While some girls may hope for long stem roses on Valentine’s Day, I set my heart on a bouquet of a very different sort. Every year for the past decade or so the UPS truck pulls up to my door sometime around February 14th with a modest-sized box marked “perishable” all the way from Rio Vista, California. Tucked inside, under a blanket of packing peanuts, I find a bouquet of red and white endive on the root from California Vegetable Specialties and a typed greeting from Rich Collins, the company’s president.
I should start by saying that I have long been a fan of endive. I first encountered the pod-shaped vegetable while working for a rather upscale caterer during high school. This was back in the 70’s and the notion of filing an endive spear with a little blue cheese dip was considered terribly gourmet. Right off, I loved the refreshing crunch, the silky tenderness and the pleasantly bitter taste of the leaves. Plus, I was fascinated by how sleek and smooth the tight conical heads were. I knew nothing about where endive came from or how it was produced, but I was hooked. A few years later, I landed in France and discovered the joys of cooked endive—notably braised and gratinéed. So when I ran into Rich Collins some years ago at a specialty food show where he had a booth set up to talk about his endive farm, I was fascinated. We chatted for a while and exchanged business cards, but that was about it….or so I thought. It turns out that Rich is one of those on-the-ball entrepreneurial types who does more with collected business cards than let them collect dust on a windowsill (my standard), and so apparently my name was added to a list of recipients for his fantastic Valentine’s Day bouquet. Now, each year I feel a shimmer of anticipation as the calendar marches into mid-February hoping that I’m still on the list.
To understand how exactly one makes a bouquet of endive, it may help to know a little about this remarkable vegetable. Endive, more properly known as Belgian endive is a member of the chicory family (other family members include frisée, radicchio, curly endive and tardivo), but endive is grown in a most unusual way. First, the farmer plants and grows a leafy chicory variety that produces a large, starchy root (if you’re not after endive, this root is what is dried, roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute; or blended with coffee to make New Orleans style coffee). At the end of the growing season, the leaves are discarded and the roots are harvested and transferred to a dark, damp storage facility. After a period of dormancy, the roots get spread out into trays (still in the dark and damp) until each root sprouts a small pale shoot that grows into what we recognize as endive. The spent roots are discarded, and the cycle begins again the next spring with the sowing of new chicory seeds. What you see in the photo of my bouquet are the heads of endive still attached to the root that sprouted them. For obvious reasons, the roots are normally trimmed away and tossed before shipping to market. If you’ve ever wondered why endive costs more than your ordinary head of lettuce, well, now you understand.
At present, Rich Collins and his California Vegetable Specialties are the only company commercially producing endive in the USA, and their website has some great photos along with an explanation of the process. If you’re into culinary history, you may especially enjoy the story of who “discovered” endive. (Hint: it was a 19th century Belgian farmer, thus the name Belgian endive).
For my part, what I love about endive is the taste—especially cooked. Until recently, I was pretty stuck on braising as the best way to prepare endive. I even went so far as declaring it “my favorite vegetable for braising” in my braising cookbook. That all changed at a holiday party when my friend, and amazing chef, Maura O’Sullivan served a platter of golden, tender roasted endive drizzled with sherry vinegar as a part of a sort of appetizer buffet. The rather unassuming platter of endive was flanked by a number of sexier offerings—sizzling oysters Rockefeller, a heap of gougères (AKA cheese puffs) and a handsome potato-goat cheese galette—but in the end, the roasted endive were the one taste everyone was talking about long after someone (me) had snagged the last one.
The wonder of roasting endive is how it mellows the natural bitterness in the leaves leaving a more nuanced balance of sweet backed by just a hint of bitter. You start by halving the endive from root to tip, drizzling with olive oil (and/or butter), seasoning with salt and pepper and then sprinkling with just a shimmer of sugar to help bring out the sweetness and encourage the cuts sides to turn all brown and lovely. Roast on a baking sheet in a hot oven, say 400 degrees, until tender and browned (about 30 minutes). A splash of your finest sherry vinegar as they come out of the oven finishes the dish. Serve hot or at room temperature.