A tiny Belgian endive spear topped with a smidgen of diced smoked salmon could be the perfect hors d'oeuvre. At least that's the thinking of Maggie Cole, co-chairman of this year's National Symphony Ball, which will be on Dec. 3. At a recent "tasting" at Occasions Caterers, Cole chose for the menu a simple endive/salmon combo, dressed with a light, lemon-pepper vinaigrette.

Her thinking? This is one clean, quick bite that's easy to eat. It tastes good. "It's something that everyone can relate to," Cole said. No doubt, Belgian endive, the pale, leafy shoot of the chicory root, is a crowd-pleasing luxury.

They are produced in a very different way from field-grown crops. The compact heads made up of near-white, slightly bitter-tasting leaves with yellow tips, grow in the dark--like the commercially raised button mushroom. Sunlight causes the pointed leaves to turn dark green and become far more bitter.

In Belgium, the country that produces most of the Belgian endive sold in North America, the growing method is called blanching. First the chicory seeds are sown in fields to produce a parsnip-shaped root. Once harvested, the roots are held in cold storage until needed. Then, the roots are placed one next to the other in growing trays filled with sand and warm water in a dark, humid room for three weeks. The result: a delicate head of "forced" chicory we call Belgian endive. This labor-intensive process is the reason Belgium endive commands a high price.

HOW TO BUY

In the produce department Belgian endive is often displayed carefully layered in a box, between sheets of opaque paper. Choose smooth, plump, firm heads that are as pale as possible. Avoid green specimens with brown spots. With endive priced at $3 or more per pound, it pays to be picky.

HOW TO STORE

They are best consumed as soon as possible after purchase. If you must store them, wrap Belgian endive in a dry paper towel inside a plastic bag in the vegetable compartment for no more than three days.

HOW TO SERVE

Smaller, boat-shaped inner leaves are best for hors d'oeuvres. Filling possibilities are endless. In addition to smoked salmon, goat cheese, spiced walnuts, baby shrimp, salmon roe and pate spreads work well. Garnish with a tiny herb sprig. Whole or sliced, elegant endive leaves dress up any salad. Endive is also delicious when braised in the oven--cooked slowly with butter, lemon juice, a touch of sugar (or try lavender honey) and chicken stock until they turn a beautiful, translucent, golden brown. For a quick vegetable dish, saute thin strips of fresh endive with butter, lemon juice and sugar over medium-high heat for eight minutes or until slightly caramelized. Serve as a side dish with grilled fish or roast pork.