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Cottage Pie with Root Vegetables

28 Aug

In exactly 44 days, my mom will land at Los Angeles Int’l airport. It’s an event the Farklepants’ household is already mentally preparing for, if nothing else, than to cross off the days on our kitchen calendar to see precisely how much more time we have left to bring the cleanliness & organization of our apartment up to military Cecilia’s standards.

It’s no easy feat. My mother, bless her heart, is a densely woven tapestry of arduous self-imposed rules & regulations, enforced daily by a deep, unrelenting desire for order & control. Flying by the seat of your pants, which is pretty much the mantra in our house, is something my elderly mom has a hard time coping with. She unwittingly, and with the best of intentions, attempts to smash & stuff our souls into her daily mold of how things ought to be, and at times this collides with the chaotic habits of my free-thinking creative family. She also takes planning and organization to uncharted heights. You know, the kind of heights Martha Stewart can only dream of reaching with her hand-carved & antiquated Scandinavian pinewood ladder.
On the other hand, underneath that regimented ice cap of self-imposed order and control, hides the woman that walks into a grocery store in Spain and buys a box of cat food by pointing her index finger into her wide-open gaping mouth and speaking the words ‘meow meow’. The same woman who has mastered the art of overly dramatic Japanese Kabuki-style facial expressions to anything that she finds a) odd, b) inappropriate, c) silly or d) all of the above (*)… It sometimes brings me to the brink of embarrassment, evoking a sheepish smile and a spontaneous “I’m sorry, she’s not from around here” response.
(*) Per example, she once addressed an unassuming diner waitress with a Maori battle cry when the poor woman came around to kindly refill her beverage and caught my mother off-guard. You see, Cecilia doesn’t believe in wasting any food or drink (and isn’t that a good Christian virtue?!), so even though she is full, her own set of imaginary rules mandates that she MUST finish whatever is presented to her. Also… she did NOT want any ice in her drink!!!!

This year, since our apartment is at full capacity and my mom fully expects me to lodge her in my house regardless of that fact, I tapped into my professional travel network & award points and was able to conjure free lodging for an epic 7-day road trip through the Southwest USA. It’s an adventure we’re both excited for, if it weren’t for my car having trouble with its right front wheel all of a sudden. We don’t even have enough money to make it through the month at times, let alone that I’m now having to face a dreaded trip to the mechanic, so he can take a look at it and tell me it’ll be $637.41 or so to fix it… Hurray! Let me write you a check. Right. This. Minute. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I guess God will take care of that predicament in due time. Note to self: have faith.

If our financial situation was a person, it would probably be a circus freak. Maybe even the Elephant Man. Or Quasimodo. I picture this is what mom went through as well as a single parent with a delinquent ex-husband. I pretty much spend my entire days worrying in anxiety biting every penny in half, whilst scouring Pinterest in search of hearty rib-sticking meals that cost mere pennies. Our protein-plan exists out of chicken & kielbasa, and the occasional ground beef. We haven’t had ribs or a juicy roast in a good long while, and steak & fish have vanished off of our menu entirely due to their price tag. The thought of Thanksgiving & Christmas dinner currently gives me the willies. Pray that by then, we’ll be blessed by the hand of the forces that may.

Mom cooked a lot of ground beef recipes, and I do too. One of my beloved cheap(er) dinners is ‘Cottage Pie’. It’s flavorful, hearty and it feeds my family of 3 hungry men + yours truly for pennies on the dollar. To add bulk, I use a gaggle of root vegetables that caramelize slowly, which gives the whole dish another depth of flavor that I find very tasty. The recipe below fills my large 15’ Lodge cast iron pan + a smaller oven dish, and it typically feeds us twice.

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COTTAGE PIE WITH ROOT VEGETABLES
(a la Hungry Belgian)
For the beef mixture:
3 lbs of ground beef, at least 15% fat
1 onion, diced
2 rutabagas (or 2 small), diced
3 carrots, diced
2 parsnips, diced
1 celery root, diced
3-4 ribs of celery, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 6oz can of tomato paste
A handful of thyme & rosemary tied together in a bundle
A few dashes of ‘kitchen bouquet’ browning liquid or Worcestershire sauce
3 Tbsp of flour
1 16oz bottle of Stout beer or a dark beer of your liking
Salt & pepper to taste

I use a Dutch oven to cook the filling, but you can use any heavy large pan. Start by dicing the vegetables into even dice so they all cook at the more or less the same speed. Mince the garlic and have everything ready to go.

Start by heating up your pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the ground beef and a few dashes of browning liquid, and crumble while browning. When it’s all browned, take it out of your pan and set aside. Drain some of the fat, but leave some so we can caramelize the vegetables in it.
Turn the heat down to medium-low, add all of your diced vegetables (excl. garlic) and let them slowly caramelize a bit for 30 min or so, stirring regularly to achieve an even browning.

When vegetables are browned, add beef back to the pan and turn heat to medium-high. Add tomato paste and brown the tomato paste with the vegetables & beef for 2-3 minutes. Then sprinkle a few tablespoons of flour over the lot, and brown another 1-2 minutes. Your pan will be cruddy on the bottom, but don’t worry, this crud adds a ton of flavor!
When mixture appears well browned, after 3-4 minutes, add beer and scrape all of the tasty bits off of the bottom of your pan over medium-high heat. Add minced garlic, rosemary & thyme bundle, then add salt & pepper to taste. Turn heat to medium, and let the mixture reduce & thicken for another 20-30 minutes. If too thick, add some water or beef broth. If too thin, keep simmering and I promise it will reduce further. When it’s done, take rosemary/thyme bundle out of the pan and allow the mixture to cool a bit.

For the cheddar mashed potatoes topping:
5 lbs of Yukon gold potatoes
4-6 Tbsp of butter
Approx 1-1.5 cups of milk
1 cup of grated white cheddar
1 tsp of grated horseradish (not horseradish sauce!) (completely optional)

Peel, cube & boil potatoes until soft. While the potatoes are cooking, warm the milk & butter in the microwave until melted & combined. Add salt & pepper to milk mixture, per your preference.
When potatoes are soft, drain them and mash them as usual. They will be lumpy, which is what I like best. Add warmed milk mixture to mashed potatoes a little a time, until you achieve a soft but form mash and the milk mixture is well-incorporated. You may have to use a bit more or less.
Add grated cheddar & horseradish (if using), and fold until blended. Your potato mash should be firm and not too soft.

Butter or grease your oven dish(es) and spread all of the beef mixture on the bottom(s). Top the beef with the mashed potatoes to fully cover the beef layer. My personal cottage pie math is, is that I like to have 2/3 beef mixture and 1/3 potatoes on top. You can do half/half, it’s whatever you prefer, really. With a fork, make a few lines or crimps in the potato layer, so that when it brow in the oven, you’ll get crispy edges on those ridges. Alternatively, you can also pipe your mashed potatoes on top of the beef mixture ‘duchesse’-style.

Bake in a 375F oven for approx. 30-45 min until the edges of the potatoes are well browned. Serve hot, with a pint of Guinness and an Irish joke or two.

Bon appetit!

Picadillo Cubano

22 Aug

I’ll come right out and say that I knew very little about ethnic food whilst growing up in my small, rural neck of the woods. My mom would sometimes experiment with ethnic food, such as that time she prepared ‘babotee’. OMG!. Babotee!. I think my brother & I are still mentally scarred from that one. Funny enough, I have no memory whatsoever of having eaten anything exotic after the babotee disaster, so I’m thinking that that African devil even struck a nerve with mom. We didn’t have much money and food was never wasted, and that was both a promise as well as curse since you knew that when something didn’t turn out quite well, we’d still be eating it! Babotee was right up there with canned bananas.

Anyway, my first ‘real’ exposure to exotic cuisine was when I went to the ‘Polé Polé Festival’ in Gent (Belgium) with a few friends and enjoyed my first Mojito and roast pork. One of the things I probably miss most from Belgium, are the sultry Summer music festivals and their colorful posters that were haphazardly tacked on wooden telephone poles & announcement boards across town. The featured bands usually hailed from Northern Africa, Central & Latin America and flamenco heartbeats like Spain & Portugal. The band names alone were enough to lure us out of our rural shell: Radio Tarifa, Youssou n’Dour, Ojos de Brujo, Cesaria Evora… The sound of African drums and the exotic smells that wafted over the concert meadow, took us far away from the sugar beet fields & farms surrounding our houses. And when the heat became too much for the atmosphere and the torrential downpour of a typical Belgian thunderstorm came rolling in, we’d all huddle in the festival tents and it felt like a tropical vacation. It’s precisely there, in that oppressive hot tent, that my love for global music and world cuisine was born. My friend also found love for Ntibanoboka from Burundi there… but we shall say no more.

African, Caribbean & Latin cuisines are the type of culinary exploration that I haven’t really ventured into yet. I can follow a recipe, of course, but it’s not like I can add a little bit of this & a little bit of that and come up trumps. I have little to no understanding of flavor combinations in exotic cooking, yet I love mostly all ethnic food that I’ve eaten at small family-owned hole-in-the-wall type eateries as well as fancy restaurants. Now that our finances are seriously strapped and firmly rooted in the chicken & ground beef realm of things, I miss going to our favorite restaurants. Havana Mania in Inglewood, CA is no exception. I love that Cuban place. Not only do they serve the meanest mojito’s there, but the owner usually welcomes us with a broad smile and open arms, as though we’re his long lost relatives finally returning home. And it doesn’t matter if we haven’t been there for months, he still greets us like we were there just yesterday. I like that kind of gregariousness.

Yesterday, I figured I’d try my own hand at Cuban cuisine. I still had 2 lbs of ground beef in the fridge, and I remembered eating a beef dish at one time called ‘Picadillo Cubano’. It’s a delectable concoction of ground beef that is slowly braised in white wine, with capers, olives & raisins. It’s usually served over white rice, with black beans and fried plantains on the side, but it turns out it’s also often used as a filling for empanadas. Some add potatoes to it, other don’t and it seems to be the topic of many debates about authenticity. Personally, I think it’s one of those dishes that has local flair and varies depending on whom you ask… Either way, it’s seriously delicious and we cleaned off our plates in record time. As an added bonus to the fantastic flavor, it’s very budget-friendly and a breeze to make. Gloria Estefan’s nana was right on the money with this one.

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PICADILLO CUBANO
(as per Gloria Estefan’s nana)
– Approx. 2lbs of ground beef, the fatty kind (any ground beef with at least 15% fat)
– 1 medium-large onion, finely diced
1 large green bell pepper, finely diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp of cumin
1 tsp of ground dry oregano
1 8oz can of tomato sauce
1 ½ cups of dry white wine
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp of capers (optional)
½ cup of ketchup
½ cup of raisins
½ cup of green pimiento-stuffed olives
Salt & pepper to taste
Olive oil for browning

In a large heavy pan with lid, brown the beef over medium-high heat until crumbled, stirring occasionally. Remove beef from pan and set aside, and drain all but 2Tbsp of the grease.

Add diced onions, bell pepper and minced garlic to the pan. Sauté over medium heat until onions turn translucent, stirring frequently. Sprinkle oregano & cumin over the vegetables, and give it a quick stir for another minute or so. Then add reserved beef and all of the remaining ingredients to the pan.

Cover the pan and allow beef mixture to simmer for 30-40 min, removing the lid for the last 5-10 min.

Serve beef stew over rice, alongside black beans and fried plantains for a true Cuban experience.
This dish goes great with a mojito, or two…

Slow Cooked Cuban Pork

16 Sep

Yesterday started off like any other in crock pot land. I placed it lovingly on top of my kitchen counter in preparation of a 10-hour interlude with a delicious Cuban roast pork, until suddenly, at the 67-min mark… it died! To add insult to injury, it didn’t even beep or give any other sign of distress, it just went into full ‘crockiac arrest’. It was but a little over a year old, so I can only surmise that a three pound pork shoulder with 30 cloves of garlic was just… too.. much! Since I can’t afford to replace it right now, its tragic death leaves a void in my family and it leaves behind a plethora of kitchen cabinet friends, such as a humongous roasting pan capable of roasting a whole farm animal and a dainty row of 8 stoneware ramekins, in crisp white, for the more elegant affair.

Since I was on a Facebook binge fest enjoying a quiet morning with a cup of coffee, I hadn’t even noticed my crock pot’s ill-fated destiny at first. It was the fact that my living room stopped smelling of citrus- & garlic-infused porky deliciousness, that prompted me to go check the kitchen to see what was going on. My first reaction was a slue of un-Christian and/or inappropriate words, but then that quick wit kicked in and I feverishly pushed all of my slow cooker’s buttons in an attempt to revive it. When my frantic appliance-CPR failed, I created a mess of epic proportion poured everything into my largest Dutch oven and finished braising the pork in the oven. As the pork was cooking, I subsequently spent hours obsessing over what went wrong with my machine, and then ate a handful of milk chocolate chips… for baking… to help me cope with the drama of it all. Shut up.

I thought I wasn’t a big fan of pork, but this recipe has me convinced that I am. My beef with pork (see what I did there?) is that it has a tendency to be too dry when roasted, or you have to marinate it overnight and even then it’s like walking a tight-rope with juiciness. I loved that the recipe below doesn’t require elaborate brining or marinating, and it still came out so incredibly tender & moist, that I almost feel like I should apologize for snarfling down a portion that could have fed a small African village for a week. I made my own ‘mojo criollo’ braising marinade, but you could totally use the bottled kind if you find it in your store… and if you want, you can absolute marinate this pork overnight, you just don’t have to.

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SLOW-COOKED CUBAN PORK
For the mojo criollo
– 3 cups of fresh Valencia orange juice, which is a more tart or somewhat bitter orange. If you can’t find Valencia oranges, use regular oranges and ‘up’ the lime juice to 3 limes.
– 1 cup of yellow grapefruit juice (the pink & red varieties are too sweet)
– Juice of 1 lemon
– Juice of 2 limes
– 30 cloves of garlic
– 1/4 cup of good quality dried oregano
– Pinch of cayenne pepper
– Salt & pepper, to taste
(*) instead of a combination of orange juice, grapefruit juice, lemon & lime juice, you can also use 4.5 cups of bottled ‘bitter orange’ juice or ‘Naranja Agria’. There’s several brands out there, but my store clerk recommended Goya.

Combine everything together, and give it a quick blend with a handheld mixer, or blend everything together in a food processor.

For the pork
– 3lbs of pork shoulder or pork butt
– Adobo seasoning (or your favorite pork seasoning)
– 6-8 medium sized onions, sliced into rings

Slice onions into rings. Place a layer of onion on the bottom of your slow cooker or Dutch oven. Reserve the rest to place on top of the meat.

Cut the pork so that it fits into your slow cooker or pot, then stab it all over so the juices can penetrate the meat. Season it all over with the adobo or pork seasoning, and give it a quick sear so all sides are browned. Transfer browned pieces to your slow cooker or a Dutch oven.

If you’re cooking this in a slow cooker, turn your machine on ‘low’ and cook for 10 hours. If you’re cooking this in your oven, preheat your oven to 325F and cook the meat in a lidded Dutch oven for approx. 4 hours.

When the meat is fork-tender, take it out of the braising liquid and pull it just a bit into a large bite-size chunks. Reserve some of the braising liquid. You can eat it ‘as is’, but for more Cuban tastiness, add the pulled pork to a buttered baking sheet and pour about 1/2 cup of the reserved braising liquid over it. Roast in a 350F oven for about 30 min… or give it a quick sear in a cast iron skillet!

Greek Stuffed Eggplant

26 Aug

Don’t these look pretty?

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Eggplant always look appealing to me. They’re so visually stunning in their gorgeous deep purple jackets, and whenever I see them flirting with me like that, I instantly want to buy a dozen. But then I find myself stumped for ideas of what to do with these beauties, since I haven’t gotten much farther than Baba Ganoush or ratatouille, and the stuffed eggplant recipes I’ve tried before all sort of came up kinda ‘blah’… like Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA’s last night.Right?! Good Lord!

Until recently, stuffed eggplant weren’t our thing. That is, until I saw a recipe for moussaka I had clipped back in the day when people still clipped recipes out of magazines using scissors. The horror! Either way, I made a note to my foodie self that I should make moussaka again soon, but since I have to cut back on carbs and starch, what with Satan playing tricks with my blood sugar lately, I was trying to think of a way to do this sans potatoes… and then BINGO!, it totally dawned on me I could simply make the meaty deliciousness and stuff that directly into an eggplant. It was a stroke of genius that I completely credit to the glass of Pinot Grigio I enjoyed in my other hand. So much for the blood sugar thing, but hey, Rome wasn’t built in one day either.

These turned out really good and I think we’ll have them in regular rotation. And if you wanted to make this vegetarian, you could totally replace the meats with a whole grain like quinoa, or whatever it is you fancy instead of meat.

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GREEK STUFFED EGGPLANT
(Adapted from a recipe for moussaka)
– 4 medium eggplant
– 2 onions, diced
– 1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
– 2 Roma tomatoes, seeded & diced
– 8 oz of ground pork
– 1 lbs lean ground lamb (or beef)
– 1.5 Tbsp of ground cinnamon
– 2 Tbsp of fresh oregano, chopped finely
– 1 clove of garlic, minced
– 1/3 cup of toasted pine nuts
– salt & pepper, to taste
– olive oil
– Parmesan cheese, for garnish
– freshly chopped parsley, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400F.

Cut eggplant in half, and with a spoon, scoop out flesh. Set ‘shells’ aside on a lined baking sheet.

In a heavy bottom pan, heat a splash of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add chopped eggplant, garlic and onions, and sauté for 5 min until beginning to soften. Add diced bell pepper and cook for a few min longer.

Add meats and crumble whilst cooking in the vegetables. Add cinnamon, oregano and salt & pepper to taste. Add a pinch of cayenne for more heat, if desired. Simmer for 5-10 minutes until meat is browned.

Fold toasted pine nuts and diced tomatoes into meat, and scoop mixture into hollowed eggplant to form a little dome in each one.

Cook eggplant in hot oven for approx. 20-30 min until crisp browned and heated through.

Before serving, sprinkle with some freshly grated Parmesan cheese and parsley over the top.

Smakelijk!

Melanie’s Promised Lasagna

26 Jul

Belgians are gregarious people by nature. We enjoy mingling with friends & family in our local cafés, and we love food & drink as much as we enjoy engaging in theatrical debates about the linguistic & political divide in the country. Most of this bickering takes place over a few pints of ‘Maes Pils’ or ‘Leffe’, and the more freely beer flows, the better we seem to understand each other. Heated arguments nearly always end in boisterous laughter and an amicable pat on the back, and a family size paper pack of mayo-laden French fries is never far away. While it’s widely known for Italians to visually paint their verbal language with dramatic hand gestures & body language, you’ll find similar story-telling antics in Belgium. For instance, mom has always been exceptionally talented in adding depth to her words with dramatic facial expressions and colorful hand gestures. I’ve secretly pondered if perhaps she isn’t part Italian, a belief that was reinforced by her uncanny ability to cook a mean spaghetti.

Which brings me to Italian food… Italian cuisine is celebrated everywhere in the world and Belgium is no exception to this. Our people embrace pasta and Parmigiano Reggiano like no other, and our towns are dotted with colorful red/white/green pizzerias and rustic trattorias. We didn’t get to eat out very often, but during town festivities or family gettogethers, when the ever-watchful eye of mom wasn’t so watchful, we’d gorge on Italian wedding cake and forbidden fruit cream soda like there was no tomorrow. Italian food has always been a sultry lover of mine. Despite my best New Year’s resolutions, I can’t seem to resist its salty cheeses, wine-cured meats or dreamy pastas… It’s no wonder then that I sometimes ‘go to the mattresses…’ in my small apartment kitchen, and bake lasagna from scratch, leaving the kitchen looking like a bloody scene out of ‘The Godfather’. The tomato-mess is well worth the army-size supply of lasagna we end up, as I haven’t quite mastered the art of portion control just yet.

Half a year ago A little while ago, I brought lasagna leftovers to the office and shared them with my colleague Melanie F. It was amore at the first bite. She’s asked me for the recipe ever since, but has been patiently waiting for my procrastination to die down naturally. In talking about my blog the other day, she jokingly reminded me I still owed her that recipe, so I crossed over to the pimp-side and promised her I’d post it if she’d become a follower on my blog… Yeah. I’m that cheap, y’all. So without further ado, here’s Melanie’s promised lasagna recipe…

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MELANIE’S PROMISED LASAGNA
For the meat sauce:
– 1 large carrot, grated
– 2 shallots, grated
– 2 ribs of celery, grated
– 2 28oz cans of crushed tomatoes
– 1 8oz can of tomato paste
– 12 oz of chianti (or any dry red wine)
– 1 lbs of ground beef (extra lean)
– 1 lbs of Italian sausage, casings removed (hot or sweet, but I prefer sweet)
– 1 large onion, finely chopped
– 6 small cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
– 1.5 cups of fresh basil, chopped
– salt & pepper, to taste

In a large heavy pan, sauté the grated carrot, celery & shallot (aka ‘mire poix’) until fragrant and beginning to brown. Add garlic and sauté for a minute or so longer so the garlic has time to release its flavor a bit. Add chopped onions and brown until translucent and soft. Add the meats and brown until crumbled and mostly done. Add tomato paste and brown 2-3 minutes longer until tomato paste gets a deep brownish red color. Douse with half of the chianti and let reduce until most of the wine has evaporated. Add crushed tomatoes, rest of the chianti and salt & pepper, and simmer without the lid until all of the watery liquid has evaporated and you achieve a thick sauce. Fold chopped basil in the sauce and season with salt & pepper to your liking.

For the creamy béchamel-like sauce
– 2 15oz tins of ricotta cheese
– 2 cups of milk
– 2 Tbsp of butter
– 2 Tbsp of all-purpose flour
– pinch of nutmeg
– pinch of cayenne
– salt & pepper

Melt butter in a sauce pan. When butter is melted, add flour and cook for 1 minute until an even ‘paste-like’ consistency forms. Slowly incorporate milk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Sauce should start thickening fairly soon when milk simmers. When béchamel sauce is ready, stir in a pinch of nutmeg, salt & pepper to taste. Take pan off of the stove, and add 2 tins of ricotta cheese. Fold until you get a thick, creamy, pudding-like consistency. Salt & pepper to taste.

Building the lasagna:
– 2-3 boxes of lasagna noodles, par-boiled & drained (or use the ‘no-cook’ kind)
– 3 cups of Parmesan cheese + Pecorino Romano, freshly grated by hand

Heat oven to 375F. Butter a large deep oven-pan. Spread a few Tbsp of the meaty tomato sauce to coat the bottom & prevent noodles from sticking to the pan, and place a layer of noodles on top of the sauce. Overlap the noodles’ egdes slightly. Then, evenly spread a thick layer of the ricotta/béchamel sauce over the noodles (careful not to shift the noodles too much) and sprinkle liberally with grated cheese so the cheese covers most of the béchamel sauce. Top with an equal layer of the meaty tomato sauce, then add another layer of cooked noodles on top of the tomato sauce. Repeat this process 2 more times until your dish is full (+/- 3 layers) and you finish with a top layer of tomato sauce. Simply sprinkle grated cheese directly on top of the tomato sauce, and bake in the oven for approx. 45-60 minutes until heated through and cheese on top is bubbly and brown.

Serve with crusty bread and a nice glass of Chianti.

Swedish Meatballs

22 Jul

The arrival of Swedish furniture giant Ikea not only brought us colorful & cozy Scandinavian home décor… but, more importantly, ‘kottbullar’! These tender morsels of beef & veal, in their creamy sauce and fruity lingonberry compote, sing their sweet siren song every time I happen to drive by the store alongside the 405 freeway. As soon as I see Ikea’s blue & gold logo in my line of sight, I feel a bubble of giddy excitement well up inside me and I nearly always feel compelled to pull off the freeway and stock up on a little bit of Europe in my otherwise American world. There’s something happy & cheery about Ikea, if it weren’t for the hoards of shoppers crowding the place on a daily basis.

Meatballs have long made their mark on Belgian cuisine as well. I think this is mainly because they pair so well with the warm fruity compotes you often find stewing in old-fashioned Belgian kitchens. I remember as a little girl, ‘omoe’ or grandma would brown up a batch of little meatballs and serve them with a sweet warm cherry sauce and chunky mashed potatoes. I have fond memories of those times, partly because grandpa would stuff his cheeks like a chipmunk and tell us stories in critter voice, much to the chagrin of grandma who felt it was not proper to indulge in such foolishness whilst having dinner. Occasionally, he’d lose a meatball and then all bets were off. Grandma would put an abrupt end to the silliness and grandpa would quickly follow suit for the sake of marital bliss and prompt us to be quiet and finish our plate. These moments of unbridled silliness never lasted long, but they shaped my memory of my beloved grandpa, who earned a PhD in biochemistry and was a professor emeritus at the renowned University of Ghent and super-cool kitchen table magician on weekends we visited. I think his world was filled with so much intellectual conversation and academic seriousness, that he enjoyed regaling his grandchildren with plain old silliness. Bless his soul in heaven.

As I got older and started paying my own bills, I developed a special affinity for the Swedish meatballs Ikea sold at bottom dollar. The recipe remains a bit of a mystery as so many Swedes have their own family recipe that was handed down from generation to generation, but below is my take on this beloved dish.

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SWEDISH MEATBALLS
(adapted from a recipe by Jeroen Meus)

For the meatballs:
– ½ lbs of lean ground beef
– ½ lbs of ground veal (or lean ground pork)
– 1 egg, yolk only
– ½ cup of breadcrumbs, soaked in 2-3 Tbsp of milk until just moistened through
– 1 Tbsp of allspice (or a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg & ground cloves)
– 2 shallots, very finely chopped
– salt & pepper
– beef broth, for boiling the meatballs before browning them

Take a large bowl and place the ground meats inside. Chop the shallots very finely and sauté in a little bit of butter until they turn translucent. Add the sautéed shallots to the bowl with the ground meats.

Add allspice and egg yolk to the meat mixture, and combine well. Add soaked breadcrumbs, and combine until everything is well incorporated. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Bring beef broth to a boil and drop 1.5-inch rolled meatballs into hot broth. Cook for approx. 4-5 minutes until done, and set aside on a plate. Once the meatballs are done, they’ll automatically float to the top.

In a heavy skillet, melt a few tablespoons of butter and quickly brown meatballs to a crispy golden brown, approx. 3 minutes.

For the creamy sauce:
– 4oz of heavy cream
– a splash of cognac (or cooking sherry)
– salt & pepper to taste

In the pan with the browned bits of the meatballs, add a hefty splash of cognac and ignite. You can do this with a match or – if you have a gas stove – by tilting your pan into flame, being careful not to spill the liquid. Stand back, as your pan will become enflamed for a few seconds.

Stir and scrape all the flavorful browned bits from the meatballs from the bottom of the pan, then add the cream and reduce the brown sauce a bit until it thickens. Add browned meatballs and toss to coat in the sauce.

Serve with mashed potatoes and a spoonful of cranberry sauce.

Swedish Meatballs

22 Jul

The arrival of Swedish furniture giant Ikea not only brought us colorful & cozy Scandinavian home décor… but, more importantly, ‘kottbullar’! These tender morsels of beef & veal, in their creamy sauce and fruity lingonberry compote, sing their sweet siren song every time I happen to drive by the store alongside the 405 freeway. As soon as I see Ikea’s blue & gold logo in my line of sight, I feel a bubble of giddy excitement well up inside me and I nearly always feel compelled to pull off the freeway and stock up on a little bit of Europe in my otherwise American world. There’s something happy & cheery about Ikea, if it weren’t for the hoards of shoppers crowding the place on a daily basis.

Meatballs have long made their mark on Belgian cuisine as well. I think this is mainly because they pair so well with the warm fruity compotes you often find stewing in old-fashioned Belgian kitchens. I remember as a little girl, ‘omoe’ or grandma would brown up a batch of little meatballs and serve them with a sweet warm cherry sauce and chunky mashed potatoes. I have fond memories of those times, partly because grandpa would stuff his cheeks like a chipmunk and tell us stories in critter voice, much to the chagrin of grandma who felt it was not proper to indulge in such foolishness whilst having dinner. Occasionally, he’d lose a meatball and then all bets were off. Grandma would put an abrupt end to the silliness and grandpa would quickly follow suit for the sake of marital bliss and prompt us to be quiet and finish our plate. These moments of unbridled silliness never lasted long, but they shaped my memory of my beloved grandpa, who earned a PhD in biochemistry and was a professor emeritus at the renowned University of Ghent and super-cool kitchen table magician on weekends we visited. I think his world was filled with so much intellectual conversation and academic seriousness, that he enjoyed regaling his grandchildren with plain old silliness. Bless his soul in heaven.

As I got older and started paying my own bills, I developed a special affinity for the Swedish meatballs Ikea sold at bottom dollar. The recipe remains a bit of a mystery as so many Swedes have their own family recipe that was handed down from generation to generation, but below is my take on this beloved dish.

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SWEDISH MEATBALLS
(adapted from a recipe by Jeroen Meus)

For the meatballs:
– ½ lbs of lean ground beef
– ½ lbs of ground veal (or lean ground pork)
– 1 egg, yolk only
– ½ cup of breadcrumbs, soaked in 2-3 Tbsp of milk until just moistened through
– 1 Tbsp of allspice (or a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg & ground cloves)
– 2 shallots, very finely chopped
– salt & pepper
– beef broth, for boiling the meatballs before browning them

Take a large bowl and place the ground meats inside. Chop the shallots very finely and sauté in a little bit of butter until they turn translucent. Add the sautéed shallots to the bowl with the ground meats.

Add allspice and egg yolk to the meat mixture, and combine well. Add soaked breadcrumbs, and combine until everything is well incorporated. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Bring beef broth to a boil and drop 1.5-inch rolled meatballs into hot broth. Cook for approx. 4-5 minutes until done, and set aside on a plate. Once the meatballs are done, they’ll automatically float to the top.

In a heavy skillet, melt a few tablespoons of butter and quickly brown meatballs to a crispy golden brown, approx. 3 minutes.

For the creamy sauce:
– 4oz of heavy cream
– a splash of cognac (or cooking sherry)
– salt & pepper to taste

In the pan with the browned bits of the meatballs, add a hefty splash of cognac and ignite. You can do this with a match or – if you have a gas stove – by tilting your pan into flame, being careful not to spill the liquid. Stand back, as your pan will become enflamed for a few seconds.

Stir and scrape all the flavorful browned bits from the meatballs from the bottom of the pan, then add the cream and reduce the brown sauce a bit until it thickens. Add browned meatballs and toss to coat in the sauce.

Serve with mashed potatoes and a spoonful of cranberry sauce.

Mustard-crusted Pork Tenderloin with Balsamic Blueberry Reduction

21 Jul

Pork tenderloin or ‘varkenshaas’ is quite common in Belgium. We house many pig farmers near our coastal plains and the rural Ardennes in the South, and pork makes a frequent appearance in Flemish & Walloon cuisine. Pork is often served alongside a fruity ‘compote’ or warm, chunky fruit stew typically made from apples, rhubarb or apricots. It seems Belgian cuisine tends to favor fruity additions to savory dishes, and to date, I still like the sweetness fruits give to hearty stews or braised meats.

The problem with pork is, is that it often turns out a bit dry and flavorless. It doesn’t help that for years America’s preoccupation with food safety had everyone convinced that you have to cook pork until it’s well-done, and that’s a sad myth. It gave pork a bad reputation. While you shouldn’t eat pork raw, it’s perfectly safe to cook it to medium doneness, so it’s still juicy and a bit rosy on the inside.

Roasted into a tangy, caramelized feast and paired with a fruity sauce, pork is delicious! Below is my take on this Belgian classic.

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BALSAMIC BLUEBERRY REDUCTION
(adapted from a recipe by ‘Het Waterhuis’)

– 2 cups of fresh or frozen blueberries
– ¼ tsp chipotle powder
– ½ cup applesauce
– 2 Tbsp whole-gain mustard
– ½ an orange, zested and juiced
– 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
– 1 Tbsp agave syrup
– ¼ cup low sodium chicken broth, more if needed
– ¼ tsp freshly ground nutmeg

In a medium sauté pan, add all of the ingredients and let simmer for 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the meat. If the consistency is too thick, add a little more chicken broth.

MUSTARD-CRUSTED PORK TENDERLOIN
Mustard-Crusted Pork Tenderloin
– 1 ¼ lbs pork tenderloin
– 1 ½ Tbsp whole-grain mustard
– salt and pepper, to taste

Rub salt and pepper on the tenderloin, then add the whole-grain mustard and coat all sides. On a foil-lined baking sheet, place the pork tenderloin under the broiler and rotate every 3-4 minutes, until the internal temperature reads 135F for a tender medium rare. Let it sit for 5 minutes before serving. Slice into medallions and serve with Balsamic Blueberry Reduction.

Blind Finches

19 Jul

OK, so the title of this dish is a bit odd, but let me make it perfectly clear that we’re not actually eating blind or headless birds here. There. I’m glad we cleared that out of the way.

Blind finches or ‘vogeltjes zonder kop’ (isn’t Dutch a romantic language?), are tender rolls of seasoned ground beef & veal or pork that are enveloped in a jacket of thinly sliced beef. They’re the Flemish equivalent of Italian ‘Braciole’, really. Usually seared in a hot pan & browned to a crisp on the outside, blind finches are then left to braise in a hearty concoction of brown beer, onions & thyme. Served with mashed potatoes, this dish is Belgian comfort food at its best.

My older brother Bert & I absolutely loved it, and the dish was a frequent request in mom’s weekly menu rotation… that is, until Satan Bert – in a sly effort to secure a larger portion of the beloved dish for himself – successfully convinced me that I was actually eating blind, headless dead birds, and – for good story-telling measure – would add drama by describing in detail how the fated birds would often cry for their feathery friends when captured. It left a serious mark on my sensitive wee little soul and I hated ‘vogeltjes zonder kop’ from that day forward… I think we went a couple of weeks of me stubbornly snubbing blind finches, but mom caught on pretty quickly that Bert’s mischievous hand was in this and set the record sraight.

Every respectable butcher in Belgium sells pre-assembled blind finches that are ready to be sautéed, but the concept remains elusive in my Californian neck of the woods. The recipe below includes instructions on making the beef roll-ups yourself, just in case in you can’t find them at your local butcher or grocery store.

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BLIND FINCHES
(as per Cecilia, my mother)
For the blind finches:
– 1 lbs of ground beef (93/7) + 0.5 lbs of ground veal or pork, for 6 individual finches
– 6 pieces of thinly sliced sirloin, to wrap the finches in (*)
– 1 shallot, finely chopped
– 1 clove of garlic, minced
– a handful of chopped parsley
– salt & pepper, to taste
– kitchen twine
(*) You can ask your butcher at the grocery store to thinly slice a sirloin roast for you into aprox. 3×5 inch slices, or approx. the size of a small taco-sized tortilla. Keep in mind that you just want to be able to wrap your rolls of ground beef in them, so the slices should be thinly cut so you can easily fold them and wrap them.

Melt 1-2 tbs of butter in a heavy pan (cast iron works best here) and sauté the garlic and shallots until translucent and soft. Set aside and let cool until able to handle with bare hands. Don’t wash pan, we’ll be using it later! In large mixing bowl, add ground meats, parsley and chopped shallots, and mix until well combined. Add salt & pepper to taste.
Lay out thin slices of sirloin, and divide ground beef evenly over each piece. Roll them up (like a mini-burrito) into tight little cylinder-shaped bundles and tie together with kitchen twine so they don’t fall apart whilst cooking. Salt & pepper the outside, to taste.
It goes without saying that you can pretty much put whatever you like in the ground meat mixture, I’ve cooked them before with some diced pancetta in them too…

For braising:
– 1 to ½ bottle of smooth dark beer (no IPA’s or other ‘bitter’ tasting beers!)
– approx. 1 cup of beef stock
– 2 small onions, diced or chopped
– 2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme, chopped
– 1-2 bay leaves
– 2 tbsp of butter
– 1 tbsp of cooking sherry

In the same heavy pan that you browned the shallots in, heat butter until pan is very hot but the butter is not burning! Quickly brown finches on all sides, being careful not to break the integrity of your bundles. When browned on all sides, douse the pan with the beef stock and beer, and scrape some of the browned bits off the bottom of your pan.
Add the chopped onions, thyme & laurel leaves, and cover the pan. Braise for approx. 20-30 min. until the meat is cooked through.
Remove finches to a plate or serving dish and cover with aluminum foil so they stay hot (or move to a warm 100F oven). Add 1 tbsp of flour + 1 tbsp of cooking sherry to pan sauce, and cook for a few minutes more, allowing the sauce to thicken. Pour sauce over the finches and serve hot with mashed potatoes, stoemp and/or roasted root vegetables.

Piperade Basquaise

17 Jul

Traditionally from the rural Basque regions in Spain & Southern France, I decided that something as delicious as ‘Piperade’ must be honored on this blog. There’s no tie to Belgian cuisine, other than the fairly mundane fact that I ate this in my mom’s country kitchen in our small Flemish country town, surrounded by smelly dairy farms, swarms of potato bugs, cackling poultry and endless corn fields.

Piperade fits right in this pretty farmers picture. It’s a flavorful and hearty dish that won’t break the bank… unless you live in coastal Los Angeles, but let’s not be cynical about living a mile away from the Pacific Ocean, shall we? In Spain and the South of France, piperade is often accompanied by cubes of grilled Bayonne ham and silky poached eggs, and served alongside hand-torn morsels of brown country bread to sop up the culinary orgasm that is runny yolks blended with ham- and sweet pepper juices. I feel bashful just writing about it.

Since Bayonne ham is not readily available in my coastal settlement, I would probably have to drive all the way to smog city downtown LA in order to score some authentic Basque ham. And trust me when I say that no ham is worth fighting 405 freeway traffic for!

This leads me to tell you that since Bayonne ham has a light smoky flavor, I figured I’d try my luck with pancetta, and… BINGO! I think bacon would work well too, or surely even diced smoked kielbasa. In fact, this is such a versatile dish, that you could completely omit the meat and go vegetarian altogether. Or serve it alongside or on top of crispy browned chicken legs, which I vaguely remember is what my mother did.

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PIPERADE BASQUAISE
(adapted from multiple recipes I found online)
– 1 medium size red bell pepper
– 1 medium size yellow bell pepper
– 1 medium size orange bell pepper
– 2 medium size onions
– 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
– 6 cloves of garlic, minced
– 1 tsp of Piment d’Espelette (*)
– 1/2 tsp of chopped fresh oregano
– 1 tsp of chopped fresh thyme
– 1 cup of diced pancetta
– 4 large fresh eggs
(*) Piment d’Espelette is a medium hot chili that comes from the Basque town of Espelette. You can find it in specialty food stores, but you can also replace it with hot paprika if you can’t find it.

Cut peppers in half lengthwise, seed, core and slice into thin strips. Cut onions in half and slice into thin strips as well. Mince garlic cloves.

Heat oil in a large heavy pan and sauté garlic and onions until beginning to soften, approx. 3-4 min. Add peppers and sauté until beginning to soften, approx. 5 min. Add bay leaves, piment d’espelette and fresh oregano, and simmer over low heat until vegetables are soft.

In the meantime, dice pancetta and brown in a separate pan. When browned, set aside on paper towel. Deglaze pan with a bit of white wine, and add pan juices to vegetables.

When vegetables are soft, add pancetta & fresh thyme to pan and simmer 3 min more to blend all flavors. Salt & pepper to taste.

Make 4 small spaces in your pan, among the pepper mixture, and drop a raw egg in each space. Turn heat to low, cover and allow egg to cook for 3-4 min until whites are done and yolks are a bit runny still. This will take a little while, so patience is key here. (You can also poach your eggs separately, and serve over the piperade).

Sprinkle with some fresh parsley and serve with crusty brown bread, or over couscous.

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