Witlof, Chicory, Endive… also known as the ‘Pearl of the North’ in France
‘Witlof’, ‘Chicory’, ‘Chicon’, ‘Endive’, ‘Belgian Endive’… I’m never quite sure what to call this vegetable. Each country seems to have a different name for it. In Australia for example, we call it ‘witlof’? Here in France it is called ‘endive’ and would you believe it has been grown commercially since only the 1930’s.
Whatever the name for it, since moving to France I have developed a huge liking for this interesting vegetable from the Chicory family. Thanks to Benji and his mum, I was introduced to a beautiful new ingredient and a few recipes that are now family favourites. Even our six-year-old loves eating them.
Endives are so verstile – they make a great salad when served raw with vinaigrette drizzled over it or, the particular family favourite, when braised with white wine and lardons and parsley, over a gentle heat for a few hours (the longer the better, you want them to caramelise!). You can serve this dish on its own or it makes a great side dish to lamb chops, veal or pork.
During the first few weeks of us living back in Australia in 2004, I decided to prepare the family favourite for our friends who we were lodging with. I was so excited to share this newly-loved vegetable of mine. After quite a search, I finally found them in a fruit and veg shop in North Fitzroy. I filled the bag, enough for four people and when I went to pay I nearly fell over. They were so expensive! I concealed my shock and quietly paid the money, vowing never again to buy this vegie in this suburb again. I at last appreciated why Claude (my Frenchie – amazing cook – friend who was living in Western Australia with his NZ wife), when he had yearnings for a good old endive dish, would only use three or four of them in a gratin. Braising them en masse was a complete luxury. Anyway – big sigh of relief – the dish worked out pretty well that evening, but not to be repeated for quite some time!
Here in France however, they are cheap and we eat them regularly, especially around October. A few years ago, I had to prepare a lunch at the last minute for some friends of friends travelling through the area. I added pan-fried chicken thigh fillets and julienned carrots to a pot of left-over braised endives and the result was really delicious. One of our lunch guests, the owner of a well-known bakery in Melbourne (yeah, not much pressure), was keen to get the recipe. High five! I was tres contente. I’ve been adding the chicken and the carrots for many a meal since.
But much to my husband’s relief (I’m someone that could eat the same dish 4 times in the one week if I like it), I’ve branched out and tried a new recipe – the traditional ‘Gratin d’Endives au Jambon’ (Endives and Ham Gratin). Once again, as is usual for all the recipes I prepare, this is pretty simple and easy to make. It is a particularly good dish for the Autumn-Winter months and with today’s maximum temperature reaching six degrees celsius, I think I should get to it and make some.
Here’s the recipe for you… (I should tell Claude I’ve finally made it)
Gratin d’Endives au Jambon (serves 6)
(note: my quantities are always on the generous side – I prefer to have left-overs than not enough!)
8-10 endives (depending on size)
8 slices ham
60g plain flour
200g Swiss Gruyere, grated (the AOC Gruyere ‘Alpage’ or ‘Reserve’ are incredible! – and even available in Australia)
1 litre full cream milk
Trim stems off endives, pull off any discoloured leaves, then cut in half (I do this to help with cooking them through and browning)
Fry the endives in a pan over a low-medium heat with a little olive oil. As they begin to brown (or burn!), you can pour in a small amount of white wine to keep the pan moist. Fry until golden/dark golden and moisture has evaporated
(NB: some like to steam or boil the endives to part cook them but I prefer to fry them as I find there is too much liquid in the baking dish later when serving)
+ Heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius (about 7 or 8 on my gas oven) +
Fry the endives until golden
While the endives are cooking, prepare the cheese sauce (I like to grate the cheese before beginning the sauce so that your hands are free to keep stirring – and ready to be added when needed)
While the endives are cooking, prepare the cheese sauce
Melt butter in large saucepan
Heat milk in a different saucepan (it helps reduce overall cooking time if the milk is warm)
Stir in flour with a wooden spoon and cook for a few minutes over a gentle heat, stirring continuously.
Once it becomes a golden paste, pour in heated milk gradually, stirring continuously
(NB: How much milk you add depends on how thick or thin you like your sauce – my husband likes it thin and runny but I like it thickish and runny – so you may want to use less or more than the 1 litre. Just remember it will thicken over the heat eventually!)
add salt, pepper to taste
Once it comes to the boil, add the cheese and stir until melted.
Remove from heat.
Oil a large gratin/ baking dish
Gather your endive halves, wrapping two halves inside each slice of ham (as though it’s a whole endive)
Place them in the baking dish and pour cheese sauce over the top – add a little extra grated Gruyere if desired
Place the wrapped endives in an oiled gratin/baking dish.
(there’s 10 and not 8 in this one)
Pour the cheese sauce over the endives and sprinkle with grated Gruyere
Bake for about 30 minutes or until golden
Ready to serve