If the high price of coffee has you wired, look no further than your backyard or the nearest vacant lot for a great-tasting and free substitute.
The chicory plant (Cichorium intybus) was part of the diet of the Roman philosopher Horace in the first century B.C., and was used extensively as a coffee substitute at least since the 18th century in Europe and Asia, the vast region where the plant is thought to have originated. Even today many companies around the world sell the roasted chicory root either to supplement or replace coffee.
During the summer and early fall, chicory is easily recognizable by its many blue flowers, each the size of a quarter. Its green stalk grows to a height sometimes exceeding six feet, and flowers grow along the stalks and at branch points. Once you've seen it, you'll recognize the unique shape of its stalk at any time of year, with or without flowers.
Other common names for chicory include blue sailors, succory and coffeeweed. It is the root that is dried, ground and baked to create a nutty and full-flavored beverage. Like other wild, edible root crops, the best time to harvest chicory is in late fall, winter or early spring, when the plant's energy is stored underground — provided you can still recognize it.
When you embark on your gathering expedition, take a full-length shovel. Chicory grows best in disturbed areas, often in compacted, gravelly soil, so digging the roots with a hand trowel can be difficult. Like most plants, the roots of older chicory plants get tough, so plan to gather the roots of small or medium-size plants.
Dig the root whole, and wash it thoroughly to remove bits of grit. Chop the root finely into quarter-inch cubes, if possible. If you manage to get hold of a large, tough, wrinkled root, scrape off the tough outer skin before chopping up the more tender inner root.
Place the cut pieces on a cookie sheet and place in an oven. Roast at 350 degrees until brown and fragrant. Monitor the baking closely to avoid burning the root, which will ruin the flavor. Crush or grind the toasted cubes like you would coffee beans. Simmer the ground chicory at the lowest possible boil for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the water is dark.
The aroma is rich and earthy, the taste nutty and bitter. A teaspoon of honey brings out the flavor and takes away the bite. Chicory root has been used traditionally to calm an upset stomach and to purify the liver. You can buy chicory, of course, but the real satisfaction comes from preparing it yourself.