Witloof is a very common vegetable found in Belgium, but quite unheard of in Asia. I had never seen or heard of it until I arrived in Belgium.
The Dutch-speaking people (the Flemish) in Belgium call it "witloof", the Dutch call it "witlof", the French call it "endives", or "chicorées", and the French-speaking people (the Walloons) in Belgium call it "chicon". In the US, it is often refered to as either "witloof" or "belgian endives".
So many names for such a cute little vegetable. Legend has it that, this vegetable was accidentally discovered by a Belgian farmer in Schaerbeek in 1830. He buried the roots in his cellar under a layer of sand and after a few weeks, discovered that the bitter roots were unsuccessful but the leaves above ground tasted sweet and tender. He then decided to sell the white leaves as raw winter vegetables (white foliage hence the name witloof).
During the 1st world war, farmers from the Brabant region of Belgium fled to Northern France, and introduced the cultivation of witloofs over there. Currently (northern) France is the biggest producer of witloofs worldwide, followed by Belgium and the Netherlands. But the Belgians are still the biggest consumers of witloofs, they consume on average 7 kg of witloofs per year.
Witloofs taste a bit bitter, and there are some people especially children who dislike the bitter taste of it. It is grown completely underground or indoors in the absence of sunlight in order to prevent the leaves from turning green and becoming bitter, and often sold wrapped in blue paper to protect it from light and to preserve its pale colour and delicate flavour.
Witloofs can be eaten raw as salad. You can also boil it, bake it, make a soup out of it, prepare it au gratin with ham and/or cheese, or with a sauce (cheese sauce or hollandaise sauce). It is common in Belgium to serve appetizers, for example little toasts, fried scampis or tuna salad, placed on witloof leaves to guests.
So much being said about the "White Gold" of Belgium (yes, it is called "White Gold" due to its nice white color and golden yellow tips). Here is a recipe which we always use for cooking witloofs at home.
Witloof with Ham and Cheese Au Gratin
Ingredients (for 3 persons)
6 pieces of ham (each piece of ham must be big enough to wrap up each witloof)
1 packet of KNORR cheese sauce
some grated cheese
1. Put the witloofs in a big pot of slightly salted water and let it cook for about 20 min. Make sure there is sufficient water to cover the witloofs.
2. After 20 min, take 250 ml of water from the pot of witloofs and use it to prepare the cheese sauce in a separate pot. (the instructions on the packet says to cook the cheese sauce for just 1 min and not to boil it.)
3. Remove and drain the witloofs. Cut off 1 cm from the bottom of the stem, and wrap a piece of ham around each witloof. Place the witloofs in an oven-proof glass dish, pour the cheese sauce over it, and sprinkle grated cheese generously over the witloofs.
4. Bake in a preheated oven at 200C for about 20-30 min or until the grated cheese on top of the witloofs are nicely browned.