Menu Inspiration of the Week: Belgian Endive
Like a black dress or blue suit, Belgian endive is perfect for almost any occasion at any time of year. It has a unique, two-tiered growing process. First the chicory is grown outside for about 5 months. The plant tops are then cut off (used for cattle fodder or green manure) and the large roots are harvested and placed in cold storage. As needed, the roots are then placed in a highly specialized controlled atmosphere building for forced growing in the dark for about one month. We’ve taken the tour, just down the road in Rio Vista, and it is an amazing process to see. Because of this controlled growth, Belgian Endive is available year round. We’ve worked with Rich Collins at California Vegetable Specialties for over 28 years. (Read on for an interview with him.)
A chicory family member, related to radicchio, escarole and curly endive, Belgian Endive, or Witloof (white leaf) originally popped up from overwintering chicory roots in a root cellar. Imagine the delight in discovering crispy, crunchy fresh nubbins in the dead of winter in Belgium. Here’s the back story as gleaned from California Vegetable Specialties website, www.endive.com:
Endive — The Accidental Vegetable : In 1830, Jan Lammers returned from the Belgian War of Independence to his farm near Brussels, where he had stored chicory roots in his cellar while he was away, intending to dry and roast them and use as a coffee substitute. But his chicory roots, resting for months in the dark, damp environment, had achieved a different result. They had sprouted small white leaves. Curious, he tried the leaves and found them to be tender, moist, and crunchy, with a pleasant, slightly bitter taste. Thus, a new vegetable was discovered — endive.
White Gold: It took a while before cultivation was refined enough to grow the vegetable commercially. Legend has it that endive took the world by storm when introduced in Paris in 1872, quickly becoming so popular that it was nicknamed “white gold.”
Georganne Brennan has a delicious recipe for Belgian endive and watercress with smoked trout, featuring a warm shallot/tarragon dressing in The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook. In The Chez Panisse Vegetables cookbook, Alice Waters proffers a Belgian endive risotto recipe with Taleggio and Walnuts. Braised, steamed or boiled, endive pairs perfectly finished with cream, or with a shalloty sauce Meuniere, or Mornay. Most any configuration of ham and cheese play well with Belgian endive. Raw, try pairing with slivers of fennel and red pepper and a dipping sauce, from a green goddess, Russian, or Anchovy. Marion Morash in her Victory Garden cookbook stuffs a breast of veal with a Belgian endive and ham stuffing. She also has an “extra easy” chicken and endive recipe in which chicken thighs, Belgian endive, and whole shallots are baked with butter, salt and pepper, sealed tightly. Ah, Belgian endive, we love you: always in season, and incredibly versatile!
3 Food Questions
Weekly interview with local chefs, cheese mongers and farmers
California Vegetable Specialties, Inc.
Working with GreenLeaf since 1984
Specialties: Belgian endive, white and red
Earliest Food Memory:
Bologna. I was 3 or 4, standing in front of the deli counter at Corti Brothers market with my mom. This big, burly white jacketed Italian guy with glasses offered me a slice of bologna. I loved it. It was a very kind gesture, and good marketing, too.
Ever since I was little, I wanted to be a farmer. I remember driving by Farmer’s Insurance Company when I was 5 or 6, and thinking, “Wow, there must be farmers in there!” My parents, 4th generation San Franciscans, had encyclopedias for us, and the sections on farming were just about worn out. Growing up we had a one acre market vegetable garden, but I needed additional funds as I was entering UC Davis’ Agricultural program. At 18 I became a dishwasher at Restaurant LaSalle in Sacramento. Great place, eclectic staff, from a Ugandan chef to a Swiss maître d’ and a pastry chef with a Ph.D. At a VIP birthday party the chef/owner braised Belgian endive. He said, “This is what you should grow, it sells for $4.00 per pound and no one is growing it in the U.S.” The next day I went to my seed supplier and asked for endive. He gave me curly endive seeds. I explained I wanted Belgian endive, and in 1978, with one seed packet, I grew my first crop of roots, forcing them in lard cans. I stuck the roots in my 3×5 foot closet, and got about 20 pathetic, anemic sprouts. I served them in a salad to my family to underwhelming praise. I was determined, though, and after college I went to Europe to learn how to grow Belgian endive properly. I knew I needed a niche to succeed in farming, and I found it. People said I could not do it, and in fact, Rebel Farms was our original name. It’s worked out pretty well in the end.
Favorite Belgian endive recipe?
So many! Last night I pan seared halved spears in olive oil, then braised in chicken stock with a touch of nutmeg. Once soft, I grated Parmesan on to finish with the pan covered. Also, any salad combination with mache and/or arugula. I use rice vinegar, shallot, sunflower oil and a touch of Dijon mustard to dress. Adding matchstick apples, chunks of pears, or segmented citrus is always delicious – something sweet to balance the slight natural bitterness of Belgian endive.
Ignorance. Not stupidity. The lack of consumer awareness is our biggest competitor. Many people don’t know what endive is. Over 30 years later, we are still answering this litany of questions: “What is it, how do you grow it, what’s it taste like, how do you cook it, and how do you pronounce it?”
Farm to Table
Inspiration from local chefs
The Huntington Hotel, Big Four Restaurant
Working with GreenLeaf since 1980
Earliest food memories?
Packing basil leaves in oil with my grandmom. I also remember making stuffed breast of veal when I was 8 years old with my father in our family restaurant, the Avalon Inn, in Bethel, Connecticut. I cut my finger on the slicer when I was 11 one busy Saturday night, and my mother patched me up in the pantry to get through service.
Favorite ways to use Belgian endive?
Beyond using it as a gorgeous garnish, we marinate halved red Belgian endive in an aged sherry vinaigrette, grill briefly for a slight char, then finish in the oven with a really good Mountain Gorgonzola.
Favorite spring vegetables?
Artichokes, #1 favorite. I love to make a ragout of fennel, favas, spring carrots and onion. Melt it all together, finish with chervil and use it as a bed for a nice piece of fish.
Keeping staff fresh and excited, and the customers happy at the same time. Also, making my hair look good every day – a challenge in a kitchen!
This week’s tidbit: Play with Your Food
Why did GreenLeaf pioneer the Toybox Series over 20 years ago? (First with organic cherry tomatoes, then mixed heirloom tomatoes, baby carrots, eggplant, peppers, chiles, wine grapes).
To get you the most, and best, varieties packed in a user-friendly quantity. The farmers we work with select the seasons peak heirlooms, with pride of growership apparent. The Toybox Series is also of great support to the creative backbone of the produce world, local small-scale family farmers. It encourages them to plant an ever-more diverse mix because they know we’re working with them to market and sell their prime fare to a growing, appreciative audience – you! One key to success in a very competitive market is to distinguish your food and menus with peak season produce. Use the best to achieve excellence, recognition and repeat customers. This is why, for over 35 years, we have worked with the best growers and suppliers. Our aim is to help Chefs and Farmers grow.