Belgian endive is a member of the chicory family, with a distinctive white to pale green color and tight torpedo shape. Growing it is a complicated process of planting seeds to grow the root, harvesting the top leaves to use as an addition to or substitution for coffee, then harvesting the root. The root is then replanted to force the endive, grown in darkness covered with straw to prevent the emerging endive from performing photosynthesis and turning green in the light. The whiter the endive, the milder the flavor. Other members of the chicory family include flattish heads of escarole, frilly frisee, burgundy radicchio, the –ch pronounced like k.
No shrinking violets, members of this family have characteristic bitterness that combines well with similarly strong flavors such as walnuts or pine nuts, smoked fish or meats, blue cheese or Pecorino. Belgian endive and radicchio both do well on the grill to accompany grilled meats, or can be sautéed with a little bacon, mellowed with a touch of cream. Chicory family members do best in cool weather, providing us with winter salads and greens, and a nice change from kale.
Choose Belgian endives that are tightly formed, white to creamy yellow in color, with minimal bruising on outer leaves. Keep refrigerated, and neither wash nor cut them until ready to use.
Halve Belgian endives lengthwise, wrap each half in thin slices of Prosciutto, and brown in butter. Place in a baking dish, add a cup of chicken stock, cover and bake 20 minutes at 400°.
To grill halved endive and quartered radicchio, dip into a bowl of water and drain in a colander. The residual water will prevent the leaves from burning. Season with salt and pepper, brush with a little balsamic vinaigrette, and grill until wilted over medium coals, basting occasionally. They are delicious on a grilled pizza with gorgonzola, red onion, and walnut halves, or nice as a warm salad, sliced and tossed with red onion, apples, and more vinaigrette.
For a crisp raw salad, balance the bitterness of chicories with butter lettuce and the sweetness of crisp apples or ripe pears. Be sure to slice endive, apples, and pears at the last minute to avoid browning from oxidation.
Belgian Endive Salad with Red Pears
4-6 cups red butter lettuce
2-3 Belgian endives
2 ripe red pears, sliced
½ cup sliced red onion
½ cup toasted walnut or pecan halves
½ cup blue cheese
Wash and tear the butter lettuce into bite-sized pieces. Wash endives and slice crosswise into 1 inch lengths. Slice pears and onion, and toss together with the lettuces and balsamic vinaigrette. Garnish with the toasted nuts and crumbled blue cheese, and serve at once. Use your favorite blue: Mouco’s Bleu, or Roquefort, Stilton, or Gorgonzola. There is a very nice buttermilk blue available in many markets. Optional additions might include a few inner leaves of frisee, roasted beets, or even roasted butternut squash. Substitute apples for pears, if you like.