Open the cupboards at my house at your own risk. In the spot where you’d think I’d keep a darling wicker basket of Tupperware, I might have a gurgling batch of jasmine tea kombucha, the slimy ‘mother’ floating at the top of a glass canister in a primordial ooze and mysteriously reproducing like an aquarium full of horny sea monkeys.
At any given time, underneath the sink, back behind the spare package of scrubby sponges and the surplus bottle of my trusty EO Lavender Hand Soap, I might have a sandy, sake-scented vat of takuan pickles, aka 沢庵 (I looked that up), aka, takuan-zuke, aka ‘that weird vegetable-like crunch you can’t quite place at the sushi restaurant’.
Of course there could be mold-encrusted clumps of goats cheese curds anywhere in my basement, kim chee fixins’ in the German crock beside the fireplace, and as we speak, there are two, 3-link lengths of peppery cotechino sausage dripping and drying from the rafters above my wine bottle racks downstairs.
But in the barn-like pie-keep beside my front door is my Indian in the Cupboard, or more specifically my Belgian in the Cupboard: Belgian Endive – my adorable little winter garden to pick from.
I’ve been trying to grow (or at least understand how to grow) Belgian Endive for years. I adore those pale celadon high-priced lettuce nuggets from the grocery store and, as always, would prefer to grow them myself rather than pick them out from the damp carton at the Price Chopper.
Belgian Endive grows in two stages. It’s an enchanting yet labor intensive endeavor best left for the seriously obsessive-compulsive gardener like myself.
Endive begins its life as Witloof Chicory, a plant that looks so much like a dandelion weed that if you do not get down on your hands and knees for half of June and July and try to differentiate the non-Witfloof Chicory that surrounds its shoots, you will weed the stuff right out of the garden (not that I did that for two consecutive years or anything.)
Then, ’round about, I don’t know, a million months later, the bitter top foliage shows itself in (hopefully) the neat rows you planted them in. Unlike just about everything in my garden, this top-end junk concerns me not; it’s the root of the Witloof that’s the ‘business-end’.
Toward the end of the summer as the buzz of the cicadas fills the air, I dig up the roots and marvel at my own patience.
If I am not already utterly bored with my high-maintenance darlings, I lovingly trim the tops off and discard. I clip the bottom ends of the roots as well and then, believe it or not, we are at the beginning of the Belgian Endive process.
If growing your own Belgian Endive is still sounding like an excellent idea to you (I’m questioning my own sanity as I type this), pack your trimmed roots together and stand them upright in a bucket or a pail. Add sand or sandy soil, a little water and wait some more.
Now it’s time to find a nice closet to store your bucket in. The lack of light is what keeps these little guys as pale as a baby’s bottom. I prefer a place that will frighten guests…somewhere a stash of chocolate might be kept, or a spare set of car keys.
In another few weeks when the last of my kale has wilted, my tomato plants have shriveled in the compost, and the snow has dusted the hood of my car, my cupboard garden will begin sprouting. Rarely do I think to myself that $9.99 a pound is a bargain for a vegetable whose seed is a merely fraction of a penny, but in this case it is. But sometimes the value is in the work itself, the mystery of the gurgling mess beneath the floorboards, the nubile taste of spring budding from behind closed doors.
BELGIAN ENDIVE SALAD FOR TWO
2 Belgian Endives, chopped into 1″ lengths
1 French breakfast radish, sliced into thin coins
1 tbsp vinaigrette (I like to use a wintry walnut oil in my vinaigrette for Belgian Endive)
1 tbsp ‘Tommy’s dressing’ (1 part Dijon mustard + 1 part mayonaise)
1. Toss the ingredients together in a large bowl and portion out onto 2 salad plates.
Take your boots off before you come in here!