The endive is a hardy little leaf that has much to tell us in wintertime. It refuses to be bullied by the season: where other plants suffer, in darkness and the cold, the endive thrives. The journey from seed to shoot is a long and painstaking one. It begins, strangely enough, with a chicory seed.
Together with the usual round of early crops, chicory seeds are planted in spring. But by the time we pop English peas and pluck peeking radishes, only the roots of the chicory plants are harvested – any leaves are cast aside. The roots are laid to rest for as long as 10 months, like knobby sleeping beauties, until they’re brought to a cave-like home – a place where you might expect to find gloriously moldy wheels of cheese – nestled in dirt, and finally allowed to sprout. This underground process is called blanching, since only the very tips of the leaves that poke out of the earth develop color.
It’s impressive to see a bunch of full-grown endives with the roots still attached – they are as big and dense as the cones of leaves they support. Or, to put it another way, the leaves can only be as big as their roots. Laying the groundwork, the endive reminds us, is just as important as the results to come. It’s an investment in slow growth, an edible hint that the slogging productiveness of winter has a sunnier payoff.
The endive is a child of neglect. Some claim that it was discovered by a Belgian farmer after the War of Independence in 1831. Before setting off to fight in the war, the farmer had stored chicory roots in his cellar, with the plan to roast them for coffee upon his return (in Europe, dried and roasted chicory roots have long been mixed with coffee to cut costs; the French brought the tradition with them to New Orleans, where it’s now one of the city’s culinary trademarks). When the farmer returned home, he found that the roots had sprouted leaves, thankfully gave one a try, and was struck by its fresh crunch and bitter bite.
Others say that the endive was stumbled upon by a gardener at the Brussels Botanical Garden in the mid-1800s. He had forgotten about his chicory plants, which where sitting in a dark warehouse for several months, sprouting surprises.
Either way, we have a Belgian to thank for this accidental discovery, which is why the plant’s common name in English is “Belgian endive” (back in the Low Countries, it’s called witloof, or white leaf, and has the nickname “white gold”). Its English name is misleading though, because endive as we know it is not really endive; it’s chicory – a grouping of plants comprised of radicchio and other bitter leaves. The actual endive genus, instead, includes frisée and escarole.
Belgians’ yearly consumption of Belgian endive averages about 18 pounds per person; the French follow with 8, and the Dutch with 7. Americans, instead, have a more timid relationship with bitter greens, averaging only 4 leaves per person each year. Rather than being intimidated by bitterness, Europeans are spurred on by this flavor in the kitchen, and prepare endive in many ways: a Frenchman might bake it in a blanket of béchamel and Gruyere; an Italian might braise it with garlic and olive oil; a Belgian might enjoy it raw in a salad with apples and walnuts or shallots and mayonnaise. Cooking endive tempers its bite, while leaving it raw challenges you to bounce other flavors off its bitterness, adding something sweet, something salty, and something nutty to the mix.
The leaves of Belgian endives have a natural elegance that lends itself well to accepting this challenge in a simple appetizer. In a sustainable version of that catering mainstay, the wonton soup spoon, the leaves can be used as little boats to hold a dollop of something tasty.
The endive is a reticent participant in this boat-making endeavor, since it holds its leaves close, unwilling to shed its many layers. But if you trim the stem a couple of times as you peel them back, the leaves can be coaxed apart without breaking. Remove the leaves one by one and watch the core shrink, like a miniature Russian doll, until the boats become too small to hold the filling (you don’t need to throw away the core; it can be cut in half and throw into a salad, or dipped in hummus for a quick snack).
This appetizer with gorgonzola, walnuts, and balsamic glaze is an Italian-inspired combination, but you can run with this idea in any direction: beets and goat cheese, caviar and crème fraîche, curried chicken salad, lox with ricotta and capers. Just embrace the bitter chill, and eat more endive.