Belgian endive: one of winter's nicest treats

Belgian endive is a curious vegetable, with soft, tightly furled stalks of a creamy color, shading to a pale yellow at the tips. You will usually see it on the grocery shelf nestled in blue paper, which shields the endive leaves from the light, preventing them from becoming green and bitter.

It was actually a surprise crop, discovered in Belgium in the mid-1800s. Belgian farmers grew witloof chicory only for its roots, which were dried, ground, and used as a substitute for coffee. One year, some of the roots stored in a dark cellar were overlooked, and left there, they began to sprout white leaves.

The crop quickly became a prized delicacy, and many farmers now specialize in cultivating this vegetable. In Belgium it is called witloof, Flemish for ''white leaf,'' and in many other parts of Europe it is called chicory, while the shoots are called ''chicons.'' But in the United States it is called Belgian endive.

Belgian endive must be grown with a great deal of hand labor, and apart from a few entrepreneurs in the West who grow endives for restaurants, most of the US supply is imported from Belgium.

All of this makes it a very expensive vegetable, to be enjoyed on special occasions, and when it is at its best.

Belgian endive is a winter vegetable, with the height of its season from December through February. It is naturally slightly bitter, but just a few of the crisp leaves will perk up a salad.

Look for endives of a creamy white color, with tightly furled stalks and without blemishes on the leaves.

Since it is costly, take care and choose the best you can find. The center of the stem end should be soft to the touch. If you plan to cook the endives, choose larger stalks of uniform size, either 2 small endives or 1 large endive per person.

For salads, 1 medium endive will be plenty for 2 when combined with other greens.

If you will not be using the endives immediately, refrigerate them, either wrapped in the grocer's blue paper or in a plastic bag within a brown paper bag. Stored this way, they will keep for about a week.

Before using, trim about 1/16-inch off the stem end with a sharp paring knife. Remove any outer leaves that have browned around the edges or have loosened.

Wash the leaves quickly under cold running water and dry with a paper towel. Do not let them soak in water.

The leaves are delicious raw and can be used in place of chopped celery in a classic Waldorf salad.

They are also good when combined with chicken, apples, and Gruyere cheese in a light mayonnaise dressing.

Left whole, the leaves may be stuffed with blue or cream cheese, or cottage cheese mixed with a little cream and seasoning. The crisp, long leaves are perfect for hors d'oeuvres because they can be easily eaten with the fingers or dipped in a creamy sauce.

The endives also are delicious cooked, especially when they are braised, baked, or sauteed.

When cooking, use any kind of pot except cast iron, which tends to blacken the leaves. Here are some recipes to try. Belgian Endives Romanoff 4 Belgian endives 1 cup mayonnaise 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 hard-boiled eggs 1 2-ounce jar black lumpfish eggs (caviar) 1 2-ounce jar red lumpfish eggs (caviar) 1 small head chicory, for garnish, optional

Run cold water over Belgian endives and pat dry. Separate leaves choosing about 32 medium-sized leaves. Save others for salad.

Mix mayonnaise, lemon juice, and hard-boiled eggs in food processor until it forms a paste. Place paste in pastry bag, fitted with plain tube, and pipe some of mixture into each of leaves.

Place dab of red caviar on 18 leaves and dab of black caviar on remaining ones.

Wash chicory and shred it. Line serving platter with greens and arrange endive leaves, tip toward rim as to form spokes of wheel, alternating black and red fillings. Belgian Endive Salad With Red Beets 2 Belgian endives 1 bunch watercress, washed and stems removed 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/4 teaspoon very finely chopped garlic, or 1 teaspoon finely chopped onion 1 teaspon Dijon mustard 1/4 cup walnut or olive oil Salt and pepper to taste 1 medium red beet, cooked and peeled, cut into julienne strips

Run cold water over Belgian endives and pat dry. Cut crosswise in 1/2-inch pieces and separate leaves. Place in center of serving dish.

Arrange watercress around Belgian endives forming a wreath on rim of dish.

Combine lemon juice, garlic or onion, mustard and oil, and season with salt and pepper. Pour vinaigrette over vegetables.

Just before serving, place julienne strips of red beets in center of endives. If prepared in advance, beets will turn endives red. Serves 2 to 4. Belgian Endives a la Ternat 4 Belgian endives 1 tablespoon butter 4 medium potatoes 2 shallots, finely chopped 8 slices bacon, cut in julienne strips Salt and pepper to taste 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1 teaspoon lemon juice Chopped parsley, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Run cold water over endives, pat dry and cut lengthwise in half. Butter lightly an ovenproof dish and place endives, cut side down, on it. Cover with buttered wax paper and cook 20 minutes.

Cook potatoes in salted water until done. Place shallots and bacon in skillet over low heat; allow to cook until shallots are tender. If bacon does not render enough fat, add a little butter.

When potatoes are cooked, drain them and cut in thick slices. Add them to bacon, shallot mixture, and allow to brown.

Pour mixture over endives, and season with pepper, salt, nutmeg, and lemon juice. Sprinkle some chopped parsley over vegetables for garnish. Serves 2 to 4.

Belgian Endives With Roquefort Sauce 4 Belgian endives 2 tablespoons sweet butter 1/2 cup heavy cream 2 ounces Roquefort cheese, about 1/2 cup loosely packed crumbles 1/4 cup coarsely ground walnuts Salt, freshly ground pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Run cold water over Belgian endives and pat dry. Cut in two lengthwise and across.

Butter lightly an ovenware dish and place endive pieces in it. Cover with buttered waxed paper and place in oven and cook for 25 minutes.

Place butter and heavy cream in small skillet. Bring to a boil and reduce liquid to about half its original volume. Add crumbled Roquefort and allow to melt.

Correct seasoning with pepper, salt, and nutmeg. Add nuts and pour sauce over Belgian endives. Serve hot. Serves 2 to 4.

Madame Artigue's Belgian Endives Salad 2 Belgian endives 1/2 cup coarsley grated Swiss Gruyere 1/2 cup broken up walnuts 4 tablespoons walnut oil, or other oil 2 tablespoons lemon juice Salt and white pepper to taste

Run cold water over endives and pat dry. Cut each in 3 sections and loosen leaves. Place in salad bowl. Sprinkle grated cheese and walnuts over Belgian endives.

Make vinaigrette with remaining ingredients, combining well and pour dressing over vegetables. Toss well. Serves 2 to 4.

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