Endive’s delicate crispness and mild bitterness make it appealing with slightly sweet tastes, or rich ingredients like specialty oils, butter, cream, cheese, nuts and rich pork products.
It’s sometimes called Belgian endive because it was discovered in Belgium in the mid-19th century, and that country has done much of the developing and promoting of the vegetable since then. In England what we call endive they call chicory and what we call chicory they call endive. And Down Under and in other places it’s called witloof.
Endive is grown in an unusual way, by cutting off the leaves of the mature plant, and after a period of dormancy in cold storage, re-growing the root in close, dimly-lit conditions, so that it blanches, pale from lack of chlorophyll. Because of this process, endive doesn’t really have a season and is available year-round. (There is also a pink-red variety not as commonly found.)
If this process is done properly, the endive develops “a wonderful rich flavor,” according to Ulster Publishing’s garden columnist Lee Reich last week in Almanac. “Only the slightest bit of bitterness remains, enough to make the taste more lively — delicious in salads, soups and sandwiches.”
At cocktail parties and elegant functions you’ll find endive leaves as the perfect little scoops they are, perhaps arrayed on a big round platter like spokes of a wheel and stuffed with something savory. Fillings vary tremendously, often based on creamy tangy cheese like chevre or Roquefort and nuts such as walnuts, which are somehow perfect with endive. A little honey or orange in some form are a nice counterpoint to the green’s bitterness as well.
Other combos I’ve seen suggested to fill endive boats include diced pear with feta or Prosciutto, apple and sausage, beef carpaccio, smoked trout mousse, tuna tartare or taramasalata (whipped carp roe dip). Seafood salads are nice, too; think shrimp or crab. A Spanish tapa version from Tapas by Penelope Casas (Knopf, 1991) fills the leaves with smoked salmon and dresses them with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper whisked together.
Endive, pronounced “EN-dive” or “on-DEEV,” depending how snooty you are (both are correct), is classic in salad bowls whether as star player or backup singer, “the ne plus ultra of salad bowl denizens,” said Ruth Spear in The Classic Vegetable Cookbook (Harper & Row, 1985).
I tend to use it sparingly because it’s kind of expensive, but featuring it with other ingredients in the bowl that bring out its best qualities is never a bad idea. That classic Roquefort and walnuts are great add-ins to endive salad, as is walnut oil in the dressing. Almonds and hazelnuts work well, too. Adding watercress, arugula, any lettuce, beets or endive’s cousins chicory, frisee or radicchio work well here, too. Consider adding the flavor of grainy mustard, the texture and protein of beans, or the sweetness or apple, orange, pear or figs.
Endive really shines when you cook it, something I learned relatively recently. Its bitterness mellows a bit and it becomes the perfect counterpoint for rich ingredients like cheese, swine and cream sauce. My late father-in-law Angelo, who had a way with vegetables, made a splendid gratin for holiday dinners of tender braised endive topped with crusty crumbs. For Christmas last year, my sister’s sister-in-law Veronica, who lived in Belgium for a while as a child, made a heavenly yet richer dish of endive in béchamel with ham that I couldn’t get enough of.
In Belgium they do get creative with it. In the Foods of the World series’ A Quintet of Cuisines (Time-Life, 1970) you’ll find endive in a lamb stew, put into a cream soup with leeks, potato and milk, as well as stuffed with chicken then wrapped in ham and covered in a creamy gruyere sauce.
Simpler braises include a quick browning in butter and a brief stewing in its own juices. Some cooks add a pinch or sugar, or a little vegetable or chicken broth or milk or cream. Sometimes you’ll find a little Madeira, Marsala, sherry, lemon juice or vinegar, mustard or nutmeg added to the mix.
Just about anything can be grilled and creative cooks grill endive either simply halved and coated with oil, salt and pepper, or as one chow.com chef does, stuffing the leaves with Cabrales, a Spanish blue cheese, and wrapping the torpedoes in prosciutto and brushing with olive oil and sherry before grilling.
When not decadently slathered in cream sauce, endive is only one calorie per leaf. It’s low in sodium and high in minerals, potassium, fiber, vitamin B and selenium.
It stays fresh in the fridge for a long time, so splurge on a head or two and keep it around for awhile to braise, toss it in salads and arrange it in spokes on a plate, filling the leaves with just about anything for an impromptu party. ++