Friday, April 15, 2005

Endive's Identity Crisis

So there I was, lazily sprawled on the beach chair. Long, slender legs dangling casually, curly coiffure rustling gently in the breeze. And then, as the shiny black roadster pulled into the driveway, I couldn't help but cast a smug glance at the reflection of my willowy, wispy self in the polished side panel of the car. "What?" I shrieked. “This can't be right!"

For there, smugly gazing back at me was a short, pointy-headed, albino-ish, squatty vision -- sprawled there on the very same beach chair! It couldn't be true. I knew that I was slender and tall, not plump and squat ... curly and green, not smooth and white ... flexible and wavy, not folded as tightly as a rewound window shade! Had I entered some universe in which my endive self had morphed into its polar opposite? What was going on?


Perhaps the conflicted endive in this little story is having an identity crisis! What else could account for such striking endive differences. Before anything else, let’s put aside the endive pronunciation issues; it is very likely that all of the variations that you have heard are correct. (Just to be sure, I looked it up!) So, let’s rest easily on that issue and proceed to the black-and-white of it -- which in this case is the green and the white of it – and more.

Curly endive (also referred to as frisee, or chicory frisee) is a leafy green. It may be up to 12 inches tall, with slender white stems leading to curly green leaves. Slightly bitter in taste, it can be used cooked or eaten raw. I like to use the dark green leaves cooked, as a hot side dish (dressed after cooking with a touch of sweet balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and nutmeg) or in hearty casseroles, soups and stews.

The curled leaves are also perfect for salads (especially with vinaigrette or semi-sweet dressings), providing both tangy taste and great visual appeal. Putting endive into a salad always seems to “fancy it up” as the multi-dimensional leaves create some motion (like little curly-topped bobble heads) in the salad bowl, rather than just plopping down flat in the bottom. Some people use only the lighter-green, inner leaves for salads, but I like all of the leaves in salads – every single one!

Belgian endive (also referred to – although not usually by me -- by its Flemish name of witloof) grows into small, white, cone-shaped heads (sometimes with dark red edging) that are usually 4 to 6 inches tall. It is generally categorized as a shoot vegetable, rather than a leafy green. Like its curly counterpart, its flavor is slightly bitter, although it strikes me as somewhat more-delicate in flavor. Grilling and roasting bring out the depth of its woodsy taste. Another popular cooked method involves wrapping each head in ham or pancetta, browning in butter or olive oil, then poaching in chicken stock until crisp-tender. As a salad ingredient, Belgian endive combines beautifully with fruits, nuts, bacon, cheese and citrus.

Belgian endive, not surprisingly, is originally from Belgium, where the method for growing it in the dark, to maintain the white color, was discovered in 1830 by M. Brezier, a horticulturalist from the Brussels Botanical Gardens. As with many valuable discoveries, this one was accidental, precipitated by some plants left too long in a storage shed without light. It took thirty more years to perfect the process, but Belgium has been in love with its namesake endive ever since.

So now, without further ado, your friendly ingredient sleuth will address the root cause of the endive identity crisis. It all stems from the wild and wonderful world of botany – but then, doesn’t almost everything? All chicories and endives belong to two closely-related families: cichorium intybus and cichorium endivia.

Now, it would be simple to exclaim, “Aha, so the endivia varieties of chicory are the endives!” But that would be way too easy. Actually, our little Belgian endives are of the intybus type and the curly endives of the endivia type. (Wouldn’t the wispy endive in our introductory story be happy to hear that she is the endivia and that the imposter gazing back at her is really an intybus!)

I am including a favorite Belgian endive recipe for you. Its author, Harriet Welty Rochefort, would be the first to tell you that this recipe is a springboard for many variations on its theme. Ms. Rochefort is an Iowa native who relocated to France about 30 years ago. Not at all of the “cooking persuasion” when she arrived, she delighted in sampling the good cooking that was available at cafes and restaurants at every turn. Then, she married a Frenchman, they had two sons and, before long, she was cooking with vigor (and with some good advice from her husband’s family).

Her books describe, with great humor and sensibility, the “discoveries” that ensued – about France, its people, its food and how she related to them from an American mindset. Culturally informative – and very funny – her books strike a chord on both sides of the Atlantic!

You can read more about Ms. Rochefort’s books, and the wine-and-cheese-tasting sessions that she offers in Paris, at http://www.hwelty.com/ and http://www.understandfrance.org/. The websites are continuously updated, providing an ever-increasing supply of useful travel ideas, Internet links and bibliography listings.

Ms. Rochefort’s recipe for a delicious Belgian endive salad, from her book French Fried: The Culinary Capers of an American in Paris, St. Martin’s Press, New York, follows:



EASY ENDIVE SALAD

Endives (1 medium-sized per person)
Roquefort cheese
Walnuts
Bacon
Apples

Chop endives into pieces (be sure to cut out the bitter part of the endive at its stem).
Add the Roquefort in little pieces, walnuts in bite-size pieces.
Fry some small pieces of bacon and add to all of this.

If you like, you can add peeled apples chopped in small pieces. If you add a bit of the bacon fat (but not too much) it will be even better. Then you mix it all up and add a good vinaigrette, salt, and pepper.

*Copyright Note: Harriet Welty Rochefort specifically authorized this recipe reprint, by the the Ingredient Sleuth, in this posting.
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The contrast of slightly-bitter endive with sweet apples, pungent cheese with mild walnuts, all highlighted with the salty crunch of bacon – multiple flavor bursts from ingredients that are all wonderful individually -- taken together, are gorgeous! As mentioned earlier, this is a very adaptable salad. Substitution options abound: e.g. pears for apples, pancetta for bacon, any good blue cheese for Roquefort, or even – dare I say it -- a different member of the cichorium family, in the event that your Belgian endive is busy having an identity crisis at the time!

Bon appetit!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I made this salad & it was stellar. Thx.

Linda said...

Found some great roguefort at Trader Joe's .... the flavor is almost TOO good to believe .... wishing there was some left over ....

Pat R said...

This salad is a spectacular blend of flavors and Roquefort is always a treat in any case. Score another win on the recipe front because my whole family like it too! Pat

Kristi said...

It is now a couple of months after you posted this article but I have to write and tell you how much fun I had with the FRENCH FRIED book. It is so funny and so full of useful cultural insights. Many thanks! I learned A LOT!