What do potato chips, Popsicles and chocolate chip cookies have in common with a leafy vegetable from the chicory family? They were all discovered by accident. The difference is, Belgian endive is a much healthier choice than the other three. Whether you pronounce it, EN-dive or on-DEEV, Belgian endive was one of history’s better mistakes. In the 1830s, a Belgian chicory farmer discarded some plants in a darkened cellar. Several weeks had passed when he discovered white, spear-shaped heads emerging from the roots beneath the soil. It was nearly three decades before his discovery was introduced to market. Experimentation by a Belgian botanist who used coffee chicory plants to cultivate endive resulted in what we now know as Belgian endive and what the Belgians call ‘white gold.’ Also known as witloof (white leaf), Belgian endive resembles a slender, cone-shape of tightly-wrapped, white leaves with light green tips. The growing process still involves forcing a second growing stage from the roots of the chicory plants, ensuring the head stays covered in soil or with straw to preserve its colour, making Belgian endive a much more complex and lengthy process than simply sowing seeds. When purchasing, select heads that are firm, with leaves that are white and tightly-bound with closed tips. To prepare, slice a small section off the bottom, then core about a half-inch of the inside to reduce bitterness. Rinse the head and shake thoroughly to remove any excess moisture, and pat with a dry cloth. Although it’s 90% water, Belgian endive has a tangy flavour with slight bitterness mostly from the base of the leaf. Whether fresh or cooked, Belgian endive is extremely versatile, bringing zippy flavour and elegant presentation to appetizers, soups, salads and entrees. Endive enhances old favourites such as Waldorf salad and vegetable vinaigrettes, while cream of endive soup, and individual leaves filled with crab, chicken salad or chopped fruit and cheese bring something new to the table. Lightly wilted in olive oil and sprinkled with seasonings, grilled or steamed, Belgian endive retains its refreshing crispness and zesty taste. Each little head of Belgian endive is high in fibre and full of potassium, folate and Vitamin A. And with just one calorie per leaf, you know you can’t go wrong.
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