Belgian endive is also known as witlof, witloof, or French endive.

Belgian endive (Cichorium intybus) is a member of the Chicorium family and is related to chicory, curly endive, and escarole. Belgian endive are roughly six inch long torpedo-shaped heads of packed leaves that are forced to grow from the roots of the chicory plant. The roots are kept in darkness, which prevents the production of chlorophyll and keeps the endive leaves creamy white with light yellow tips instead of green. The vegetable was discovered in Belgium in the early 1800s. Legend has it that a farmer left his chicory roots in his cellar and the roots sprouted a white plant that was called “witloof,” Flemish for white leaves. Today, Belgium is the major producer of Belgian endive.

Belgian endive is grown in two stages. First, chicory plants are grown outside. When the plant is harvested the roots are saved and planted in a dark area. The roots are often covered with eight inches or so of sand or loose soil to keep the leaves of the endive packed very tightly. Three to four weeks later the tops of the endives will push through the soil, indicating they are ready to be harvested. Harvest and transport of the Belgian endives are generally done in the dark to prevent the leaves from making chlorophyll and turning green.

Belgian endive is available year-round in most regions and its season peaks from November through April. When purchasing Belgian endive, look for heads with tightly packed, undamaged leaves. Generally, paler leaves will have a better flavor. Avoid leaves that are green, as this means the plant was exposed to sunlight and may taste bitter. Belgian endive can be stored in the fridge for several days, but use it as early as possible to get the freshest texture and flavor. Do not store the endive in the sun, as this can cause the leaves to open or turn green. Before eating the endive, rinse the leaves thoroughly to remove any dirt, insects, and chemicals.

Raw Belgian endive leaves have a fresh, slightly bitter flavor. Because of this they make a nice complement in a salad to milder tasting greens such as lettuce. Whole leaves can be used as a natural plate for cheese, meat, or seafood spreads. The endive can also be cooked. Whole heads or leaves can be braised in broth and served as a side or in soups. The heads and leaves can also be steamed or roasted. yclept recommends brushing the heads with olive oil and a bit of salt and grilling them.

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