chicory chic: a winter vegetable worth the rain

IMG_3284IMG_3283

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.

IMG_3281 IMG_3277

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.

IMG_4330

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.

IMG_3006

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.

3 thoughts on “chicory chic: a winter vegetable worth the rain

  1. drfugawe 6 March 2013 / 8:35 am

    Let me, upfront, admit to a good deal of confusion re the differences and relationships between the chicories, endives, and escaroles – all I really know about them is they are mostly all slightly bitter on my tongue, which I like – but I sense I’m in the minority on that. But I’m fascinated by your post, (even if your potential publishers are not – didn’t Twain have the same issues!) mostly because what you’ve discovered by your research, I’ve discovered by my gardening mistakes. I also admit to loving some the family (Treviso radicchio, Frisee) and not others (my home grown escarole).

    This past year, I grew some Treviso radicchio from seed and put the plants out in the garden – when the heads formed, they were not the nice, cone shaped ones from the pictures, but rather not so beautiful, loose leaved plants – I pulled a few of the nicer leaves for salad, but the warm weather had done its work and they were too bitter now for salad – so I just let them grow. Fall came and I decided to see what they’d do if I cut them back and let them overwinter (I’m still trying to learn how to winter-garden here) – this I did, along with the Tuscan kale. Interestingly, the kale is very slowly pushing out new tender leaves, but the Treviso almost immediately began to send up new growth (it was cut off just above ground level). It was simply beautiful -especially given the usual winter ugliness of the garden! (pretty much looked liked this pic on the top left: http://italianfood.about.com/library/rec/blr0094.htm). I’d send a pic from my garden, but we’ve already eaten those – and from what I read, we can leave those roots in the ground and do this again, and again! Who knows how many times? I think next time, I’ll try putting a big empty pot over each to blanch them a bit to see what happens.

    Some fascinating veggies! Keep your feelers out for the right publisher – it’s worthy material.

    Like

  2. wholeheartfamily 6 March 2013 / 8:07 pm

    Wow, I’ve never really had an interest in cooking any of the bitter greens…but after reading this post, I will be trying your recipe! You make endive enticing…even my kids say it looks good (of course, the prosciutto helps!).

    Like

  3. shornrapunzel 7 March 2013 / 8:05 am

    I had no idea growing endive was such a complex process; no wonder it’s expensive. I love the idea of wrapping it in prosciutto (really, is there anything that doesn’t become exponentially more delicious upon receiving this treatment?), and I love that you’ve got a long article on the subject. Hope someone picks it up for you!

    I have to say, when I left the Willamette Valley this past summer for Southern California (you have to go where the job takes you, sometimes), I expected to miss the berries, and the greens, and the mushrooms, and I do. I didn’t expect to miss the hazelnuts, and yet that is thus far the keenest hurt. I can get them here, but they are pricey and hard to find, and it’s a void I never anticipated.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s