come in red and green and which can have both round or conical heads and can be torn into salads or braised. They are available from Kings Seeds and they include Witloof Chicory which, when treated in a rather complicated but interesting way, produces tight cone-shaped heads of leaf which are delicious baked in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil and a smattering of crushed garlic. Kings Seeds now has available Chicory Sugar Loaf which provides much the same vegetable as Witloof chicons but without the hassle!
As I said at the start of this chat, chicories are bitter – but it is a tangy bitterness which quickly grows on you and which brings great interest to a lettuce salad. I first bought loose-leafed chicories thinking they were lettuces and was horribly disappointed in them. As I was in Italy at the time, where everyone was enjoying them, I was determined to like them so I gave them a few more tries until I found myself rather enjoying the tang of the leaves, especially when they were teamed with something sweeter such as dried fruit or mandarin. Nowadays, I don't feel I'm eating a decent salad without a few leaves of Cichorium endivia thrown in. I also don't feel I've got a truly beautiful vegetable garden unless I have a few heads of the red varieties scattered about the place.
Chicories truly are a lot of fun if for no other reason than that they are delightfully continental, and their foreignness is a great talking point in the garden or at the table. If you do find that they are not to your liking (but I recommend persevering as the delight of the acquired taste is well worth it in the end), your chooks will be in luck as chicory is a favourite with free ranging poultry. Chicories are at their best in late summer through to winter so there is plenty of time to order your seed. Do give them a try and, as the Italians say, bon apetito!
PS – Dandelion is also a member of the chicory family – and can be cooked in the same way as Cichorium Intybus 'Red Rib'. Boiling them in plenty of water, draining them, and then reboiling, helps to reduce the bitterness.