Belgian endive is that smooth, pale, delicate leafy green in the rather audacious chicory family. A demure Natalie Portman in a family of Lady Gagas. Its members consist of a colorful group of vegetables that include the garish scarlet radicchio with its ivory-white veins and the mop-headed frisée, or curly endive, and its peppery distant cousin, watercress.
A recent dinner guest from France wondered why Americans don't eat much Belgian endive. "In Europe, we have it all the time," he said, while finishing an endive, pear, and walnut salad dressed with Roquefort cheese. "Of course, it's inexpensive there."
That's part of the reason. It is expensive here. It is labor intensive to grow and harvest, and most are still imported from Belgium.
Then there's the somewhat bitter taste that may not appeal to those palates raised on a salad featuring bland iceberg lettuce.
The birth of Belgian endive began over a hundred years ago quite by accident when farmers grew witloof chicory for its roots, which were dried and ground as a coffee substitute. A group of overlooked roots began growing long white spear heads. The crop was harvested, and became greatly prized among gourmets.
All the tight-headed chicories, including radicchio, are wonderful grilled over a charcoal fire. Simply cut them in half, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grilling tends to caramelize the sugars, as well as giving them a flavorful smokiness.
Belgian endive comes in two hues – white and the less common red. Look for tight, firm heads with pale yellow-green or pink tips. Since they are highly perishable, and become bitter when stored, they should be consumed quickly.
BELGIAN ENDIVE AND PROSCIUTTO AU GRATIN
SERVES 4, OR 8 AS AN APPETIZER
4 Belgian endives (about 4 ounces each)
8 thin slices prosciutto (preferably imported)
2 cups light cream or half-and-half
Freshly grated black pepper, to taste
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup grated Parmesan or Swiss cheese
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Place endives in a pot of boiling water; turn down heat and simmer 3 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and pat dry on paper towels.
Butter a shallow 9-by-12-inch baking dish.
Slice endives in half lengthwise. Wrap each half with a slice of prosciutto. Lay endives in baking dish in a single layer; add cream, sprinkle with pepper and nutmeg; top with cheese, then bread crumbs; dot topping with small pieces of butter.
Bake for 15 minutes or until tender.
GRAPEFRUIT AND ENDIVE SALAD WITH RASPBERRY VINAIGRETTE
Like most salads this one is open to interpretation. Mango, orange, and pear also work well.
4 small Belgian endives
2 pink grapefruit
1 ripe avocado
1/2 cup pecans or walnut halves
Raspberry vinaigrette (see recipe)
Trim bottom of endive and slice in half-inch pieces. Separate pieces into circles and place in salad bowl.
Peel grapefruit, including white pith. With a sharp knife cut segments from membranes; add to salad bowl.
Peel and seed avocado; cut into slices and add to endive and grapefruit.
Place pecans or walnut halves in a small, heavy frying pan. Turn heat to medium-low and toast nuts until they begin to brown slightly, stirring as needed; allow to cool.
Add nuts to bowl. Toss salad gently with raspberry dressing. Garnish with fresh raspberries.
FRESH RASPBERRY VINAIGRETTE
MAKES 1 CUP
2 dozen fresh raspberries
2 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sour cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Rinse raspberries and gently pat dry with paper towel.
Place berries in a blender or food processor along with vinegar, honey, sour cream, mustard, and salt and pepper. With machine running, slowly add olive oil and process until smooth.
Dressing will keep up to five days if refrigerated in a tightly sealed jar.