There’s something about chilly weather that demands a nice gratin—that piping-hot, cheesy, gooey goodness is just the thing to warm your body and soul on a mid-Autumn evening. And here is one that is sure to satisfy: another Belgian classic, chicons au gratin, also known in France as endives au gratin. It consists of Belgian endives, braised in butter, wrapped in ham slices and covered with a rich mornay sauce before getting browned in the oven. (I get hungry all over again thinking about it!)
Ingredients (for 4 servings)
4 medium-sized Belgian endives
30g (2-3 tablespoons) butter (plus a bit more to butter the baking pan)
Salt and pepper
500ml (2 cups) of béchamel sauce (see recipe here)
200g gruyère (or other good, meltable Swiss cheese), shredded
4 slices of best-quality cooked ham
Begin by removing any discolored leaves from the endive and trimming the root end. Place the endives in a sauté pan with the butter and a glassful of water. Season with salt and pepper.
Allow the endives to simmer, covered, until they are quite soft, about 20-30 minutes. If you like, you can let them go longer, allowing them to turn a nice golden brown. Either way, drain the endives, root ends up, so that any excess water will drain off. (You may be tempted to skip this step, but don’t—otherwise, you may wind up with soggy vegetables and a runny sauce!)
While your endives are braising, make your béchamel sauce in the usual way, and when it is done, add the gruyère, holding back about a third, however, for later. For extra flavor, you can add some of any cooking liquid left over from the braising or draining of the endives. (This sort of béchamel with cheese is called a sauce mornay.)
When your endives are well drained, take them one by one, and place them on one of the ham slices, then roll the slice around the endive, covering it completely.
Butter a baking dish just large enough to contain your endives. Arrange them neatly in the dish, then pour over the mornay sauce. Cover the dish with the remaining cheese. Dot the top with some additional bits of butter.
Bake the dish in a hot oven (200C/400F) for about 30 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and the sauce is bubbling hot. Let the dish cool off for a few minutes before serving.
NOTES: The success of this simple dish will rely heavily on the quality of its ingredients. Besides the endives themselves, which should be fresh, of course, and ideally free of any green leaves, you want to use the best quality ham and cheese you can afford. If you use packaged ham slices and supermarket ‘Swiss cheese’, you will wind up with something tasty enough but pretty pedestrian. Use real, good ham and true gruyère and you will have something very special indeed.
You can save some time by simply parboiling or, better yet, steaming the endives in lieu of braising. Many if not most recipes call for it, in fact, and it takes only about 10-15 minutes. But I find that braising in butter makes a subtle but significant difference in taste and texture. And, not to nag, but let me repeat: draining the endives any excess liquid is perhaps the single most important ‘trick’ to success, so don’t forget!
This dish can be served on its own as a hefty starter. As a main course, it is often accompanied by potatoes, being Belgian, some pommes frites would be an obvious choice, although I find they go very nicely with either mashed or even just plain steamed potatoes which are delicious dipped in that mornay sauce….