Produce Superstars: Does Belgian Endive Really Come From Belgium?

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For a long time I’ve wondered why in the world Belgian endive is called that. Did it originate in Belgium and does it still come from there? It turns out that the process for growing the blanched, mild endive we’ve come to know as Belgian endive did originate in Belgium in the 19th century. Part of the large chicory family which includes radicchio, frisée (curly endive) and escarole, Belgian endive is high in folate, Vitamins A and K and fiber. All members of the chicory family can be eaten raw in salads, and can be braised. The roots are dried, roasted, ground and added to coffee in New Orleans and elsewhere, and sometimes used as a coffee substitute. I love the bitterness of the endives, but I do like to contrast that bitterness with sweet and salty flavors. As you might guess, most of the Belgian endive available in the U.S. is grown on an industrial scale in California, much of it by California Vegetable Specialities in the Sacramento River Delta area. The glorious endive in the planter box below was grown by Henri de Fontanges in his cave in the Loire Valley, France. Henri is a former administrator of the National Institute for Agricultural Research in France who now grows endive as a hobby. After the jump, he explains how it’s grown, and I give you my recipe for endive salad with apples, glazed walnuts and a creamy apple vinaigrette.

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Henri de Fontanges reports:
Growing endive (Cichorium intybus) is a two-step process.  First they grow the chicory plants out in the open during the normal growing season.  Next, they harvest by cutting it off at ground level.  The large roots are then dug up and moved into caves or other dark places and voilà, endives grow from those roots.  The darkness prevents the endives from photosynthesizing and turning excessively bitter.

The endive which is cultivated today is the fruit (as it were) of research done at  INRA (the French National Institute for Agricultural Research) starting in the 1980’s. Their innovation was in developing endives which can be forced from bare roots (not covered with soil).  In the interests of creating diversified products, plants were crossed using white endive and large-leafed red chicory. Thus were obtained products of different forms and tastes (with varying fructose content and varying levels of bitterness). Further improvements were effected through crosses with Italian chicories: Chioggia or Treviso radicchio. Work is still progressing, with the goal of developing endives with more regular shapes and greater reliability of production. (Translation by Annette Bonnell)

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BELGIAN ENDIVE SALAD WITH APPLES, GLAZED WALNUTS AND A CREAMY APPLE VINAIGRETTE

Serves two as a substantial salad, or three to four as a light starter.

3 large Belgian endives, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

3 small or 2 large apples such as pink lady or fuji, washed, cored and cut into large dice

1 cup walnut halves

3-4 ounces seasoned, baked  tofu, or a hearty, salty cheese, diced

For the dressing:

2/3 cup of the apples (above)

1/2 cup apple juice

1 clove garlic

2 teaspoons dijon mustard

2 teaspoons lemon juice, or to taste

2-3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon rice syrup, or sweetener of choice (honey possibly)

1 1/4 cups olive oil, or a combination of olive oil and canola oil or oil of choice (walnut oil perhaps)

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. To make the dressing, combine all the ingredients except the oil in a blender. Blend until smooth, then drizzle in oil until you have a slightly thick, creamy dressing.  Check seasoning, adding salt, pepper, lemon juice, etc. as needed. This makes much more dressing than you will likely need, but it will keep for two weeks in the fridge–and believe me, homemade salad dressing is a blessing!

2. To prepare the walnuts, heat a heavy frying pan until medium hot. Add the walnuts and gently stir 4-5 minutes or until walnuts are fragrant.  Then dissolve 1 tablespoon rice syrup in 1 tablespoon water.  Add this to the frying pan with the walnuts.  Stir 3-4 minutes, or until the walnuts are evenly glazed with the syrup.

3. Place the apples and tofu or cheese in a salad bowl.  Spoon over a few tablespoons of dressing and let marinate a few minutes.

4. Combine the endive with the apples, tofu or cheese and half the walnuts. Toss.

5. Arrange the salad on individual serving plates.  Scatter the remaining walnuts on top and then drizzle with a little more salad dressing. Perk up the flavor, if you like, with a last-minute squeeze of lemon juice and a little freshly-ground black pepper.

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