Starter: serves 4. Total time: 1 hour
The secret of braising endives (or chicories) is never to be tempted to add water during any stage of their cooking, as the water content of the vegetable remains high enough as it is (the same is also true when cooking rhubarb).

For the endives

75g butter
4 large endives, trimmed of any damaged leaves and the hard little core at the base removed with a sharp knife as a tiny cone
salt and pepper
juice of 1/2 a lemon

For the bechamel sauce

500ml milk
2 cloves
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1 bay leaf
salt
50g butter
35g flour
freshly grated nutmeg
white pepper

4 thin slices of good quality ham
4 rounded tbsp grated cheese; Gruyère, Parmesan or even Lancashire
a generous sprinkling of dried breadcrumbs



Preheat the oven to 325°F/ 170°C/gas mark 3. It is good to use a shallow and solid bottomed dish that will transfer from stove to oven, and if it has a lid too then all the better. Make sure that the dish will take the endives in a single layer. Melt the butter in the dish and cook until foaming. Put in the endives, turning them thoroughly in the butter, and season.

Turn the heat down to low and gently colour the endives on all sides until glossy and pale golden. Pour in the lemon juice and turn up the heat a little. Cover and place in the oven for 30-40 minutes or so, turning the endives over once, until they are very tender. Take out, remove cover and leave to cool. (It is difficult to overcook endives, but there is nothing worse than an endive that is a bit hard in the middle.)

Turn the oven up to 400°F/ 200°C/gas mark 6. To make the sauce, heat together the milk, cloves, onion, bay and a little salt. Simmer a few minutes, cover and allow the flavours to mingle for about 20 minutes. In another pan, melt the butter and stir in the flour. Make a roux and gently cook the butter and flour together for a minute or two, but on no account allow it to colour; it must stay pale.

Strain the milk into the roux and vigorously whisk together until smooth (this always gets rid of any lumps). On the lowest possible heat -- using a diffuser pad if you have one -- set the sauce to cook. Do not cover the sauce, and stir it, from time to time, with a wooden spoon. Leave to cook for about 15 minutes. Add the nutmeg and pepper, mix in thoroughly, check for salt, and cook for a further 5 minutes. Strain again into a clean pan and put a lid on. This helps to prevent a skin forming.

To assemble and finish the dish, wrap each endive in a slice of ham, tip out excess fat from the endive baking dish and place the wrapped endives in it. Spoon over the sauce, strew with the cheese and, with your fingers, run a little line of breadcrumbs along the length of each one. Bake on the top shelf of the oven for 20-25 minutes or until golden and bubbling.

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