Sweet and tender braised endives, wrapped in ham and smothered in a luscious cheese sauce with crispy browned bits at the edges - this dish is a comfort food to make you feel slightly continental. It's equally at home as a family dinner or as an elegant company dish. (Skip to recipe.)
Do you have a dish that takes you instantly back to a place? Back to a wonderful memory of a special trip?
This creamy dish of braised Belgian endives with ham and a silky gruyère cheese sauce is such a dish for me. It's been almost seven years since the trip we took to Belgium (along with Germany, Holland, and France). The food memory from our stay in Belgium (along with great mussels, fries, and beer, and of course the famous Belgian waffles) that sticks with me the most is a dish I had in a lovely little old pub, cozy with dark wood paneling, ancient scarred wooden tables, and the resident little dog wandering among the diners. It was a dish of the most amazing tender and sweet braised endives in a rich creamy sauce. I don't remember what kind of beer I drank with it, but I do remember a slice of fresh warm bread to eat with it.
Belgium is such a beautiful country.
Among all the lovely memories of Belgium, that dish of braised endives in the pub in Bruges stands out as one of my best food memories. I had only ever had endive raw in salads or used to scoop up dips. Braising it turns it into a whole new experience. The endive becomes soft and juicy and sweet. Wrapped in the salty bit of ham, then smothered in a luscious cheesy sauce, it is simplicity elevated to the sublime.
I have since made Braised Endives au Gratin whenever I get the urge to travel back to Belgium in my mind (or when I see some beautiful fresh Belgian endives in the grocery store).
Belgian endive is a tight, white and yellow compact head of a type of chicory (Witloof Chickory) that needs a complicated two-season growing procedure to force the roots to produce this sweet crisp lettuce. It's delicious raw sliced into salads, or the leaves separated and used as unique little vessels for dips, salads, or appetizer spreads.
But it's really delicious when braised until tender and turned into this famous Belgian dish.
Braise, Wrap, Sauce, and Bake
First you need to braise the Belgian endives in a bit of water and butter til tender. This takes about 30 minutes, but you can do it the day before, or even a couple days ahead.
Then tip them tops-down to drain. Use them right away, or set them in the fridge til you're ready to make your Braised Endive Gratin.
Wrap each endive in a slice of ham and lay them in a single layer in a baking dish
or put them in pairs in individual gratin dishes. Cover them with the creamy cheese sauce and some more grated cheese.
Bake them until the tops are bubbling and beautifully browned around the edges.
The insides are so deliciously tender and juicy and sweet, and that melting cheese and bit of ham - oooh-la-la! A marriage of elegance and comfort in one dish.
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Kitchen Frau Notes: Gruyère cheese is traditional (it's mild and nutty) but I've made this dish with aged white cheddar and it's really great that way, too.
Braised Endives with Ham and Cheese Sauce
- 8 large Belgian endives
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 8 thin slices deli ham
for the white sauce:
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons sweet rice flour (or regular flour for non-gluten-free)
- ½ teaspoon dry mustard
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon white pepper
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1½ cups (360ml) milk
- 1½ cups (150 g) shredded gruyère cheese (or aged cheddar), divided
Wash and trim the ends of the endives. Lay them in a single layer in a skillet or wide saucepan and add enough water to cover the bottom of the pot by about ¼ inch (.7cm). Add the tablespoon butter. Cover, bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Remove the braised endives and tip them upside down in a bowl against the edge to drain. Allow the water to drain out until they are cooled. At this point they can be put into a covered container and refrigerated for up to 3 days, and prepared and baked when needed.
When ready to assemble the endive dish, preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
Make the white sauce by melting the butter in a saucepan, then adding the flour, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cook and stir for a minute until the flour is bubbling.
Add the milk a bit at a time, stirring and cooking after each addition until it smooth and bubbling before adding more milk. Add one cup of the grated cheese (reserve the rest for topping before baking).
Wrap each braised endive in a slice of ham and lay them in one layer in a greased baking dish (8" x 10"/20cm x 25 cm), or place them in pairs in individual gratin baking dishes. Cover with the sauce and sprinkle with the remaining shredded cheese.
Bake for 30 minutes until the tops are browned and bubbling.
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