The story that began with going to camp and ended with a passion for Belgian endives!
I went to camp. It was a beautiful camp. Esquagama. All fabulous log buildings and small log cabins, activities, an amphitheatre, bonfires and singing. I was eleven. And I learned things. Important things. I learned, for instance, that I didn’t like camp. And that the best place to hide is in plain sight. Blend in. Be a happy camper.
There was an hour of “free time” every afternoon, time to do whatever we liked. I sat, blissfully alone on a tier of the beautiful stone amphitheatre, reading a book.
The camper boys entertained themselves this day by capturing garter snakes and tossing them at the camper girls, who would promptly run about squealing dramatically.
Being engrossed in my book and probably homesickness, I didn’t notice their approach until a snake landed with a wiggly plop, on my lap. I was so surprised that I didn’t move. The snake, no doubt as surprised as I was, assessed the situation, blinked a few times, curled up in my lap and promptly went to sleep. The boys, seeing that I was about as much fun as a wet firecracker, ran off in pursuit of more interesting targets, and I was left no alternative but to think I observed that snakes are interesting and really quite beautiful. That all creatures enjoy a snooze on a warm, sunny afternoon. That little boys fear snakes and little girls who don’t. And that snakes can sleep for a very long time.
When, at last, I arrived late to the dining hall, firmly in happy camper mode, I noticed a decided change in the weather. Obviously my new found reputation had preceded me. The boys averted their eyes and the girls scowled perhaps feeling somehow chastised. I was confused but I did understand that from that point on, it was the to be the snake and I against the world.
I found my place at the table and in the ensuing awkwardness, I came to the decision that, from that moment on, I would love all vegetables. Oh I’m not saying that I would never be silly again. But I resolved not to be silly, at least, at every meal. No more histrionics when confronted with an asparagus spear, no more dramatically spitting out Lima beans.
This resolve, after a few bumps along the way, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Although, just between us, even into adulthood, the bitter vegetables, the rapini, the bitter melon, presented the greatest challenge. But I was not to be defeated. I was determined to understand the apparently universal fondness of the Dutch for that unfamiliar bitter vegetable, the Belgian endive.
Do not make the rookie mistake of thinking of Belgian endive simply as a salad ingredient. Eaten plain and raw, the bitterness is indeed quite pronounced. But give it a chance. Over the course of many years, this pale stranger has become truly one of my favourite “go to” vegetables. Perhaps you’ve seen a leaf of it cradling a spoonful of something tasty on a tray of appetizers. A Dutch visitor surprised me by braising said endives and serving them as a vegetable. Butter, salt and pepper. Not bad. And yet, only the beginning! Of course, they add a bit of an interesting flavor to curries and soups and stews. It is, in fact, one of the most popular pizza toppings in The Netherlands – and, by now, at my house.
If you want to google about, you will find hundreds of spectacular recipes for Belgian endive, and many of them will be more complex and interesting than this one, but, after a lot of flirting, this was the first real kiss – the moment I knew that Belgian endive and I had a long and happy future together.
It’s easy. Give it a try!
Some Belgian Endive heads
A package of Prosciutto
Parmesan cheese – although I’m sure other cheeses would work every bit as well – gruyère, Asiago….
A few tablespoons of olive oil
Get yourself some endive heads. Yes, you will observe that they are quite pricey as vegetables go. Budget one per diner. Remove the very outer layer if it looks dodgy, but not if it doesn’t. Cut in half lengthwise. Remove the core, or most of it. (The core is quite bitter). Wrap in some Prosciutto. Not too much. It’s salty. You’ll figure it out. Arrange in an oiled pie plate or whatever you have that’s about the right size and oven friendly. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil. Add a sprinkle (a good sprinkle) of your freshly grated cheese. A good bit of freshly ground pepper if you like it. Cover with foil. Bake on low heat (325 degrees perhaps) for awhile – maybe half an hour. Remember that this is a vegetable often eaten raw so you have a lot of flexibility. Close to serving time, remove foil so it browns nicely. A shot of broiler heat if you think it needs it.
Serve. Few will guess what it is, but a sock wrapped in Prosciutto and sprinkled generously with cheese would be delicious, so you’re hardly taking a risk.
You will develop variations. Toss in a few cherry tomatoes, or slices of mushroom. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this vegetable needs no bluffing. You’ll love it. If not, resist the urge to be silly. Try harder!