Oh little leaves, come to me, come to me....
I was out in the rain-soaked garden this morning peering about, and noticed that finally, finally the chicory has sprouted. It took quite along time – and several week of consistent moisture – but the little plantlets are finally on their way. In early October I will dig up the roots, being careful to leave dirt attached, and store them in the coldest part of the basement, in perforated plastic bags. Then, beginning in December, I will select several roots, which I will place upright in a large clay pot and cover 3/4 with soilless mix. Kept well watered, and totally in the dark, the chicons should appear on the roots in 25-30 days, ready for the table.
The what, you ask? Chicons?
Yep: chicons, the technical name for the sprouts of the chicory. You know them as Belgian endive.
Ah…. now this starts to make some sense, right?
Or does it? All this work, planting, digging, replanting, for a harvest that won’t arrive until 2012?!
Well, it makes sense to me: I adore Belgian endive. It’s just one of those flavors that can’t be replicated. And obviously, many others agree, as the commercial propagation of Belgian endive takes place almost exactly as related above, by hand, though on a larger scale. Thus, the price at the market. (The name, by the way, derives from the most popular center of production, the Belgian fields of Flanders.)
Interestingly, Belgian endive is one of two survivors of a whole class of blanched vegetables that were incredibly popular during the Victorian era. (By blanched, I mean “forced in darkness” as opposed to the culinary term “blanching,” which conversely means preserving vibrant color by quick immersion in boiling water.) Celery, for instance, which was a popular Victorian starter dish, was always served in its white blanched version – green celery was considered too bitter, and indeed, the blanching process produces a distinctly mellow flavor. Rhubarb, too, was another popular forcing vegetable, along with that still perennial favorite, white asparagus.
So, back to the chicory: what to do with the endive once you have it? Well, one of the simplest uses is as a brazed vegetable, a perfect side for chicken or beef. (You may also want to look at my earlier recipe for Endive Tart, HERE.)
Recipe: Braised Endive
Take 1/2 cup of water, a bit of lemon juice, a dash of sugar, 8-10 trimmed endive shoots, and place in a heavy saute pan. Bring to a boil, and simmer for 25 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Perfection!
Here’s perhaps my favorite endive dish of all: just perfect for a cool evening by the fire.This is a modified version of a recipe I first received in the 80s from two of my favorite kitchen gurus, Craig Clairborne and Pierre Franey. It’s every bit as good today.
Recipe: Endive and Chicken Au Gratin
10 firm endives about 1.5 lbs.
2.5 cups fresh chicken broth
juice of 1/2 lemon
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour
1 cup heavy cream
3 cups diced cooked chicken (This is about 2 full boneless breasts. Braise for 2 minutes each side, then, poach in a skillet with leftover white wine for about 20 minutes, adding with a dash of salt and pepper. Allow to cool, then dice. Save any leftover liquid and add to stock above, adjusting total.)
1 egg yolk
freshly grated Parmesan cheese to taste
bread crumbs to taste
Remove any darkened ends of the endive; cut in half and then section into 1-inch pieces. There should be about 8 cups. (Judging these quantities is hard, but more is better than less.)
Place endive in a heavy skillet and add 1/2 cup of the broth, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Cover and bring to a boil for about 15 minutes. Most of the liquid should have evaporated. If liquid remains, uncover and evaporate, being careful NOT to burn the endive. As the endive melts, it will add liquid to the mix. The end result should be moist, but not runny.
Meanwhile: melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour, stirring with a wire whisk, to make a roux. When blended, add the remaining chicken broth, stirring rapidly with the whisk. Remove 1/4 cup of the hot liquid, add the egg yolk, mix and return to the roux. Again, be careful not to scorch the liquid. Continue cooking for about 10 minutes, stirring as needed to prevent burning. Finally add the cream, salt and pepper, and continue cooking for 5 minutes, still stirring, until well thickened. The final result should be rich and creamy, akin to yogurt.
Add the chicken to the endive and mix in the sauce.
Preheat oven to 375º.
Spoon the mixture into a baking dish, sprinkle with cheese and crumbs to taste. Bake for 30 minutes or until bubbling and tops browns.
Serve with freshly baked French bread or sticky rice and your choice of vegetable. A favorite: roasted beets with ginger.
BTW: You might be tempted to shortcut the roux (and calories) by adding some sort of canned cream soup instead, and cutting back on the stock; I tried that once, and it was disastrous; the canned flavors simply overwhelmed the endive with a chemically taste. Yuck. Stick with this classic recipe, and prepare this dish when you have the time to monitor the process closely, and some calories to spare. The recipe is not at all difficult; the only danger is scorching the mix. If you do, toss it out and start again; it can’t be salvaged.
Supposedly this serves 4-6. However, 3 avid eaters have proved sufficient in the past…
Finally, for endive growing tips: an easy to follow, step-by-step illustrated guide can be found here: Kitchen Gardeners.org