Chicory - or perhaps you know it as Belgian endive or witlof - is an acquired taste I'll admit. Almost cabbage-like in texture with a slight bitter flavour and rather expensive in South Africa to boot. Add to that the fact that it's not a very well known vegetable either and I can completely understand why it might not feature on the average person's grocery or to-eat list.
But you have to admit, it is a rather pretty vegetable to look at. Even more so when left in-tact; the leaves forming delicate scallops around the outer edges of each chicory head. An interesting fact is that chicory is grown underground or indoors, sheltered from sunlight to help the leaves retain their creamy-white colour and keeping them tightly packed to the head.
"Chicory is well known for its toxicity to internal parasites. Studies indicate that ingestion of chicory by farm animals results in reduction of worm burdens, ..." [Wikipedia]
So, if you have farm animals or perhaps suffer from internal parasites yourself, you might want
to reconsider your stance on chicory. Alternatively if you're a lover of ham, cheese-y goodness
or the creamy sweetness of sweet potatoes, step right this way.
The original recipe calls for potatoes and while it is delicious just like that, I decided to mix it up by using sweet potatoes, figuring that the mild sweetness would form a delicious counterpoint to the slight bitterness of the chicory/endive. I was right. The cheese is of course a no-brainer, as is the addition of pats of smoked butter on top of the dish just before it goes into the oven.
Because really, has any dish ever suffered from the addition of melted, bubbling cheese and silky butter?
Chicory (Endive) and Ham Bake
Adapted from Kayotic Kitchen
3 - 4 medium sized sweet potatoes, scrubbed
2/3 cup milk
knob of butter
salt and pepper, to taste
2 large heads of chicory (Belgian endive)
4 large slices of ham (I like using Gypsy ham)
1/2 cup grated fontina cheese
1/2 cup grated hard cheese of your choice
1/2 tsp paprika
smoked butter, optional
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, add sweet potatoes and cook until tender. Alternatively, poke a few holes in them with a fork and microwave for a few minutes or until cooked through.
2. Drain potatoes and mash, skin on*, together with the milk, knob of butter and salt and pepper to taste. I like to leave the mash quite rustic, ie not mash too finely, but make it the way you like mashed potatoes. Spoon into a medium sized oven casserole dish.**
3. Mix the cheeses together and sprinkle just under a half of it over the mashed potatoes.
4. Prepare your chicory by halving each one vertically and cutting out the bitter core. Wrap each half in a slice of ham, then place on top of the potatoes.
5. Top with the remainder of the grated cheese, sprinkle with paprika and ddd a few knobs of salted butter here and there if using. Place in oven and bake for roughly 30 minutes at 180C (350F) or until the cheese is bubbling and the endive is cooked through. Serve warm.
* If you really object to the skins, you can certainly remove them before mashing, however I find they add lovely texture and colour.
** You can also just do as I do and mash the potatoes directly in the oven casserole dish to minimise washing up afterwards. Your call.
Mixing a bit of grainy mustard in with the mashed sweet potatoes is also fantastic, do try that. Also try scattering a few chopped chives over the top just as it comes out of the oven.