There are a lot of different chicories now available to us. Radicchios are everywhere (most annoyingly, chopped up in a supermarket “mixed salad”) while curly endive, escaroles, puntarella and Castelfranco may be had at many greengrocers.
I am currently using cicoria – a long, leafy plant with tubular stems – with a great deal of enthusiasm at the restaurant. However, by far the most common and easiest to find is perhaps the finest of all and that is the Belgian, or Witloof (“white leaf”), endive. Were it not so common, it would doubtless be more esteemed.
Should you buy the “plain” white endive, and not the much more expensive and very pretty but rather pointless red endive, I think you are getting a bit of a bargain. Bearing in mind that every head of endive represents one complete root that has grown for 120 days, had its foliage cut back, and then been replanted and the fresh growth cultivated in the dark, it all sounds a rather laborious process for the fairly trifling sums that it costs in the shops.
Furthermore, there seems to be a universal quality standard: they are almost always beautifully grown, forming compact and creamy white heads composed of delicate, tender leaves. They rarely have an overdeveloped stalk or excessive colour on their tips, the two faults that they must be prone to.
I am equally partial to eating my Witloof raw or cooked. The leaves are best just separated from the stalk but left whole. They are very good when dressed with lemon juice and walnut oil, though equally enjoyable with a strong vinaigrette or served plain with a good blue cheese. Served raw, their bitterness is of a very mild variety – it is to subdue their bitterness, one assumes, that they were blanched in the first place – and acceptable to all but the most untutored palate. When cooked, however, Witloof becomes a rather more grown-up proposition. Lemon juice and a little sugar will soften the impact, but the fact is that cooking accentuates and concentrates the innate bitterness of this lovely plant. I am afraid that that is rather the point.
To some, especially the uninitiated, the bitterness of all chicory is intrinsically inimical. They will put up with a certain amount if it is understated and counterbalanced by a nice dressing and because most chicory has a pleasantly crunchy texture. To aficionados, however, the bitterness is positively addictive. If our mouths pucker slightly on first bite, we immediately want to repeat the experience, just as the true curry fiend loves serious heat from his chilli.
As with the curry enthusiast, with his assorted cooling accompaniments of rice and chutney, the bitterness of the endive needs to be wrapped in a protective cloak, none better than this quilt of ham and cream.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais, London
More columns at www.ft.com/leigh
Baked endives with ham and cheese
Smoked ham seems an especially good match for the endive but other hams will do very well, including Parma and other raw hams. Similarly, Parmesan works well. Recipe for four.
8 Witloof endives
50g unsalted butter (plus extra for buttering dish)
Juice of 2 lemons
½ glass dry white wine
2tbsp plain flour
Sprig of thyme
2 bay leaves
1 sliced onion
125ml double cream
8 slices cooked smoked ham
50g grated Gruyère or Emmenthal cheese
Remove the outside leaves of the endives. Butter lavishly an ovenproof gratin dish and lay the endives on top. Dot the endives with more butter and add the lemon juice, the white wine, sugar and a good seasoning of salt and milled white pepper. Cover with a sheet of buttered foil and bake in a medium-hot oven (180°C) for 45 minutes.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the flour, stirring to make a roux. Once it is a sandy texture, moisten with a few tablespoons of milk to make a smooth paste then pour in the remaining milk, whisking constantly. Add the thyme, bay leaves, onion and cloves. Season with salt, pepper and a hint of nutmeg and simmer on an extremely gentle heat for 20 minutes. Strain into a bowl.
Pour off the liquid from the endives into the warm béchamel, whisk well then add the cream. Bring to a simmer and cook for five minutes, whisking occasionally and reducing slightly. Once they are cooled a little, wrap each endive in a slice of ham and return to the gratin dish. Cover generously with the sauce and return to the oven for 10 minutes. Sprinkle over the cheese and brown under a grill or in the oven at 200°C. Serve as a light lunch or supper dish with a salad or on its own as an appetiser.