Monday, December 28, 2009

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

I think my new favourite way to cook is braising.. It is so simple and worry-free that even a super-busy-kitchen-inept-overworked-type person can manage to dish out a lovely meal of braised vegetables and meat. It is also very well suited to the current season, as there are few things more warming to the cockles  than braised foods.

Put simply, braising consists in cooking foods in a bit of liquid for a certain length of time. Meats will usually take a couple of hours, going up to 4 for a proper bœuf bourguignon, but you can braise leftovers in under an hour (braised turkey, anyone?), resulting in moist and fork tender meals. Vegetables are another quick option, taking about 45 minutes if chopped into small-ish bits.

The absolute top of the line equipment for braising would be the Crock-Pot, however it is not a necessity: if you have an oven-proof, lidded pot, a dutch oven, or just a plain old Pyrex dish and a roll of foil, you are set to go!

As I write, I am braising a 9" square pan full of endives. There will be leftovers, and tomorrow, or sometime later in the week, they will be turned into a gratin... I can't wait, my stomach is grumbling at the thought of it!!!

Endives, also known as Belgian endives, witloof or chicory, are a true winter vegetable. With its bleached-out, anaemic look, how can it not be? It is a somewhat labour-intensive crop, which explains why it is not the cheapest of winter crops. The pale spears are actually immature chicory buds forced to grow in the dark, hence the vampirical paleness. Yet despite its washed-out looks, it is surprisingly nutritious, not a complete waste of a chew... unlike some other leafy vegetables who shall remain nameless...

Forcing endives require no particular equipment whatsoever, besides a cool, dark room. With some basic knowledge, anyone can grow endives, and most growers and gardeners prefer autumn and winter to venture into production. Therefore, chances are you can find locally produced endives at a nearby farmers' market or greengrocer -supermarkets tend to stock imports (from Belgium no less!!!).

When purchasing witloof, try to look out for tightly shut, yellow-white spears; green leaves will be more bitter, and any loose heads will not keep very long. Once at home, keep your endives in the crisper drawer, and if you intend to keep them more than three days, wrap them in a tea towel to keep them in the 'dark'.

Endives make a delightfully bitter salad, though they are nowhere near as harsh as chicory salads (they're the same plant, but chicory grows in the light, and has had time to build up its bitterness.) A classic endive salad calls for walnuts, pears and blue cheese (any blue will do: Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton or even Torta di Mascarpone). Incidentally, all these ingredients are usually associated with winter: a hunk of Stilton with a glass of Port by a blazing fire... very Christmas in an English country house.   

You can keep the blue cheese out if it is not to your liking or not in your budget, but whatever you do, do not use bottled blue cheese dressing: unless you can prove otherwise, I remain convinced that those blue cheese vinaigrettes are the most vile things ever! A regular wine vinegar dressing (1 part red or white wine vinegar to 3 parts neutral oil, salt and pepper to taste) atop crumbled blue cheese is ideal, but if you feel the need to camouflage the cheese, here is an easy recipe.

Simple Blue Cheese Dressing
100g (± 3 Tbs) blue cheese of your liking
125mL (1 cup) buttermilk, or thinned out yoghurt, or water with a dash of vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Mash all the ingredients together with a fork, a whisk or in a blender.
Keeps in the refrigerator for about 3 days.
Serves 4-6

Back to my braised endives: for a vegetarian, they are a meal in and of themselves, with some thick sliced bread and a hunk of cheese. But they also make a nice side dish for any meat. You can serve as is, straight from the oven, or you can go all fancy and caramelize the endives in some butter and sugar.

Braised Endives
2 large endives per person
butter
salt and pepper
1 orange, or a small glass of orange juice


If you intend to use leftovers in a gratin, leave endives whole, otherwise cut in half. Either way, trim off the brown end of the spears. If you have a deep-seated aversion to bitterness, use the tip of a sharp knife to remove just enough of the core for the endive not to fall apart.

Generously butter your baking dish or dutch oven. Place endives (cut side down) in a single layer, season with salt and pepper.
If you are using the orange, remove zest with a peeler/zester/grater, and add to dish. Juice the orange and add to endives -you only need a bit (about 1 cm/ ½")
Cover with a piece of foil or lid.
Pop into a 350'F/180'C oven for 15minutes.
Remove foil, and return to the oven for another 5-8 minutes to reduce the juices down to a thick syrup.
Serve and eat. 

Speaking of oranges. Even though global warming has not yet advanced to the point of rendering citrus fruit a regular crop in Canada, it is the season for oranges and clementines in the Northern hemisphere. And so far, the harvest has been a nice one, what with good sized fruits and lots of sweetness. While everyone is familiar with navel oranges from California and Florida, a little less familiar is the Minneola orange. This orange is about the size of a navelina, with a teat on the stem side instead of a bellybutton on the blossom end. Minneolas are delicious: juicy and extremely sweet, they taste a little like tangerines, and are, in fact, a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine. Their peel is much thinner than that of an orange, without being quite thin enough to peel without a knife. A lovely alternative to oranges.

Well, my oven is calling my stomach, so I am off!

Bon app'!

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