Belgian endive -- an edible spring bud

Buds are a sign of spring, and one of the most delectable, edible buds is Belgian endive. The second-year bud of the chicory plant is kept smooth and white by Belgian growers who heap dirt around it to a height of 6 to 8 inches. When the tip of the bud pokes through, the vegetable is harvested, and appears on European markets in late winter and early spring.

There are three greens in the endive family, and many people often get them mixed up, probably because they are called various names in various localities.

Chicory or curly endive or chicory endive is a bunchy head with narrow, raggedy-edged leaves that are dark green on the outside and yellowish-white in the center. They have a slightly bitter taste and are used in salads and cooked as greens, like spinach and dandelion greens.

Escarole is a variety of endive with a bushy head of broad leaves that do not curl at the tips.

Belgian or French endive is known botanically as witloof chicory, and it is the second bud of the plant that is bleached while growing, much the same as white asparagus and white celery are bleached.

Originally this endive was imported from Europe completely, but now some is grown commercially in the United States and some adventurous home gardeners are growing their own.

The slight bitterness of the root extends into the Belgian endive in a tiny core at the bottom of the bud and it can be removed before cooking, if desired.

Belgian endive is found in many supermarkets, but the price is apt to be high. In Europe, where it is used extensively as a vegetable, in a main dish casserole, or in a salad, it costs no more than Brussels sprouts or leeks.

Boiling is too wasteful of the delicate flavor, but braising brings out all of its special essence. Top-of-the-stove cooking requires care during the last quarter-hour, because the syrupy goodness of butter and juices can easily scorch. Oven braising takes longer but is more satisfactory.

Here are some recipes. Braised Endive 8 small or 4 large heads Belgian endive 2 teaspoons lemon juice 3 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup water Pinch of salt

Trim endive, remove small, bitter core from bottom, and immediately dip in lemon juice. Melt butter in heavy, 2-quart casserole with lid. Roll endive in melted butter. Add water, lemon juice, and salt. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and cook slowly for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove cover and let water boil away.

Cover casserole and place it in middle of 325 degree F. oven for 1 houir, until endive is soft.

Casserole may be uncovered for last 20 minutes to allow vegetable to take on a golden color. Or it may be put under a broiler with a topping of 2 tablespoons of buttered crumbs and 1 tablespoons of Parmesan cheese, grated. Delicious with roast chicken, veal dishes or ham. Serves 4. Casserole of Endive With Ham 8 endive 1 cup water 1 tablespoon chicken bouillon instant broth 1 tablespoon lemon juice 4 tablespoons butter 8 slices of cooked ham Milk 2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce 1 good dash of tabasco or pinch of cayenne pepper 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1/2 cup grated Colby sharp natural, SWiss, Dutch, or partly aged Edam cheese 2 tablespoons of crumbs 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan 1 tablespoon butter

Trim endive, coring out bitter part, and coat cut end with lemon juice. Melt butter in pan and add endive water, lemon juice, and bouillon powder. Cook, partly covered, about 20 minutes, until endive is fork-tender. Drain, reserving liquid.

If endive is large, cut in half. Wrap each piece of endive in ham and place in shallow, oven casserole.

Measure cooking liquid into cooking pan and increase with milk to make 2 1/2 cups. Stir in cornstarch, seasonings, and cook for a minute. Add grated cheese and cook until sauce has thickened. Taste for salt and correct. Bot bouillon powder and cheese may have varying degrees of saltiness, but this savory dish does not require much salt. Pour sauce over endive in casserole.

Mix crumbs, butter, and Parmesan and sprinkle on top. Bake 25 to 30 minutes in a 325 degrees F. oven. Serves 4. The casserole dish may also be made with hearts of celery or fresh asparagus, adjusting cooking times for each vegetable, and using no more than 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid in the sauce. Endive Salad 3 endive 2/3 cup mandarin oranges in light syrup, drained (about 1/2 an 11 ounce can) 3 tablespoons fresh orange juice 1 tablespoon lemon juice Salt, to taste 1/4 teaspoon paprika 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander 3 green spring onions 1/2 cup salad oil 2 teaspoons chili powder, optional 1 crisp apple, peeled and cubed, optional

Mix all ingredients except endive in a salad bowl.Clean and core endive, slice in 1/4-inch lengths, and add to other ingredients. Mix well and allow to stand 15 minutes at room temperature before serving.

Since endive edges may turn brown when cut, add to salad ingredients just before serving.

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