Don’t call it N-dive. No, those spears in bleached blonde and testarossa (red head) are properly called on-deeve. Both curly endive (n-dive; the green one that looks like a loose head of unruly lettuce) and endive (on-deeve; the spear) hail from the same genus, cichorium, commonly known as chicory.
Also known as Belgian endive, endive is quite an extraordinary manifestation of the plant family that also produces, on the lettuce-type side of the family, escarole, frisée, and that curly endive (you can pronounce that one the “American” way), and also heads of radicchio, treviso, tardivo, endive, and more. The roots of some chicories are most famously used as the coffee substitute popular in New Orleans.
I recently visited California Vegetable Specialties (CVS) in Rio Vista, California, near the Sacramento Delta. CVS does one thing only–grow endive–and they are the sole source of commercially available, U.S.-grown endive. While there, I learned about the unique way in which the crunchy, gently bitter vegetable is grown.
Seeds are planted in Spring and produce a carrot-size root and a leafy green plant that isn’t especially tasty. Those greens are topped off and worked back into the soil, while the root is harvested and put into cold storage, where it can lay dormant for some time until it is time to force its new growth, an endive. The ability to store the roots accounts for endive’s year-round production.
When it’s time to grow the endives, the roots are moved to growing rooms, where they sit in the dark, like a Jew with a burnt-out light bulb. (You remember that one: How many Jews does it take to screw in a light bulb? Never mind, I’ll sit in the dark. I’m Jewish. Please don’t look for a slur here.)
The dark growing environment prevents chlorophyll production, so when the small plant peeks out from the top of the root, and subsequently grows into the familiar compact spear, it emerges nearly pure white. (Occasional light entering during the forcing process, and after they are harvested, causes the pale yellow tips.)
The red spears are a cross between endive and treviso; they, too, are grown in the dark. If you think you prefer the flavor of red or white, you might try the blind taste test we did on our visit–there was absolutely no consensus, and though I’m sure a few of us got it right by chance, there was little evidence that anyone could tell the red from the white without the visual cue. I know I got it backwards.
Check out endive.com for a nifty video showing how it all works, as well as lots more information about this deliciously bitter/sweet, crunchy, potassium-rich, fiber-filled vegetable.
My buddy Rodger Helwig, marketing maven for CVS, challenged me to come up with some endive desserts, something he had never seen before. Loving all things bitter–and especially bittersweet (witness my recent marmalade jag)–I was eager to take those spears for a test drive in my kitchen. What emerged were a strudel and an ice cream sundae. I brought the strudel up to the farm and got a thumbs-up from the good folks working there, some of whom said they were frightened to even try it. It just sounded so impossibly strange. Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of the concentrated balsamic-endive syrup, it was an unmitigated hit.
Who said you shouldn’t play with your veggies?