The visuals of asparagus—newly green shoots emerging from barely thawed earth—cannot be beaten as the chief signifier of spring. Truly local foraged mushrooms are a near second, but are so much more difficult to acquire, and, it should be said, require real trust in the forager as toxic lookalikes abound. I associate something else with these undecided weeks that bridge the seasons: Belgian endive. Actually, we are nearing the end of endive season in North America, but a recent encounter with these curious little nubs reminded me of all their excellent applications.
Belgian endives are winter greens that are grown in a cool indoor environment completely deprived of sunlight. They are said to be the serendipitous crop of a carless Belgian farmer, some forgotten roots and his cold storage room. Like other chicories (frisée, radicchio) Belgian endive has a bitter, vegetal taste, although not nearly in the realm of kale or collard greens which are from the more assertive brassica family. Manipulating this bitterness is what makes Belgian endive so versatile.
Start by eating one raw. At this time of year they have probably passed their peak, which, in my experience, is late March or early April. Never mind; they will still be tightly wrapped upon themselves, dense and brimming with mildly bitter moisture. Notice the microscopic cilia-like hairs thatching the white portions of each leaf and the feathered edges of the chartreuse tops. Raw endive is a toothsome experience, not unlike iceberg lettuce. In fact, Belgian endives are a terrific substitute for those ubiquitous and largely tasteless globes: whole leaves on sandwiches, chopped pieces in salads, or—my personal favorite—shredded lengthwise as a crisp addition to shrimp tacos. Move quickly though: Belgian endive oxidizes once cut.
Speaking of browning, Belgian endive caramelizes very well over heat. The simplest way to experience this is to cut several lengthwise, drizzling the innards with olive oil and seasoning with salt and pepper. Pass each over a hot grill, resisting the temptation to fiddle around with them. Four minutes later remove to a platter, drizzle with a simple vinaigrette, some freshly snipped tarragon, and announce the results as “a warm Belgian endive salad.” Warm salads are always a hit, particularly when vaguely from the Continent.
Still deeper flavors can be produced from the Belgian endive. Remarkably, they can be braised. Most would cut each endive first lengthwise, but I find doing so unnecessary. Instead, aggressively brown several whole endives in an ounce or so of butter. Browning the butter is inevitable (and desirable). Add two cups of white wine or (Champagne leftover from brunch), salt and pepper to taste, and reduce by half before covering with foil and placing in a warm oven for half an hour. What emerges isn’t lettuce-like at all: golden, sweet, complex and soft, these can be served as a side or a vegetarian entree. I like to think of the dish as a remnant of winter—something asparagus, for all its fresh astringency, will never achieve.