Belgium is in an interesting confluence of distinct culinary influences. It neighbours France, Germany and the Netherlands, and its cuisine borrows from each to a degree that I think they would not be game to borrow from each other. I’ve mentioned before that I think countries with long histories of an openness to inter-regional culinary fusion end up with the best cuisines, so I was excited to try this area of Europe. I wasn’t disappointed; Belgian food has elements of the unabashed ode to fat, potatoes and beer from Germany, as well as an appreciation for subtle complex flavours, fresh produce and wine from France.
If you tell me that I can have potato and bacon in a meal under the guise of salad, I’ll probably agree with you without argument. Salad liegoise comes from the region of Liege, and the crucial ingredients include bacon, potato and green beans. I also included apple, onion and lettuce in mine (which are apparently acceptable additional ingredients) in order to at least maintain the illusion of health. The dressing I made was a red wine vinaigrette, which was very nice with the fat of the bacon and starchiness of the potatoes. This is definitely a good meal to make if you want comfort food, but you also want to tell yourself you’re just having a “salad” for dinner.
Chicken waterzooi, bread and salad
Waterzooi can be made with fish or chicken, and essentially describes a vegetable-based stew thickened with cream and egg yolks. I used chicken for mine, and started it off with carrots, onions, celery, leeks and potatoes, and spiced it with bay leaves, parsley, time, sage and plenty of black pepper. I served it with a fresh baguette and salad, and it was a seriously delicious combination. I can’t wait to try it again with fish instead – I think that might be even better. On second thoughts, perhaps I’ll just have to visit Belgium personally?
Carbonnade flamande, stoemp, brussel sprouts and greens
Carbonnade flamande is a traditional beef stew made with beer. It’s often compared to the French dish made famous by Julia Child: “Boeuf Bourguignon”, with the hurried addendum “but with beer instead of red wine”. Sourcing the beer for this recipe was perhaps the hardest task of my cooking challenge thus far. You see, I don’t know much about beer, and I had read a harrowing statement on Wikipedia about this dish that chilled me to my bones: “The type of beer used is important”. Oh dear, so I can’t just use whatever my boyfriend has forgotten about in the fridge? Alright then, so be it. I made my way to the largest liquor store I knew about, my eyes steely with resigned courage. After a half an hour I found the mis-signed “international” section, and quickly realised that there were many beverages that were labelled in non-English languages. I hastily scanned my brain for any information about Belgian languages. I was pretty sure they predominantly spoke Dutch. Or was it French? It didn’t even really matter, as I don’t know the word for beer (or much else) in either language… Eventually a valiant gentleman came to my rescue and selected an ale for me that matched the description on the Wikipedia page that I wildly gesticulated at on my iphone. Triumphant, I returned home to cook the stew, first frying vegetables like carrot, onions, leeks and tomatoes, then adding spices like garlic, bay leaves, pepper and bouquet garni. Beef cubes and flour are then browned, followed by beef stock and the prized dark ale, which is then allowed to reduce until a thick rich stew is formed. Stoemp is mashed potatoes, carrots and leeks, and Brussel sprouts were obviously a must-cook from Brussels. I happen to think Brussel sprouts are super delicious, and you guys all need to just give them a break, OK? Try roasting them in oil and salt until the outside is a little bit crispy, I swear they’re amazing, and don’t taste like the ghosts of farts much at all!
Moules frites is perhaps the most famous of Belgian foods – consisting of mussels and French fries. I cooked the mussels in garlic, onion, thyme, parsley, white wine and Pernod. I’ve mentioned Pernod before during Southern France week – it’s a liquor that tastes strongly of aniseed and goes great with seafood. It was quite subtle in the mussels, with the herbs and white wine being much stronger flavours. I happen to think that white wine with seafood is the epitome of deliciousness, so I always knew I would love this dish, but the reality was even better than expected. I made oven-baked fries (because I hate to deep-fry), and they were amazing to soak up the mussel/wine-juices with. The salad was a good way to convince myself I was full, because otherwise I would have just eaten mussels and fries until my stomach exploded. OK, I’m convinced now, let’s go to Belgium!