Food. Story Telling. Discovery.

A Definite Splurge: Endives au Gratin

EndivesGratin4

It's one of my favorite dishes. Braised endives wrapped in ham and lined up in a dish. Bechamel sauce smothers the whole lot, as does a healthy dose of grated cheese. Add some oven time and the result is serious comfort. Unfortunately, it comes at a serious price. Belgian endives are worth their weight in crack and never seem to go on sale; if you can find them at all. But this isn't a dish where you take short cuts. So every so often -- like say, for a dear friend's birthday -- you allow yourself a splurge.

Tell yourself it's for the greater good -- the dish doesn't just serve you. It serves a whole party. And if you're lucky there are leftovers to look forward to. Leftovers are always a value, right?

EndivesGratin7

The schizophrenia of the season took hold this week. Sunshine with bitter cold air. Or overcast skies heavy with the promise of badly needed moisture. During the latter situation, I tend to get pensive. Something about the gray and the way sound travels through denser air. Who knows?

But I thought of January, when skies were more gray and the air even colder. It was my dear friend Amber's birthday and she, like me, has great taste. Friends were coming over for dinner, each contributing something luxurious to celebrate her latest year of life. She asked me to make endives au gratin. Birthdays are the best excuse to blow a budget and do something special for yourself. M.F.K. Fisher celebrated the entire month of July, her birth month. Making this dish was the least I could do for my extraordinary friend.

The process is easy. Just break it up into a few stages. For instance, you can prep and poach the endives a couple of days ahead of time. When you're ready for them, take them out of the fridge as you make the roux that'll make the bechamel that'll go over said endives.

EndivesGratin9

But first, you need thin slices of ham. The pinkish slices I prefer are from a variety called Gran Biscotto by Rovagnati. An Italian producer, I love their mortadella. But I love their cooked ham even more. Everything about it is grand.

Truly, you could make the dish a pure veggie one, sans ham. But the idea of not adding a pork product in when I perfectly can -- even enhancing the dish -- seems neglectful. After all, there was a birthday to celebrate. And I had extra time, a lazy Sunday to quietly roll each endive in its own pork sash.

EndivesGratin10

Sometimes, I line them up perfectly. Sometimes I shingle them. So  long as they fit comfortably in the pan, things will turn out fine. Even better if there are nooks, crannies and pools where the sauce can settle and bubble away.

The first time I'd ever had endives that weren't in a salad was at a bistro in Washington, D.C. It was of questionable quality, but as a poor college student, the fairly reasonable prices, late hours and Franco-vibe made it downright classy. Endives au gratin was one of the nightly dishes available to those seeking something to soak up any evidence of an alcoholic adventure. After I tried to re-create it once in my dorm kitchen, I couldn't figure out how they could make the dish so affordable. Ten Belgian endives took a good chunk out of my weekly food budget. Lucky for me, it was cheaper to have someone else make it.

One year, I lived just down the street and around the corner in a shoddy studio apartment that took up most of my monthly income. With what was left, I would walk to the bistro and order endives au gratin when I knew they were on the menu. At some point in the summer, I discovered it's not a dish for sunshine and high temperatures.

It's a dish for January and every day that is January-esque.

EndivesGratin12

Endives au Gratin for Amber

Decadent, but necessary. Also known (perhps more accurately) as roulades d'endives au jambon gratinees. Belgian endives are more widely available. I figure if I can get them in Salt Lake City, most folks should be able to procure it. The veg may be listed as "Chicory" and resembles a torpedo or an elongated, mini-Napa cabbage, depending on your mind.

Make it ahead of time -- braising endives -- up to two days ahead. The morning of you can even roll and pour the sauce and cheese over it; bake it to burnished brown top right before the moment of serving. Feel free to work with what you've got cheese-wise. I like the melting properties of Gruyere, but Fontina, Altobadia or anything heady and luscious will do. White wine is good with this, though I find a dry, crisp beer to be better. Again, if you're being diplomatic to vegetarians or saving some dough, you can make the whole thing or part of it without the ham.

12 Belgian endives * water OR veggie or chicken broth * 1 cup white wine * 2 teaspoons salt * 4 tablespoons butter * 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour * 2 cups of whole milk (Don't even think of skim) * a dozen thin slices of good ham like Gran Biscotto or Jambon Royale * 2 big handfuls of grated cheese like Grueyere * freshly ground nutmeg and salt to taste

1.  Trim the brown stem ends and discard any browned outer leaves. Cut in half if any of the endives are significantly larger than the others; you want everything to cook evenly.

2.  In a deep saute pan or sauce pan, place the endives in a single layer, add the wine, salt and enough water or broth to barely cover half-way up the endives (in other words, you don't want to boil them, but braise them with less liquid). Bring to a boil over a medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and let simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. If it goes a little longer because you were distracted by a Sunday showing of The Lord of the Rings Triology on cable T.V., you'll be okay. When done, remove from liquid, or store in the liquid if making in advance. Reserve the juices -- they'll be part of the bechamel sauce.

3. In a medium sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and stir until a thick paste is formed. Keep stirring and let cook for barely a minute. Add the whole milk and stir vigorously with a whisk so that there are no lumps. Season with salt and nutmeg. At this point, if the mixture is too thick or has cooked to the consistency of wallpaper glue, use the endive braising liquid to thin it out and add flavor. You just made a bechamel sauce.

4. Roll each braised endive in a slice of ham and place in a casserole dish, single layer. Pour the finished sauce on top. Happily sprinkle the cheese over the mess. You can make this ahead of time, too, say in the morning if you want to serve it later that night. Bake the whole thing in a pre-heated 400-degree oven until the sauce the cheese is melted and the sauce bubbles like little lava pools.

Serves 12 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a more substantial course. Amber and I could probably finish the whole pan between the two of us.