Playing with Belgian Endive

The most exciting Valentine’s gift I’ve ever received was a box of bitter winter vegetables. Don’t get me wrong; I am always grateful for a gift of good dark chocolate. But giving me a box of chocolates is like giving a smoker a pack of cigarettes. Finding a big box of Belgian endives on the porch was a joy in part because it was totally unexpected.

Besides, I’d never tasted this vegetable before. I hadn’t grown it myself—raising Belgian endive is a special project, as I’ll explain—and I tend to pass by supermarket vegetables that sell for nearly ten dollars a pound, as Belgian endive often does, when you can find it at all. In fact, endive was so foreign to me that talk of it or any of its forms or relations used to send me running flustered to the dictionary.

Chicory, Endive, Escarole, Radicchio . . .

In case you’re confused, too, let me try to sort out the nomenclature associated with this plant. What we call Belgian endive is actually chicory—or succory, as English speakers used to call it—a plant of the genus Cichorium, recognizable along roadsides in the United States and Europe by its startlingly blue, daisy-like flowers, which shrivel unhappily when you pick them. Dig up the plant, and you’ll find a long white root that you can roast and grind to make a bitter, caffeine-free coffee adulterant or substitute.

The genus Cichorium comprises two or more species, depending on how botanists sort the various forms, and a lot of subspecies. Cichorium endivia includes curly endive—or, to les snobs, frisée (French for “frizzed”)with curled, deeply toothed leaves, and a form with broader, flatter leaves often called escarole. Belgian endive isn’t true endive but a very similar relative, C. intybus, which when grown from seed in the garden produces bitter, green, dandelion-like leaves. After these leaves are removed in the fall, the root, stored in darkness under particular conditions, will produce a pale, mild-flavored head of Belgian endive. The heads are also known in English by their Flemish name, witloof (“white-leaf”) chicory. In French, Belgian endive is sometimes called endive—“on-deev,” a pronunciation now fashionable in the United States—but more often chicon.

Radicchio, you might think, is simply a colorful Italian form of Belgian endive. Actually, the original radicchio, ‘Rosso di Treviso’, began as a cross between C. intybus and C. endivia, and the other popular cultivars were bred from this original. ‘Rosso di Treviso’—in its early, precoce form— looks like a deep-red-and-white version of its gold-and-white Belgian cousin (tardivo is late Treviso radicchio, sold after the heads have opened and turned more bitter). ‘Rosso di Chioggia’ is a rounder version of Treviso radicchio, and ‘Variegato di Castelfranco’ looks like a pale, red-flecked head of butter lettuce.

 Farm-Grown Belgian Endive

In the United States, nearly all Belgian endive was imported before 1983, when Rich Collins started a company now called California Endive (it was originally Rebel Farms and subsequently California Vegetable Specialties) in Rio Vista, California. Rich is the man who sent me my box of Belgian endives—two years in a row, actually. He sends his Valentine’s packages of chicons, with and without their roots, to food writers and chefs who he hopes will promote his product. “Ten million Belgians can’t be wrong!” is Rich’s slogan. With growing fields scattered around northern California, Rich now sells more than 4 million pounds of Belgian endive per year, including not only the original, pale type but also what Rich calls red endive, a cross of Belgian endive with Treviso radicchio. California Endive is the world’s largest producer of red endive.

For Rich, Belgian endive is no longer a seasonal food; he produces it year around. At his “growout facility” in Rio Vista, the collected roots are stored until needed and then packed upright into big trays, which are stacked in a big, dark temperature-controlled room and watered and fed hydroponically. Some Italian farmers use a similar method for growing radicchio.

Although Rich claims to be the only U.S. producer of Belgian endive, he has a new, small-scale competitor here in Oregon. At Sunset Lane Farm, near Brownsville, Marco and Kay Franciosa are hoping to build a big forcing room, but for now they’re producing chicons in raised beds in their greenhouse, where they bury the chicory roots in a sterile soil mix so the tops are a full five inches below the surface. Burying the roots deeply, Marco says, is the secret of producing dense, succulent chicons. Marco and Kay are now selling their Belgian endive to restaurants and local markets throughout Oregon. What began as a hobby, they say, has become their passion.

Growing Your Own

Hobby always strikes me as a cumbersome word. To start a hobby, you have to buy supplies, read books, and maybe even join a club, right? But growing your own Belgian endive, apparently, can be much easier than that. Says the catalog for Nichols Garden Nursery, which sells the hybrid witloof ‘Zoom’, “Sow in the open May-June, lift and trim roots in late fall. Place upright in a bucket filled with sand or sawdust. Provide warmth and moisture for 1 to 3 weeks, and you can begin to harvest.” Other writers elaborate. Says Frann Leach of Edinburgh, Scotland, at harvest time in late fall, keep only the roots that are thick and not “fanged” (forked), trim the leaves to 1 inch, and store the roots horizontally, covered with sand, in boxes in a shed or outdoors covered with straw. To force the roots, Frann says, trim them to a uniform length of 7 to 8 inches, and stand them in a pot filled with aged compost, soil, or sand at a temperature of 50 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit. In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons, says you must be sure the crowns just show in the soil packed around the roots, and then you must cover them in at least 18 inches of sawdust, and water as needed. Euell grew his witloof in a box; Frann uses a flowerpot, and upturns a second pot as a cover, blocking the drain holes to exclude all light. You can instead plant the roots in a greenhouse or cold frame, Frann says; in this case, cover them with 8 inches of soil, sand, or leaf mold.

Last week I stopped by Nichols for some Zoom seeds. I will plant my first chicory crop in just a few weeks!

In the Kitchen, on the Table

The day I received Rich’s first box of Belgian endive, my daughter and I used three heads in a salad similar to one she remembered from Belgium, where she had lived for a year during high school. We cut off the base—about 1/8 inch—of each head, cut out the core to a depth of about ½ inch, and sliced each head crosswise. We tossed the slices with apple chunks and toasted chopped walnuts, and then dressed the salad with cider vinegar, walnut oil, and a little salt and honey. The pleasantly crisp endive was only slightly bitter, less bitter than the walnuts, and the sweetness of the apples and honey well balanced the bitterness of both the nuts and greens. I could imagine other sweet foods taking the place of the apples: orange sections, slivered fennel, pomegranate berries. Lemon juice could substitute for the vinegar. For a less bitter salad, hazelnuts could replace the walnuts. Fatty foods—bacon, cheese, or avocado, could damper the bitterness even more. In Belgium, Becca said, the dressing would be mayonnaise.

She tried such variations. In fact, she and my husband used the entire first boxful of Rich’s Belgian endive in tossed salads before I had a chance to experiment with the lovely red and gold heads. So this year I set to playing with them immediately.

First I tried them as finger food. Caterers must love Belgian endive leaves; shaped like little canoes, they elegantly transport soft foods—just enough for a couple of tidy bites—from platter to mouth. I cooked small white beans with garlic and sage, marinated a pint of the rinsed beans in white wine vinegar with a little salt and two spoonfuls of chopped chives, and then added a little olive oil and heaped the drained beans into Belgian endive leaves. What a lovely way to serve a bean salad! Next time I might add bits of pimento for color.

I filled more endive boats with Oregon shrimp, the tiny, wild shrimp that come cooked, shelled, and frozen. I mixed a half-pound pound of thawed shrimp with a tablespoon of minced chives and about three tablespoons of mayonnaise, which I made from roasted hazelnut oil, garlic, lemon juice, and a little prepared mustard. Next time I’d sweeten the mixture a bit, maybe with tomato paste in place of the mustard.

Finally I got around to cooking some of the chicons. Europeans, who are still the main consumers of blanched chicory, mainly eat it cooked. I first followed a method described by Ruth Van Waerebeek in her Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook. You smear butter in the bottom of a pot, add a single layer of chicons, salt and pepper them, and sprinkle over them a tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar (doubtful about the cornstarch in powdered sugar, I used extra-fine sugar instead). Squeeze over them a little lemon juice, and add ½ cup water. Cover the chicons with buttered parchment paper, weight the paper with a plate, and cook the chicons over medium heat until they’re “tender as butter,” as Ruth’s mom says. Turn them over halfway through the cooking, after about twenty minutes. Check occasionally to be sure the water hasn’t all evaporated; add more if needed. When the heads are quite tender, remove the plate and parchment paper. Cook the sauce to a dark syrup, turning the chicons as you do so, and serve them sprinkled with parsley.

However odd Ruth’s recipe may sound to Americans, given our penchant for barely cooked vegetables, I urge you to try it. The warm, soft, caramelized chicons are truly luscious.

A lot of Italian radicchio recipes—those most favored by American cooks, at least—involve grilling or pan-frying. I chose an Italian recipe that called for wrapping radicchio, quartered lengthwise, with pancetta, but I substituted thin-sliced bacon, which I wrapped as tightly as I could in a spiral pattern. I heated a little olive oil in a pan and cooked the chicon quarters on all sides until the bacon was brown and crisp. Then I put the chicon quarters on a platter, poured off most the grease from the pan, and added a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. I then reduced the sauce by half and poured it over the chicons.

The recipe I started with was actually more complicated; I was supposed to pickle some red onions, put them on the platter with the chicons—that is, the pancetta-wrapped radicchio—and sprinkle chopped rosemary over everything. But my version had plenty of flavor. And although my bacon-and-balsamic chicons would be out of place on a Belgian table, the Belgian and Italian recipes aren’t really so different. Both use caramelized sugar and fat to balance the bitterness of the chicory.

Here are a few more ways to use blanched chicory: Purée it to make a creamy soup. Sauté it and add it to risotto. Batter and fry the leaves. Slice and sauté the chicons, and layer the pieces in lasagne or add them to a ham-and-cheese quiche. Braise chicons with chicken in beer (a very traditional Belgian dish). Stuff individual leaves with goat cheese and herbs. For more ideas, see the Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook, or look up radicchio in an Italian cookbook.

But remember that chicory is a grownup taste. “You have to learn to appreciate this vegetable,” says Ruth Van Waerebeek, “and it is perhaps better not to introduce it to children.”

UPDATE 2022: Marco and Kay Franciosa have left Brownsville, and they apparently no longer grow Belgian endive for commercial sales.

Nichols is no longer selling ‘Zoom’ chicory, but other seed companies carry it. Seed for other Belgian endive cultivars is harder to find.