Gratins usually make me think of rich, bubbling casseroles, replete with cream and cheese, providing warmth and sustenance during hard winter months. They do a good job of disguising pallid root vegetables at a time when you simply can't see another potato, turnip or rutabaga. But I often find them difficult to cook just for myself or when Ben joins me. The dish invariably ends up being too heavy for one small eater (with questionable leftover-eating habits) and her companion (who does a valiant job of eating, for sure, but I don't him to die of a coronary at 30). So unless I'm cooking for a group, I steer clear of gratins.
And yet! Yesterday I stumbled across a recipe for an endive gratin that Kay Rentschler wrote about in the New York Times two years ago. It accompanied an article on bitter greens (is there a better green than a bitter one? I think not). I noticed straight away that it included no cheese and just a few spoonfuls of cream. So basically it'd be oven-roasted endive with a cream glaze and chunks of salty ham. I certainly could get behind that. And although spring is out in full force here, there's still a tiny nip in the air which meant last night that this transitional dish could be just right for dinner. And it was.
The recipe called for two large endives, but my store only sold slim, little ones, so I bought four. I didn't have the green garlic called for, so I used a regular garlic clove. My mistake was not to use fresh bread crumbs - because the dried ones browned much faster. They were still delicious - tasting of beurre noisette and savory garlic (the apartment smells of them this morning), and with an alluring crunch. I halved the endives, rubbed them with oil, salt and pepper and let them roast until brown on one side. Turning them around, I spooned in the cream (which looks deceptively little) and threw in the chunks of ham.
The dish went back into the oven until the cream evaporated. I scattered the buttered, garlicky bread crumbs around each endive and let it all roast together for a few more minutes before serving. It was a revelation. The oven heat mellowed the bitterness of the endives and the cream added sweetness and body. The pieces of ham flavored the dish with a hint of smoke and a welcome salty bite. The bread crumbs added a crunchy textural layer and a nutty flavor. I ate one spear, then another and a third, and I still couldn't stop picking at the pan. The dish was perfect for spring: it had the savory flavors of winter, but they were scaled back and lightened, and the silky roasted endive really had a chance to shine. I only have two halves left, and I can't wait for lunch today.
Belgian Endive Gratin with Black Forest Ham and Green Garlic
Makes 4 servings as a side
2 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons coarse fresh bread crumbs
4 tablespoons minced green garlic or 1 teaspoon minced regular garlic
2 large heads Belgian endive, cut in two
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons heavy cream
2 ounces Black Forest ham, cut into 1/4-inch cubes (1/4 cup)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1. Heat oven to 450. Melt butter in a small skillet until foamy. Add bread crumbs and sauté until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and sauté until fragrant, 10 seconds. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. Rub endive with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and place cut-side down in a shallow baking dish. Roast until spears are golden brown on bottom, 5 to 7 minutes. Turn endive with tongs, add cream and ham, return to oven, and bake until cream has reduced to a glaze, 4 to 5 minutes more.
3. Sprinkle bread crumbs over endive, turning spears to coat. Return to oven for 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle with lemon juice. Serve.