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Hot Mulled Apple Wine

19 Dec

Nothing says ‘Merry Christmas’ more than the aroma of hot, mulled wine simmering away. Wafting through the house, whilst the colorful lights of an ornately decorated tree dance across the ceiling and the ‘Yule Log’ DVD is playing in the background the fire in your hearth is crackling in perfect harmony. Mulled wine is a scent that permeates Belgium in the Winter too. From the many cozy Kristkindl markets near the German border to various booths (‘kraampjes’) across cobblestoned city squares, there is no escape from it.. and let’s face it, with single digit frost blowing in your face, hot spiced wine is just about the ticket to Winter heaven. Nothing warms your congealed fingers better during the midnight mass on Christmas eve, than wrapping them around a Styrofoam cup of hot liquid deliciousness, whilst listening to the choir belt out Handel’s Messiah on a make-shift stage outside the church.

I remember the first time I tried mulled wine as a child. The assault on my young taste buds was so violent, that I spat it out on the church floor, which yielded protest from my mom for desecration and for not having “swallowed out of respect & politeness”. Nowadays, I swallow. Get your mind out of the gutter, please. Don’t be alarmed by the notion that European children grow up with things like mulled wine. While most Americans will condemn European parents for feeding their children… shudder… ALCOHOL, it is actually a fairly normal thing in Belgium to expose your 12+ year old to things like beer & wine. Within limitation, of course. And with parental supervision at all times. Especially ‘mulled’ wine is fairly harmless, as some of the alcohol in the wine evaporates during the cooking process, and mostly the robust flavors of the spices and full-bodied wine remain. It’s definitely a grown-up taste though, if you ask me.

I confess that I hated mulled wine as child. So much so, that I didn’t touch wine ever again until I was well into my college years, even though the legal drinking age for beer & wine is 16 in Belgium (which is rarely enforced in the presence of adults). In attempt to be ‘cool’ and ‘holiday hip’, my first attempt at making mulled wine resulted in a traumatic childhood flashback. It went mostly down the drain, in a semi-violent fashion. Mind you, I didn’t have access to Pinterest and thus no recipe, as this occurred in the Jurassic before the Internet was invented. ** If your tween child is reading this with you, please pick him/her up from the floor and start CPR now.** At the time, I thought that mulled wine was just red wine that was simmered with spices. Whoops.

There’s plenty of recipes for red mulled wine available online, so I decided to post the white version of hot spiced wine… I based the recipe on a concoction I found at the ‘De Ketel & De Kurk’ tavern in Belgium. This white mulled wine has a gentle apple flavor, similar to apple cider, and gets its kick from the lemon peel and the warm spices from traditional red mulled wine. Enjoy!

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Hot Mulled Apple Wine
(Adapted from a recipe by ‘De Ketel & De Kurk’ tavern)
– 2 bottles of dry white wine, the cheapest one you like drinking is fine (makes approx. 8 large mugs)
– 4 cups of clear apple juice
– 1/2 cup of Grand Marnier
– Peel of 1 lemon + juice
– 5oz of brown sugar
– 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, roughly chopped or crushed
– 3 sticks of cinnamon + more for decorating the mugs
– 2 whole vanilla beans, sliced open (do not remove seeds)
– 2 whole cloves
– 2 star anise + more for decorating the mugs
– A small pinch of ground nutmeg

Rule #1: do not boil the wine! Try to keep the wine below boiling point, and let it gently heat through without ever cracking a boil. Bringing it to a rolling boil will make the wine very bitter.

Peel lemon so that only the oily zest comes off (not the white rind underneath), juice the peeled lemon.

In a large Dutch oven, combine everything except for the wine. Bring to a boil and allow to simmer for 20-30 minutes in a covered pot. Add wine and bring to nary a boil. When you notice the wine is about ready to boil, turn the heat to low and allow it to heat through and steep for 2-3 hours without ever boiling. Pour the whole pot through a sieve to sift the impurities and spices out of the wine.

Serve hot and decorate each much with a stick of cinnamon and a star anise.

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Nutty Blue Cheese Apple-Parsnip Soup

10 Sep

I can’t tell you how thankful I am for the drop in temperature of late. It seems Fall is finally creeping into the Southland, and my early mornings have been blanketed in damp coastal fog the past few days. Also, with school back in full swing, my commute to work is usually halted by the busy crisscrossing of school buses or kids shlepping themselves to school with backpacks that look like they could harbor a medium-sized farm animal.

This morning, it seemed the private Christian high school by our house was going on a field day already. I saw several coaches loading up giddy, uniformed kids with a few over-zealous moms stuffing the last few things in their brood’s backpack. You know who you are. It reminded me of my school field days, on which my mother made us pack our own lunch and told us in no uncertain terms to behave and to not spend all our money on ‘silly things’. Our field days were always an exciting combination of not having to be in class that day and having extra cash in your pocket to spend on silly things ‘spend wisely, when you need to!’. I have some really fun memories frolicking at ‘Walibi’ or ‘Meli Park’, but we also had scholastic outings to Brussels and places like ‘Bokrijk’. When I was about roughly 8 years old, one of our mandatory school outings in history class was to the former Nazi concentration camp of ‘Breendonk’, located in the Northeast part of Belgium. I haven’t been back there since, but I remember it to be lacking a candy vending machine a huge musty-smelling compound of old, somewhat dilapidated brick buildings, that were enforced by barbed wire and had rusty iron gates that creaked when you pushed them open. I also vividly remember a very tall, black-burnt smoke stack, which I don’t need to detail what that was for, but at the time I had no clue. I realize that this doesn’t exactly sound like an uplifting day filled with fun, but I actually don’t have any grim memories that tarnished my soul or scarred me in any which way. What I do recall, is that I came home, sans cash and with a bunch of silly things, and innocently blurted out to my mother that I was happy for the people who had to live there… UmCome again?!

I’m pretty sure my mother must have pondered where exactly in my upbringing she went wrong, but she stayed cool as a cucumber and asked me what exactly made me think this was a ‘happy place’ for people to live?! And here comes embarrassing childhood confession #43… during our 3-hour docent-led tour of this depressing work camp, me & my slightly muddy patent leather mary jane’s had spotted huge weathered message boards tacked on various walls all over the bleak compound. On those, a daily roster was pinned, announcing the tedious hourly routine in big black type-setting, on yellowish newspaper-like posters. Wake-up call was to take place at 04:00A, ‘Arbeit’ was to be done from 04:00A-06:00A and so forth… with each block of 2 hours seemingly broken by a brief pause, labeled as ‘APPEL’. Even at 8 years old, I grasped the horrible brutality of these days, with no time to shower or play, no lunch breaks or recess… but what my plaid-skirted & pig-tailed innocent self didn’t know, was that ‘Appel’ meant ‘roll-call’ in French… and not ‘apple’ in Dutch! Somehow, in this dark oppressing atmosphere of forced manual labor and dire living conditions, my wee sensitive heart had found a beacon of happiness knowing that these unfortunate people at least got an apple every 2 hours… And this, dear people, is why you should hug your child right now before this kind of heart-warming innocence flies out the window.

I’m afraid I am destined to have to live this one down, as the mere sight of a basket of apples at the farmers market, will prompt my mother to chuckle her way through the story in great animated detail. I’m glad I can be of service to her that way. I’ve never been a huge fan of apples, but I like them in this lovely apple parsnip soup that I adapted from a recipe I found for a simple root vegetable soup. It’s real Autumnal pleaser, and I hope you enjoy it too.

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NUTTY BLUE CHEESE APPLE-PARSNIP SOUP
– 2 apples, preferably Jona Gold or Golden Delicious, chopped into cubes
– 1 Tbsp of fresh thyme, chopped
– 4 sage leaves, finely chopped
– 1 large onion, chopped
– 3 large parsnips, peeled and chopped
– 4 oz of pecans, roasted and chopped
– 4 oz of hazelnuts or walnuts, skinned, roasted and chopped
– 1-2 Tbsp of butter
– 1/3 cup of heavy cream
– 3 oz of blue cheese, crumbled
– Salt & pepper, to taste
– 4 cups of vegetable or chicken broth
– sliced browned mushrooms, for garnish
– a drizzle of walnut oil, for garnish
(*) You can really use any combination of nuts you like, but I like pecans, hazelnuts or walnuts the best.

Preheat the oven to 400F and place nuts on a large baking sheet. When oven is hot, roast nuts for a few minutes until warm and toasty. Allow to cool slightly, rub off as many of the skins as you can with a clean damp cloth and give the nuts a rough chop.

Peel the parsnips, apples and onion, and chop into chunks. In a heavy pan, melt butter and add parsnips, apples and onions, together with the chopped sage. Sauté over medium-low heat until onions are translucent and vegetables have softened.

In the meanwhile, heat broth in a large pot, and add sautéed apples and vegetables. Add roughly about 3/4 of the toasted nuts, bring to a boil and simmer soup for another 15 min or so. With a handheld mixer, puree the soup until everything is smooth and blended well, then add cream & blue cheese. Season with salt & pepper, to taste.

Slice mushrooms and brown in a bit of butter. Don’t crowd the pan, or your mushrooms won’t brown!

Ladle soup in bowls, drizzle a bit of walnut oil over the top and garnish with the browned mushrooms, remaining nuts and thyme.

Go hug your child. Seriously.

Bacon Wrapped Trout

27 Aug

Like many Belgian families, we counted a pastor and nun amongst our immediate relatives. Having a clerical family member is practically a right of passage in Catholic Flanders, and we certainly nailed it. Not only did we have a ‘tante nonneke’ (auntie nun) and ‘nonkel pater’ (uncle pastor) in our bloodline, we also had my mom’s great-aunt Angèle, who had been a nun at some point in her life, but the details of that affair remain vague. Angèle lived somewhere around Ghent, which was considered far away with its 30-min drive, and she would make the rounds of the entire family whenever she happened to be in town. Angèle was a whiskered old hag staunch Catholic volunteer for an obscure African Mission, who’d shamelessly guilt me into giving up my doll’s play clothing for the children in Africa who did not have clothing (!) whenever she’d visit us. Neither of us really liked Angèle, but she was family. When elbowed and prodded by my mom to oblige Angèle in her blatant demands for my doll’s terry cloth onesies, her wrinkled old hands would curtly snatch whatever offering my 6-year old self reluctantly presented, as though to imply I would burn in hell for even having a doll with clothing to begin with. To add insult to injury, her prickly upper lip would be presented for a smooch, to seal the transaction.

My mom’s ‘uncle pastor’ was much nicer, albeit as obstinate as they made them in the early 1900’s. He was my grandpa’s older brother, and a terrible driver who’d have us white-knuckled in the passenger seat each time we’d go somewhere. Truth is, is that I don’t even remember his ‘real’ name, as we always referred to him as ‘Nonkel Pater’. Decades prior to my birth, the Roman-Catholic Arch Diocese had assigned him to the very rural town of Foy-Notre-Dame in the French-speaking Ardennes, about 1-hr drive South from Brussels.

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With only a few hundred inhabitants, the village center consisted out of a handful of houses & farms, a bistro restaurant and a small country church, its bells you could hear echoing over the fields twice daily. Reportedly, it is in this solemn country church that my 4-year old self made her mark on society. I won’t go into the horrid detail, but rumor has it, that I pushed open the heavy wooden church doors and cycled my creaky tripod through the center aisle in the buff… You should know that this happened during full Catholic Mass (!), and that I subsequently clambered onto the stage and proceeded with ‘picking’ the prettiest flowers out of the altar’s floral arrangements. Let’s collectively appreciate my resourcefulness in finding mom the finest daisies, and say a deep word of thanks that all of this took place prior to You Tube, smart phones and/or Facebook.

I spent many childhood Summer vacations in the Ardennes. The heavily forested region is a quick weekend getaway for many Flemish families foraging for walnuts & chestnuts in Fall, and it’s a popular outing on school field days. The area’s natural springs & cobbling creeks are renowned for trout fishing, and the wooded fields are home to wild boar, rabbit, pheasant & quail, as well as thorny bramble bushes and black berries. It’s this natural abundance that fuels the Ardennes gastronomic fame, which is complemented by old medieval castles that have been converted into stately boutique-style hotels or Michelin-prized restaurants.

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Combined with dozens of outdoor activities as well as picturesque cobblestone towns, the Ardennes culinary tour de force forms an unmatched trifecta in tourism revenue. You can find some of the finest dry-cured meats, game, pâtés and cheeses in the Ardennes, but for me it’s all about trout. The ponds & rivers in the Ardennes are this deliciously flakey fish’ natural habitat, and you can’t beat the flavor of a fresh wild caught grilled trout!

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BACON WRAPPED TROUT
(A classic out of Ardennes cuisine)
– 4 whole trout
– 1 bunch of thyme
– 1 lemon, halved and sliced very thin
– 2 cloves of garlic, minced
– 4 tsp of good quality butter
– a handful of sliced blanched almonds, toasted
– 1 package of bacon (*)
– salt & pepper to taste
(*) Traditionally, the trout are wrapped in authentic ‘Jambon d’Ardennes’, which is Belgium’s answer to prosciutto, but to keep things a bit more budget-friendly, I used bacon.

Preheat oven to 375F.

Scrub & wash trout under cold running water. Remove fins, then pat the inside and outside dry.

Stuff fish cavity with a few sprigs of thyme, lemon and a bit of the minced garlic. Season inside with salt & pepper, then wrap whole fish in bacon.

Roast trout in the oven (or grill on the BBQ) for approx. 20-25 min until crispy on the outside and done.

Serve fish with a sprinkling of toasted almonds and parsley, and a side of hearty potato.

Bon appétit!

Speculaas Cookies

20 Aug

Another blissful childhood memory of mine is ‘Sinterklaas’ day and the traditional ‘speculaas’ that comes with it. A typical Belgian holiday favorite, this spiced dark brown cookie is the star behind the ‘Biscoff’ speculoos cookie butter (or Trader Joe’s cookie butter) you see appearing on more & more American grocery shelves nowadays.

‘Speculaas’, or speculoos with double ‘o’, is readily available in Belgian grocery stores year-round, but its national primetime is definitely on ‘Sinterklaas’ day! Many bakeries press this deliciously spiced cookie dough in special wooden ‘speculaas’ molds, to create various imprints and shapes of the cookie, often with depictions of Sinterklaas.

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Top of the line pastry boutiques and fine bakeries even create toddler life-size Sinterklaas statuettes, that adorn their elaborately decorated & animated store windows and are admired by passers-by for their artistry with a sense of wonder.

‘Sinterklaas’ day, celebrated on 06th December, is deeply rooted in Catholicism since the Middle Ages. It is traditionally a celebration of Saint Nikolaus, patron saint of sailors, among others. Legend has it that Saint Nikolaus, a Greek bishop from the city of Myrna in present day Turkey, would roam the lands alongside the Mediterranean Sea, to remind folks of their religious duties. It is said he would preach about good moral values and spread cheer among the sailors’ families & children.

Sinterklaas festivities may seem insensitive to many Americans, but these traditional celebrations came long before they acquired any racial connotations later on in history. With the legend of Saint Nikolaus so deeply rooted in Catholicism and the religion’s pre-occupation with ‘good vs. evil’, the depiction of a ‘white’ holy man and his ‘black’ assistants has nothing to do with racial equality or differences… and everything to do with pitting good vs. evil. As such, Sinterklaas is depicted as a ‘good’ holy man, and his black assistants – Black Pete’s or ‘Zwarte Pieten’ – are meant to represent the ‘bad’ immoral influences we are tempted by. In that role, the ‘Zwarte Pieten’ are not meant to be depictions of actual humans, but rather portraited caricatures of frolicking, mischievous black devils that accompany the holy man to represent the evil influences that seemingly taunt us in our quest to be ‘good’. After all, if you were even remotely raised with deeply rooted religious beliefs, you have been warned a handful of times that the devil can take on any form to try and sway you from the ‘right’ path… Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet truly are considered equals in the story, with each their own role to shine in, and the Black Pete’s form of dress is merely an accurate depiction of what men would wear during the medieval times in Moorish Spain, and not intended as mockery.

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In present day Belgium, Sinterklaas still arrives by boat and many port cities will stage and broadcast his arrival over national & local media. In smaller towns, Sinterklaas rides the streets on a white horse and visits local schools, grocery stores and other public buildings. Just like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas makes house calls the night before, and parents urge their children to place a shoe by the hearth or the front door, so Sinterklaas can leave candy & goodies overnight. The importance of leaving a carrot or two for his beloved equine companion, is equally stressed! Throughout the year, parents cleverly use the whole Sinterklaas story to urge their children to be ‘good’, because being ‘naughty’ results in being whisked away to hell in Black Pete’s burlap sack. As a child, this was a credible threat that one could not take lightly!

‘Sinterklaas’ day was always fun. It broke the academic tediousness of school. You knew that anything could happen on this day, and you’d keep your eye out in giddy excitement for a glimpse of any of the Black Petes or a sign they were present. Many times, we’d hear the ruckus & screeching from a few classrooms down, and your heart would start racing with whirly anticipation of Sinterklaas’ arrival into your classroom. The first ones to arrive, were always the ‘Zwarte Pieten’. One would come barging through the door, throwing candy around and sending kids clambering all over their desks to get some, while another would mischievously start writing on the blackboard with blatant spelling errors and disregard for the scholarly establishment… Yet another would start emptying or rearranging book shelves or cabinets, or sit down next to you whilst mimicking your every move, much to the excitement of your peers. With Sinterklaas striding into class elegantly, almost royally, he’d immediately reprimand the shenanigans of his assistants, and inquire in class to spill the beans on what his assistants had been up to so far. Many children will eagerly blurt out everything from A-Z in hopes of pleasing Sinterklaas, much to the staged chagrin of the Pete in question, while others – like Teutonic little me – would feel there was no place for all of this frivolity until such time it was revealed who was on the ‘good’ list and who on the ‘naughty’ list. This was serious business, folks!

Other than ‘speculaas’ and chocolate, Sinterklaas – said to be hailing from Spain – also brings mandarins, marzipan and ‘lieve vrouwtjes’ as well.
(*) a marshmallow type candy in the shape of the Holy Mary

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SPECULAAS SPICES
(Adapted from Flemish celebrity chef Piet Huysentruyt)
– 4 Tbsp ground cinnamon
– 1 Tbsp ground cloves
– 1 Tbsp ground mace
– 1/3 Tbsp ground ginger
– 1/4 Tbsp ground cardamom seed
– 1/4 Tbsp ground white pepper
– 1/4 Tbsp ground coriander seed
– 1/4 Tbsp ground anis seed
– 1/4 Tbsp ground nutmeg

Put everything in a ziplock baggy and shake well! Store in a small glass jar, in a cool dark place.

SPECULAAS COOKIES
(Adapted from a recipe by Flemish celebrity chef Jeroen Meus)
– 1 lbs light brown/golden sugar
– 1 lbs of pastry flour, self-rising flower or all purpose flour, sifted
– 8 oz of good quality butter, room temperature
– 1 egg, yolk & white separated
– 1-2 Tbsp of speculoos spices (see above. Use 2 for a spicy flavor)
– 1 tsp of baking soda
– 1 tsp pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients into a large mixing bowl, and mix with a mixer or your hands until you get a smooth dough that doesn’t stick to your hands. Wrap dough ball in plastic foil, and rest dough in the fridge overnight to allow spices to develop flavor and permeate the dough.

Preheat oven to 400F. Roll dough into a sausage, and slice into cookie slices. Alternatively, roll dough out on a floured surface, and use your cookie molds to cut out shapes.

Place cookie dough on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, and bake for approx. 25-30 min. Allow cookies to cool and crisp.

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Butter-braised Savoy Cabbage with Speck

16 Aug

Yesterday, my new Facebook friend Linda V. K. asked me if I knew what ‘wirsing’ means in English? While the word ‘wirsing’ is actually German for a lovely dish of butter-braised Savoy cabbage, the dish is decidedly Belgian in nature. Belgium is a land of country cooking & hearty food, and what could possibly be more country than cabbage?!

Whenever I see cabbage, I am instantly reminded of the frosted-over cabbage fields sprawled out over the western Flemish farm belt. The fields stretch for miles on end and are planted in perfectly straight rows, with dirt pathways cutting through the geometrical pattern like goat trails. Lone farmers tend to their crops with their weathered hands clad in woolen fingerless gloves, their rosy cheeks glowing like red beacons of life on the otherwise desolate, bleak fields. I used to cycle alongside these fields on my way to or from school, often pulling my sweater’s sleeves over my hands to give my fingers some relief from the icy morning fog that blankets these lands in Fall & Winter. I’m sure my mother’s ‘Don’t forget your gloves!!’ must have echoed a million times through our hallway.

When kicking off our snow-covered boots and darting over the frigid garage floor in our socks, the warmth of the kitchen and the aroma of butter-braised cabbage and browned sausage felt like the culinary equivalent of sitting by a warm hearth. In my post about braised red cabbage, I already proclaimed my love for the deep purple vegetable, but dark green Savoy cabbage was never all that popular. It’s a universal phenomenon for kids to dislike leafy green vegetables, and Belgian youth is no exception to this. I remember Bert & I used to heap butter and some of the sausage’s pan drippings over the green cabbage, to make it more palatable.

The recipe below is for Linda. As promised, it’s imported directly from a trusted source in small rural Flemish village. Photo courtesy goes entirely to Belgian celebrity chef Jeroen Meus.

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BUTTER BRAISED SAVOY CABBAGE WITH SPECK
(Adapted from a recipe by Jeroen Meus)
– 1/2 head of Savoy cabbage (or green cabbage)
– a small pinch of sodium bicarbonate, to retain the cabbage’s bright green color during cooking (*)
– 8 slices of thick cut bacon, chopped into small pieces
– ground nutmeg, to taste
– salt & pepper, to taste
– 3 Tbsp of good quality butter
– ¼ cup of heavy cream
(*) This is completely optional but safe and flavorless! Sodium Bicarbonate is similar to Alka-Seltzer, for instance, or other stomach acid drugs. You only need a little bit for a whole pot of water, and it will not affect the flavor of the dish, nor is it unsafe to use. Sodium Bicarbonate ensures that the bright green color of cabbage is preserved in the cooking process, as otherwise the cabbage turns into somewhat of a drab brownish green. Many restaurants use this trick to preserve the bright green color of many green vegetables.

For an authentic flavor, you will need a head of Savoy cabbage (see picture below), and you will also need 2 large pots or Dutch ovens.

Start with filling one of your pots with water and bring to a rolling boil. While the water is heating, clear tough ‘older’ leaves from the outside cabbage and discard (or compost!). Cut cabbage in half, reserving one half for later. For the other half, cut the hard core out of the middle and cut that half in half again, so you end up with 2 quarter cabbage parts. Slice each cabbage quarter in very thin strips.

When the water is boiling, add a pinch of sodium bicarbonate to ensure the cabbage retains its bright green color. Add chopped cabbage, and simmer (blanch) for approx. 3-4 min until cabbage is crisp tender. Pour cabbage into a colander, and drain very well.

In the second pan, add 1 Tbsp of butter and brown bacon pieces until crisp, approx. 10 minutes. Reserve a few bacon bits for garnish. Add well-drained cabbage and sauté for 2-3 minutes more until cabbage is soft and well combined. Fold 2 Tbsp of butter and cream into the braised cabbage, and season with salt, pepper & ground nutmeg to taste. Sprinkle reserved bacon bits over the top and serve with browned sausage or you favorite protein.

Another Belgian classic! Enjoy!

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Wine Braised Cabbage with Plums & Bacon

14 Aug

The other day, I discovered a smoked turkey sausage in the back of my fridge. With ‘it’ being far removed from my much more popular non-processed food corner, I didn’t even catch its presence until famine set in and I nosied around in the fridge for a quick dinner idea, or shall we say, in a desperate attempt to save myself a trip to the grocery store. And there it was. Sitting proudly in the ‘man corner’ of the fridge, right next to the hot dogs and beer. I’m usually pretty good with keeping a detailed inventory of our fridge’s contents in the back of my mind, you know, in that special lobe that keeps track of all practical things, but that darn sausage snuck up on me. I’m not ‘big’ on things that have an unnatural and/or freakishly long shelf life, but with our finances seriously strapped these days, a sale on $5.00 smoked sausage goes a long way…

Just like Velveeta, I believe there’s a place for kielbasa in this world as well. However, when I bought that sausage, I must have not been entirely sure where exactly that place was. Come to think of if, this is probably why it ended up on the ‘man shelf’ in our fridge in the first place. Then, as per divine intervention, I remembered: ‘Rookworst met rode kool’! Braised red cabbage and sausage is not only popular in Belgium, but in Holland as well. Although our northern neighbor traditionally opts for braised kale or ‘boerekool’, rather than red cabbage. Either way, braised cabbage is everywhere in the lower lands and many a Flemish child grows up on that stuff.

With my flavor palette a bit more refined these days, I fancified my vocabulary this cabbage a little bit. Rather than braising it traditionally with just bits of apple and vinegar, I opted for a more flavorful combination of red wine, dried plums and bacon.

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WINE BRAISED CABBAGE WITH PLUMS & BACON
(A “Hungry Belgian” original…)
– 1 small head of red cabbage, shredded thinly or chopped finely (+/- 1.5 lbs shredded)
– 2/3 cup of good quality red wine + more for soaking (*)
– 2-3 shallots, chopped into small dice (or 1 medium size red onion)
– 10-12 dried plums, slivered
– 2 small pears, peeled, cored & diced
– 2 sticks of cinnamon
– 2 cloves
– 1 laurel leaf
– 4-5 slices of thick cut bacon, sliced into small slivers
– salt & pepper, to taste
(*) The age-old adage is: if you don’t like the wine for drinking, don’t cook with it either!

Soak plums in a bit of red wine to soften them. Place a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over high heat and brown the bacon until crisp. Remove from pot and set aside.

In the bacon fat, brown shallots until translucent. Then add shredded cabbage with wine, pears, spices and salt & pepper to taste, and fold so everything is well combined. Cover the pot and braise over medium-low heat for approx. 45 min until cabbage is soft. Add plums, and simmer 10-15 min more to allow most of the liquid to evaporate. Remove cinnamon, laurel leaf and cloves, and add bacon bits back in.

Serve braised cabbage alongside your preferred choice of crisp browned sausage links.

Belgian Endive Salad with Blue Cheese & Walnuts

12 Aug

A few weeks ago, I wrote a tidbit about crunchy & faintly bitter ‘witlof’ in a post featuring a delicious Summer red beet, apple & fennel slaw. Authentic ivory-colored Belgian endive tends to be expensive over here, but you can find the red variety in California fairly easily and at a much lower cost. In order for the leaves of ‘witlof’ to stay a pearly white, it needs to be grown and tended to in a dark, cool & temperature-controlled environment. With this wisdom uncovered, I’ve always been baffled as to why the USA seemingly can’t reproduce this elegant chicory variant, so a few years ago, I set out on a ‘witlof’ mission… Inspired by this beauty, which makes my Belgian heart pine for witlof each and every time:

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(Photo courtesy ‘Roquefort Cheese Co’)

Back then, my local ‘Henry’s produce & farmers market’ was kind enough to aide me in my quest to understand witlof pricing in the US, and summoned their Regional Purchasing Manager to explain a few chicory facts to me. As luck may have it, Mr. Roden happened to in town that morning, and showed up clasping a leather-bound file folder tightly in his arm pit, whilst gently cradling a white and a red chicory root in the palm of his aging hands. “The ‘real’ Belgian endive”, he says in a serious teacher tone of voice whilst holding up the all-ivory root, “has to be imported from Belgium”. He continues stating that it is usually packaged and shipped to the USA in 10 lbs boxes. Because the vegetables are exposed to sunlight during transport, it causes these tender delicate roots to develop their natural, greenish color. As a result, each box has to be unpacked upon arrival at the East Coast, with each individual root of ‘witlof’ needing to be stripped of its outer leaves by hand and subsequently repackaged to be distributed to the rest of the country. “All of this is very labor-intensive and thus costly”. I nod my head in agreement.

Another cost-factor”, he continues, “is that much of the endive grown in Belgium is grown artisanally by a method called ‘forcing’”. In Belgium, many farms that grow endive use this labor-intensive agriculture which involves replanting the chicory root by hand. That replanting process, called ‘forcing’, must take place in a darkened, temperature-controlled room. Twenty-one days after the roots are planted, employees then crouch down on hands & knees, scrape the dirt off the endive and harvest it. I look bewildered. He continues that after decades of seed trials and piddling around, the USA managed to grow a red variety hydroponically (i.e. in water), eliminating the need for workers to hand-wash the dirt off of the roots and eliminating much of the shipping- & import costs. Unfortunately, growing endive still involves a costly production process that is labor intensive.

I thank Mr. Roden for his time in sharing his knowledge with me, and sheepishly add that I’m from Belgium and miss being able to afford Belgian endive now that I live on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. He shakes my hand firmly and promises that the red variety virtually has no difference in taste, which prompts my confession that the pearly white roots simply hold nostalgic value to me. I think I inadvertently struck a chord in the somewhat stern older man, because on my way out of the store, the clerk I spoke with earlier, stopped me in my tracks and handed me a bag of ‘real’ Belgian endive, “courtesy of Mr. Roden”, she winks with a smile.

With its faint bitterness, witlof is a bit of an acquired taste. However, paired with the sweetness of a ripe apple and the creamy sharpness of a marbled blue cheese, this bitterness dissipates and melds beautifully with the other flavors introduced in the salad.

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BELGIAN ENDIVE SALAD WITH BLUE CHEESE AND WALNUTS
For the salad:
– 3 Belgian endives, washed and torn into individual leaves
– 1 sweet apple, peeled and sliced into thin wedges
– 4 oz of blue cheese, crumbled into chunks
– 1/3 cup of walnuts, roughly chopped

Peel & discard outer leaves of the endives. Remove inner leaves individually and arrange on a serving platter. Toss thinly sliced apple wedges over the endives and sprinkle crumbled blue cheese & chopped walnuts over the top. Drizzle dressing over the top.

For the dressing:
– ¼ cup of champagne vinegar
– ¾ cup of olive oil
– 2 tsp of Dijon mustard
– ½ tsp of fresh grated garlic
– 1 egg yolk, room temperature
– salt & pepper, to taste

In a non-reactive bowl, add vinegar, mustard, egg yolk & garlic and whisk until well-combined. Continue whisking and slowly pour in olive oil until the vinaigrette is emulsified. Season with salt & pepper to taste.

Flemish Beignets

7 Aug

‘Oliebollen’ or ‘smoutebollen’, Belgium’s answer to American donuts, are firmly planted in youth sentiment for me. They bring back lots of teenage memories, of spending hour upon hour parading up & down the snowy fairgrounds with my friends, often in sub-zero temperatures, in hopes the cute fair hands would notice us and score us a free paper cone of hot beignets or a free ride.

When the weather gets dreary or downright mean, there’s nothing more comforting than to bite into a crispy hot ball of freshly fried dough, dusted with powdered sugar. The sugar instantly melts on the hot surface and forms a crackling coating on the outside of this deep fried dream. I’m telling you now, oliebollen are a ‘must have’ when the temps drop and your nose hairs are starting to congeal.

You can buy yourself some sugary warmth at the many quaint stalls that line the town squares in Holland & Belgium, and waft invitingly through the cold Fall & Winter air. Especially during the times the ‘kermis’ or fair is in town, or the annual Christmas Markets that start showing up in late November, both of which add much needed light & coziness to the short, dark evenings. I mean, just look at it:

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Doesn’t it look all warm and beckoning?

I figured that if I wanted ‘oliebollen’, I would have to learn to make them at home since Los Angeles is short on this kind of campy quaintness… and who can wait for the county fair to arrive… in July! No. I needed to have access to this greasy happiness in Fall & Winter, when evening temperatures drop well below 65F. Don’t judge.

I’ve probably spent too much time browsing the Internet for the perfect recipe, but the winning recipe came from a former colleague of mine, who was tasked by yours truly with the impossible mission of seducing prying the recipe out of our favorite ‘oliebollen‘ baker from the city fair in Ghent. I completely forgot about these, until I recently found her grease-stained email folded neatly in a cookbook of mine… Enjoy!

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OLIEBOLLEN
(aka Flemish beignets… per Marktkramer De Kuijper‘s recipe)
– 1.5 oz of good quality unsalted butter
– 10.5 oz of self-rising flour (or pastry flour or all purpose flour, if you can’t find self-rising flour)
– 1 oz of fresh yeast (or 0.5 oz of dry active yeast)
– 8 oz of whole milk
– 1 tsp of natural vanilla extract
– a pinch of salt
– 1.5 eggs (2 whites + 1 yolk)

Make sure to use room-temperature ingredients, and measure everything precisely!

In a large bowl, sift flour. In a small bowl, crumble fresh yeast into milk, and stir until dissolved. Add yeasted milk & vanilla extract to flour, and stir to create a batter.

Melt butter in the microwave on medium power, and add egg yolk and butter to batter. Stir until well combined.

Beat egg whites in a grease-free bowl until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into the batter, and also add a pinch of salt.
The batter should be fairly loose, so if it feels a bit too stiff, add a splash more milk.

Let the batter rest for 20-25 minutes while you fill a large Dutch oven with peanut oil and heat it to 375F. Use a candy thermometer to make sure the oil doesn’t overheat, which causes uneven cooking.

Use an ice cream scoop to drop 2-3 scoops of batter into the hot oil at a time. Cook each side until golden brown. Doughnuts will cook very quickly in the right temperature oil, so check them quickly after you place them in the oil. Flip and cook the other side. Don’t crowd your pot, as this will cause the temperature to drop too rapidly, causing uneven cooking and can potentially cause your pot to overflow, which is dangerous!

Use a spatula to take the beignets out of the oil and let them sit on a paper towel lined plate for a minute or so, to absorb the excess oil. Transfer to a plate in a warm oven while you cook the rest of them.

When done, dust with powdered sugar and prepare to eat more than one!

Sinful Chocolate Truffles

7 Aug

What could possibly be wrong with a sumptuous mouthful of cream, chocolate and butter? If your genetic profile is anything like mine, there’s a lot wrong with these delicious truffles. As a matter of fact, I might as well bypass my digestive system completely and stick these directly onto my hips and thighs, since I’m incapable of eating just one. Who can, really?

Belgium’s love affair with chocolate ‘pralines’ & truffles traditionally unfolds at various quaint country tables, adorned with one’s best china and grandma’s hand-embroidered floral table cloth. Neighbors and friends eagerly gather around to catch up on the latest small town gossip, and to reconcile important town data such as who is getting married to whom and what was it that Marie overheard whilst standing in line at the butcher’s? To facilitate these impromptu social gatherings, a pot of freshly brewed coffee is there to loosen the tongues and the sugary sweetness of truffles is presented to melt away the bitter shock of hearing that the elderly pastor now has a pretty new housekeeper… and why is she so young? Not proper, I say.

Coffee is consumed by the liter in rural Flanders & beyond. You can’t ring someone’s doorbell without being beckoned to sit down at the kitchen table and have an unsolicited cup of joe appear under your nose within the first 5 minutes of entering, usually followed by an invitation to grab something from a box of sweets that permanently lives in the middle of the table. To my mom’s generation, a knock on the door holds the promise of an exciting bit of town gossip and one must be prepared for this kind of opportunity 24/7. No Belgian household is without coffee or chocolate. It’s just not proper.

When I first moved to the USA, glitzy Los Angeles of all, I remember that random people I had never seen before would wave at me enthusiastically on the street or greet me with a smile during my visits back to small town Belgium. It later dawned on me that my move to ‘Aahhhh-merica’ must have been the topic of conversation during many such coffee-orgies, undoubtedly piquing the interest of people who did not know Cecilia’s brave and/or adventurous daughter yet. I’m sure the news of ‘Helga-sightings’ spread fast within the community, like I was some sort of rare caribou one had to look out for. My mother’s main agenda for my visit back home was to cram in as many coffee gatherings as a week would allow. The upside of this was homemade cookies & Leonidas truffles at each one…

The truffle recipe below is an old-fashioned, artisan recipe I found online years ago. I tweaked it for flavor & richness of texture, but it’s fairly authentic and you can proudly serve these in a bowl… on your granny’s hand-crocheted doily. For good measure.

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BASIC TRUFFLES
For the ganache:
– 8 oz of dark chocolate
– 4 oz of heavy whipping cream
– 2 oz of good quality unsalted butter

For the coating:
– 4 oz of dark chocolate, melted
– ½ cup of semi-sweet cocoa powder

In a bowl, break chocolate into bite-size pieces and set aside. In a small sauce pan, heat heavy whipping cream over a medium heat until very hot. Add butter and stir until butter is melted. Then pour hot cream mixture over chocolate pieces and stir until all chocolate is melted and you achieve a smooth mass. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the chocolate mass, and refrigerate for a few hours until ganache is set.

When cold and stiff, take ganache out of the refrigerator. Using a double-boiler method, melt remaining chocolate for coating in a small saucepan. When melted and cool enough to handle, scoop small balls out of the ganache and gently coat them with the melted chocolate. Needless to say, coating the truffles is by far the messiest part of this recipe, but there’s no avoiding it so you might as well enjoy the mess. The best way to coat the truffles, is by gently rolling them around in the melted chocolate, using a chopstick or toothpick.

When coated, immediately take them out of the melted chocolate with a toothpick and roll them in a coating of your choice. Traditionally, semi-sweet cocoa powder is used, but you can also use chopped nuts, chocolate sprinkles, chocolate shavings, coconut flakes.. whatever you fancy, really.

Place the coated truffles on a parchment lined plate, and let harden in the fridge a little before serving.

ORANGE GRAND MARNIER TRUFFLES
Use basic truffle recipe above, and add the following in the ganache:
– 1-2 Tbsp of Grand Marnier or Cointreau liquor
– 2 Tbsp of freshly grated orange zest

Coat truffles with semi-sweet cocoa powder.

IRISH TRUFFLES
Use basic truffle recipe above, and add the following to the ganache
– 1-2 Tbsp of good quality Whiskey
– 2 Tbsp of very strong coffee

Roll truffles in white chocolate shavings.

WHITE CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES WITH HONEY & SAFFRON
Use basic truffle recipe above, but replace dark chocolate with white chocolate. Add the following to the ganache:
– a pinch of saffron
– 1 Tbsp of honey
– a splash of white rum

For the coating, use melted white chocolate and roll truffles in powdered sugar, unsweetened coconut flakes or very finely chopped almonds

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Belgian Rice Pudding with Saffron

5 Aug

‘Rijstpap’ or rice pudding is a much celebrated treat in Belgium, and it’s no coincidence why this rice dessert became a traditional regional dish in the Province of Brabant, encompassing the central heart of Belgium.

Every year in Flanders, from small rural towns to larger cities, this creamy dessert makes a star appearance during the annual ‘Brueghel Feesten’. These medieval-type festivities compare to the American renaissance fairs, but traditionally focus around food & drink whilst celebrating Flemish cultural heritage and the world-renowned artwork by ‘Master Painter’ Pieter Brueghel. During the 16th Century, Breughel’s work was highly sought after by the wealthy elite of the richer cities, and the humble ‘peasant’ painter was warmly embraced & respected in the high society circles of thriving medieval Brussels. His works mostly featured magnificent landscapes and bustling farm village life, often painted with a comical yet honest approach and illustrating the abundant food & drink at the festive farmers’ table in great detail. Since then, the often 2-day long ‘Breughel Feesten’, for which people dress up in traditional 16th Century peasant grab, are synonymous to copious amounts of free-flowing ‘tap’ beer, fantastic food and… plate after plate of creamy golden ‘rijstpap’.

Rijstpap made an appearance early on in Flemish history, and quickly became associated with rural life and heavenly simplicity. After all, as per an old Flemish folkloric saying, heaven welcomes you with bottomless bowls of rijstpap and golden spoons. I can’t testify to the veracity of this tale, but I’m on board!

This sweet, milk-based porridge bears somewhat of a resemblance to American rice pudding, but not entirely. For starters, a traditional Belgian rice pudding is spiced with saffron & cinnamon, and not just vanilla. Secondly, the texture is more porridge-like (‘rijst’ meaning rice, and ‘pap’ meaning porridge) and not quite as sweet or sugary as a pudding. And lastly, the dessert is classically eaten with a hefty dusting of dark brown sugar, that slowly melts into a molasses-type syrup when it blends with the milky rice. It’s ridiculously good and it brings back many happy childhood memories of the ‘Brueghel Feesten’ for me…

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Belgian Rice Pudding
(As per a childhood recipe)
– 1 liter of whole milk (or approx. 32 fl oz)
– 4 oz of long grain, white rice (dry)
– 1 vanilla bean
– 1 stick of cinnamon
– 1-2 hefty pinch(es) of saffron (if you like the flavor & color of saffron, use 2. If not, use 1)
– 5 Tbsp of sugar

Add the milk, rice, and sugar in a heavy pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to separate the grains. Add the cinnamon stick, vanilla bean and saffron threads, cover and simmer over very low heat for 30 minutes or more, until the rice is tender and has absorbed the milk. Do not stir the rice during this part of cooking.

Stir with a wooden spoon when rice is tender, to spread the saffron color evenly.

Discard the cinnamon and vanilla, scoop the rice pudding into small bowls and allow to cool completely. Sprinkle with dark brown sugar before serving.

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