Known in Dutch as Witlof met ham en kaas, this is Irene’s comfort food – the dish her mother makes for her when she goes to visit. These quantities will make lunch or supper for four, needing only some boiled potatoes or crusty bread to mop up the sauce. You could have some green beans or salad alongside too, though that would not be traditional, or serve it as a side dish with roast pork. The dish can be assembled in advance, just leaving the final baking in the oven until just before dinner.
You can, of course, also omit the ham to make an equally delicious chicory gratin for a vegetarian meal (use vegetarian cheese if preferred).
In the UK we tend to eat chicory raw in salad, but it has an excellent and distinctive flavour when cooked, and is a good foil to game or meat. There is an excellent Constance Spry recipe for braised chicory as an accompaniment to pheasant which I should also post.
4 large or 8 small heads of chicory
30g butter, plus extra for buttering the dish
1 clove garlic (optional)
2 tbsps vermouth
30g plain flour
250 ml vegetable stock (or milk if preferred)
100 ml single cream
100g gruyere or mature Gouda or Cheddar cheese
8 thin slices of ham, preferably dry-cured
Bring a pan of water to the boil. Trim the root ends of the chicory and cut them in half lengthwise if they are large. Blanch in the boiling water for 8 minutes and then empty into a colander to drain.
Heat the oven to 180 C. Chop the onion finely. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and over low heat cook the onion gently until it is really soft, without letting it colour. Finely chop the garlic and add it to the onion after a few minutes.
When it is soft, add a good splash of vermouth to the pan and let it bubble up for a minute or two. Then sprinkle over the flour, stir thoroughly into the buttery onion and cook for a few minutes until the flour starts to look and smell biscuity. Meanwhile, heat the stock (or milk) to a simmer. Over medium heat pour the hot stock onto the roux and stir like mad with a wooden spoon or whisk, until the mixture is smooth. Turn the heat down and cook gently, stirring regularly and reaching right to the edges of the pan so that the sauce doesn’t catch. After about 10 minutes the sauce should be smooth and quite thick.
Pour in the cream, stirring. Grate the cheese, stir half into the sauce and heat for a moment to melt it. Check the seasoning, adding salt, pepper and freshly-grated nutmeg to taste. Set aside. Butter a shallow ovenproof gratin dish.
Squeeze the drained chicory to get rid of as much liquid as possible. Wrap each chicory (or half head) in a piece of ham and arrange in the gratin dish. Pour over the cheese sauce and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top. Put into the pre-heated oven and bake for about 30-35 minutes until the sauce starts to bubble. If you have prepared the dish in advance and it is cold it will need a bit longer in the oven. If necessary flash it under the grill to brown the cheese.
Serve with boiled potatoes, and green beans or salad if you wish.