Nibbles of history

Winter sprouts surprises

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.



Snow day braise

Days like these are made for slow-cooking…


When I’m snowed in, one of the meals I crave most is the rabbit my grandpa would cook when I visited him in Piedmont during winter. The skillet of rabbit he would bring to the table may have looked humble compared to a whole roast chicken or slab of brisket, but it was full of flavor, tasting like the chestnuts the animal would feed on throughout the fall.

Arguably the most popular and widespread version of rabbit in Italian cooking is coniglio arrosto, which translates to “roasted rabbit.” Technically, the meat is braised rather than roasted, meaning it is initially seared over high heat, then simmered slowly with small amounts of liquid – a way of cooking meat that allows it to remain juicy as it develops an irresistibly caramelized skin.

Each region of Italy is associated with its own unique embellishments to coniglio arrosto, depending on the availability of specific seasonal ingredients and the characteristic foods produced within the area. In Liguria, for example, the meat is typically prepared with black olives, one of the main products of the coastal region. At the foothills of the Alps in Piedmont, where corn is plentiful, coniglio arrosto is often served alongside polenta or, in the spring months, lightly sautéed sweet peas. Regardless of the variations between different regional adaptations, coniglio arrosto, with its rustic informality, is an expression of the value of simplicity and making use of readily available ingredients.

My grandpa had grown up eating the coniglio arrosto cooked by his mother and raised in the farm where his family lived. The family recipe has been passed down not on a piece of paper, but through observation and practice, becoming more of an instinct than a formula. Here is how I’ve learned it, in approximations:


Nonno Beppe’s coniglio arrosto

1 rabbit, cut into pieces (for those in the D.C. area, I found some Maryland-raised rabbit at Harvey’s butcher shop at Union Market)
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 cloves of garlic
Salt & pepper

1. Heat olive oil in a skillet with the garlic. Add the rabbit, seasoning the exposed side with salt and pepper. Sear over high heat for about 5 minutes, until browned. Turn, seasoning the other side, and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Depending on the size of your pan, you may want to sear the rabbit in two batches to avoid overcrowding the pan.


2. Add white wine and rosemary sprigs, then cover the pan and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. Once the wine has been absorbed, add about 1/4 cup water. Continue to check on the rabbit to see when the liquid has been absorbed, adding 1/4 cup at a time when the pan is dry.


3. When the rabbit is almost done (fork-tender), continue cooking without the lid for about 10-15 minutes, until all the liquids are absorbed. On a snow day, serve with polenta.