At the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, chefs are always on the lookout for new and exciting crops to incorporate into their menus. Dirty Girl Produce is one stand they flock to. In summer and fall, Dirty Girl’s tender, fresh shelling beans and Early Girl tomatoes find their way onto many local menus. In the winter months, their chards, dried beans and root vegetables are in high demand, and when spring hits, their leeks, baby cabbages, strawberries and chicories turn many heads.
This year, farmer Joe Schirmer is experimenting with a variety of chicory he had not grown before: Belgian endive. The leaves of the Belgian endive are a pale yellowish white and have a sweet, crisp flavor. To keep the leaves light in color and sweet, they must not be exposed to light while growing. Non-organic, conventional operations accomplish this by growing the crop in warehouses hydroponically, but because Joe is growing the crop outside and organically, the Dirty Girl team has had to get creative. “We’ve enclosed the endive rows in hoops made from Acacia wood we had lying around the farm,” Joe told me. “We’re experimenting to find the best type of cover that will keep the plants shielded from the light but that doesn’t get so hot that it cooks them.”
Joe Schirmer of Dirty Girl Produce, with Belgian Endives
He says growing Belgian endive this way has been a learning process for him and his workers, one that has not been without its challenges. The Belgian endive is in the ground for longer than most other crops Dirty Girl grows, and it is much more labor intensive than other chicory varieties, such as Puntarelle and radicchio. “Belgian endive still tastes great even when it gets exposed to light, but aesthetically, that’s not what people are looking for,” Joe told me.
This week Joe’s Belgian endive was popular with Saturday morning shoppers, including chefs at Quince, Incanto and Coi. It will be available at the Dirty Girl Produce stand for just a couple more weeks. Joe says he plans to perfect the growing technique this year, and next year he will focus on harvesting in the winter and early spring, when he has fewer crops growing in the fields.