It took me a long time before I could admit how much I dislike barely cooked vegetables. I realize I am in the minority; most folks love them, especially this time of year, when heavy winter food has palled. Granted, their crispness and bright colors have a clean, minimalist appeal, but I find them squeaky in the mouth and one-dimensional in flavor.
I prefer my cooked vegetables well done—that is, with a tender, yielding consistency that stops short of falling apart. When I have tried to explain this to people, they can’t get beyond my heritage and the pervasive yet misguided notion that to a southerner the only good vegetable is a mushy vegetable. It makes me sad that they’ve never had an honest southern meal, one in which vegetables are treated with respect.
In that regard, good southern cooks have much in common with their counterparts in France or Italy—they all know there is a world of difference between overcooking and slow, gentle cooking. The technique of braising vegetables in a little liquid until they’re soft and tender, for instance, allows a give-and-take between the braising juices and the vegetables themselves. The resulting layers of flavor are a revelation.
One of my favorite vegetables for braising is belgian endive. Its slight, pleasant bitterness is a clue that it’s related to edgier greens such as escarole, frisée, radicchio, and other members of the Chicorium genus. The vegetable has long been grown around Brussels, and the industry has spread to the Netherlands, France, Spain, South America, and California. Belgian endive cultivation takes time and is labor intensive, so it is not cheap. You get lots of bang for the buck, though: There is practically no waste, and the only cleaning that’s necessary is a quick rinse under cold running water.
The pearly leaves, which are at once crunchy and satiny, make a dramatic salad when cut crosswise and tossed with a darker green, or a sturdy vehicle for creamed blue cheese. But braising, which coaxes out the rich, nutty sweetness that lies just beneath the surface, transforms it into a far more interesting vegetable, one that can stand alone as a first course or pair nicely with roast chicken or lamb, or grilled steak or fish.
For all its elegance, belgian endive is a forgiving vegetable, and braising is a forgiving technique, so it’s pretty much impossible to go wrong. Below you’ll find two versions, and I’m very fond of them both. As for any embellishments, they’re up to you. You could cut the endives in half lengthwise and wrap each half in a paper-thin slice of pancetta or prosciutto, say, or perhaps add a bit of cream at the end, or even tuck in slivers of ham, then top with grated Gruyère and run under the broiler until the cheese is golden in places.
I like to braise vegetables in a sauté pan—that is, a deep straight-sided skillet—or a low, wide clay pot, but a flameproof gratin dish works well, too. In any case, choose a size that will just hold the endives side by side. A braise can’t be rushed, so give yourself plenty of time—or make it a day ahead and reheat it gently.
Braised Endives à la Julia Child
Adapted from The Way to Cook (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), by Julia Child
12 endives—fresh, firm, and fat, all the same size, all creamy white, and all neatly closed at the pointed end
¼ teaspoon coarse salt, plus a little more, if needed
½ cup water
½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus a little more if needed
2 to 4 tablespoons butter, cut into slices
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (optional)
1. Remove any wilted outer leaves from the endives. Trim the root ends but keep the leaves attached. Rinse under cold running water.
2. Arrange the endives in a sauté pan or flameproof clay casserole or gratin dish and add the salt, water, lemon juice, and butter. Cover and boil slowly on top of the stove for about 20 minutes, or until the endives are fairly tender and the liquid is reduced by half. Either cover and cook slowly on top of the stove or lay buttered parchment paper over the endives, cover, and braise in a 325ºF oven until very tender, pale golden in color, and almost all the liquid is evaporated, about 1 hour. Taste and correct seasoning halfway through. Serve sprinkled with parsley if desired.
Braised Endives à la Richard Olney
Adapted from Lulu’s Provençal Table (HarperCollins, 1994), by Richard Olney
4 tablespoons butter, cut into slices
12 belgian endives
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
¼ cup dry white wine
1. Remove any wilted or discolored outer leaves from the endives. Trim the root ends but keep the leaves attached. Give them a quick rinse and pat dry.
2. Smear about half the butter in a sauté pan, or a flameproof clay casserole or gratin dish and fit in the endives. Top with the remaining butter and season with salt. Cover the endives with a piece of parchment paper and then a lid or foil.
3. Gently cook the endives over low heat in the butter and the liquid released by the endives, turning them over when golden on the underside. When no more liquid remains in the pan, add a couple of tablespoons wine. Continue to cook, adding a bit of wine from time to time to keep the bottom of the pan moist. When the endives are golden brown on all sides, meltingly tender but still intact, squeeze over a few drops of lemon juice, grind over pepper, turn them around in their juices, and serve directly from their cooking vessel.