Flags and Food

Tonight’s topic is flags and food.  Timely in the run up to the Moretonhampstead Food, Drink and Arts Festival which is this Saturday, 5th March.  Here we go on a little food tour of places all within a two minute walk from our front door!  And each has their own flag made by local townspeople for Moreton’s first Flag Festival.

The food loving citizens of Moretonhampstead got a nice Christmas present at the end of last year with the opening of Whites Traditional Greengrocers.  They carry all of the humble basics – leeks, potatoes, carrots, etc. as well as ‘off the beaten track’ things such as fresh herbs, Jerusalem artichokes, blood oranges, baby lettuce mix and .  .  .  .  .  chicory??  And if you want anything special, just ask the day before you need it.

Chicory aka Belgian Endive

I know this vegetable as Belgian Endive, although I’ve never eaten or cooked it.

Whites Greengrocers

Apparently, it is a vegetable with many aliases:

Fr: le chicon, endive,  Ge: der Chicorée, der Bleichzichorie, It: la cicoria witloof Sp: la endibia, achicoria de Bruselasla.  Common chicory is also known as blue sailors, succory, and coffeeweed.

Belgian Endive or Witloof (Cichorium intybus) is a torpedo shaped accident that happened in Belgium in 1830.  The head gardener of the Botanical Gardens in Brussels forgot about the roots left covered in soil in the cellar.  He discovered that chicory produced lovely, pale, tight cone shaped heads.  It took another few decades before the growing method was perfected but once introduced to the general public, it became firmly established in Belgian cuisine.

In the summertime, chicory seeds produce a huge, leafy plant.  The  leaves are usually bitter. and appreciated in certain cuisines, such as in the Liguria and Puglia regions of Italy and also in Catalonia (Spain), in Greece and in Turkey.  By cooking and discarding the water the bitterness is reduced, after which the chicory leaves may be sauteed with garlic, anchovies and other ingredients. In this form the resulting greens might be combined with pasta or to accompany meat dishes

Then, in late autumn, the green leafy tops are cut away to within an inch of their crown.  The roots are dug up, buried in a mixture of sand and soil and kept in a cool, dark place.  In about three weeks, stored energy in the roots produces a second growth of leaves that overlap one another, forming torpedo shaped heads.  These are ivory white and very tender with a slight bitterness.  Finally, the root of witloof, once dried and ground was used as a coffee replacement during war times, and is often mixed with coffee for a robust flavour, enhancing the ‘roasted’ taste.

I immediately bought four heads and went home and looked up my Gratin of Belgian Endive recipe from Potager by Georgeanne Brennan.  I promptly went back out and across the street to our butcher, Michael Howard.

As well as carrying a range of locally produced lamb, beef and pork, his shop has a deli counter and a selection of gourmet goods – spices, relishes & chutneys, fancy tinned things.  Great for those last minute scrounges!  I bought a hunk of Gruyère and a package of prosciutto.

Michael Howard’s cheese counter

The flag made for Michael Howards’ is of a pig, waiting to be butchered.

Michael Howard, Butchers and Delicatessan

We are so lucky that he is just across the street from us.  I don’t know their official opening hours, but Michael and the guys usually show up around 6am.  On many occasions, I’ve put a coat on over my PJ’s and gone over for some early morning bacon, a loaf of bread, a jam doughnut and just last weekend I discovered that Saturday is Danish pastry day, custard or apricot usually.  Fresh baked and out of the oven by 6:30.  But if I would like one during the week, I was invited to put in my request the day before!  How cool is that?

We love Michael’s lamb and pork.  He also gets Creedy Carver poultry and for one of our autumn meals, got us a beautifully gorgeous, succulent, delicious free range goose from the South Hams (an area of Devon, NOT a pig farm).  As far as my carnivore husband Steve is concerned, it doesn’t hurt that Michael is also a Liverpool supporter.

On to the gratin.  As I mentioned,  this recipe is from one of my favourite cookbook authors Georgeanne Brennan.  Here she is writing for the San Francisco Chronicle Food & Wine Newsletter about  .  .  .  .  .  California endive.  So now it has yet another name.

Gratin of Belgian Endive

  • 8 small to medium-sized heads Belgian endive
  • 3½ tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons plain (all-purpose) flour
  • ½ teaspoon
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • A big pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Gruyère
  • 4 oz. prosciutto
  • ½ tablespoon black pepper

Steve and I have been watching TV episodes of The French Chef on DVD and one of Julia’s suggestions was to prep and lay out all of your ingredients on a tray before starting a recipe so you can be sure they’re all ready and you don’t leave anything out.  So I did and it was very pretty to look at too.

Still life with food

Since the endives are so tender they don’t need to be blanched, but the recipe (and a couple of places on the internet) said to remove the very bitter core.  I had already trimmed off the root end and this white milk was oozing out of the cut.  I thought I’d try some on the tip of my tongue to see how bitter it is and, boy, is it ever!

I got my very sharp paring knife, made a cross cut about 1″ deep and removed the core.

Then I arranged them in a buttered baking dish.   (I’d halved the recipe)

Then I made the Béchamel sauce by melting 2 tablespoons of the butter in a saucepan and mixing in the flour, salt, nutmeg and cayenne pepper until a paste formed.  I heated the milk to nearly a simmer and whisked it in in a steady stream.  This is a trick I picked up from the Fanny Farmer cookbook, it reduces the hazard of lumps.

Stir the sauce for about 10 minutes, until it thickens.  Because I’d halved the recipe, my sauce was coming out very thick, nearly like a choux pastry, so I whisked in some more milk.  One of the advantages of working with metric weights and measures, it is much more accurate to half things.  But my recipe was in American measures and I was feeling too lazy to translate it.  And if you recall, the purpose of cooking this recipe was to help me relax after 2 whole days of studio re-vamp.

The sauce should now be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.  Then stir in the  cheese and continue to cook only until the cheese has melted into the sauce.  taste and adjust the seasoning.

Now the fun part, the assemblage, begins!

Top the endives with prosciutto.

Spoon over the Béchamel sauce and dot the surface with a tablespoon of butter.

Here is where I parted from the recipe.  Georgeanne suggests ending with just a sprinkle, a mere tablespoon of grated Gruyère.  I don’t know about you all, but one of my favourite ways to eat Gruyère is the browny-almost burnt bits that cling onto the sides of the baking dish after dinner, when I take the dishes back into the kitchen.  So I strewed a small handful fo Gruyère over my gratin, making sure to strategically place some next to the edge of the dish.  Then, into a 375°F/190°C oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

Dessert on the right hand side of the dish!

It was absolutely delicious.  Very tender, slightly bitter endive – the texture reminded me of artichoke hearts,  enrobed in the thick, creamy cheese sauce and the slightly sweet, nutty, chewiness of the meat.   To go with the gratin, I grilled chicken breasts, brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper.   I also made some honey roasted baby carrots. Their slight sweetness made a nice foil to the richness of the gratin.

These were very easy.  Just a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a roasting pan.  When it sizzles, add the carrots and then drizzle with two tablespoons of honey.  Back into a hot 375°F/190°C oven for 25 to 30 minutes.   I used English Borage honey, one of the treats in our Fortnum & Mason Epicure Hamper, our food lovers Christmas gift to ourselves.

Finally, here is the flag flying from the small but mighty Co-op supermarket in our town.

Between the three of these fine food shops, and occasional forays into the neighboring towns and villages, Steve and I do quite well, food-wise, in our little town of Moreton.  We only need to visit the big Sainsbury’s in Exeter once every couple of weeks forthings we just can’t find within a stone’s throw of our home.  And at the Food, Drink and Arts Festival coming up this Saturday, we can share out bounty with the world.

More info about Belgian endive/chicory/witloof

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