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Endive: The accidental vegetable

Endive leaves become little boats to hold the creamy Tangy Cheese and Cranberry mixture. Photo by Sue Doeden1 / 2
Belgian endive is quite versatile. It can be baked, roasted, braised, steamed or eaten raw. Photo by Sue Doeden2 / 2

Have you ever been hesitant to ask about some item in the grocery store because you weren't quite sure how to pronounce it? I have.

It just happened to me in the produce department. I was browsing through the fresh vegetables and noticed there was something covered up. I cautiously lifted thick green waxed paper to see what was hiding underneath. I discovered small tulip-shaped heads of Belgian endive with their cream-colored leaves, looking as if they'd been tucked into bed, snoozing in their blanket of darkness.

I hadn't seen endive in a while and was anxious to take some home. Already I knew the endive leaves would become little boats to hold a creamy mixture for a pre-dinner nibble.

Wondering about the price, I said, "The ON-deev is beautiful. (I said it quickly, almost under my breath, thinking the listener might not hear how I pronounced the word.) How much is it?" The response: "Oh, EN-dive? It just came in and it's priced very reasonably today."

And so it goes. Whether you are cosmopolitan, cozy community, gourmet foodie, or northwoodsy, you probably have your own preferred way of pronouncing the name of these tender little heads that were discovered in Belgium. California Vegetable Specialties, the world's largest producer of California endive, suggests we all eat more "ON-deev."

In 19th century Belgium, a man who had forgotten his chicory roots in a cellar was amazed to discover them plump and covered with long yellowish leaves which had sprouted in the dark, warm conditions. Curious, he tasted them, found they had a good flavor, and began to cultivate them. However, it is another Belgian who gave us endive as we know it today: the botanist Brézier, who developed it from coffee chicory, which had a small root.

When shopping for endive, choose heads that are firm and creamy colored. Produced in dark conditions, it shows its dislike of the light by quickly becoming bitter when exposed to light. This is why you might find endive tucked under dark paper amidst other fresh produce at the supermarket.

Once home, endive can be stored unwashed in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. To prepare endive, peel off any soft or bruised first-layer leaves and add to compost. The slight bitterness becomes more pronounced at the core. Cut about a quarter inch from the base of each head and use a small sharp paring knife to remove the core. To wash, run the endive leaves quickly under cool running water.

Belgian endive is really quite versatile. It can be baked, roasted, braised, steamed or eaten raw. Whole or sliced leaves can replace lettuce for a delightful salad. I enjoy introducing endive to family and friends by using the tender leaves as a base for holding dips and spreads. The canoe-shaped spears add elegance to an hors d'oeuvres platter. At only about one calorie per leaf, fresh endive is a welcome alternative to those who are working on a more healthful way of eating.

Few ingredients make Tangy Cheese and Cranberry-Stuffed Endive quick and easy to prepare. The textures and flavors perfectly combine to make each bite a captivating encounter for all those who are new to the "ON-deev" experience.

Next time I may try adding sun-dried tomatoes. Or is it tom-AH-toes?

Tangy Cheese and Cranberry-Stuffed Endive

1/4 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup fruit juice, apple, cranberry, pomegranate or orange

6 ounces reduced-fat or full-fat cream cheese

2 tablespoons apple, cranberry or plum jelly

1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese

2 heads Belgian endive

1/4 cup pecan pieces, toasted and finely chopped

Put dried cranberries in a small bowl. Heat juice to boiling and pour over cranberries. Allow cranberries to soak in the hot juice for 5 minutes. Drain the cranberries and place them on a paper towel-lined plate to cool.

Combine cream cheese and jelly in a small mixing bowl. Stir in blue cheese and plumped cranberries. At this point, the filling can be used immediately or refrigerated in a covered bowl overnight.

Trim the base of each endive and carefully separate the leaves. Use a teaspoon or baby spoon to mound filling in each endive spear. The endive can be served immediately. If making ahead of serving time, place stuffed endive on platter, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 2 hours. Sprinkle the finely chopped pecans over stuffed endive at serving time.

Tips from the cook

--Apples also go well with Tangy Cheese and Cranberry stuffing. Core a crisp, juicy apple. Slice the apple into rounds or wedges. Mound Tangy Cheese and Cranberry on each slice. Yum! Much better than a cracker.

--Soaking the dried cranberries for a few minutes makes them soft and plump. Save the drained juice in the refrigerator. Add it to your morning smoothie or bowl of oatmeal. If you don't want to take time for this step, just stir the dried cranberries into the cream cheese mixture as is.

--Toast pecans in shallow baking pan in 350-degree oven for about 7 minutes or until fragrant.