Braised chicory and ham au gratin is a Belgian classic and a personal favourite of Miss Foodwise. She shares her recipe that's ideal for cold evenings. So settle down, make yourself comfortable on the sofa and enjoy this warming dish.
Chicory is called 'Witloof' in Flemish and Chicon by the French nationals, it is grown underground, protected from sunlight in order to prevent the leaves from turning green. The chicory is kept just below the soil surface as it grows, only showing the tip of the leaves. It used to be very bitter and children were therefore not very keen on eating it. The last few decades chicory isn't very bitter anymore, due to new growing techniques using hydro beds, they managed to tone down the bitterness. The last four years however there's been a revival for open ground chicory cultivation as food lovers are on the lookout for the bitter taste they remember from their childhood. Once loathed, now loved.
Legend goes that blanched chicory was accidentally discovered in a town near Brussels in the 1830s during the war with Holland. A farmer tried to hide his Root chicory by covering it by sand, after a few weeks he discovered that from the roots a small head of cream-coloured leaves had grown. He started selling the leaves and called them 'Witloof' which means 'white leafage'.
What you need (serves 4)
• 4 chicory heads
• butter to grease the pan
• 1 pinch of sugar
• baking paper, cut in a round shape, slightly larger than the pan you are using
• 4 slices of good quality cooked ham
• 1 cup of grated mature cheddar (or emmental) and a bit more to sprinkle on top.
• mashed potatoes
• 4 oven dishes or 1 big one
• Optional: bread crumbs
For the roux and cheese sauce
• 140g flour
• 125 g butter
• 300 ml full fat milk
• pepper, salt and nutmeg to season
• Clean the chicory heads by removing withered leaves, carve a cross in the stalks so they cook faster.
• Butter a deep pan, bottom and sides and put over a medium fire.
• Add the chicory and braise adding a pinch of sugar and turning frequently the first 10 minutes.
• Add 1 cup of water.
• Stuff the baking paper in the pan so it touches the chicory and it completely covers the pan.
• Leave for 30 minutes when the chicory heads are big, 15 minutes when you have small ones.
Preheat your oven to 200° celsius
For the roux
If you are making a roux which is the base of a white sauce you need to know one thing: flour and butter is 1 to 1 ratio. I always make a large quantity and store in an airtight container in the fridge for when I need it. If you want to do this you just make the dry base which is the flour and butter together, let it cool before you put it into a container.
When you want to use it you need to warm the milk, when you are using the roux straight away you need your milk to be cold.
So the rule is: warm dry paste = cold milk - cold paste = warm milk.
When you've added the milk to the dry paste, you need to cook it until the taste of flour is completely gone.
• Melt the butter in a small pan
• Add flour and stir constantly until you get a crumbly paste that smells a bit like pancakes. Use your nose, if you think it smells like flour you're not done yet and keep stirring.
• When your roux is done, save some in a container for next time and start adding milk to the roux left in your pan.
• Keep stirring until you get a silky sauce.
• Add the cheese and stir.
• If the sauce is too thick add some extra milk
• season the sauce now with pepper and nutmeg, as the cheese will already give the sauce a salty touch you will need to add less salt.
Now get your oven dishes ready
• Divide your mashed potatoes over the dishes, or one dish as you prefer.
• Dry the chicory heads with some kitchen paper.
• Wrap the chicory with the ham
• Arrange the wrapped chicory heads over the mash
• Cover with the cheese sauce
• Sprinkle some cheese over the dish
• Add some bread crumbs if you like
• Add to a preheated oven, under the grill for 10 minutes or until the cheese has melted and developed a delicious crust.
Food and wine/beer pairing:
Serve with a Belgian blonde Triple or a good British hoppy beer.
If you prefer wine, go for a dry white Soave or a splendid dry English wine.
For more creative chicory recipes visit Great British Chefs collection.