One of the first things I ever learnt how to make was Bechamel. It was at school, in a class known fondly as F&N, or Food and Nutrition, where our pocket-sized Welsh teacher, Mrs Jones, who dressed in tweed twin-sets, wore her glasses around her neck on a gold chain and had a Thatcher-esque haircut taught us perfect scones, béchamel sauce, and some slightly vague information about Vitamins and Protein. We wore white lab coats and sniggered as she talked briskly about dietary fibre and digestion.
I remember the bechamel lesson, all of us hovering over our little white gas hobs, stirring our roux diligently, and inhaling as she had told us to do.
‘It should start to smell of digestive biscuits’ she said. ‘That’s how you know it’s ready to add the milk’.
She was right. As soon as that tell-tale smell rose up from the pan we added our milk, a little at a time, stirring steadily and waiting with bated breath.
I was typically impatient and anxious, and called Mrs Jones over.
‘It’s lumpy! It’s all gone wrong!’.
‘Have patience, dear’ trilled Mrs Jones, gliding onto the next flustered student.
She was right. After some vigorous and constant stirring the sauce settled, and became smooth and creamy and glue-like. I had made my first real bechamel. It was the beginning of a long and happy relationship.
Béchamel is my ultimate comfort food, and one way of making almost everything taste better. If in doubt, bake it in béchamel and you are unlikely to be disappointed. As the last few days of March approach, still with an icy edge and a no-man’s land of seasonal veg, I make this endive and ham gratin, which is based on something my grandma used to make me many years ago. I love endive, it’s such an underused vegetable, and as a lover of all things bitter it is perhaps unsurprising that I harbour a soft spot in my heart for chicory. When braised, wrapped in ham then cooked under a thick and creamy blanket of bechamel its bitterness is beautifully tempered. I think this dish is probably French in origin, but Besciamella is used frequently in Italy (again its origins hotly debated, was it a French invention? Or an Italian one?) and it sits happily in both countries (just as it does in England, too). I used finely sliced pancetta to wrap my endive, but you can substitute bacon or sliced, cooked ham as you like, and I topped it with grated parmesan, but if you want to go French then use Gruyere instead, or even go English and use cheddar. All will work, and all are delicious. A proudly European dish and a celebration of béchamel.
100g plain flour
800ml whole milk
Freshly grated nutmeg
4 heads of endive
A knob of butter
1 small glass of white wine
8 slices of ham/pancetta/bacon
70g grated parmesan (or cheese of your choice)
First cook the endive. Slice it into halves lengthways or quarters if the heads are very large. Warm the knob of butter in a saute pan until it is foaming. Add the endive pieces so they fit snugly and cover the base of the pan. Sprinkle over some salt and cook over a medium heat, turning occasionally. The pieces should take on a nice even golden colour over 10 minutes or so.
Now pour in the glass of wine, place a lid over the pan and turn the heat down to low. Leave to cook for 20-25 minutes, until the endive is tender.
Meanwhile make your béchamel. Heat the butter in a pan until foaming. Add the flour and stir, cooking for a few minutes until it smells of digestive biscuits. Add the milk, a little at a time, stirring well until you have a smooth sauce. Season with nutmeg and salt to taste.
Remove the endive from the heat. When cool enough to handle wrap each piece in a slice of ham and lay them in a gratin dish. Pour over the hot béchamel, making sure to cover everything well. Sprinkle with the grated cheese and bake in a 180 oven for 30-35 minutes, until golden and bubbling.
I have kept this recipe very simple/pure, but if you want to mix it up you can add mustard to the sauce, breadcrumbs to the topping, chopped parsley or thyme to the béchamel would also be good.