Witlof, literally “white leaf”, is also known as Belgium Endive, Chicon or Chicory and is one of my favourite vegetable: it is versatile, makes for delicious salads in its raw form and is excellent braised. It is unfortunately not as widespread in Australia as it is in Europe: its growing conditions are quite particular and there is not a lot of local production, which is why witlof is quite pricey (around $12-$14/kilo).
Witlof is actually the root of the chicory plant and is grown as a two-stage crop (see this producer’ website showing the different stages of the production with pictures). The plant is first grown outside for around five months, then the leaves are cut on the surface, the roots harvested and then put in cool storage.
They are then taken out of cool storage and stacked in a dark and humid room at around 14°C for around 3-5 weeks (hydroponic rooms). The witlof leaves will start to emerge from the roots (the “forcing” process) and grow to the shape we are familiar with. Witlof needs to be protected from the sun to keep its really white aspect and a mild taste. In France we actually say of a pasty person that he/she is “as pale as an endive”.
A few weeks ago I stumbled upon some witlof in my local fruit&veg shop and decided to treat myself to a nice dish of “Endives au jambon” (Ham Witlof). My mum used to make this recipe at home all the time, it is fairly easy and very comforting: perfect for these last cool evenings of the season… but really, any excuse will do for a dish with Bechamel sauce!
I put the endives in boiling water for about 10-15 minutes and drain them as much as possible, so that not too much water leaks into the bechamel later. (Note: My mum has just advised me to steam them in order to avoid the problem altogether, which is much more clever!)
I then roll each endive into a slice of ham and place them in the baking dish.
In the meantime I have prepared my Bechamel, which starts like the base for a soufflé, with butter and flour for the roux. I then add and whisk milk little by little and some grated cheddar. A tip to make the sauce lighter if you are weary of heavy sauces, is to replace part of the milk with a bit of the water in which the endives have boiled to the sauce. (But I don’t mind heavy sauces myself, so I only use milk.)
After pouring the sauce evenly all over the endives and sprinkling generously more cheddar cheese (you can also use gruyère or parmesan if you prefer), place the dish in the oven at 180 degrees for about 20-25 minutes, or until the surface is golden brown and crispy.
You can let it rest for a few minutes when taking it out the oven, as the endives inside the ham will be very very hot!
Et voilà, it is ready to eat! I admit this is not the best looking dish around, but what it lacks in presentation, it makes up for it in flavour: the association of the Bechamel’s creaminess with the ham’s saltiness and the witlof’s bitterness works wonders… bon appétit!