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Witlof, or Belgian endive, is a common vegetable in the Dutch kitchen. Although more favored by the older generation than the younger one, possibly because of its slightly bitter taste at times, the Dutch still purchase about 3 to 4 kilos per person a year of the chicory-related vegetable. It ranks in the top ten of most consumed vegetables in the country and really became popular during the mid-1900s. It's often served as an oven casserole, with ham and cheese, like we're making today, or braised by itself and served in a bechamel sauce with a pinch of nutmeg. Blue cheese and witlof also make a great combination, either served raw in a salad or as a savory witlof-pie. It's a very versatile vegetable, low in fat and tender in flavor to where it compliments stronger tasting fellow ingredients.
Witlof, meaning "white leaf", is originally a Belgian discovery from right around 1850. Chicory roots were grown because it provided an affordable substitute for coffee. Left on their own device, in the dark, the roots grew white leaves that, upon discovery by farmer Jan Lammers, turned out to be edible and a welcome addition to the winter table. Farmers started selling some of it on the local markets and history was made. France is now the top producer of this white vegetable, with Belgium and the Netherlands following close.
Another story relates that it was François Béziers, the head of the Botanical Gardens in
Brussels who discovered that several stored chicory roots had produced white leaves. He sent some to Paris where they were eagerly purchased. And for good reasons too: witlof as well as chicory root is beneficial to the liver and the gallbladder, and contains large amounts of potassium and vitamins B and C. Nowadays, full grown witlof is produced in less than twenty days by forcing one year old roots in an area with a controlled temperature of about 50F. The harvest consisted of crops of white, creamy, slightly bitter tasting witlof. A perfect winter vegetable to chase away the winter blues!
Witlof can be served raw or cooked. As a salad vegetable it barely needs much more than a splash of vinaigrette and maybe some citrus, as in a witlofsalade. Cooked, its tender nature benefits from robuster flavors.
Belgian endive will hold well, provided it is kept in a cool and dark location. Purchase smaller ones for eating whole. Larger endive will need to be cut in half and have the core removed as it tends to be rather hard and bitter.
4 Belgian endives
4 slices of ham
4 slices of cheese
1/2 cup shredded cheese
6 large potatoes
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup milk
2 teaspoons coarse ground mustard
Remove the outer leaves if damaged, remove the stem end. Cut in half and core the endive if it's fairly large. Bring a small pot of water to a boil and quickly blanch the vegetables, then let them drain. Set aside.
Peel and quarter the potatoes and bring them to a boil. Cook until done. Pour off the remaining water, and mash the potatoes with the butter and the milk. Fold in the mustard. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper if needed.
Butter an oven dish and spread the mashed potatoes on the bottom. Wrap each endive with a slice of cheese, then a slice of ham. Tuck in the ends. Place the witlof on top of the mashed potatoes and cover with the shredded cheese.
Place in a 350F oven for twenty to thirty minutes, until the cheese is melted and the vegetables are cooked.