When we think of a secret garden we usually think of the roses and foxgloves behind an old, mossy wall in England, tended by three horticulturally precocious children in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel of that name. I have a secret garden, too, but it’s in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, and it’s only there in wintertime.
Hiding next to the aluminum foil and Windex on a cold, gray day is my Belgian endive forcing bucket, crowned with crisp, juicy, heads that resemble 4-inch, pointed, white lettuces, there for the picking.
These are just like the expensive ones found in the market, but fresher and hence milder, since storage after cutting brings out that bitterness to which endives are prone. It is mainly to avoid this bitterness that gardeners embark on the long growing and forcing process. Long, but not difficult.
The endive made famous by the Belgians is, strictly speaking, not an endive but a type of chicory — a group that includes true endives such as frisée, escarole and the roadside weed with its sky-blue flowers.
A story is told of the Brussels gardener who discovered some roots sprouting accidentally in a dark cellar, and realized he had struck culinary gold. The crop was soon wildly popular not only for raw salads but also for braising, sautéeing, baking and grilling (sliced in half lengthwise). Commercial cultivation of the plant — called witloof chicory abroad — spread from Northern Europe to other countries. Most of those grown in the United States are from California.
A home crop starts with the purchase of seeds. John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, which specializes in gourmet European varieties, lists Totem, as does Johnny’s Selected Seeds. This is a classic white variety, and while I used to find red tipped ones, such as Robin and Monroe, they seem to have become rare in commerce.
I liked growing both colors so that I could pair them on a cruditée platter, where they made perfect little spoons for scooping up dip. I have a feeling that some radicchio seeds, of the Treviso type, might work just as well.
Chicories are biennial plants that send up their flower stalks only after they’ve experienced the cold of winter. They should be direct sown in spring, but not too early. There’s still plenty time, up until early June. Too much chill will make them bolt and present you with a blue bouquet.
Instead, they need to grow all summer in the ground in order to produce nice fat roots, full of the stored carbohydrates that make them so good for forcing.
The best soil for them is what I call “root crop soil” — high in phosphorous, potassium and magnesium, but not over-rich in nitrogen, which produces abundant top growth. The seedbed, just as for carrots and parsnips, should be finely pulverized and continually moistened, to aid germination.
Thin the seedlings to 6 inches or so, mulch them, then forget them until fall unless they need weeding.
After a few light frosts, the plants should be dug by gently prying the soil around the roots with a digging fork, then pulling them out. Trim off the bitter-tasting tops to about an inch long, being very careful not to cut too close to the growing tip.
Trim the roots at the bottom so that they are all about 8 inches long. Then store them in a cool place. A few degrees above freezing is ideal, but you have some leeway as long as they stay slightly moist and don’t freeze. A cold, damp cellar is great, or an unheated garage — even the refrigerator if you have room.
You do not have leeway in the matter of light. The roots must stay in absolute darkness. A heavy duty black plastic bag works fine as long as it admits not one pinprick of light.
After a month or more of cold treatment they are ready for forcing. I like to use two-gallon buckets from the hardware store, standing a dozen or so roots upright in each and filling in around the roots with damp sand or potting mix, so that the tops are at the surface.
If you have a cold cellar you might fill all your buckets at once, as soon as the roots have been dug, and have them all ready to go. Or you can just pot them up one by one as needed, in which case a bucket of water could be your potting medium. The trick is to always have a new bucket coming along, since the roots are generally not reused after one forcing.
After a bucket is brought into a warm room, the heads immediately start to grow. To keep them white and mild-tasting you want to cover the bucket securely with black plastic. (A large, inverted, 5-gallon black bucket works best). Any dark corner of the house where it’s between 50 and 65 degrees is a fine spot for your stealth salad.
Peek in every few days, adding water as needed. After three weeks, the little “chicons,” as the French call them, will have popped up like a bed of crocuses, ready at hand for instant enjoyment. Sometimes a slow food can become a fast food if you plan it right.
Barbara Damrosch, author of “The Garden Primer,” is a freelance writer.
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