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Endive endeavors

The delicate green is often classed as gourmet fare, but a few simple recipes can bring it into the mainstream.

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Belgian endive is that smooth, pale, delicate leafy green in the rather audacious chicory family. A demure Natalie Portman in a family of Lady Gagas. Its members consist of a colorful group of vegetables that include the garish scarlet radicchio with its ivory-white veins and the mop-headed frisée, or curly endive, and its peppery distant cousin, watercress.

A recent dinner guest from France wondered why Americans don't eat much Belgian endive. "In Europe, we have it all the time," he said, while finishing an endive, pear, and walnut salad dressed with Roquefort cheese. "Of course, it's inexpensive there."

That's part of the reason. It is expensive here. It is labor intensive to grow and harvest, and most are still imported from Belgium.

Then there's the somewhat bitter taste that may not appeal to those palates raised on a salad featuring bland iceberg lettuce.

The birth of Belgian endive began over a hundred years ago quite by accident when farmers grew witloof chicory for its roots, which were dried and ground as a coffee substitute. A group of overlooked roots began growing long white spear heads. The crop was harvested, and became greatly prized among gourmets.

All the tight-headed chicories, including radicchio, are wonderful grilled over a charcoal fire. Simply cut them in half, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grilling tends to caramelize the sugars, as well as giving them a flavorful smokiness.

Belgian endive comes in two hues – white and the less common red. Look for tight, firm heads with pale yellow-green or pink tips. Since they are highly perishable, and become bitter when stored, they should be consumed quickly.

BELGIAN ENDIVE AND PROSCIUTTO AU GRATIN

SERVES 4, OR 8 AS AN APPETIZER

4 Belgian endives (about 4 ounces each)

8 thin slices prosciutto (preferably imported)

2 cups light cream or half-and-half

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