White with pale green tips, torpedo-shaped, about 6 inches long, and generally thought of as a salad food here in the U.S., Belgian endive has an interesting history.
Cichorium endivia, a member of the daisy (Asteraceae) family, is a derivative of Cichorium intybus or common chicory (the kind sometimes found by the side of the road, with the blue flowers...) Related vegetables are the deep red salad green "radicchio" and "escarole" lettuce, sometimes called curly endive.
The young leaves of the wild common chicory used to be enjoyed as a salad green in Europe in early spring, but the leaves soon turn bitter as they get older and so the joy was short-lived. A clever Belgian farmer once found his chicory roots had sprouted yellowish white leaves while stored in his cellar, and found these leaves had a pleasing delicate taste, so decided to continue growing this vegetable in the dark. In the mid-nineteenth century the vegetable was being cultivated and sold as ‘witloof' (meaning ‘white leaf') in markets throughout Belgium (the French, knowing a good vegetable when they see one, soon followed suit). It is more often eaten cooked rather than raw in Europe, and one of my favorite recipes follows at the end of this article. Still today most endive for sale in the U.S. is imported from Belgium or Northern France, where it is sometimes referred to as ‘white gold'.
Endive is nutritious and rich in fiber. It is a good source of potassium and calcium and vitamins A, B, C and E, and very low in calories.
It is recommended to keep the endive heads in dark conditions during storage, since otherwise they quickly turn bitter. In Europe it is often sold wrapped in blue paper for this reason.
Commercially (and mostly hydroponically) grown these days, this vegetable, which is fairly pricey, can be grown easily from seed in your vegetable plot... but you have to take two steps. First - grow the endive plant from seed in spring; germination takes a matter of days only and within several weeks you have a vigorous head of green, bitter leaves. Once the plants have matured, dig up the roots and cut off the tops. Then dig in the roots again (this can be done in an unheated greenhouse) and cover with about 4 inches of soil AND A PLASTIC TARP. This keeps the light from the emerging heads which remain a pale greenish white color and keep their delicate flavor. In about 6 weeks the heads can be dug up and consumed.
If you are a clever home gardener, you can grow them in a sizeable bucket: Put the roots in tightly packed, fill in with moist soil, and cover with a black plastic garbage bag. No watering needed! Simply leave the bucket in your basement or shed for about 4 to 6 weeks and hey presto: vegetables!! If you do this routine several times over a period of two months, you will ensure a supply of the tasty greens, with a delicate, nutty flavor, throughout the winter months. Kids would get a real kick out of this magic growing trick and might even be persuaded to ‘eat their greens'....
This process is nicely illustrated in the article http://www.kitchengardeners.org/2006/02/growing_belgian_endive.html
You will come across this vegetable as single raw leaves filled with a seafood salad or flavored cream cheese on hors d'oeuvre trays, mixed in salads (a very nice combination is blue cheese and walnuts) but rarely cooked. Simply braised it is a nice accompaniment to red meat and game, but here is the promised recipe of the way I learned to love Belgian Endive:
Baked Belgian endives with ham and cheese sauce.
Depending on size, allow 2 to 3 heads of the endives per person. Leave the heads whole and cook for approximately 10 minutes; drain thoroughly (it may be necessary to squeeze some of the remaining water out of the cooked heads.) Wrap each head in a slice of cooked ham.
Grease a rectangular oven dish with butter, and place the wrapped endives in a row, covering the bottom of the dish.
Prepare a white sauce with butter, flour and milk, adding some salt, pepper and a dash of nutmeg to taste; then add a good quantity of freshly grated cheese; cheddar is fine, although a combination of swiss and cheddar is more delicate. Pour the sauce over the endives. Sprinkle breadcrumbs on the top and add a few dots of butter, then bake in a hot oven for about 20 minutes or until nicely browned.
Now spend about 10 minutes waiting for the dish to return to edible temperature (I can't tell you how often I have burned my mouth!) and enjoy.
All pictures from public domain.