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Not to be confused with curly (frisee) or flat leaved endive salad (Cichorium endivia), Belgian Endive or Witloof (Cichorium intybus) is a torpedo shaped accident that happened in Belgium in 1830. The head gardener of the Botanical Gardens in Brussels forgot about the roots left covered in soil in the cellar. He discovered that chicory produced lovely, pale, tight cone shaped heads. It took another few decades before the growing method was perfected but once introduced to the general public, it became as firmly established in Belgian cuisine as 'frites and mussels' or Belgian chocolates. The root of witloof, once dried and ground was used as a coffee replacement during war times, and is often mixed with coffee for a robust flavour, enhancing the 'roasted' taste.
A few facts
With only 1 calorie per leaf, witloof ('white leaf' in Flemish) has a delicious, tangy, unique flavour and is served in most of central Europe as a hot dish, but also used occasionally in a salad. Northern Americans use it almost exclusively raw for dipping, filling or chopped in salads. It is usually served with pureed potatoes, or 'French fries' in Belgium, but boiled will also do.
Very low in sodium, it is a good source of Vit. B6, Vit. C., potassium, thiamin folate, calcium, magnesium, chosphorus and copper.
Its slightly bitter taste is due to intybin, a substance that is a mild appetite stimulant and which is helpful to the digestion and the liver. Witloof is also diuretic and slightly laxative when consumed in large amounts. It is also an excellent source of fibre.
Look for tight heads with yellow to yellow-green tipped leaves. Green tipped leaves indicate heads that have been exposed too long to the light and are more bitter than the immaculate, paler heads. If using raw, taste a leaf if it is bitter. If so, place in a colander and pour over boiling water.
To prepare for cooking: using a small paring knife, carve out a small cone from the base into the core about 1-2 cm. into the core. This is the most bitter part that will become milder with cooking. Trim off about 1 cm. from the tip. Remove outer leaves and rinse if necessary. Sprinkle with lemon juice to preserve the immaculate pale colour.
Do not cook in iron pans.
Stored in cool (6° C), dry conditions and protected form light, they will keep for several weeks.
baked - Usually baked witloof starts off braised until almost done before it finishes off baked in a sauce.
braised - The starting point for many Belgian dishes, lightly brown in butter on all sides, season with a little salt and white pepper, add a little water, light broth or white wine, cover and cook until tender, adding a little more liquid as needed.. Add a pinch of sugar. If you do not use wine, add a few drops of lemon juice. Whole heads (2 small or one large per person) cook in 15-20 minutes, halves 12 and slices between 3-5 minutes. The delicious, caramel coloured, faintly sweet cooking liquid is served spooned over the heads. Use tongs to turn and serve.
salads - Uncooked and sliced as you like it, it has a natural affinity for the blue cheeses, pears, apples, walnuts. Mixes well with other lettuces, except the bitter types. Just a simple vinaigrette or blue cheese sauce compliments its flavour.
sautéed - Whole, halved, quartered chopped, however you prefer it, do use unsalted butter over oils
side dish - Especially good with poultry, all meats. Use a béchamel (white) sauce or cheese.
stuffed - Oh yes! Wonderful...but sauté them first and when cool, slice them lengthways, carefully remove the center core and a few inner leaves if necessary before filling with whatever your fancy. Try chopped ham, moistened in egg bread crumbs a little grated cheese and baked until bubbly. Or fill with piped, savoury mashed potatoes seasoned with nutmeg. Moisten with a little cream and dot with butter or cheese such as blue or a sharp cheddar. Bake until the potato begins to turn lightly brown.
main dish - To large heads, a béchamel sauce, potatoes and a medium dry white wine to accompany is all you will need. Serve a salad as a first course and mixed fruit or an apple or pear dessert.
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The Epicurean Table www.epicureantable.com © 2006
Patricia Conant, columnist and food writer
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