November 11, 2021
I never thought that I took the ability to travel for granted until a recent quick trip to Belgium with my mom where I realized a renewed zeal, love, and appreciation for being abroad. I found myself a bit out of practice with the whole concept of embarking on an international excursion. Add in COVID testing, transfers, plus let’s be honest here, going without my husband (who usually has the entire trip planned down to the minute), and damn did my explorer senses feel rusty. Travel is kind of like entertaining, you can pull off a big meal with some basic preparation but it’s a whole lot less stressful when you have a good amount of recent practice under your belt. Anyway, it was a very quick trip, sandwiched between Homecoming and Halloween—two occasions that I couldn’t bring myself to miss—especially with my oldest being a senior in high school. The goal was to visit family and my uncle, Edouard, whose health was failing. It had been quite some time since I had been to Belgium, so it was a wonderful experience with new interests, old attachments, and my lovely mom in tow. We hit the ground running, covering visits with family and friends, cultural tours, and food in three cities; Brussels, Antwerp, and Leuven.
One of the best dinners we had was prepared by my cousin Dominique. My mom and I told her we wanted to go to a restaurant near Haacht (home of Stella Artois and delectable food) specializing in Witloof, a braised Belgium endive dish with ham and cheese. It’s a very typical Belgian dish and one that we don’t see often here in the states. She told us the restaurant had closed but she would make it for us at her home. Yes, please, Dominique! It was so deliciously creamy, vegetable-forward, and perfect for a chilly fall night.
Combining years of sampling and various family recipes, I’ve created my own hybrid version that I make at home and thought it would be a great recipe to share as we head into the holiday season. It’s a great meal (loved by all at the table; teens and husband, too) to make for that Wednesday before Thanksgiving when you have a houseful of family and guests don’t want to do a lot of dishes before you head into Thursday.
I make the whole kit and caboodle, in advance—love that! Dominque served it with crudites and dip (can you tell we are related?), a side of mashed potatoes, and a large bowl of Belgian chocolate mousse—stay tuned for the mousse recipe!
Thoughts on Pairing: Bechamel can be difficult to pair. We enjoyed our Witloof with a light Gamay, but a Chablis would also do the trick. Or, seeing as we’re visiting Belgium… why not a frosty Stella?
Recipe notes: The act of braising the endive makes it tender while holding on to the bitterness and therefore most recipes call for adding a scooch of sugar to the braising liquid. When you are shopping for endive seek out the fattest heads you can find with the freshest-looking tops and ends. Ham is everything here—see if you can get fresh sliced black forest ham which is dry-aged and adds great flavor to the dish. While I always fresh grate nutmeg into recipes, I use the pre-grated white pepper because it’s milder in flavor which I prefer. When I make a bechamel I always warm the milk in the measuring cup in the microwave so it’s warm to the touch and doesn’t require dirtying another pan. My grandmother, “Make” (pronounced Ma-kah) always put breadcrumbs dotted with butter on the top of hers — maybe not the most traditional but she was an incredible cook. I took that concept and made a little bread crumb mixture tossed in olive oil, but feel free to omit that step if desired. This is a family hit BTW!!!
8 large yellow Belgian endive, ends and loose leaves trimmed
8 cups water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, from one lemon
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup whole milk, warmed
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
1 cup gruyere cheese, shredded and packed (about 4 ounces)
8 slices black forest ham
¼ cup breadcrumbs, such as panko
2 teaspoons olive oil
Butter for buttering the dish
Place the butter, sugar, salt, and water in a large pot that has a lid and bring to a boil. Add whole endives and reduce to simmer. Cover and cook for 45 minutes turning occasionally.
Once the endive is tender, reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid, gently remove the cooked endive with tongs and drain on a rack nestled in a cookie sheet or a colander over a plate (this way you don’t have endive juice running all over your counter). After the endive cools carefully press the remaining liquid from each head. You can either press with a spoon or just between your palms. Then wrap each endive with ham—seam side down—and nestle into a buttered baking dish.
Preheat oven to 425° F and butter a large rectangular baking dish
Make the bechamel by melting the butter on low-medium heat. If you crank up the heat too high, yes it speeds up the process, but you’ll end up with a gritty bechamel—so, don’t do that. Once melted, add the flour and whisk until fragrant. Whisk in the warmed milk and 1 cup of braising liquid and simmer until thick and succulent. Add the pepper, nutmeg, salt, and taste to adjust as needed.
In a small bowl combine the breadcrumbs and oil—the oil will prevent the breadcrumbs from burning so don’t skip it.
Pour the bechamel over the wrapped endive, top with gruyere cheese and the bread crumb mixture. Bake 20 minutes until golden brown and completely warmed throughout.
Do ahead: You can make this entire dish (up until sprinkling the cheese and breadcrumbs on top) up to 24 hours in advance. Just make sure before you bake that the dish comes out of the refrigerator and up to room temp at least one hour before it goes in the oven. Then add the cheese and sprinkle on the breadcrumbs and cook until bubbly and golden brown.