Sturdy greens are likely to be some of the first arrivals at your farmer’s market this spring. The cold-weather varieties like spinach, kale and radicchio will show up first. And some of these may be new to your kitchen—it’s time to bravely explore your new world. If you are looking for some seasonal guidance and a gorgeous presentation, check out the William-Sonoma book Cooking from the Farmer’s Market. I know I’ve mentioned this book before, but the beautiful and helpful pictures, seasonal guides, and great recipes deserve a repeat. This great reference will support your goal to shop local and eat healthy. My copy was a gift from my friend Deb, and I treasure it.
Endive is part of the chicory family, along with escarole, frisée and radicchio. It comes in several varieties: Belgian, curly and Batavian (aka Escarole). For my Belgian Boats appetizer, I’ve used—you guessed it—Belgian endive. I wish I had been able to find the red-tipped variety for the Easter table because they are so stunning in this easy-to-prepare party food, but, alas, green had to do. I love arranging them like a big flower and filling the center with some other appetizer food—like the deviled eggs in this photo. If I still can find endive (less likely) when the first cherry tomatoes come in, I create a kind of Mexican sunflower with a center of yellow and red tomatoes. In the late fall (more likely) the center of my endive petals can be a mix of olives for a Black-eyed Susan.
The filling is pretty versatile, as well. I usually use brown and wild rice as its base, but you could switch this for quinoa, wheat berries or barley with no trouble. How you flavor the grains is really up to you, but you want the flavorings to be robust, not wimpy. Typically, I use pesto (still have a few cubes in the freezer) and a good Parmigiano-Reggiano with toasted nuts. But this is the time to be creative—use the recipe below as a guide, not strict directions. And, then, let me know where your imagination and on-hand ingredients took you!
Believe it or not, these boats are a favorite of my husband—you know, the major meat-eater. So that says quite a bit about their ability to appeal to a crowd. He actually requested them on the Easter brunch table this year. Even if you are not having a party, these boats are so trouble-free that you can whip them up as a healthy snack or a side dish anytime endive is around.
- Three or four larger heads of Belgian endive (Try to get the largest heads you can so that you have enough sturdy leaves to make your boats. Leftover leaves will add crunch and color contrast to salad and stir-fry dishes.)
- Two cups cooked and chilled rice, preferably a mix of brown and wild varieties. (The last thing you want in this dish is mushy rice, and the chilling will help, especially if you spread it out on a thin layer and cover loosely with waxed paper. I like to begin cooking my rice by toasting it lightly before adding the water and a teaspoon of salt to cook it through. In this case, I toasted it in olive oil.)
- A quarter-cup pesto (Mine contained pine nuts, but any pesto—walnut, pistachio, etc—will do. Or, you can change this up completely with an Asian-inspired sauce you like or maybe an Indian curry flavor—be brave! Anything full of flavor is game.)
- A quarter to half cup good-quality cheese (I splurged on Grana Padano.)
- A quarter-cup toasted nuts (I used pine nuts, since those were in my pesto, but use what you like!)
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (For my pepper, I used a four-pepper blend by Penzys. Think about your sauce flavor here—should you try a little cumin? A little curry or Garam Marsala?)
- Begin by preparing your rice, which can be done a day in advance. Make sure the rice is fluffy and has had time to chill.
- Next, pull apart your endive leaves, being careful to maintain the shape of the nicest leaves for your dish. You should try to end up with at least 20 or so good-sized leaves, some large and some smaller. Really small and not-so-perfect leaves should be reserved for salads and stir fries, as the smaller the leaf the harder to stuff. Rinse well and set aside on a clean towel to thoroughly dry.
- Make the filling by mixing your rice, pesto (or whatever sauce you are using), cheese, toasted nuts and salt and pepper.
- Stuff your leaves using a spoon. Place in a flower design on your serving plate. Cover loosely and chill until ready to serve.
The prep time does not include the time it will take to cook and chill the rice. These boats can be made in advance--up to a day--as long as they remain tightly covered in the frig.
Begian endive looks like a little torpedo—sometimes with green tips and sometimes (if you are lucky) with deep purple tips. Its primary leaf color, however, is snowy white—a great palette color for your other ingredients. Look for tight heads. If the tips are slightly brown, trim them off—no worries.
Endive by itself does not have a whole lot of flavor, in my opinion. But as a backdrop for other flavors or in a spring mix salad, it’s a winner. Endive leaves have a sort of mild, bitter flavor that compliments sweet foods, like beets and carrots. They are sturdy enough to sauté. Think of them as the supporting cast in your culinary production.
Since the leaves are so compact, a quick rinse in cold water usually does the trick. But if the fields have been muddy, a little more care will be necessary in cleaning them. Just be tender with them, especially if you want to preserve their shape for the recipe above. I carefully separate the leaves and wash with water and a little vinegar, if really dirty. I let the washed leaves air dry on a clean kitchen towel rather than drying them in a salad spinner.