Belgian endive, also known as French endive and witloof, or white leaf, is a leafy vegetable that looks like a thin cylinder of tight, pale green leaves. It is somewhat unusual in that it is not grown from seed or seedlings directly in the soil. Instead, it is cultivated by forcing a second growth from the cut roots of chicory plants.
Credit for development of the Belgian endive is given to a Belgian botanist by the name of Brézier, who developed the “Brussels endive” from a coffee chicory root in 1846.
The process of growing the Belgian endive is labor intensive, as it involves several stages. First, chicory seeds are sown and allowed to take root. After the roots are well established, the chicory leaves are harvested, and the roots are carefully pulled from the ground. The endive is then forced; that is, it is grown in darkness from the cut roots. The emerging endive must be kept beneath the soil, or covered by straw, to preserve its whiteness. Only the extreme tips of the leaves are allowed to emerge, gaining exposure to light and turning green. There is also a variant with purple leaves.
The Belgian endive may be eaten baked, steamed, boiled, grilled, or raw. Steaming is generally preferred to boiling as less water is retained by the tightly wrapped leaves. If boiling the endive, be sure to drain it well before serving. One medium endive has only about twenty calories; contains no fat, sodium, or cholesterol; and is a good source of folate.
Before cooking the endive, the bottom core will need to be removed to prevent a bitter flavor from spoiling the finished dish. The Belgian endive should be rinsed in cold water and dried well to remove any surface debris prior to preparation. Remove any wilted outer leaves.
When purchasing a Belgian endive, look for a firm, plump endive with tightly folded leaves. The whiter the endive, the milder the flavor. Store them wrapped in a damp paper towel inside a plastic bag in the refrigerator for three to five days. Do not wash until ready to use. To preserve flavor, avoid exposure to light as much as possible.
When served raw, the Belgian endive is often paired with blue cheese and pears in cold salads. It is also a good match for apples, beets, pine nuts, and vinaigrette dressings. The leaves can be separated, torn up, and added to other greens for a mixed salad, or the endive leaves may be served by themselves. Individual endive leaves may be filled with crab, shrimp, tuna, or chicken salad for an elegant presentation.
An easy way to enjoy Belgian endive is to grill it. For two servings, simply halve one endive the long way, brush all over with olive oil, season with freshly ground black pepper and coarse salt to taste, and grill over medium heat for about twenty to thirty minutes, turning once halfway through. The endive is done when fork-tender. Drizzle with additional olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, if desired; garnish with snipped fresh parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature.