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I’ve spent the winter getting to know one of winter’s sexiest families — the chicory.  Anyone who has inadvertently grown a crop of dandelions in the Willamette Valley knows how massive and fertile these relations can be.  If I’m not careful, I will find weeds locally foraged greens the size of dinner plates in my garden.

I’m not really a fan of wild dandelions, but I do like their evolutionary determination, and the underlying bitterness common to all plants in the chicory family.  Endives, curly escarole, red radicchio (both the round chioggia and pointy treviso types), frisée, and the huge heads of sugarloaf (puntarelle, see top photo and the loaf Marco is holding, below) are becoming more and more popular as a winter substitute for romaine lettuce.

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Farmer Marco Franciosa of Sunset Lane Farm in Brownsville, a gentle man and gentleman I had the pleasure of meeting this winter thanks to fellow preserver Linda Ziedrich’s blog post mentioning his work, cultivates many kinds of chicories for the restaurant and specialty market trade in Portland with his wife, Kay.  We went out into the fields on two grey, rainy days a month or so ago, and he showed me the easy way to grow chicory, above, and the hard way, which I’ll explain in a second.

IMG_2719Marco uses seed from European sources and closer to home: his neighbor, Adaptive Seeds/Open Oak Farm (above, Farmer Sarah Kleeger marvels at the size of her heads).  For the past three years or so, he has been experimenting with open-pollinated varieties and gorgeous crossed varieties that have yielded some stunningly pretty leafy greens.

When I saw the chicory crops growing, I was immediately smitten.  I’ve enjoyed Belgian endive for years; it was one of my first salad delights in my early twenties, served by a budding chef on a picnic on the bleak cliffs of Point Reyes, California, with pear and blue cheese and walnuts.  I had never had anything that juicy and delicious that could be termed “lettuce.” There’s a recipe for a variation of this simple salad featured on Sunset Lane Farm’s website (I’d swap out the pecans for hazelnuts, personally, being the Willamette Valley nut I am).

And local restaurants, most notably Belly, have been grilling escarole and using pretty speckled chicories raw in winter salads for years.  Right now, for example, Belly has a chicory and duck confit salad with pomegranate seeds — one of the best things on the menu with a perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and meaty.  Go check it out asap.

But I hadn’t ever had much respect for the most common chicory we use in winter, curly escarole, which so often serves as a green base for something actually edible on a catering plate.

IMG_3903IMG_3895The Dutch, as previously covered in my post on the traditional escarole mashed potatoes, like to use the big green leafy heads that they call Andijvie to add color and flavor to a winter staple.

But they have a much greater variety of recipes for Witlof, the tight yellowy-white bullet-shaped chicory pictured above that we call the Belgian endive.  (There is some debate about its origin in the area that now defines the Netherlands or that of Belgium.)  It’s a vegetable beloved by children and adults alike, and a surprising number of recipes that range from the typical Dutch ham and cheese endive au gratin casserole to some strange and wonderful combinations.

I’m seeking a publisher for a longer article on Belgian endive — both to showcase Marco’s wonderful specialty farm, which is to my knowledge one of two domestic producers of the crop, and the only one that uses the traditional method versus mechanized hydroponics — and to spread the word about this wonderful winter vegetable.  For some reason I can’t fathom, local magazines don’t seem to be interested in this story of Oregon tenacity and unique deliciousness, so I’m forging eastward (and learning how to write better pitches). Anyone interested?  :) Here’s a snippet of what you’re missing.

Belgian endive is, quite simply, a complete pain to grow.  Unlike the other chicories discussed above, it needs to be grown twice — first, out in the rainy winter field as its brethren above, then chopped down, leaves cut off at the bud head, roots chilled, then replanted and forced in the dark to produce that little white silky endive.  Then you can use the big roots for drying and grinding into chicory coffee.  Another post on that to come.

IMG_3265 IMG_4095 IMG_4092 IMG_4077It’s a labor intensive endeavor, one made easier in Europe and in the sole (?) California producer here in the U.S. These large farms rely on big hydroponic operations that force the heads in dark rooms in liquid fertilizer solution so you don’t have to actually bury the things in sand and add variables plus cleaning off the sand.  But Marco does it the old way by packing the roots tightly in heated raised beds.  He compellingly argues that it’s worth it — the sand method provides a more complex taste and a fuller head.

And oh, how right he is.  Compare, for example, the prosciutto-wrapped heads below with Marco’s, above.  See how there’s separation and greening at the top?  I bought the green ones at Market of Choice.

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But even if you can only get the hydroponic endives, they’re still quite tasty.  They store for a long time in a paper bag in the refrigerator.  If you don’t keep them properly, they will start to darken and grow more bitter, much like the rest of us.

I’ve developed a version of the renowned Cook’s Illustrated recipe for braised endive, a recipe I’ve used religiously for many years, that incorporates a bit of the Dutch preparation with ham.  I found that regular boiled ham tends to get too leathery when you brown it off and tends not to “stick” to the endive when browning (see the image below — too much ham!), so I switched over to a standard-quality prosciutto.  Don’t bother with your finest Italian stuff here.  It’s meant to be an accent, not a pig party.

IMG_4175The result is an exquisite, buttery, slightly bitter, slightly smoky braise that’s so delicious you will not be able to stop eating them.  I’m writing the recipe to serve two, even though, technically, it will serve four people with restraint.  Because, yeah, whatever.  Chicories.  Give them a chance.  You won’t regret it.

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Braised Belgian Endive with Prosciutto

  • 4-5 heads of tight, white Belgian endive
  • enough prosciutto to wrap heads (try 4 oz. or so)
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 lemon, squeezed
  • 1/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme or winter savory
  • 1 tablespoon parsley for garnish

Remove any damaged leaves and cut endive in half, lengthwise.  Wrap halves in prosciutto tightly.  Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter on medium heat in a chef’s skillet large enough to hold all the heads in one layer (and make sure you have a cover large enough, too). You’ll use the rest of the butter for the sauce.

When the foam reduces, add salt and sugar to promote browning.

Place the heads in the skillet, cut side down.  Cook until golden brown (about 5 minutes), then flip over and cook for another 5 minutes.  Mix together the chicken stock, lemon juice, and thyme or savory, and pour into the skillet.

Cover and cook until soft and succulent, about 15 minutes.

Plate the endive, cut side up.  On high heat, boil down the remaining juices with the tablespoon of butter reserved earlier until it forms a dark syrup, stirring frequently.  Be careful to watch it, as it’s easy to burn the sauce at this point.  Pour the sauce over the endive, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.

Serves 2 as a main dish with quinoa or bread, or 4 with restraint.  It reheats nicely, but again, you won’t have any left.

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