The secret world of endive

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Endive Salad: Kristi Garrett

Endive salad with walnuts, pears and gorgonzola. Photo: Kristi Garrett

What do you know about endive? Most Americans, if they know of endive at all, think of it as bitter, expensive lettuce hearts.

Au contraire, mon frère.

Called “White Gold” in Belgium, the white variety of endive is one of the most popular vegetables in France. It is often the foundation for soups and stews, and is a natural in salads and appetizers.

But endive is still an unusual find on the average American table. That’s something Rich Collins, the nation’s foremost grower of Belgian endive, has set out to change.

Belgian endive: say ‘on-DEEV’

Collins is president of California Endive, the largest commercial grower of Belgian endive in the United States. The company’s plant in Rio Vista, in the Sacramento Delta, stores and grows chicory roots harvested from fields throughout Northern California and Southern Oregon.

Belgian endive, pronounced on-DEEV in the French manner, is the second growth of the chicory root. It grows in the dark, producing a crispy, compact head blanched of color that’s great in salads, baked, braised or grilled. It’s not the same as the frilly green lettuce-like head, which is pronounced N-dive, although they’re both members of the chicory family.

Green endive varieties — curly endive, escarole, frisee — are grown in the field and develop a chlorophyll-laden green color. They differ from their light-deprived cousins: treviso, radicchio, tardivo, and red and white Belgian-style endive.

endive-types

Photo: California Endive

For centuries, chicory root has been baked and ground to use as a coffee additive or substitute. But a new cash crop was discovered about 1830 by a Belgian farmer who overlooked a few roots stored in his cellar. They’d sprouted in the dark, damp environment, producing crisp, slightly bitter heads that became an immediate hit in Europe. It’s been imported into the U.S. for nearly 100 years.

Collins’ history

Rich Collins got introduced to endive by happenstance in 1978. It was the very beginning of the California food movement, an era spawned by the likes of San Francisco Bay Area restaurateurs Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, Jeremy Towers at Stars, and Deborah Madison at Greens. At the time, Collins was a high school student working as a dishwasher at a “very traditional” French restaurant in Sacramento.

One night the chef happened to have endive, purchased for a special banquet. “That’s the only night he ever had them on the menu,” Collins remembers. “He knew I wanted to be a farmer, so he motioned to me that since that was what he had just paid $4 a pound for, he says, Why don’t you grow this?”

So he did.

How endive grows

Endive starts from the seeds of the blue chicory flower, which is visible throughout the U.S. The California Central Valley is full of it, Collins explains: “You see it on Donner Summit, you see it in the Napa Valley, New York City, Iowa — everywhere.”

The chicory flower. ‘Chicory’ CC BY 2.0 naturemotions

The chicory flower. ‘Chicory’ CC BY 2.0 naturemotions

Although chicory flowers are readily available in California, Collins purchases hybrid seeds from well-established suppliers in France and Holland. They’re sown in spring and early summer. After about four months in the field, mature chicory leaves look much like Swiss chard or small sugar beets. At that point, the plants are mowed to about 1 inch in height, leaving a small bud that will be sprouted to become the endive. The greens are usually discarded or tilled under. The real value is in the root.

‘Forcing’ the roots

Once trimmed, the chicory roots are dug up and put into cold storage until they’re needed. “We just keep them in suspense, if you will, hibernating, until we want to grow them again,” explains Collins. That means endive is always in season.

Tall stacks of trays are filled with roots that sit shoulder-to-shoulder in about an inch of water that circulates throughout the stack. They’re rolled into dark, cool “forcing rooms” and monitored for about 3-4 weeks as the buds grow into compact heads.

“Endive is simply the second growth of that bud on top of the chicory root,” Collins explains. “The first growth was in the field. And then the second growth is inside in the dark.”

Collins stops to examine a row of endive that’s not growing to his liking. “This new lot came up and had all kinds of disease issues yesterday. It’s very, very difficult to grow,” he says, which is why it took him 10 years to figure out how to grow it consistently.

In the processing room, 3-packs of endive are being packaged for delivery to retailers nationwide.

Endive myths

Endive is a bit tricky to market to consumers, being a white vegetable that has the reputation of being bitter. Not to mention the price.

But let’s dispel those myths, shall we?

I personally don’t think endive is bitter at all, but then I love Brussel sprouts. I enjoyed peeling the leaves and eating them plain on my drive home.

Grilled or braised, the plant’s natural sugars mellow and I defy you to notice any bitterness.

“It’s loaded with sugars, and none of them are simple,” Collins says. “With heat they do break down, so the flavor kind of mellows. … It’s a very nice cooked vegetable.”

‘It’s not expensive!’

Don’t get Rich Collins started on the price.

A 3-head, 9-oz. package of endive costs between $2.50 and $4, which equates to about $5-8 a pound. Compare that to chips and crackers at $6-15 a pound, and it’s easy to see that a package of endive is quite affordable.

“It’s the same price as good quality salad greens, and it’s cheaper than chips and crackers,” he says.

“And healthier too,” chimes in daughter Molly Collins, the company’s marketing assistant.

A 3-count package of endive makes a nice salad for two people, the Collins insist, or add a little arugula or other greens and extend it to feed four. Or make a nice party tray with that same 3-pack.

“It’s basically the same price, or less, than chips and crackers. And it’s a hell of a lot healthier and it’s a hell of a lot more beautiful,” he says conclusively.

How to prepare endive

The company’s website — endive.com — has a recipe page loaded with simple recipes and photographs.

“We grill it a lot in the summer,” Collins says. “It has so much fiber that it really holds up on the grill.”

I found that to be true. The recipe for Grilled Endive with Balsamic Rosemary Marinade was finger-licking good, and the heads remained crunchy enough to pick up and eat as finger food.

The simple Braised Endive recipe makes a mellow accompaniment to a main dish, and the tender heads become even sweeter left over till the next day.

Rich’s favorite salad is what he calls Winter Salad, on the site as Endive Salad with Blue Cheese, Pears and Walnuts. It’s a crunchy, sweet and savory treat.

How to grow it yourself

If you‘re feeling particularly adventuresome, try growing chicory root yourself. (See Roger Doiron’s post about growing Belgian endive at Kitchen Gardeners International.

Order Belgian Endive, or Witloof, seeds from Johnny’s Seeds.

Or just look for California Endive in your grocer’s produce department.

For more recipes and serving suggestions, visit the Fruits & Veggies—More Matters website.

What do you think? Ready to try endive?

Kristi Garrett

Kristi Garrett is the Publisher, Editor and Chief Veggie Enthusiast of Little Green Wheelbarrow. After 16 years in journalism and corporate communications, she figures it's time to get some dirt under her nails.