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GARDEN FRESH

Ol' Chicory

November 17, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Belgian endive isn't an endive at all, it's a nearly wild sort of chicory known as witloof. This luxury bit doesn't exist in nature--or if it does, it's by accident. Actually, we can thank an accident for the pleasure of these vegetables.

But which accident?

The first story has a Belgian farmer throwing some chicory roots into a dark stable (this is doubtless a fable). Weeks later, he stumbles over plump shoots, layers of thin crisp leaves that were whiter than celery's. He tastes: the leaves have a delicate slightly bitter flavor. The Belgian endive industry is born.

The second story involves the head gardener of a botanical garden in Brussels. Wanting more greens for winter salads, he lifts some chicory roots, cuts off most of the leaves (common practice when transplanting), and sets them in a sheltered spot. He is astonished when he comes across them a few weeks later that rather than the burst of green leaves they'd produced in summer, the roots have given him shoots that resemble elongated crocus buds. The Belgian endive industry is born.

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You notice both stories begin with the roots of the plant. That's because what we call Belgian endive comes from a plant's second growth. The first time around, the plant resembles short romaine lettuce or a dandelion, according to the strain. (In fact, in gardening language, these shoots are called chicons , the French term for romaine lettuce.) The leaves can be exceedingly bitter. But the second time around, a Cinderella of a shoot emerges, fragile and exquisite.

Most Belgian endive enjoyed in this country--expensive items--come from their native land. But you can harvest shoots for a tiny expense, pristine fresh, a garden adventure.

Timing for sowing seeds of witloof chicory is crucial. Sown too soon, the plants flower, make seeds, and are prematurely finished. Where winters are mild, sow seeds in the garden in late summer. Where winters are cold, sow seeds indoors in May and transplant outdoors after frost.

Give plants full sun except where summers are ferocious--there, provide shade in the heat of the day. The soil must be loose and rich. You can also grow witloof chicory in two-gallon containers filled with three parts potting mix and one part compost. Keep soil/soil mix moist all summer long.

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In fall, when nights approach freezing--or, lacking frost, when you can feel the roots are about eight inches long--gently pull plants up. The roots will look like parsnips and should be at least 1 1/2 inches wide at the top. Trim leafy tops to an inch and trim off any scruffy root tips. This way, the roots can be stored through much of winter in a cold place in sand or ashes kept moist, and you can grow them into Belgian endive when desired.

To get the same sleek chicons you find at the market, you must grow the shoots in a box, cheek by jowl, buried in soil. However, Witloof Improved and Turbo Hybrid are strains that produce tight heads with no soil on top. For variety, Witloof Robin emerges pale pink. Chicons are most easily grown by planting three to five roots in a nine-inch pot, covering it with another pot that has its drainage hole plugged so no light can squeak through. Keep the pot between 50 degrees and 60 degrees in as humid a place as you've got, and don't let the soil dry out.

It will take at least three weeks--the strain of seeds and your growing circumstances make timing unpredictable. Harvest when the chicons are four to five inches tall, cutting it off at half an inch. Replant the root and grow as before--you'll get another chicon , though it will be lower in quality. You can even try for a third and fourth. Once cut, chicons are perishable, so it's best to harvest just before serving. However, you can keep them crisp, pale and fresh for a couple of days in the refrigerator in a plastic food bag inside a brown paper bag, the top folded down to keep out light.

You know how delectable Belgian endive is in a salad. I can't imagine a finer foil for sunny gold olive oil and California lemon juice than Belgian endive sliced lengthwise in half. Chicons add texture to any mixed salad--marvelous how the leaves are at once crunchy and silky. *

But have you cooked Belgian endive? Prepared with tender loving care, its brisk taste when raw becomes subtle and complex, a blend of cooked romaine lettuce and spring cabbage with a suspicion of leeks woven through. Nothing bitter about it.

Unless they've been buried in earth, don't rinse the chicons-- the leaves are so delicate they can bruise with handling. Cut with a stainless steel or silver knife. Some recipes ask you to half-cook the chicons before preparing them. Don't. That diminishes their flavor.

A classic French way with these lovely shoots is to roast them whole in a covered dish moistened with butter or mild oil in a 325-degree oven. They'll turn gold and be delectable, although considerably wizened. It takes a long hour to be tender.

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