The endive (AHN-deev) is the slightly, bitter, moist, pale green leaves of the chicory plant that spout when its root is held in a root cellar. Discovered by accident by a Belgian farmer about 1850, this vegetable became popular in the nineteenth century when other vegetables were scarce in winter, and is now internationally acclaimed as a gourmet salad ingredient. Endives may be white or red, the red variety only now being introduced into U.S. markets.
Like other bitter greens, endives are nutritionally important for what they do rather than the nutrients they contain. Endives produce a special class of carbohydrates known as fructans, a group containing inulin (not to be confused with insulin) and oligofructoses.
These carbohydrates feed the symbiotic bacteria living in the intestine rather than the human body itself. They allow the healthy bacteria in the colon to produce short chain fatty acids that help prevent colon cancer, but they do not serve as a food source of pathogenic bacteria. The bacterial fermentation of fructans in the intestine changes its chemistry so that the human body absorbs calcium and magnesium much more readily from other foods, so much so that consuming endive and similar vegetables demonstrably builds stronger bones. These complex sugars also lower cholesterol and triglycerides.
Select endives that are smooth and white with yellow tips with leaves that are closed at the tips. Keep endives dry, and never cut or shred them until just before cooking or serving. The vitamin content of endive lasts about a week after harvest under refrigeration, provided the vegetable is not exposed to light.
When preparing this vegetable for salads, cut off about one-eighth inch (1/3 cm) from the stem end. Then, with a paring knife, cut a cone shape about one-half inch (1 cm) from the stem end.
Endive goes well in salads with raddichio, oakleaf lettuce, or red beets for the red ingredients and with arrugula, romaine lettuce, mâche, or Boston lettuce for the green ingredients. It can be prepared roasted like radicchio or in a variety of soups and side dishes.