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Belgian endives and radicchio travel from trash can to table

By George BriaSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 1985



Two of the world's most elegant salad leaves, radicchio and Belgian endive, grow in darkness in garbage cans in my utility room. At the supermarket they fetch shocking prices, but you can raise these winter beauties yourself at the cost of only the seed, some sand and peat moss, and fairly easy labor. Two other trendy herbs, arugula and m^ache (pronounced ``mahsh''), are also easy to grow in the garden for spring and fall use or, under fluorescent lights, all winter long.

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Not long ago, only the blanched Belgian endive was widely familiar in this country, but the others caught on at fashionable restaurants in the '70s and are now readily available at supermarkets.

Radicchio (pronounced ``rah-DEEK-yoh)'' and Belgian endive are close cousins, both chicories, actually. In summer, in the garden, their green leaves look alike for a couple of months and taste equally bitter. But in the fall the radicchio acquires its glorious reddish hues. Taken indoors before winter, the roots of both are force-grown in containers in the dark, the Belgian becoming white and the radicchio red and white. The Belgian is also known as Witloof (white leaf) chicory.

I first encountered radicchio in Italy, where its native habitat is the foothills of the Dolomites. Everybody there enjoys it without fuss. Benito Mussolini's son Vittorio writes in his memoirs that the dictator limited himself to simple food, including ``much radicchio salad,'' at family meals.

By contrast, I saw an order of Brie cheese at a fancy New York restaurant presented with a single leaf of ruby-red radicchio and a cluster of m^ache to enhance the plate. Some restaurants have the radicchio flown over from Italy and can be picky about what they're getting. An importer reported being stuck with 25 cases of Treviso radicchio when a client said he had ordered another kind.

Some farmers in the United States now make a specialty of growing radicchio and other chic vegetables for restaurants. But a gardener can have fun doing it himself, particularly when he looks at the supermarket prices of more than $3 a pound for either radicchio or Belgian endive. Seeds of Treviso and Verona radicchio, as well as one type called Castelfranco, are available from seed houses. The differences are in the heading, the shades of red, and the degrees of hardiness.

In my garden, 50 miles north of New York City, I've had excellent results with Verona, which forms a beautiful red head in the fall and becomes tart rather than bitter. I've picked leaves from it in the garden as late as mid-December. With good mulching, it may renew itself in the spring. But for midwinter salads, you dig up the plant, taking care not to break off the root, cut it an inch or so above the crown, and bury the root in a container of sand and peat moss in a cool room.

I find 22-inch-tall plastic garbage cans excellent for the job. Water once a week, keep out light with a cover, leaving a little room for air, and in three or four weeks reddish-white shoots will come up. These are known as ``chicons'' and are lovely to look at in a mixed salad. I plant seed in May in the garden to ensure good strong roots by the time they're ready for digging up in the fall. If a plant or two sends up a seed stalk in midsummer, just cut it off.

You raise Belgian endive exactly the same way. But unless you like bitterness, you don't eat the outdoor leaves. The edible product is the one grown indoors, the forced pale white leaf that is so easy on the eye and the palate. Aside from using in salads, there are some 15 ways of cooking it, from braising to deep frying and pur'eeing.

Radicchio is also suitable for cooking, particularly the outdoor heads of the Verona variety. Cut in pieces and batter fry; or deep fry in oil, or grill. Pizza with grilled radicchio flakes is a specialty at some modish pizzerias.

Arugula and m^ache have become quite popular in the last decade or so, but actually they've been around in America since colonial times under the names, respectively, of rocket and corn salad. Both appear in a list of the seeds John Winthrop Jr. brought to Massachusetts from England in 1631.

Rocket, introduced in England by the Romans, was popular in Elizabethan times, but then fell out of favor in northern Europe and the United States amid unflattering comments about the pungency of its taste and smell.

Reintroduced in America by southern European immigrants, it was an ``ethnic'' food for a while, then jumped into the supermarket mainstream in the 1970s, usually under the name of arugula and sometimes as roquette.

Available from many seed houses, arugula is easy to grow. Sow it early for the spring crop and in August for the fall crop. It likes a sunny spot, but it goes to seed quickly in hot weather. The youngest leaves are the best and, with a little oil and vinegar, make a fine salad all by themselves. As they age, they get ``hot,'' but are still usable sparingly to spice up a mixed salad. A couple of plants are enough for family needs. Arugula is very hardy. I've picked it late in November. It is also easily grown indoors under lights, producing a milder and more tender leaf.

In contrast to the piquant arugula, m^ache is very bland, requiring a discerning palate to discover any taste at all. But it is juicy, and aficionados call it refreshing and praise its texture. It is known as lamb's lettuce as well as corn salad. One of its chief virtues, from a gardening standpoint, is that it winters over well under mulch and gives you the spring's first salad greens.

M^ache needs damp soil with high nitrogen content to produce good-size rosettes of leaves. If you garden in a greenhouse or under fluorescents, m^ache will add 'eclat to your winter salads.