You know, it's really a little too early to be making food like Belgian endives and ham au gratin. This is classic wintertime food, the kind of food you eat when it's cold, gray, and raining outside.
But I have to say that's what our weather was like yesterday, and still is this morning. I'm not physically or spiritually ready for winter yet, and I'm protesting by feeling demoralized and resentful that summer is over already. At least I finished cutting up all the long branches I trimmed off the hazelnut trees. We have ample firewood.
And I'm glad I went ahead and cooked Belgian endives day before yesterday and made a French (or is it Belgian) classic for lunch. In French, it's called Gratin d'endives au jambon. The translation is Endives and Ham au Gratin.
I just searched my blog and I can't believe I've never posted this recipe before. I make it often. Yesterday I looked through some of my favorite cookbooks to see if there were recipes for the dish in them. I found only one, in Monique Maine's Cuisine pour toute l'année. And another one in brief, summary form in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Most of the other books, including the Larousse Gastronomique, don't seem to know about Belgian endives cooked with ham in a cheese sauce.
Belgian endives (just called endives, with no adjective in French) are a staple here. Especially in fall, winter, and early spring, you always find them in the markets and supermarkets. I bought a package at the Ed hard-discount market the other day. I hadn't planned to buy fresh vegetables that day, but there were the endives sitting there at 99 cents a kilogram —about 60 US cents a pound. Who could resist?
(To do that price conversion, I just looked at an on-line currency conversion utility. The euro is now worth only $1.29! Can you believe it? It was $1.58 the last time I changed money and had it wired to my bank here in France. So I've now gained more than 25 cents on the dollar. That's cause for celebration.)
So how do you cook Belgian endives? A lot of the books say you should cook them in a big pot of boiling water for 20 to 30 minutes. I've never tried that, and commenter Ladybird-Martine from Belgium seems to think that's a pretty awful way to proceed. Whew! I'm glad I didn't make that mistake.
The way I've always cooked the little white heads of what is known as endive in France and as witloof ("white-leaf", I assume) or chicon in Belgium is to braise them in butter with lemon juice and garlic. I don't know who showed me how, or where I got the recipe and the method otherwise. Maybe it was from Madame Maine's above-named book, which I've used in the kitchen since the 1970s.
You take each endive and cut a sliver off the stem end to remove the part that has usually turned a little brown. And then you rinse the endives quickly under running water. You are not supposed to let them soak in water because that is said to make them taste bitter.
Some people "core" the endives by cutting a little cone out of the bottom of the stem, but I don't bother. Coring them supposedly makes them cook faster and taste less bitter. I don't mind the bitterness, and I cook them for an hour anyway.
Then you melt some butter in a pan big enough to hold all the endives in a single layer. Let them sizzle in the butter for a while. It's good to get them just a little brown on two or three sides. You can add some salt and pepper. Oh, and don't forget to put a couple of whole, peeled garlic cloves in the pan with them.
When the endives have a golden brown color on two or three sides, squeeze the juice of a lemon over them and cover the pan. Turn the heat to low. Let the endives braise in the butter and lemon juice for as long as an hour, until they are completely tender when you pierce them with a knife or skewer.
If you need a little more liquid in the pan, pour in a couple of tablespoons of dry white wine. You won't need much. The idea is to use cooking liquids like lemon juice and wine that add a little sweetness to what is basically a bitter green.
When the endives are done take them out of the pan and let them cool and drain in a bowl or on a baking sheet for a few minutes. When they are cool enough to work with, you are ready to wrap each one in a slice of jambon de Paris, which I guess in America would be called Danish or sandwich or boiled ham.
And don't throw away that cooking liquid! You'll need it for the sauce.
More tomorrow... (To read part 2, click here.)