22 October 2008

Gratin d'endives au jambon (1)

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.

Belgian endives cooked with butter, lemon juice, and garlic

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.

Wrap each braised endive in a slice of boiled ham.

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.)


  1. When I read Martine's comment, the word "chicon" rang a bell. I think we use it in Picardie and Flanders in northern France were endives are [were?] grown as well as in Belgium.
    For French speaking readers:
    Bon appétit.

  2. I think of it as a much more Northern dish - I've had it a lot in the Netherlands.

  3. Thanks, Ken! I hope that you will soon have some bight, sunny, crisp fall days that will lift your spirits and allow for beautiful photos. Hang in there.


  4. I agree – braising is the way to go with endives. It is certainly the way you see them served almost always down our way. Even Simon will eat them braised, and he hates bitter tasting food.

  5. Hi Ken! My compliments to the chef! You get a straight 'A':-) Not only for the way in which you’ve braised the ‘chicons’ (you can also add a whiff of freshly grated nutmeg. It gives the whole dish a delicate, yet slightly spicy flavour), but also on the translation/interpretation of the Flemish/Dutch word name ‘witloof’.

    As for the origin of this dish … At the risk of sounding ‘chauviniste’, I’m sure Endives have been ‘invented’ in Belgium. So there is a fair chance that the dish is of Belgian origin too. Endives were ‘elaborated’ around 1850 by a botanist of the botanical gardens in Brussels. The culture quickly extended to the triangle Mechelen-Brussels-Leuven (where I've lived since birth).
    The traditional way of growing witloof requires a special type of soil that is typical for this region.

    It’s a long and laborious process that starts in spring when the chicon seeds are sown. In summer, the dark brown bitter roots are harvested. The green leafs are cut off, and the roots are laid side by side in shallow ‘beds’ in the ground. The bed of roots (hundreds of them) is covered with straw, heavy blankets and undulated steel sheets. Next to the ‘beds’ a small wood or coal burner is installed. Via an intricate system the heat of the burners is led into the beds. (It was a pretty sight, these ‘fields’ of little burners puffing white smoke into the cold winter air – you hardly see them anymore these days). Constant warmth and complete darkness are necessary to obtain the white heads that grow out of the dark roots.

    Farmers in the North of France have also used this technique and some probably still do… (to answer CHM's question). The story goes that in the sixties-seventies French farmers even imported soil from Belgium to mix it with the local soil to obtain better results. Maybe that's why our country is so small? LOL

    Then someone figured out that you can also grow chicons in a bucket in your cellar! Next, some other guy (I think he was Dutch, which could explain the fact that Autolycus frequently had Chicons aux gratin in the Netherlands!) came up with the idea of replacing the soil by water. Nowadays, chichons are grown in several (European) countries and you can get them all year round, although originally they are a typical winter vegetable. When you buy chicons/endives, check out the label. The ‘chicons/endives de pleine terre’ are the best. The ‘water’ variety is usually more bitter and greener.

    Sorry if I have bored you with my ‘exposé’ on Belgian endives ;-) Martine

  6. schlurp.

    i'm also thinking about yesterday's photo of the lengthening shadows of the bushes on your lawn. i think there's an emily dickinson poem about that kind of autumnal light. as always, thank you for the lovely pix.

  7. May I ask: should the fresh, raw endives be white and green, or white and yellow-ish? I thought I remembered once hearing from a chef that once they are yellow at the ends, they are not fresh anymore. However, just recently, I saw a recipe that specifically said, "Look for the ones that are white and yellow-ish, because they are the best." And, from Martine's comment ("the water variety is usually more bitter and greener"), I have the impression that green is not what you want. Anyone know?

    Ed's Hard Discounts??? :)) Is that the same Ed's that was in Paris back in the early '80s? I remember that its signs were white with ED written in red, I think? I remember that Jane had one a few blocks from her chambre de bonne apartment building, and (since we students were so poor!) she always shopped there. One time, she mistakenly bought coffee beans, instead of ground coffee. When she woke up in the morning in her teensy-weensy 8th-flour chambre de bonne, which could only be reached by an 8-story spiral metal staircase outside, she started to make coffee and realized that her beans were not moulus! She normally HATED doing ANYTHING before her 1st cup of coffee, but she had to dress, climb doooowwwwnnnn the 8 floors, walk to Ed's, buy ground coffee, walk back, and climb uppppppppp the 8 flours to make her coffee that day. :)) I've never forgotten that story, or Ed's!


  8. Judy, I think the endives should be white with just a little yellow at the top of the leaves. We will see what Martine has to say.

    Here's a picture from some supermarket advertising.

    Walt says he's pretty sure there were Ed stores in Paris back in 1981-82. I don't remember. One web site says Ed (pronounced euh-day) was set up by Carrefour in 1978, and there were more than 50 stores in the Paris area by 1982. Ed didn't start selling fresh produce until the late 1980s.

  9. Talking about Carrefour, I read in the paper the other day that it is the second largest retailer store in the whole world; after WalMart. Wow! I didn't know that.

  10. Judy,
    Ken and your recipe are right: fresh endives are white with a little yellowish fringe at the top. They should be firm and crispy (even the edges). Avoid endives that are soggy, with a brownish/reddish 'bottom' or those that have reddish/pink spots on the outer leaves.
    BTW: a few years ago, specialists developed 'des chicons rouges'. I think it's a cross between endives and raddichio. The leaves are bright white and the edges are burgundy red. It's a pretty veg with a sightly sweeter taste than the orginal variety and it is more expensive, of course. Few supermarkets stock these endives, except during the Holiday season. They are also vey fashionable in gourmet restaurants. Martine

  11. chm

This site will give you an idea of where they are located around the world:


    without imposing politics on this wonderful blog, I don't know whether you remember the issue that Sarkozy had with China's Human Rights' non-observance just a couple of months before the JO. Well when some of the 60 M party members wanted to show how powerful they are by demonstrating even inside the stores, Sarkozy had to change his mind ( sous les pressions de la haute direction) and even went to the opening of the games.

  12. Hi The Beaver,
    Thank you for the link, I had no idea Carrefour was so big.
    I didn't know either about Sarko, China and the JO; I don't recall seeing anything about that in the US newspapers. Merci.


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