Photo by Brent Hofacker
Witloof, or white-leafed Belgian endive, originally sprouted up as a happy accident for the chicory family. When Jan Lammers left his farm in Brussels to fight in the Belgian War of Independence in 1830, the story goes, he purposely left chicory roots behind in his cellar. He’d planned to roast and grind them for use as a coffee replacement. When he made it home a year later, the cellared roots had sprouted tender, torpedo-shaped heads of white leafy shoots, tinged with pale yellow edges. Lammers braved a taste and found them crunchy with a pleasing, slightly bitter, bite.
Belgian botanists worked to perfect the two-phased process for growing endive to market scale, thereby making it the country’s national vegetable where it’s widely eaten fresh in salads, braised in butter, and baked in gratins. More recently, chefs and home cooks throughout the western world use sturdy endive leaves as a healthy, gluten-free cracker option for serving up dips and soft cheeses from fresh goat to aged blue.
The largest producer of Belgian endive in the United States is California Endive Farms. Headquartered in Rio Vista with growing fields located throughout the agriculturally rich Sacramento River delta, the company was founded thirty years ago by Richard Collins, an aspiring farmer who was washing dishes at a high-end restaurant in Sacramento when he was first introduced to Belgian endive and took on the challenge of growing it.
Chicory seeds are planted in the field in spring. The roots grow down into the soil as green leafy heads grow up to breakthrough it. The greens are lopped off and discarded; the roots dug up, cleaned and sent to bed down in the dark for up to10 months. To rouse the dormant roots, farmers stack them upright in large boxes that are then placed in dark, cool, humid rooms, sometimes in rich soil, sometimes in hydroponic configurations. After six to eight weeks in these unlit cramped quarters, the conical sprouts, called chicons, rise out of the roots. White endive heads come from green chicory roots while pink ones come from red Treviso chicory roots.
Each root produces just one head before it is spent. Once that happens, the roots are discarded, processed to extract inulin (a substance added to fat-free dairy products for a smooth mouthfeel),or ground into cattle feed. The labor-intensive process—as well as many Belgian and French farmers opting out of the market to drive up the price worldwide—means that one head of Belgian endive costs about $1.33 in US grocery stores. The unit price aside, with each endive head supplying at least 12-14 leaves and the core supplying a crunchy cook’s treat in the kitchen, the leaves are a cheaper alternative to artisan crackers for your cheese plate. And when sliced and tossed into an inexpensive root vegetable or cabbage slaw, they add a mellow bitter tone to the mix.
Endive, Carrot and Apple Slaw with Hot Honey and Blue Cheese Dressing
- 1 tablespoon and 1 ½ teaspoons sherry vinegar
- 1 tablespoon chili-infused honey
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 ounces blue cheese crumbled
- 1- pound multicolored carrots peeled and julienned
- 1 crispy tart apple, like a Macoun or Cortland
- 4 heads Belgian endive leaves separated
- 2 scallions green parts only, sliced on the bias
- In a large bowl, combine vinegar, honey, and salt. Whisk to combine and slowly add olive oil to emulsify dressing. Stir in blue cheese. Add julienned carrots and apples and stir to combine. To julienne endive, stack the leaves and slice the whole pile into strips. Add endive strips and chopped green onions, toss well and serve.