At least once a month here, I’ll be showcasing a farm or ranch where I’ve been lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes tour, along with a recipe I’ve created to highlight their “product”. Thanks to being in the San Francisco Professional Food Society (and on their Board), and volunteering and doing some cooking classes for Marin Agricultural Land Trust, I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to meet a lot of wonderful people who help to put food on my table every day.
The first farm is California Vegetable Specialties in Rio Vista, California owned by Rich Collins. He grows endive, and in case you were wondering, this is the kind that’s pronounced “on-deev”. And no you don’t need to say it only when wearing your “Sunday best” while having tea and crumpets with the local Garden Club as you ask someone if they have any Grey Poupon. Nor do you need to sound like you have a really bad cold. It really is the correct pronunciation and you’ll just sound informed and hip. Really.
Explaining how endive is farmed feels like the beginning of one of those riddles we all shared with each other when we were kids. What’s black and white and red (read) all over, we’d ask our friends? A newspaper, we’d all sing out together, and then topple on each other giggling. What plant is harvested twice, is grown in the dark, provides food once per plant, and can reduce ovarian cancer by 75% when eaten raw? That’s right, endive. Wow!
Over the past 20 years, I’ve visited a lot of farms and ranches, but I’m here to tell you that I’ve never seen a farm quite like the one at California Vegetable Specialties. Owned by Rich Collins, CVS is the largest producer of endive in North America and provides most of the red endive in the world. That alone is impressive, but seeing how endive is grown puts Rich in the “master farmer” category as far as I’m concerned.
In a nutshell, every spring, very tiny endive seeds are planted shallowly in the ground that pop up the first proud little leaflets after four to five days. They flourish all summer and get mowed down in the fall. (Don’t you have days that you feel like this??) Anyway, this is harvest #1. But it’s not your typical harvest. Most of the leaves are left behind in the field and what gets harvested is a 6-inch root that has one budding leaf attached. Off these roots go into cold storage set at 32 degrees for eight to ten months to take a long winter nap, since they’ve been fooled into thinking that winter suddenly appeared.
When it’s time for them to grow again, they’re carefully placed vertically in forcing trays and whisked to the forcing room on fork-lift limos where they’re stacked in columns that are 50 feet high. The forcing room is really humid – close to saturation, dark, and warmer to encourage growth. The roots are fed nutrients hydroponically and grow undisturbed in the dark for about four weeks. When the tall insulating curtains protecting the forcing room are drawn back, there they all are, thousands of endive plants that look like elegant, little soldiers standing upright at attention, waiting patiently to be harvested.
Harvest #2 is when the endive is removed from the roots before packing and shipping. The roots are used as a high quality cattle feed since they’re not used again. All in all, 2 years from seed to feed.
It’s really an amazing thing to witness, and honestly if you ever have the opportunity to tour Rich’s farm, cancel your tennis date, lunch plans, or business meeting, and grab it. Since my visit, as you can imagine, I’ve been playing more with endive than usual. So when I was invited to a potluck dinner recently, and I knew The Endive Guy would be there, I wanted to bring something I’d been playing with: a flatbread with grilled fall fruit and endive with blue cheese.
This is a great flatbread that celebrates the fall bounty and is healthy. A few health facts about endive before diving into the recipe: at about 15 calories per head, it’s only about 1 calorie per leaf. Endive is very high in Vitamin A and iron and is said to work very well in ridding the body of infections. For heart health, one head of endive delivers about half the potassium of a banana. And although endive isn’t as bitter as some of its chicory family cousins thanks to how it’s grown, its bitterness acts as an appetite stimulant and aids in digestion. For additional information nutrition, see this in the Nutrition tab.
In this recipe, pears, figs and endive are all tossed in pear vinaigrette and then lightly grilled until the pears begin to give off a caramelized flavor that marries really well with the crunch and flavor of the endive. Endive is one of the greens that loves to be grilled, but don’t grill it for too long since you want some of its crunch. I used a vegetable grilling tray on top of my grill that had perforations in it for the pears and figs. For the record, this also works just fine on top of the stove with a grill pan, or sauté pan. For more information on shopping for, prepping, storing, and cooking with endive, I have added some general information under the Practical Matters tab.
For the cheese, I felt that blue cheese on its own overpowered the dish, and so I mixed it up with a little goat cheese and ricotta cheese that still sings out a clear blue cheese note, although a little muted.
Now that the farmer’s markets are overflowing with all these ingredients, it’s the perfect time of year for this dish. If you try it, I’d love to hear what you think!
MAKES 30 BITE-SIZED APPETIZERS
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 cup onions, finely chopped
- 3 pears (both Bosc and Bartlett work great)
- 3 heads of endive
- 6 fresh figs
- 2 tablespoons any kind of Pear Vinegar (cider vinegar can be substituted)
- 2 tablespoons ricotta cheese
- 2 tablespoons chevre
- 3 tablespoons blue cheese – I used Pt. Reyes Blue
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (if they’re young and not woody, you can include the stems)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 3 Na’an rounds purchased at the store
- Preheat the oven to 400º F.
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small sauté pan and add the onions. Saute on medium-low until soft and seem to melt. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- Slice the pears, with the skin on, into wedges about 1/4″ thick. Remove the seeds. Place on a baking sheet. Slice the endive in half, lengthwise, and place on the baking sheet. Slice the figs in thirds, lengthwise, and place on the baking sheet. Combine the last tablespoon of olive oil with the Pear Vinegar, a pinch of salt and pepper and swish around. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the fruit and endive and gently, gently rub it over everything for good coverage.
- Oil and heat up the grill and place a lightly oiled vegetable grilling sheet on the grill. Place the endive on the grill, cut side facing down, and the fruit on the vegetable grilling sheet.
- Grill the endive until the edges begin to brown and it begins to soften just a bit, turning it as needed (about 4-5 minutes total over direct heat). Grill the fruit until the pears begin to brown and slightly caramelize and the figs soften and become slightly juicy. Remove everything from the grill back to the baking sheet you started with.
- Combine the cheeses, fresh thyme, and a pinch of salt and pepper in a small bowl with a fork.
- Assemble the flatbreads: spread the cheese mixture onto the Na’an. Sprinkle on the sautéed onions and layer the pears, endive and figs on top. Bake until the cheese melts a bit – about 15 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and slice up into bite-sized pieces. This can be served at room temperature, but is oh so much better warm.
- And as a final note, if you didn’t hit on the above link for Grey Poupon, I recommend doing it. It might not be the one you grew up with like I did.