I love endive – braised, grilled, in salads or as an edible scoop for dips. I’ll eat this crunchy, nutty, slightly bitter vegetable any way it’s served.
So you can imagine my delight when I was invited last Wednesday to Rio Vista, California, for an endive farm tour at California Vegetable Specialties (CVS), the largest producer of endive in the U.S.
I had seen endive growing experimentally in Hawaii on a small scale. But I was unprepared for the magnitude of production at CVS. And while I knew the heads grew in pitch-black conditions, I hadn’t really understood how complicated it was to produce this delicacy – a two-step process that involves growing chicory roots, harvesting the roots and keeping them in cold storage; then awakening the hibernating roots and forcing the heads to grow in dark rooms, nourished from the root and through a hydroponic process. CVS founder Rich Collins sums it up as “a contrived, manipulated response to a plant.” Check out the fascinating growing process in this video.
Collins, a delightful host and an excellent teacher, always wanted to be a farmer, even as a child. But the desire didn’t take root until he encountered endive. As an 18-year-old dishwasher at the French restaurant La Salle in Sacramento, he was exposed to endive just once: at a VIP birthday banquet at the restaurant where braised endive was served. He hadn’t tasted the endive, but when he learned that this delicacy was only available imported from Europe and the high price it commanded, Collins was hooked.
That very year, he started a small patch to grow endive. “I failed miserably,” he recalled. After many years researching growing techniques and a year in Europe working on endive farms, Collins began commercial production on five acres in 1983. Today, the farm has expanded to 250 acres, 40 of which are dedicated to organic endive.
One of the secrets to successfully growing endive is in the quality of the chicory roots that go into cold storage. “You need really good plant materials,” he said. “The cold room is not a hospital.” You can’t coax poor roots into make quality endive.
We had a delicious endive lunch following the tour, including this Endive Salad below.
And by the way, the proper pronunciation, we learned, is “On-deev.” “End-dive” refers to another member of the chicory family, the green, leafy curly endive, escarole and frisee that grow outdoors in the light. I always thought there was a French pronunciation and an American one; but pronunciation actually defines the two different members of the chicory family.
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2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 small clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
2 white endives, heads sliced crosswise in wide ribbons
2 red endives, heads sliced crosswise in wide ribbons
1 cup arugula
½ cup shaved Parmesan cheese
¼ cup toasted pumpkin seeds or other nuts
1 large pear (Bartlett or Bosc), sliced
In a large bowl whisk together vinegar, lemon juice, oil, mustard and garlic until well mixed. Season with salt and pepper. Add the endives and arugula and toss. Divide salad among four salad plates. Scatter the Parmesan shavings and the pumpkin seeds on top, dividing equally and arrange ¼ of the pear slices on each salad. Serves 4.
Recipe from California Vegetable Specialties.
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