Think fast: The National Board of Fancying-Up Dinner announces that you have won a thousand-dollar grant to cook up a holiday dinner. What ingredients will you spend your windfall on?
The protein-rich splurges are obvious: diver-caught scallops, Alaskan salmon, a rack of Colorado lamb, filet mignon, and, of course, American paddlefish caviar. From there it’s easy to conjure up a list of costly delicacies: coffee, saffron, aged balsamic vinegar, hand-pressed olive oil, and yes, designer chocolates. And you can always spend a pretty penny on out-of-season fruits, such as persimmons from Australia.
Now, here’s the brain squeezer: What are the fancy, splurge-worthy, pull-out-all-the-stops vegetables to go with your feast?
In the United States, we don’t believe in splurge vegetables. Sure, steakhouses always offer asparagus spears as big as a railroad baron’s cigar, and spinach, lush with cream and spiked with garlic. But these two veggies have a lot more to say about what’s easy to pull off for a kitchen in which most of the talent and stove space is dedicated to the grilling of meat. Vegetable sides live in service to their protein. As for other restaurants, salads tend to escalate in price depending not on what they’re made from, but what they’re topped with. For big holidays at home, too often the vegetable for guests is frozen green beans topped with canned fried onions.
I humbly assert that we Americans wouldn’t know how to splurge on vegetables if the National Board of Fancying-Up Dinner arrived at our front doors with cash in hand — which is obviously a big problem.
Well, of course, no, it’s not.
But the fact that many of us consume way more soda pop than we do veggies is a big problem. Having a repertoire of splurge vegetables might do a bit toward making more people feel like eating plants.
Now, what vegetable has bling?
To hold its own among splurges like caviar and cult cabernets, I nominate that lowland ghost, the veggie of kings and the uncrowned king of veggies — the Belgian endive.
You say “po-tay-to,” I say “pu-tah-to.”
The common curly endive, or chicory, from which the Belgian stuff descends, is pronounced “n-dive” and rhymes with “survive.”
But the Belgian endive is pronounced “on-deev,” which is obviously fancier. And if you really want to lord it over your friends and family, call the stuff “witloof,” as they do in the Netherlands.
The Belgian endive is also the high-maintenance princess of the vegetable world. Here’s how you grow the stuff.
First, buy a two-year calendar, because this is going to take a while. Next, build some heated, lightless sheds and plant a field with Belgian endive seeds. Wait, weed, wait, irrigate, weed some more, wait some more. At the end of the year, examine your witloofs — and then chop off what has grown and throw it all in the garbage.
Now, dig up all the Belgian endive roots and escort them to a nice, dark, warm place. A Ritz-Carlton hotel suite will suffice. Don’t let in any light, or the endives will be ruined. Ruined! Think of this as the blackout-curtained privacy that any hard-partying starlet requires to regenerate. This beauty sleep can take 10 months.
Now, wake them up. You do this properly, of course, by carefully arranging the roots upright in a mineral bath of constantly circulating micronutrients — yes, a soothing endive spa. They remain in their special world of horti-coddling for several more weeks until — voilà — they sprout up in the dark.
The Belgian endive we see in stores is really a sprout of what the plant would be if it had grown outside in the sun: The leaves would have splayed out and turned green, and the whole thing would be the size of a head of romaine. But no. Ceaseless pampering and tampering prevented that uncouth, garish, obvious possibility. Common plants turn green; elite Belgian endives never stoop to conquer.
Food of the Caesars and Tiny French Dictators
Chicories, of which Belgian endive is one, are some of the earliest recorded vegetables. The venerable Aristophanes, Ovid, and Horace all mentioned it — and never said even a word about Funyuns. In ancient Rome, the caesars and other citizens ate lots of it, especially as medicine to treat everything from jaundice to inflammation, stomachaches to headaches. In 1806, Napoleon decided to make France completely self-sufficient and directed everyone to ditch coffee and drink roasted chicory roots instead.
Belgian endive as we know it today first debuted in the 1840s in Belgium. Today, each proud Belgian eats nearly 20 pounds of it annually. Americans eat almost none. Have Aristophanes, Ovid, Horace, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon given you poor food advice before? Exactly.
Like most common vegetables, Belgian endives are almost frighteningly healthy. They offer us plenty of vitamins A and K, folate, calcium, and manganese, all of which are necessary lest we keel over.
But that’s hardly all. Researchers are currently investigating Belgian endive for its other suspected health benefits. For instance, it’s full of inulin, a material that passes through most of our gastrointestinal tract intact and then feeds the flora that live in our colon. Doing this allows the colon to create short-chain fatty acids that are associated with all sorts of good stuff, like preventing cancer and helping the body achieve better cholesterol and insulin levels.
Is Belgian endive a miracle food? As much as anything is. But at about a calorie per leaf, it’s a better miracle than anything else you’re likely to stick into blue-cheese dip.
Here are three ridiculously easy yet fancy appetizers using Belgian-endive leaves as the base. To begin, take a Belgian endive and snap the leaves off into the little boat-plates they will become.
Option one: Scatter a few crumbles of blue cheese and several toasted walnut pieces on each leaf, then drizzle with honey to hold them in place.
Option two: Smear fresh chèvre on an endive spear, top it with a pear slice and a decorative strip of prosciutto.
Option three: Spread an endive leaf with sundried-tomato pesto or sundried-tomato cream cheese, and top that with halved cherry tomatoes or feta chunks.
Endive also does exceptionally well in salads. If you were Roman and zipping past the Colosseum on your sexy Italian scooter, there’s a good chance you’d be going home to a chicory-only salad, puntarelle, the true caesar salad of Rome. Puntarelle uses chicory sprouts dressed with a simple anchovy vinaigrette. To make a quick version at home, slice the endives crosswise into small strips. Then dress with a vinaigrette made by grinding together salted anchovies, garlic, and chili pepper flakes with a mortar and pestle, diluting the paste with olive oil, and adding lemon juice to taste.
The French like to braise whole endives in butter until they’re caramelized and well browned.
Does any of this spark anything in you? Does it make it seem like the next time you throw a big splurge of a holiday meal, you might just give a little more thought to the things that grow on roots? If so, my work here is done. And if you need me, I’ll be off petitioning the government to start a National Board of Fancying-Up Dinner and hot-gluing rhinestones to corncob holders.