For those of us seeking independence from the supermarket, winter salad greens are a challenge. But there’s a little known vegetable that fills the void – Belgian endive otherwise known as Witloof chicory. So plant Belgian endive now for January salad greens.
What is Witloof Chicory?
Witloof chicory is an unusual garden vegetable. Grown all summer long as if it were a carrot, the roots are harvested in the fall then forced indoors in winter whenever salad greens are needed. The shoots the roots produce are called chicons. They have a slightly bitter taste but when mixed with other “fresh” foods from the root cellar such as red cabbage, shredded carrots and onions along with some microgreens from the window sill and perhaps some fresh sprouts you’ve made, you have the fixings for a yummy mid-winter salad.
The one difficulty you may have is finding a source for seeds. Not all seed catalogs carry them, I guess because they aren’t big sellers, so you might have to really search for a supplier of these seeds. To further complicate matters, the common name is often confused with endive and escarole (which some people refer to as chicory to add even more confusion), 2 vegetables that are grown in the garden for their leaves as compared to Witloof chicory which is grown for its root.
To be sure you are getting the right thing, it’s best to go by the Latin names. Endive and escarole are Cichorium endivia whereas Witloof chicory is Cichorium intybus. The latter is what you are looking for.
Growing Witloof Chicory
To promote formation of large roots, you can work compost into the soil before planting but in all honesty, I’ve gotten chicons from some pretty scrawny roots. You can remove rocks to prevent forked roots but I’ve forced some ugly forked roots and have been rewarded with plenty of chicons. The point is some soil preparation is a good idea but it needn’t be perfect to grow some roots.
Witloof chicory is easily grown from seeds. Because we’re in the northern latitudes, we sow the seeds in early spring and grow it all summer long as if it were carrots. But in long season regions of the country, plant the seeds in mid summer. I sow seeds about ½” deep in rows 8” to 12” apart in our raised bed. I thin the plants to about 4” apart. Other than thinning, weeding and watering, I pretty much ignore the stuff until fall.
Frost won’t hurt Witloof chicory. Remember at this stage all we care about is the root, not the leaves, so I wait as long a possible before I harvest them. In other words just before the ground freezes. Using a spading fork, I loosen up the soil so I can pull the roots. I cut off the large leaves as close to the root as I can and throw the leaves on the compost pile. The roots, small ones, large ones and ugly ones alike, are then stored in the root cellar as if they were carrots until I’m ready to force them, usually in January.
Forcing the Roots
To force the roots you need a container filled with soil. The soil need not be super terrific as the energy is in the roots. Any container will do. We’ve used an old leaky bucket, planter tubs, pots that held fruit bushes we bought etc. They need to be deep enough to hold at least 6” – 8” of soil.
Put your filled container where the temperature is cool- say 55ºF to 60ºF and where it will be in the dark. You could use a closet or do as we do and rig up some sort of blanket covering to keep out the light. One year I stuck a tomato cage into the soil filled container and used that to support the thick blanket. A large cardboard box inverted over the container works too.
Once you have your container ready, stick you roots into the soil. They can be spaced very close together and they need not be completely covered with soil. Water the soil so it’s damp but not soggy. Cover to keep out light and wait for the magic to happen.
In about 3 weeks the roots send out leaves. At this point, the leaves or chicons are called Belgian endive. If you’re lucky you may get perfectly cone shaped chicons. I’m not lucky. I think I’ve had a grand total of 3 perfectly shaped chicons in all the years I’ve been forcing the roots. The rest of the time, I get loose leaves that form no discernible shape. I don’t care. I’m not growing these for the market where looks are everything. My mish mash of leaves works just as well as the ones that are picture perfect. I cut the leaves as I need them for salads being careful not to damage the root. Usually I can get at least 2 cuttings before the roots are spent and are ready for the compost heap.
Using Belgian Endive
Initially I thought the leaves would be a great lettuce substitute in sandwiches so I piled them on the first time I harvested them. Yuck! We didn’t like them one bit. They have a slight bitter taste that we didn’t care for. I was so disappointed because I was counting on them to satisfy our hunger for fresh greens in the winter. Nevertheless, I decided to try them mixed with other vegetables in a salad that was dressed with a sweet dressing. Much better.
So much better that we grow Witloof chicory every year and force the roots in January for Belgian endive shoots for fresh winter salads. And you can too, for true salad independence. Here’s a salad dressing recipe that works well with a fresh winter salad that includes Belgian endive:
¼ cup olive oil
2 TBSP white sugar
2 TBSP white vinegar
1 TBSP minced parsley
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
dash or more of hot sauce such as Tabasco to taste
Combine all ingredients and shake well then refrigerate till ready to use. Enjoy!
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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