A Bitter Coming of Age

Posted on February 20, 2012


This winter has been the occasion of my foraging coming of age.  I’ve been gathering edible wild plants in the hills, fields and empty lots around my home for a number of years now.   At first, I could identify only the most distinctively shaped plants, and my gathering repertoire was limited to wild asparagus and hubeisa (mallow), whose frilly leaves are unmistakable. 

As time went on, I began to notice wild spinach leaves – everywhere I looked, their shiny, deep green triangular leaves seemed to pop out of the undergrowth, asking to be picked.  Then wild spinach – sautéed with onion or greening a quiche – came to dominate my foraging meals. 

But in the last few weeks, my eyes have acquired the focus needed to pick chicory (ellet in Arabic, olesh in Hebrew).   The chicory plant is relatively nondescript – the leaves are narrow, tall and papery thin.  Sometimes they are scalloped at the edges.  There are other plants that resemble chicory – clever imposters with unpleasant spikes on the underside of their leaves.  I saw them, and let them be.  My confidence grew.

In the market in Nazareth and the Bedouin produce store where I buy my vegetables, they sell cultivated chicory.  Chicory is a beloved feature of Arab cuisine which people do not want to give up on, even if they don’t feel like going out and picking it.  So local farmers are growing it for an eager clientele. 

I always resisted cooking chicory because the traditional way that I was taught requires boiling the leaves to remove the bitterness before sautéing them with onions in olive oil.  It just didn’t seem right to lose all those fresh vitamins.  But then I had chicory that Balkees prepared – boiled and sautéed – and it was so fine, I simply submitted. 

Chicory has now become my house green.   And I boil it, letting the purist in me take a day off.   It simply tastes so very good that way. 

The other day, I was crouching in a mound of wild growth, teasing out the chicory leaves, when a flock of parrots flew overhead.  These are parrots that once escaped from captivity and, after finding the Israeli climate to be most hospitable, have propagated enthusiastically.  As they flashed by in a  brilliant green streak, I saw the color of a chicory leaf held up to the sun.