When native Italians celebrate, they typically do not go out to eat. Instead, they head into the kitchen and prepare a feast, a sign of pride in the family’s cooking prowess. Recipes are passed down from generation to generation, many of which arguably taste better than what one would find in a restaurant. The key, prepare food simply using the freshest ingredients possible to highlight their flavor.
I think that’s what initially drew me to this endive recipe. A simple dish (a handful of ingredients) prepared using an ancient method of cooking — braising — and soffritto (a mixture of seasonings and finely chopped vegetables) to develop intense flavor (and a little bit of pork fat never hurts).
Braising begins by searing, in this case vegetables (but commonly meat, and even fish), over high heat to develop flavor and create caramelization (or browning of sugars). Thereafter, liquid is added — usually a stock coupled with acidity from tomatoes, wine or vinegar -– and the dish is covered, and cooked in the oven for an hour or two. The braising liquid helps to break down the fibrous greens (or proteins, in the case of meat), to infiltrate and season the greens with juices, and to produce a flavorful sauce.
Endive is not a vegetable that garners much attention, another thing that drew me to this dish (in my never ending search for new flavors). Endive belongs to the chicory genus and is a member of the daisy family, which includes Belgium endive, escarole, curly endive (aka frisée), radicchio, and puntarelle. Endive has a bitter taste, which I don’t mind, but for those of you who are less enthusiastic fear not, the cooking process tames the bitterness. In addition to endive, there are any number of vegetables that taste great braised: fennel, artichokes, onions, and cabbage — to name a few.
According to James Beard, “If you have never tasted a braised vegetable, you’ll find it a revelation, completely different from one that is eaten raw, plainly cooked, boiled, sautéd, or fried.” Well said.
This dish has a decidedly homey feel. It requires just a bit of prep work — dicing the vegetables and pancetta, searing the endive, and then popping it in the oven for about an hour or so — and a little patience, as the aromas that permeate the kitchen will have you counting down the minutes. I actually set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. so I could wake up early to prepare this dish (and snap a few photos while the natural light was good). Still made it to work by 8:30. One last thing, I’ll admit, I ate half of it in one sitting; it was that good. There will definitely be more braising of vegetables in the near future.
Adapted from Domenica Marchetti’s The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy
6 heads Belgium endive, cut in half
2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 serrano chile, finely chopped
3/4 cup canned diced tomatoes
1/4 cup red wine
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 toasted bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated Pecorino
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 9×9 baking dish.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. When the butter is melted and begins to sizzle, add half of the endive halves, cut side down. Brown 4 minutes and then turn over and brown on the other side for another 4 minutes. Transfer the endive, cut side up, to the baking dish. Repeat with the remainder of the endive.
Return the skillet to medium heat, add the carrot, celery, serano pepper, and pancetta and saute about 5 minutes, until the pancetta has rendered its fat, and the vegetables begin to soften.
Smash the garlic and salt to form a paste, and add to the vegetables. Saute a minute or two, until garlic releases its fragrance. Pour in the wine and cook about 2 minutes or until the wine has evaporated. Add the tomatoes and cook about 5 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.
Pour the sauce over the endive. Cover with foil, place in the oven, and braise for 1 hour. Uncover, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and cheese, and bake for another 20 minutes until the cheese is golden brown.