In his essay, “White Wonder Root,” Herwig Van Hoove described Belgian endive as “Earthy yet noble, and sweet yet bitter.” It’s greenish-white and creamy yellow petals are crispy, yet velvety. Whether you pronounce it EN-dive or ahn-DEEV, these pricey, fragile, twice-grown veggies are classed right up there with the world’s best wines, caviars and truffles.
Discovered in Flanders, a part of western Belgium, along the North Sea, the endive fits right in with a long line of proud Belgian foods. These people are noted for their twice-fried “frites” potatoes, delicious mussels, jumbo waffles, dark, rich chocolate and legendary beers. Their very own Brussels sprouts were “engineered” over 400 years ago.
Belgian endive was the result of an accidental agricultural discovery which produced delicious results. In 1830, the head horticulturist at the Brussels Botanical Gardens, an M. Brezier, neglected some chicory plants set in a dark warehouse, and the plants blanched for lack of light. The resulting pale, whitish-yellowish, four to six-inch cones of petals surfaced as a delicious new vegetable. Thirty more years went by before Belgian endive was ready for the open market. Almost immediately after it was introduced into Paris’ haute cuisine, the French declared it “white gold.”
To make the new veggie market-ready, growers had to duplicate the “accidental discovery” and work with the double-growth process. First, they planted plain endive and let it grow a tap root with a crown of green, ragged leaves. They harvested these roots, trimmed the leaves off then replanted them indoors in the dark. This forced the growth of tight cones of pale, succulent leaves. Frequently, each cone is wrapped in purple paper to prevent full greening.
The basic endive family is a large one. Belgian endive, curly endive, escarole and radicchio are all members of the chicory family of lettuces. Each differs considerably in form, color and to some extent, taste. If grown under proper techniques, most will produce the root frequently used in coffee as a “chicory additive,” especially in French/Creole cultures.
Gaining in popularity, Belgian endive is now grown on most every continent. In this country, it’s raised in California, while Holland and Belgium supplement our crop. Hydro culture is a method of growing which works well with Belgian endive.
Definitely a dieter’s friend, each leaf is only one calorie. It’s also an excellent source of calcium, vitamins A, B and C, also folate and potassium. This fancy is also fat, sodium and cholesterol free.
When purchasing, choose cones which are not brown or green. The choicest part, the inner leaves, should be white or a pale yellow. Wipe with a damp cloth, if necessary, but don’t wash them. They are best consumed soon after purchase, for they increase in bitterness with age. If you must hold them over, wrap cones in a dry paper towel and place inside a plastic bag in your vegetable drawer for no more than three days. If cutting leaves for a salad, do so immediately before serving, for like gardenias, their edges turn brown quickly.
The Belgian Endive Board states their people eat their endive hot, however they tell us it is more likely to be eaten raw in the U.S. Here are some suggested uses:
- · Smaller, boat-shaped chicons, or petals are best for hors d’oeuvres. Fill with smoked salmon, goat cheese, spiced walnuts, baby shrimp, salmon roe or pate.
- · Carefully separate leaves and serve with a delicately- flavored dip.
- · Whole or sliced, Belgian endive leaves dress up any salad. A popular salad is a combination of pears with Gorgonzola cheese, and sometimes chopped bacon. Use a clear dressing.
- · Mix equal parts torn watercress with sliced Belgian endive, top with chopped green onions, dress with favorite vinaigrette.
- · Braise with butter and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.
- · Flavor changes subtly when it is baked, broiled, steamed or stewed.
- · Leaves can also be braised, sautéed or added to soup.