Plenty of dishes are unkind to the amateur food photographer, and ham and chicory gratin is one of them. Fortunately, this classic dish tastes more dignified than it looks, and anyway, who can resist a penis joke at a dinner party?
My grandmother was a huge fan of chicory, but I didn’t develop a taste for it until well into adulthood. I’m hoping my increasing like for it doesn’t signify a downward slip into middle age. Chicory has this miraculous bitterness which, when handled improperly, can tip over into being genuinely unpleasant. My grandma’s advice is to never wash chicory in water but just remove the outer leaves or wipe them clean with a dry paper towel as you would a mushroom.
Baked ham and chicory, I am told by my friend Marylin, is very retro. It was once considered the height of sophistication to serve chicory gratin at a dinner party, says Marylin, who remembers cooking it for friends in the eighties. Baked chicory au gratin is in fact a traditional Belgian dish which Miss Foodwise, one of my favourite bloggers, has interpreted beautifully over on the Great British Chefs website. Much of my grandmother’s cookbook is based on French and Flemish cuisine, which I like to imagine stems from her side of the family’s Huguenot roots.
At my third supper club, I served baked chicory with ham as a light starter with a garnish of heirloom purple carrot, cress and chives dressed in fresh orange juice and olive oil. The garnish was loosely based on my grandmother’s interpretation of the classic French side dish carottes râpées, it looks pretty and compliments the flavours of this unpretentious starter very nicely. I omitted the cheese from the bechamel in my original version, falling foul of tradition and my grandmother’s advice, but I guess that’s the kind of person I am.
Baked Ham and Chicory
2 slices wafer thin smoked ham
2 small chicory (substitute one large, halved chicory per guest)
For the bechamel:
Enough for 3-4 servings.
1/2 pint whole milk
6 whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Grated nutmeg, to taste
Heaped tbsp plain flour
Heaped tbsp butter
Optional: 10g Parmesan, grated
To make the bechamel, first heat the milk gently in a small heavy-bottomed pan with the peppercorns, nutmeg and bay. Take the milk off the heat just before it reaches simmering point and pass through a sieve. You must now chill the seasoned milk before stirring it into your roux.
Roll each chicory in ham and arrange neatly in an ovenproof dish.
Preheat oven to 210c.
Finish the sauce by melting the butter over a very low heat, I find a small Le Creuset-style pan is best for making bechamel sauce and custard.
Stir the flour in to the melted butter and stir to a slightly grainy-looking paste. Now add the cool seasoned milk, a dribble at a time, stirring constantly. Do not be tempted to rush this. If lumps start to form, switch from a spoon to a hand whisk, or just keep heating the sauce through until it becomes paste-like before adding any more liquid. Continue until all the milk is used up and then continue to heat through for a couple of minutes to thicken slightly. Stir in the grated cheese (if using) last of all and stir to combine, season with salt to taste.
Pour the bechamel over the wrapped chicory and place in a hot oven for 20-25 minutes until the sauce is starting to brown in places.
Serve immediately with salad as a starter or light lunch.
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About Chloe King
I'm a freelance writer, designer and webby type. I live with my husband and daughter in the south of England. I like to cook and can throw a good party.
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