The elegant Belgian endive

If it hadn't been for a careless gardener, years ago, the distinctive, creamy-white vegetable known as Belgian endive might not be available in our markets today. In 1843, a Belgian gardener inadvertently left some chicory roots, which he was growing for use in coffee, in his moist, dark cellar.

When he returned several days or weeks later, he discovered leaves growing out of the chicory roots - glistening, creamy-white leaves that had sprouted in the dark basement without benefit of sunlight. These leaves were the vegetable that came to be known as Belgian endive.

A member of the chicory, or curly lettuce, family, endive grows in tightly furled stalks six to eight inches long. It is extremely pale, with leaves shading from white to pale yellow at the tips. In Europe it is often called witloof, the Flemish word for ``white leaf.'' In America we refer to it as Belgian endive.

Because growing endive is labor intensive, involving a great deal of hand labor, it has never been successful as a commercial crop in the United States, although a few western farmers grow special crops for restaurants.

As a result, most endive in the US is imported from Belgium, which means that shipping costs combined with labor costs make it an expensive item.

Endive is actually grown twice.

First, the seed produces curly green tops with long roots in the soil. Then the green tops are trimmed away and the roots are kept in the dark until the second growth appears, white and tightly wrapped, somewhat like young corncobs, but eminently more delicious.

Belgian endive has been imported by the US for 50 years or more. It is, strictly speaking, a winter vegetable, but advances in cultivation and shipping have made it available for all but the hottest months of the year.

The taste is unmistakable, for it is naturally slightly bitter, which is part of its attraction.

It is delicious plain or in salads, but also makes an excellent cooked vegetable and can be baked, braised, boiled, or steamed.

Endive can add elegance to a plain green salad. The half-crisp texture blends well with most all greens, and the slightly bitter taste cleans the palate.

It combines well with sliced mushrooms, watercress, fennel, apples, red or green peppers, tomatoes, beets, and salad greens.

Alternated with slices of citrus fruits, endive can be served with or without salad dressing.

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