Homegrown Belgian Endive

endive bouquetMy California sweetheart farmer, Rich Collins, came through once again this year with a Valentine’s bouquet of Belgian endive. So I put off harvesting any of my own chicons until yesterday.





This is how my chicory plants looked in the garden last summer (remember, what we call Belgian endive is actually chicory). The leaves, though edible, were ferociously bitter. I left them alone, thus ensuring that the plants would have the energy to form big roots.

chicory roots, fresh dug


In December I dug up the roots. Here they are at harvest.

chicory roots, trimmedTo replant them for their winter growth, I trimmed off their tops and took them to the barn.

I found a plastic box, 13 inches deep and cracked on the bottom, which seemed a perfect planting container; nobody would mind my filling the box with dirt, and the roots would have drainage, if needed, without my damaging the box further. Lacking either sand or light soil as a planting medium, I used some commercial potting mix that I had on hand. I trimmed off the bottoms of the roots so that the tops would be covered with at least an inch of the moistened potting mix. Now I needed to bury the roots further in a light material like sawdust or leaf mold, or more planting mix, but I had already filled the box to the top. So I piled some wheat straw over the roots, inverted another plastic box on top, and secured it with a couple of half-bricks.

chiconsExcept for occasional peeks, I left the roots alone. Our cat Daphne, however, did not. While we were on vacation in late February she managed to knock off the bricks and the top box, leaving the chicons barely covered with straw for as long as six days. When we came home I covered them again—until yesterday, when this is what I found. The biggest chicons, I saw, had grown on the biggest roots. Some of the heads are a bit greener and more open than they should be, because of Daphne’s transgression, or the transparency of the bottom box, or my failure to bury the roots deep enough, or a combination of these possibilities. But no matter—most of the heads are firmly closed, and even the green leaves have hardly any bitterness.

If you’re in the United States and want to grow Belgian endive, you can buy the seeds from Nichols. For tips on preparing Belgian endive for the table, see my piece from last year, “Playing with Belgian Endive.”

A Tart Little Tuber from the Andes

ocaA couple of weeks ago I noticed the motley assortment of pots in the middle of my greenhouse floor, dragged there for minimal protection from the winter cold and now adorned with the limp, frozen foliage of various tender plants. Wasn’t that drooping bush at the side of one pot the top of the oca, a South American wood sorrel? I should have checked sooner to see if the plant had produced any tubers. Kneeling on the ground, I started digging.

My oca plant was actually two, in a single pot. I’d gotten two little tubers last spring from Rose Marie Nichols McGee, whose Nichols Garden Nursery is one of very few North American suppliers of oca. Because the plant is sensitive to day length, Rose Marie had explained, the tubers are produced in mid-October in our region—if the plant is protected from frost.

That posed a problem for me, since in recent years the first frost has hit my garden in early October. So I decided to plant the ocas in a big pot on the deck, where I’d be sure to keep an eye on them. Before moving the pot to the greenhouse about October 1, I poked my fingers around the roots and felt no swellings.

Now I pulled out a pile of tubers, some less than an inch long and the longest four inches, each looking like a cross between a pink-skinned potato and a fat grub. Washed and dried, they looked shiny, as if rubbed with oil.

What was this strange vegetable? Oca is Spanish for oqa, apilla, cuiba, or ibia—all of which are among the indigenous South American names for one of several tubers traditionally farmed in the Andes, where oca follows potatoes both in popularity among root vegetables and in the customary crop rotation. Botanists call this tuber Oxalis tuberosa; Mexicans call it papa extranjera; and New Zealanders, who grow and consume substantial quantities, call it yam. (It helps to know these other names when you’re searching for information about the oca, because in Spanish oca also means “goose.”)
Like the potato, the oca comes in many colors—pink, red, yellow, white, and even black.

Unlike the potato, the oca is generally palatable when raw. Different varieties, however, vary in their levels of oxalic acid, which can interfere with mineral absorption in the body and lead to kidney stones. So in South America ocas are treated to reduce the oxalic acid level—by setting the tubers in the sun for several days, by boiling them, and, in the case of high-oxalate varieties, by first fermenting and then freeze-drying them.

This doesn’t mean ocas aren’t good for you. They are rich in carbohydrates; they have almost twice the vitamin C content of potatoes; and some varieties have ample carotene. They also contain a soluble protein called ocatin, which has antifungal and antibacterial properties.

I had to taste some of my ocas right away. They were crisp as an apple straight from the tree, not sweet, but pleasant. Some had a slight sorrel taste; others were quite tart. Inside, the flesh was light golden. I left the remaining ocas in a bowl in front of a window for several days, turning them occasionally, but, as usual in western Oregon winters, the sun never came out.

I figured I’d better cook the rest before I absentmindedly ate them all raw.

So, how to cook my ocas? Ecuadorians, I learned, preserve ocas in syrup and combine them with berries in jam. Columbians serve boiled ibias, as they call them, with tomato-and-onion salsa. They also cook them with eggs in something like a Spanish tortilla, make them into jam, puddings, and cakes, and, most often, use them for chicha, a beverage of grain or root vegetables fermented with cane syrup and water.

I’d harvested a measly 9 ounces of ocas, and I wanted to save some for planting, so I had only about 4 ounces to spare. The recipes I found sounded either impractical for such a small quantity or, with the cupboard still full of Christmas sweets, too sugary to have much appeal. So I decided to use my ocas as I do so many other small pickings from the garden: in a stir-fry. I made–

Stir-fried Tofu, Ham, Leeks, and Oca over Steamed Mizuna

Weight and drain a pound of tofu, unless it’s quite firm, for half an hour or so. Slice it into cubes. Slice two small leeks, or one large one, crosswise into pieces about 2 inches long, and slice the white part thinly lengthwise. Cut about ¼ pound ham into ½-inch cubes. Rinse about a pound of mizuna. Mince two cloves of garlic and two quarter-size slices of ginger. Cut ¼ pound oca into approximate ½-inch cubes. (Ocas don’t need peeling.)

In a wok, deep-fry the tofu in vegetable oil until it is golden brown. Drain the tofu on paper towels or a paper bag, and pour out all but a teaspoon or two of the oil. Stir-fry the leeks briefly; add the garlic and ginger; toss; and scoop the leeks into a bowl. Stir-fry the oca briefly, and then add about 2 tablespoons water or sake, reduce the heat, and cover the wok. Cook the oca until they are as tender as you like. Put them in the bowl with the leeks. Add more oil to the wok, if needed, and briefly stir-fry the ham. Add soy sauce, pepper jelly, and sake to the wok to make a sauce. Return the tofu to the wok, and toss it to coat it with the sauce. Add the leeks, and toss again. Add a little roasted sesame oil, toss once more, and empty the contents of the wok into a bowl.

Steam the mizuna in the wok just until the greens are wilted. Spread them in a serving bowl or on a platter, and put the reserved tofu, ham, and vegetables on top. Serve the dish with steamed rice.

oca stir-fry

The oca skins lost most of their color with cooking. Can you see the little barely-pink chunks hiding among the tofu and ham cubes?

The stir-fried oca tasted a lot like water chestnut, though less sweet. I cooked it until it was fork-tender, but Robert and I agreed we’d probably like it better cooked only briefly, so that it would stay crisp.

In case you’d like to grow oca yourself, you can order starts from Nichols; they will be shipped in mid-March. To be sure your harvest is bigger than mine was, read this article from Mother Earth News.

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 on endives on the porch, on the contrary, 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 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, which is also known in English by its 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 say,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 cutivars 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 Vegetable Specialties (originally Rebel Farms) 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 Vegetable Specialties 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 a hybrid witloof called 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: Purèe 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.”

Home Brewing from Homegrown Hops

Robert picking his hops, probably Willamette (the rhizome came unidentified from a friend). Robert made the trellis from our own bamboo, fastened together with plastic zip ties.

Anybody can make good ale with materials from a local brewers’ supply shop—malted barley or malt extract, packaged yeast, and dried or pelleted hops. After a few batches, though, the process may seem too easy, almost like making cake from a boxed mix. John Barleycorn has been cut down, skinned, soaked, dried, and ground before you’ve even met him, and all you’ve done is boil and bottle him. Where’s the challenge in that?

A few home brewers of the do-it-all-yourself school are starting from scratch, by laying John Barleycorn in the earth and waiting patiently for his resurrection. But that’s a bit much, isn’t it? You may see yourself as a home brewer but not a grain farmer. Can you find some middle ground?

You can indeed. Even if you live on a small city lot, you can grow your own hops.

If you’ve driven around the hop lands of the Willamette Valley or Washington’s Yakima Valley, the prospect of producing your own hops may intimidate you. A commercial hop yard is an expensive setup, comprising acres of tall poles, 18 feet or higher, connected by wires. Once harvested, using large and specialized equipment, the hops must be properly dried. You may have seen tall, vent-topped kilns built in the nineteenth century for this purpose; modern hop processing plants are much bigger and more complicated still.

Hop flowers drying in the garage. Our plant produced 10 ounces dried hops, enough to make 20 gallons of moderately hoppy ale.

But as a home brewer you can get all the hops you need from a single ornamental plant that will demand very little garden space if you train it up—on any fence or pole or any other structure on which it can twine. Deep sandy loam is best, although our hop plant is thriving in the gravel of an old driveway. Beginning in the second year after planting, you can harvest the cones, as the flowers are called, either by picking them in place or by cutting down the bines (stems) in August or September, when the cones are fragrant and feel springy, dry, and a little sticky to the touch. Then you can use some of the hops fresh, if you like, for an especially aromatic seasonal brew. Or you can dry them all on screens, in a warm place protected from wind and sun, and then freeze them until you’re ready to make beer. One plant will yield as much as two pounds dried hops.

If you want to plant hops this year, now is the time to buy yourself a female rhizome, or runner. Your soil may still be too cold or wet for planting, but don’t wait; some hop nurseries have already sold out of some varieties. Most U.S. sources for hop rhizomes are here in the Willamette Valley, a leading center for hop breeding as well as for production of the aromatic hops favored by craft brewers. Thanks to current efforts to revive hop farming in both the Northeast and the Midwest, there are also a few hop nurseries on the East Coast and one in Wisconsin. You can find all these sources listed on the website for the Vermont Hops Project, or you can order your hops along with your vegetable and herb seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery. Note that, because of a quarantine, hops can’t be shipped to the state of Washington.

Dark ale made with homegrown hops

How do you choose among the many hop varieties available? Some are more bitter than aromatic, others the reverse. Different varieties have somewhat different aromas. You may be able to identify a variety whose aroma you favor by tasting commercial craft beers and checking the labels. Or judge according to the descriptions available from sellers such as Freshops and Northwest Hops . If you want to brew a particular style of beer, keep in mind that for various styles certain types of hops are considered most suitable; see the Hop Beer Selector at the Northwest Hops website.

For hop planting and growing advice, see “Growing Hops in the Backyard.”