When people (sometimes, if I am lucky, French people) ask me why my accent when speaking French is close to spot-on, I respond, “Ma mère était belge.” (“My mother was Belgian.”) I am the eldest of nine Brussels sprouts, issues of a mother from southern Belgium and a father born and raised in Colorado.
A cookbook published in 1996 in this country by chef and author Ruth Van Waerebeek says all that I need say about how, growing up in Denver, we ate at our parents’ table: “Everyone Eats Well in Belgium.”
When I tell people that I am half Belgian, people often then ask me, “Which half?” I place the palm of one hand under my nose and the other palm at my belly button.
“This half,” I say.
The Belgians do not bandy about their cooking the way that, say, the French or Italians historically do. But, yes, everyone eats well in Belgium because Belgian cooking is one of the world’s heartiest, most toothsome and satisfying cuisines on the globe.
“French fries” aren’t French so much as they are Belgian, really the only thing “French” about them the reference to the manner in which the potato is cut up (that is, “frenched,” sliced thinly longwise). Frying potatoes the Belgian way—that is, fried twice in two different temperatures of oil—is the only way to perfect “French” fries. In truth, Belgians came up with the idea of “French” fries in the first place. (In truth, this grates at the French.)
In Belgium, there is no such thing as the “Belgian waffle.” There is, however, the Brussels waffle and the Liège waffle, so named after those two Belgian cities and resolute rivals for any crown to being the Belgian waffle. The two differ in crispness, batter makeup and doughiness. (The “Belgian waffle” found in America is more like the Brussels waffle.)
Other traditional Belgian dishes, some of which now travel the world: salmon mousse; the salad of asparagus wrapped in slices of ham; tomatoes stuffed with bay shrimp; and steak tartare—yes, it comes from Belgium, interestingly called there “filet américain.”
Filet américain is often made with beef, as its cognate “steak tartare” is here. But often enough, in Belgium, also of horse. Belgians remain the heartiest hoovers of horse in Europe at about 2 pounds per capita a year.
The Brussels sprout (not me, the vegetable) is a member of the mustard family and descended from the cabbage. It came from the Mediterranean basin but was popularized in Belgium’s capital region more than 500 years ago, hence its moniker. Long shunned in the United States, it is now something of a mainstay on many American menus.
Much is made, especially in marketing, of the term “Belgian chocolate.” But if you think of it for a moment, growing cacao in such a northerly climate is ludicrous, not to say impossible. The Belgians both import and fashion into confections massive amounts of chocolate, this being their great contribution to candy land. That is Belgian chocolate.
One final Belgian culinary info of interest, regarding the Belgian endive (there called by French speakers simply “endive” or “chicon” and, by the sizeable numbers of Belgians who speak Flemish, “witloof”).
The Belgians are great coffee lovers and also fond of both extending coffee grounds with ground roast chicory root and enjoying the complementary taste of the latter. Some suggest that it is roast chicory’s dark chocolate-like flavor that’s the trigger.
Right around the creation of the country itself, in the 1830s, a Belgian chicory root farmer found that endive roots stored and drying in his dark cellar had sprouted white leaves and that these torpedo-shaped bunches of leaves were tasty, if slightly bitter. Most Belgians, unlike us (who eat its leave raw, especially in salads), eat endives poached or braised, often topped with a rich cheese sauce.
This recipe comes from my Belgian mother who wrapped individual cooked endives in a slice of thin ham, then slathered the roulades in a cheese-enriched béchamel and, finally, browned the whole assemblage in the oven.
They were marvelous and for me always call to mind my own mother’s days.
Chicons Jambon au Gratin (Endives and Ham Roulades au Gratin)
This is how my mother, Madeleine M. St. John, used to prepare endives/chicons. She would serve it to 8 as a little dish; to 4 as a larger dish. It’s good with sides of bread and butter, pommes frites, other potato dishes, salad—you name it.
8 medium to large Belgian endives (none with brown tips)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons water (or chicken broth, beer or apple cider)
For the béchamel:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons wheat flour
1 and 1/2 cups whole milk, at room temperature
Pepper, salt and ground nutmeg
2 cups grated semi-firm “Alpine style” cheese such as Gruyère, Emmenthaler, Vacherin Fribourgeois, Cantal or Beaufort
8 slices thinly sliced, non-fatty, non-gristly sandwich ham (such as “Polish” or “deli”)
Unsalted butter, at room temperature
Strip the endives of their outer leaves. Slice off a short bit of the root end, then cut about an inch lengthwise into the root end (this helps both to distribute the cooking heat and to alleviate the native bitterness of this, the thickest part of the endive).
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and add the water (or other liquid). Add the endives, shaking the skillet to distribute the butter over them, then cover and braise over medium to medium-low heat for 15 minutes. They should come out well-wilted & slightly golden-browned.
Drain the endives in a sieve or colander set over a bowl for 20-30 minutes, during which time the endives will cool down, a necessary step for later preparation. Save the drained cooking liquid in the bowl.
Make the béchamel: Over medium-low heat, melt the butter and, when the foam begins to subside, turn the heat to low and add the flour, stirring constantly with a whisk for about 2 minutes. In a slow stream, add the milk, stirring.
Add 1/2 cup of the drained endive cooking liquid, stirring. The mixture will begin to thicken and, at this point, add grindings of pepper to taste (white peppercorns, if you have them), a generous pinch of salt and a pinch of ground nutmeg.
Stir or whisk in 1 cup of the grated cheese, letting the cheese melt into the sauce. Settle the sauce and put it aside, keeping it warm.
Prepare the final dish: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Generously butter a gratin dish that will accompany the 8 roulades of ham-wrapped endive. Assemble the endives by wrapping each in a slice of ham and setting them, seam side down, into the gratin dish side-by-side.
Pour the reserved bechamel-cheese sauce over the endives, using a knife or fork to shimmy a bit of the sauce between each roll. Place the gratin dish on a middle rack in the oven. After 10 minutes, remove and sprinkle the dish evenly with another 1 cup of grated cheese.
After a few minutes more, when the top layer of cheese browns (if you wish to pass it under a broiler at this point, that’s fine), it’s done. Remove from the oven and let it sit for 5 minutes to come together, then serve.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]