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THE ETHNIC COOK : High Cuisine From a Low Land

August 13, 1992|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anne-Marie Olympios is bubbling over with energy, enthusiasm--and recipes. Born in Belgium and married to a Greek, Olympios cooks abundantly--Belgian food, Greek food, French food, almost anything. When we asked about her Belgian endive wrapped in ham, she not only brought in that recipe but three more and produced samples of two, prompting an instant feast.

Olympios showed how to wrap thin slices of ham around pale endive spears and bury the rolls under a thick layer of Gruyere cheese sauce. While she worked, we ate her Flan aux Pommes , a wonderful molded custard covered with caramelized apples. Without any concern for the proper order of things, we moved on to her rustic beef stew ( Carbonnade a la Flamande ), which tingled our palates with grainy mustard and beer.

At last, the ham rolls came out of the broiler, exhibiting a nicely browned, thin crust of cheese. We promptly spooned these up for "dessert."

Olympios, who was born in Zele, a small city in the Flemish part of Belgium, is eager to show off typically Belgian food. She's so loyal to her birthplace that she has turned her home, on a bluff overlooking Marina del Rey, into a Belgian-style retreat: a tiled kitchen, gleaming copper pots, portraits of ancestors and more. "Everybody who comes here thinks they are in Europe," she insists.

Olympios still has her grandparents' handwritten recipes, but she has adjusted some of the old dishes so she can cook them quickly rather than fuss for hours. For example, she simmers her beef stew in a slow-cooker and sometimes tosses in frozen chopped onion instead of fresh. "For somebody who works, it's a good recipe," she says.

She simplifies the flan by caramelizing the sugar in the baking pan and briefly microwaving the apple slices that line the top. This dessert goes together in 15 minutes, not counting the baking time. You can make it early in the day, then turn out caramelized perfection at dinner, seemingly with no effort.

Once a Sabena World Airlines stewardess, Olympios worked for Pan American until that airline went out of business. She's been around the world many times and has eaten the finest it has to offer. That adds cachet to her cooking, as if growing up in Belgium weren't enough.

"I guess because the weather is so bad (in Belgium), the people really emphasize good cuisine and lengthy meals. They're all bons vivants ," she says. The main meal is in the middle of the day, and it's common to see people go into a restaurant at noon and come out six hours later.

Belgian and French cooking are similar, but Belgian food tends to be less complicated. "I think it's a little healthier," Olympios says, "although by no means is it low in fat."

Olympios learned to cook as a youngster. Her mother would send the maid home on Sundays and teach her two daughters to prepare the elaborate, end-of-the-week meal. The girls also learned how to match wine with food, although they grumbled about washing the glassware afterward.

Olympios' mother tongue is French, and she recommends French wines with her dishes. However, there is one point she won't concede to the French: She wants everyone to know that pommes frites (French fries) actually originated in Belgium. In her country, she says, they are sold on every corner.

In Belgium, this dish would be served for supper, accompanied by mashed potatoes. As a variation, Olympios pours the same Gruyere sauce over steamed cauliflower and cut-up ham.

CHICOREES AU JAMBON GRATINEES (Endive and Ham in Cheese Sauce)

8 to 10 whole Belgian endives, about 2 pounds

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Salt

8 to 10 slices cooked ham

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup flour

2 cups milk

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Dash white pepper

2 eggs

1 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese, or more to taste

Place endives in saucepan. Add water to cover, lemon juice and dash salt. Cover, bring to boil and boil 15 minutes. Drain and cool endives slightly, then press out water. Roll each in slice of ham and place in single layer in baking dish. Set aside.

Melt butter in saucepan. Stir in flour. Add milk and cook and stir until thickened. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, nutmeg and pepper. Beat eggs in small bowl, gradually stir some of hot mixture into eggs, then return all to pan. Add 1 cup cheese and cook until melted.

Pour sauce evenly over endives, then sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese or more to taste. Bake at 350 degrees 10 minutes. Brown top under broiler. Allow 2 rolls per serving. Makes 4 to 5 servings.

Olympios advises using imported beer in this hearty beef stew. Keep it in mind for fall football parties.

CARBONNADE A LA FLAMANDE (Flemish Beer Beef Stew)

2 pounds lean chuck, cut into 2-inch pieces

Salt, pepper

2 tablespoons butter

1 large onion, chopped

2 (12-ounce) bottles Belgian or German beer

2 bay leaves

1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs

3 tablespoons whole-grain mustard

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