A light and refreshing side to those hearty cold weather meals.
At this time of year, daylight is precious, the weather chills and we tend toward heartier suppers. Soups, stews, casseroles, all help to warm the body here in the north country. A welcome addition to any winter supper is a side salad that refreshes and gives us pause in all that richness.
Belgium endive is a favorite winter vegetable. The forced, blanched sprouts from the luscious chicory plant may not be much to look at, but they lend a crispness, a little bitterness, and a lot of interest to any salad. They also make great scoops for dips and spreads! I didn’t grow up with this vegetable, I doubt it was even available in our local market. But once I discovered it, I was always on the lookout.
Have you ever thought of growing your own? Although simple, growing and forcing chicory, takes nearly a year from start to finish. But one spring when I worked at a local garden center, we decided to make a project of it, and had a little competition going.
In June, we planted the tiny little chicory seeds in very loose soil in raised beds. What you aim for is a harvest of beautiful thick roots, so you want to give them plenty of room to stretch and fatten.
There are many varieties of chicory, but the usual variety to force is Witlof, or Witloof, a Dutch chicory, commonly found from most good seed suppliers. This is the same chicory the roots of which are harvested and dried to be used as a coffee substitute.
Who in the world thought of doing this?
I shall digress for just a moment. Who thought of doing this, growing the plants all season then tossing the leaves, only to force a tight little blanched head totally different from the original? The story we hear repeated over and over is that a Belgian farmer had grown chicory for a coffee-like beverage, but was called to war in the mid-19th century. While off to battle, his stored roots sprouted, and once he returned home safely from war, he discovered the little sprouts, tasted them, and enjoyed them. Of course, we don’t know if this is true, but it makes a good story, and since the production of the forced heads did originate in Belgium, I’ll go with it.
The first harvest
For our experiment, once the chicory reached its full growth and a frost was in the forecast, we harvested our roots, cut off the greens to an inch, and let them cure for a few days under their green tops to dry out. Then, we chose the fattest roots to force (although many of mine were not as large as I had hoped for) and popped them in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks for a little chill period.
After that, we filled floral buckets with very loose loam and used a dowel to make long channels to accommodate the roots, leaving the very top of the roots exposed.
Then it was time to wait. We dampened the soil and covered the pots with black plastic bags and tucked them away in a very cool closet for two months, checking occasionally to ensure they did not dry out, but taking care to keep the light away from them. The coolness keeps the sprouts tight, and the dark lets them blanch to remove much of the bitterness.
The second harvest
Because I started with such small roots, I was totally convinced it would not work, and after watering them a time or two and seeing nothing happen, I kind of forgot them toward the end. However, I was delighted by the outcome. Some were quite small, the heads were also a little looser than what you buy at the market, but they were creamy white and absolutely delicious! I didn’t win the competition, but I remember making a simple salad that night and enjoying every bite, after all, it took almost a year to make!
Have I grown them since? Nope. But I think about my little crop when I buy a lovely little head of endive at the market!
But you don’t have to grow yours from scratch, you can find Belgium endive in most markets today. All the chicories are nutritional powerhouses, and the endive is no exception. With less than 10 calories a chopped cup, this endive is rich in vitamins and minerals including Vitamins A, C, K, and B, and it’s a good source of potassium, folate, iron, calcium, ad fiber. It also contains kaempferol, a cancer fighting nutrient that is being studied widely.
A simple delicious salad with lots of nutrition
And it tastes good! This salad is really quick to make, delicious, and satisfying with a little sweet and succulent from the grapes, honey, and cucumber, mild bitter from the endive, tanginess from the mustard and capers, grassiness from the parsley, and lovely crunch from the nuts. Don’t be afraid to make substitutions, use what you have on hand, and adjust for your own taste.
It is even tastier the next day!
Tangy Endive Salad
- Two large heads of Belgium endive, sliced or chopped
- I medium English cucumber, chopped
- Handful of grapes, sliced in half
- ¼ cup flat-leaved parsley, chopped, packed
- 1/3 cup almonds, or nuts of choice, rough chop
- 2 tbsp. cider vinegar
- 1 tbsp. maple syrup
- 1 tbsp. grainy mustard
- 1 tbsp. capers, crushed a bit
- 1 tsp. caper brine
- 3 tbsp. fruity olive oil
Slice or chop the endive and place in a large bowl. Add the cucumber, grapes, parsley, and half the almonds and mix well.
In a canning or other jar, combine vinegar, syrup, mustard, capers, brine, and olive oil along with a good pinch of salt, and shake well. You can also add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes to add a little heat.
Dress the salad, mix well, correct the seasoning, and place in your serving bowl. Top with the rest of the almonds and a bit more parsley.
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