Dilbeek, Belgium — Most of the time you encounter Belgian endive in the U.S., it is being served to you raw: added as a bitter green to a salad, or pulled apart to become edible spoons for an appetizer.
It’s far more more commonly cooked in Belgium, where my AirBnB host and Flemish food instructor Celine was surprised to learn that the USA has awarded her country bragging rights to the vegetable. It is also commonly eaten in France (chicons), the Netherlands (cichorei) and Poland (cykoria).
Chicory is a strange vegetable, grown twice: first a bushy, deep-green summer plant creates a big taproot. Gardeners cut all the leaves off the root, cover in soil and top with a bucket to keep out sunlight. These ghostly, mostly white submarine-shaped heads grow with no input other than their own built-up reserves, totally in the dark.
Alternately, the taproot can be dried, ground and turned into a full or part substitute for coffee to help stretch scarce supplies. Drinking dried chicory originated in Belgium and migrated to New Orleans via French settlers, per Smithsonian.
Linus Noel offers beignets and Chicory coffee at Cafe Du Monde, New Orleans, Louisiana
Photo Public Domain, Carol M. Highsmith contributed to Wikimedia Commons
Lovably weird chicory is BIG in the grocery stores here in Belgium, often sold bagged in groups of four heads. Also big in Belgian grocery stores: a dizzying variety of potatoes, helpfully labeled to tell you what kind of dishes they’re best used in; pre-made frozen croquettes (an entire freezer door), sliced ham, pre-cut lardons, and of course, cheeses in a variety so scandalous it would make you envious were I to describe them. (I could only covet them myself, as my daily food budget is not an indulgent one.)
Celine and I used most of the Belgian grocery staples making a winter dish of caramelized chicory wrapped in ham , smothered with cheese sauce and served with rich and creamy mashed potatoes. It was Flemish comfort food at its finest.
I’m trending strongly vegetarian these days, so I also attempted a vegetarian version of this that wraps the chicory with softened zucchini ribbons and more cheese to bind them. I tried them both and didn’t miss the ham!
Chicory tips from Celine…much of the bitterness of this vegetable can be all but eliminated by trimming out a 1 cm heart from the end, in a kind of cone-shape, with a sharp knife.
Braising the vegetables in vegetable broth as we did on the stove top (first caramelizing in oil) takes about 45 minutes for some of the larger chicory heads. I wondered why we weren’t cutting the biggest ones in half, but I didn’t ask. Since we were wrapping them anyway, it wouldn’t really affect the presentation.
There’s no real recipe here. Buy 2-3 heads of chicory per person for possible leftovers, and the same number of thin slices of ham. When Celine told me this I tried to ask questions about how thick the ham, what type, and so on, but she assured me that when I got to the grocery store I would know what to buy. And let me tell you, there WAS no question, except how many slices you wanted:
This is also the ham that local people will use to make a ham and cheese sandwich, Celine said, usually with Gouda.
Buying the half-and-half for the bechamel took another confusing turn, when so many types of cream at various fat ratios presented themselves, none of their packages saying or suggesting “half and half”. I ended up buying a whipping cream (40 percent fat) and another milk-cream product that said it was 7 percent fat I thought we could combine. They worked out fine, making a smooth sauce that was rich even before we added a metric ton of shredded Emmental and Gruyere.
Belgian Endive/Chicory/Witloof Recipe-ish:
Trim, caramelize and and then braise Belgian endive heads in shallow water or vegetable broth under a lid, a technique southern US chefs call “smothering them down“, adding liquid if the pan starts to get dry.
When they are totally softened, roll in ham if you like or just cover without rolling in mornay sauce (bechamel plus cheese), top with more cheese and bake until “gratinated” aka with that delicious brown cheesy crust on top. We pulled ours out before it quite got there because if was 10 pm and we were hungry and impatient!