Belgian endives are not widely appreciated. It does not look very attractive once it is cooked, with its grey and slimy exterior. That is why generally speaking, today this vegetable is eaten raw as salad, or only slightly cooked.
Imagine my horrified surprise when I read the recipe for Belgian endives of Maurice Joyant in his cookbook La cuisine de Monsieur Momo, célibataire from 1930, in which the vegetable is being cooked for no less than two hours. TWO HOURS!!! But still we picked this recipe as one of two vegetables for our Christmas dinner in 2018 that consisted entirely of recipes from this cookbook. We followed the recipe exactly, and the result was the most delicious Belgian endives I have ever tasted. So never assume beforehand that a recipe is bad when it does not conform to modern taste or practise, but first prepare the dish as the author described it. By the way, the Belgian endives are not actually cooked, but stewed very slowly in its own juices with the addition of butter.
More about Maurice Joyant and his cookbook can be read on the page with the recipe for cheese biscuits.
Witloof and endives
In French the recipe is called ‘Endives au jus’. The Dutch language has separate names for green endives and Belgian endives, which we call witlof or witloof. Indeed, the leafy green endives and compact white Belgian endives both belong to the same plant family: Chicory, but they are different varieties. Endives (Cichorium endivia, andijvie in Dutch) is an annual plant, Belgian endives is known as Cichorium intybus var. foliosum. Another variety of wild cichory (Cichorium intybus var. sativum) has been used since Napoleonic times to make a coffee surrogate wich is in Dutch called peekoffie (pronounced as ‘pay coffee’). This surrogate, made from the roots of the plant, does not contain caffeine.
Belgian endives are a ‘forced vegetable’, it does not grow spontaneously into compact white batons or heads. The roots are harvested from the land and the leafy green heads are cut off by a kind of plant guillotine. The roots are placed very close together, packed like sardines, to keep the heads compact. After three weeks in the dark to keep them white, the witlof is harvested.
The method of forcing endives is fairly recent. In 1751, François Alexandre Aubert de La Chesnaye-Desbois describes in his Dictionnaire universel (see bibliography) how to force wild chicory by cutting off the leaves and then planting the roots packed close together in the dark. In the nineteenth century this method is applied to ‘tame’ endives, especially in the region of Brussels. That is why witlof is also known as ‘Brussels lof’ in Dutch.
The original recipe
I have mentioned three editions of the cookbook of Joyant in the bibliography. The original author, Maurice Joyant, was prominently mentioned in the first edition, later editions show the growing importance of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the descriptions of the cookbook. Joyant had added 24 drawings of de painter to his cookbook. I have used the translation of the English edition. In the English translation of the recipe the name ‘Madame Peg de Vitry-le-François, Marne’ has disappeared. In the original cookbook Joyant provides the names of several people, but some of these are fictional, according to Pascal Orly (author of the introduction to the French edition of 2011).
Recette de Madame Peg de Vitry-le-François, Marne
Ayez de belles endives lavées, épluchées et sechées.
Mettez dans une cocotte un bon morceau de beurre et faites-le chauffer. Ajoutez les endives et faites revenir jusqu’à ce qu’elles soient dorées. Salez et poivrez. Couvrez la cocotte, laissez mijoter une heure et demie au moins sans ajouter d’eau.
Dans le dernier quart d’heure, si vous avez trop de jus, laissez réduire à découvert.
Cette recette s’applique à des navets ou des topinambours.
Take some nice Belgian endive which has been washed, pared, and dried. Put a good lump of butter into a deep cooking pot and let it heat. Add the endive and let them cook just until they are golden brown. Salt and pepper; cover the pot and let it simmer for at least an hour and a half without adding water.
In the last quarter of an hour, if you have too much liquid, let it reduce with the lid off.
This recipe can be used for turnips and Jerusalem archichokes.
Depending on the menu in which they are served and their size, one or two heads of Belgian endives for each person are sufficient. Prepare them in a small cast-iron pan in which the endives fit snugly. And remember to use ‘real butter’, not margarine!
Side dish for 4 persons; Preparation in advance 5 minutes; Preparation 2 hours.
4 heads Belgian endives
60 gr butter
(pepper and salt to taste)
Preparation in advance
Rinse the heads and cut of a small slice of the root point. If the Belgian endive is very bitter, hollow out the core, as most of the bitterness is located there. Pat the heads dry with a kitchen towel.
Melt the butter in the pan and place the witlof in it. Fry until brown at all sides, cover and let it simmer on a very low fire. Smelt de boter in de pan en leg de witlof erin. Braad deze op middelhoog vuur even aan alle kanten aan. Doe dan de deksel op de pan en zet de pan op het sudderpitje op de laagste stand. Gebruik eventueel nog een vlamverdeler. Keer de witlof ieder half uur even om. Na anderhalf uur bekijk je hoeveel vocht er in de pan zit. Als dat veel is, zet je het vuur iets hoger en je stooft de witlof zonder deksel tot het vocht verdampt is. Het recept schrijft peper en zout voor. Ik heb dat weggelaten om te kijken hoe dat beviel. Prima. Maar doe het vooral erbij als je dat wil.
The Belgian endives will have acquired a golden hue, and a very rich taste. That is why I have even left out pepper and salt when I prepared them.
The editions below were used by me. Links refer to available editions.
- La Chesnaye, Dictionnaire universel d’agriculture et de jardinage: de fauconnerie, chasse, pêche, cuisine et manége. David le Jeune, Parijs, 1751. (Online available: vol. 1, vol. 2)
- Maurice Joyant, La cuisine de monsieur Momo, célibataire. Pellet, 1930
- Maurice Joyant & Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La cuisine de monsieur Momo. Comprenant des recettes d’Antoine Westermann, ainsi qu’une préface de Pascal Ory. Menu Fretin, 2011
- Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Joyant, The art of cuisine. Henry Holt & Co, 1995.
The best recipe for Belgian endives
This early 20th-century recipe uses only two ingredients, but it is the tastiest way to prepare Belgian endives.