Every preschooler can tell you what a plant needs in order to grow: water and sunlight, right?
I have a feeling that Sylvan may struggle in preschool, as he’s liable to pipe up and say that his mommy grows plants in the dark.
At the outset of last season, I had a long list of projects and experiments that I intended to pursue. This was pre-baby, mind you, when I still thought that I would strap him to my back after a week of recuperation and go about my business. (Expectant mothers take note–it is only now, after 11 months, that I can strap him to my back and go about my business. Alas, it is too cold to take him outside, and he weighs surprisingly much, so most of the business I go about involves laundry.) Anyway, despite my uncooperative baby, I did manage to attempt a few projects: the bees are still alive (more on that to come in future posts), I had a great parsnip crop, and I am now enjoying my first ever Belgian endive harvest.
Belgian endives are a storage vegetable unlike any other, a crop that could only have gained popularity in an era when shipped in winter tomatoes did not exist. Their allure springs from the fact that the winter stage of their life requires no light, and can thus be completed indoors, yet it yields a vegetable whose salad-like crunch evokes summer (or at least above freezing temperatures). When you’ve been living out of a root cellar since November; when the squash are going soft and the sweet potatoes are long gone; when you swear that you’d rather eat dirt than another cabbage: Belgian endives must have seemed like manna from heaven. Here’s how they happen.
In summer, I seeded one corner of my garden with three rows of endives. The endives grew like sloppy lettuces, floppy and verdant. Other than a few weeding runs and the occasional irrigation, they didn’t require much time or attention. Gradually, everything else in the garden fell to the harvest knife–broccoli and cauliflower, celeriac and spinach–until only the parsnips and the endives remained.
Finally, with winter nipping at my heels and a plane to catch the next day, I began to harvest the endives. The roots had sunk deep, and some of then snapped off even as I forked the soil loose around them. A few neatly matched my endive ideal–slim but sturdy, tapered and uniform–but most displayed quirks: bifurcations, off-shoots, or just huge girth. I clipped their green tops off an inch or two above the root and left the greenery to moulder in the field. The roots I carried inside, to our basement.
There I left them curing, while I flew home to visit family and attend a good friend’s wedding. When I returned, the roots had shrunk a bit, and I gathered them up for storage in the cooler. Originally, endives were grown for the roots, which are called chicory. Baked and ground, I’ve been told that chicory is a passable coffee substitute. (I’ll have to take wikipedia’s word on that, as privation has not yet forced me to abandon my own beloved beans.)
So far, this all seems fairly normal in the lifespan of a vegetable: seed, then plant, then harvest, then storage or consumption. But here the story of an endive diverges from most other plants. In the deepest part of winter, when the days are at their shortest, I planted the endives again.
The chicons (the part of the endive that I am interested in) were discovered in the 1850s by accident, when a Belgian noticed that the chicory roots he was storing in his root cellar had sprouted ghostly white leaves. Luckily for us, he had a European’s taste for mildly bitter greens, and he decided to ditch the bad coffee substitute for something fresh and crunchy.
I planted my endives cheek by jowl in deep waxed cardboard boxes. As I stood them up and patted the potting soil around them, I could already see the hint of new growth that peaked out of the remains of papery leaves. I watered them in, placed the endive boxes on a seedling heat mat, and closed the door to what was formerly our closet. I shut the endives in the dark, even stuffing a towel under the door to block out absolutely all light. Then I waited.
After a few days, I checked on my endives. What had been a mere suggestion of foliage was beginning to expand. Pale yellow and white leaves slowly emerged from my roots, searching for the sun. I kept them closeted, however, watering as needed, and trying to resist the temptation to check them over much. The darkness of the closet prevents the leaves from photosynthesizing and producing chlorophyll, which in turn keeps the endive heads less bitter than they otherwise would be. In putting out the endive head, the plants are spending the energy stores of the root, betting everything on the gamble that there will eventually be light, which the leaves will use to produce more energy. My endives grew like spectral, vegetative spaceships, nurtured by the warmed soil and the consistent moisture.
Ideally, an endive will form a tight head, leaves cupping leaves. My experimental endives did some of that, true, though they also created some wild rosettes and spiky columns. My endives did not yield the pounds of perfect heads for which I had hoped (hence why they are featured in the blog, rather than the winter CSA share!) but with my meager haul I was at last able to sample a Marcella Hazan recipe that Andrew and I had been eying since last summer.