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Mustard Braised Chicken with Tarragon

22 Oct

When mom was here a week or so ago, I asked her – in a moment of temporary insanity – if she would mind helping me clean out my pantry. Oye Vey! That’s all I’m going to say about that. Why on earth I thought this would go off without a hinge with my ultra-organized mother is beyond me, but I think there was wine involved when I posed the question. Perched from a stepping stool, I handed her things to throw away that dated back from the time in which Walkman cassette players were all the rage, some of which had a distinct Belgian label and clearly came from another era one of her past visits, so naturally, that yielded my mother’s trademark disapproving eye… and I completely deserve it, really. The thing is, I’m so Scrooge-like with my goods from Belgium that I sometimes forget I even have stuff like ‘Royco Asperge Minuutsoep’… or worse yet, save it for a ‘special’ occasion. If you’re from Belgium, try not to laugh. Okay?

And then there are those times in which I find myself dillydallying in the Manhattan Village mall, usually killing some time waiting for a flight to come in at LAX or so, and inevitably end up buying nonsense from places like ‘Harry & David’ or ‘Williams-Sonoma’, because I am famished and bored I saw a need for silly things like powdered Tikka Masala mix (can I plead the Fifth here?) or a box of jalapeno corn bread, both of which get shoved next to the Vidalia Onion Dressing mix that was gifted to me in a company Christmas basket earlier. And all of which live clandestinely underground in my pantry for years, until I can’t take the clutter anymore and I go on a cleaning spree… Please tell me I’m not alone in this madness?

Anyway, amid our frenzied pantry reorganization, lurking behind my basket of ‘usual’ suspects, I did notice a baggy of dried tarragon from Penzey’s Spices and suddenly remembered my impulsive ambition to try and recreate a mustard-braised chicken stew I saw Jacques Pepin make on our local ‘Create’ television network…. last Winter! Well, I’m happy to report that ‘last Winter’ has finally arrived and the recipe is listed below. I made this one in my super-duper slow cooker, but you can easily use a heavy Dutch oven as well. If so, turn the time down to 2 hours or so.

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MUSTARD BRAISED CHICKEN WITH TARRAGON
(Adapted from a recipe by Jacques Pepin)
– 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
– 4 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
– 2 packages of button mushrooms, large ones halved
– 1 package (8-11 oz) of frozen artichoke hearts (*)
– 1 lbs of small Cippolini onions, halved (or pearl onions, whole)
– 1.5 cups of chicken broth
– 1/4 cup of Dijon mustard
– 1/3 cup of dry white wine
– 3 Tbsp of dried tarragon + a few sprigs of fresh tarragon for garnish
– 1/3 cup of heavy cream
– salt & pepper, to taste
– olive oil, to brown the chicken
(*) You can use fresh or jarred artichoke hearts as well, but they have a tendency to disintegrate in the cooking process in a slow cooker.

Wash and pat the thighs dry, then season with salt & pepper. In a heavy pan, heat the olive oil and brown the chicken thighs on all sides. When browned, transfer to the insert of your slow cooker.

Without rinsing the pan, add a tablespoon of butter and brown the mushrooms, onions and garlic until all of the liquid has evaporated. Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping up all of the browned bits. Stir in half of the dried tarragon, simmer a minute more and transfer contents to insert of slow cooker. Add frozen artichokes to insert as well.

Combine chicken broth with remaining dried tarragon & mustard, and stir well. Pour over the chicken in your cooker, and braise on ‘low’ for approx.. 4.5 hours until the chicken is fall apart tender.

Add heavy cream to slow cooker, stir and let simmer for another 15-30 minutes or until the sauce has thickened a bit more. Finish off with a few sprigs of chopped fresh tarragon immediately before serving. This dish pairs well with roasted potatoes or rice.

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Balsamic Chicken with Figs & Port

15 Oct

How is it, that 10 days flew by so fast? Yesterday, I dropped my mom off at LAX airport from what seemed like a 10-day visit at mach 3 speed. We spent a few days driving through the Angeles and Sequoia National Forests, and onwards through Yosemite NP and Death Valley NP. The parks were ‘officially’ closed due to our infamous Government shutdown, and we received stern warnings from the Park Rangers that stopping or getting out of our car was strictly prohibited, but – given the ridiculousness of this situation – I felt that this policy was open for creative interpretation, so we stopped and took beautiful photographs. Right? The only downfall was that all restrooms were bolted as well, and with a 2.5 hour drive through Yosemite NP, this meant that my unscrupulous desperate 70-year old mother may or may not have ‘wild peed’ behind a tree at Tuolomne Meadows… Please forgive her. If you were in Yosemite around 11:42A last 7th Oct, you needn’t wonder any longer if the national park is habitat to some sort of rare ‘sierra flamingo’. You merely caught a glimpse of my mother, clad in hot pink pants, precariously perched somewhere off-road in between the pines. I’m deeply sorry.

Besides being a colorful character, it also became apparent during this trip that my mother excels in charging stuff to her Belgian visa card, and neatly folding those receipts into her wallet with mathematical precision. “To verify the charges, when the bill comes in”. Among various kitchen gadgets and other pleasantries, she gifted me a really nice 6.5 quart Cuisinart slow cooker and a fantastic Nordic Ware waffler, which happens to be the best frigging waffle iron I have ever owned. While I’m tickled pink with the waffler, it’s the slow cooker that really fills a void in our home. When my old one died in the midst of slow-cooking a satanic 3-lbs Mojo-marinated Cuban pork shoulder, it broke my heart. But now that Cecilia-in-hot-pink-pants flew to the rescue, we have a shiny new 6.5 quart fancy Cuisinart cooker for our Fall & Winter enjoyment. Hurray!

To pay proper respect to my mom’s visa charge, I’m dedicating this recipe to my mother. It’s sweet and tangy, a wee bit odd and chockfull of character… kinda like Cecilia.

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BALSAMIC CHICKEN WITH FIGS & PORT
(A Hungry Belgian original)
– 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
– olive oil, to brown the chicken
– salt & pepper to taste
– 1/2 cup of good quality balsamic vinegar
– 1/2 cup of Ruby port
– 1/2 cup of chicken broth
– 2-3 Tbsp of chopped fresh thyme
– 16 dried figs, roughly chopped
– 2 shallots, finely chopped
– 4 oz of Spanish chorizo, finely chopped

Rinse chicken thighs under cold water & pat dry. Season with salt & pepper, then brown in a skillet in a bit of olive oil.

Place browned chicken thighs in the insert of your slow cooker. Add chorizo & shallots to the pan, and give them a quick flash fry for a few minutes.

Deglaze the pan you used for browning the chicken & chorizo with the balsamic vinegar & port, scraping up any browned bits. When done, add broth and pour liquid & pan drippings over the chicken in your slow cooker, including chorizo & shallots.

Add the thyme & figs, and stir to combine.

Cover the slow cooker & cook on high for 2 hours, until the sauce is thick and somewhat syrupy. Serve with roasted potatoes or over rice.

Hearty Polish Sausage & Beans

11 Sep

I consider myself to be a resourceful person. My ‘creative thinking’ ability was evidenced at a young age, when I once received a homework assignment from my strict Catholic school, with the instruction to listen to the Pope’s Easter mass & speech and fill out a 100 item questionnaire about it. Faced with the horror of having to sit through 4 hours of televised prayer in Latin – on Sunday no less! – I told my teacher that our TV was of a communist brand and that therefore we weren’t able to tune into the channel in question as our airwaves were censored by the Russian Orthodox Government. I think I should have gotten an honorable mentioning for such creativity, but instead I got to copy the “Ten Commandments”… 25 times!

I entirely blame my mother for this kind of quick-witted creative thinking. After all, she was a pro at it herself and she was known to smite the nonsensical ways of the strict Catholic establishment on a routine basis. As an example, when she was hired by the private convent school in question, the bearded dragon head nun made it clear to her that she was expected to wear a long, calf-length skirt & stockings, and to refrain from engaging the girls in any scandalous or improper activity such as, but not limited to: cartwheels, splits, summersaults, exercises that required us to spread our legs, headstands or anything else that could potentially expose the Lord to juvenile indecency. Since it proved futile to reason with the clergy about the scholastic curriculum of a physical education class, my mother creatively taunted the school’s ridiculous policy and showed up for her first day on the job wearing a long skirt… with a snazzy pair of shiny red metallic Adidas sweatpants underneath!

Creativity and independent thinking ranked high on our mother’s list of virtues she deemed necessary in life. She made sure our little brains were exercised daily, and she made it a point to teach us to think outside the box and to never accept nonsense as suitable answer or solution.

I’ve had to be creative with our food budget on many occasions, but when I came home to a virtually empty fridge yesterday, it gave culinary creativity a whole new meaning. With payday still 3 days away, I took a quick gander in our pantry and figured I could manipulate a recipe for Polish sausage & beans I saw on Pinterest a little while ago. The result was a hearty & flavorful stew of tomatoes, peppers and kielbasa, and it received two thumbs up from all of us.

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Hearty Polish Sausage & Beans
(Adapted from a Pinterest recipe)
– 3 15oz cans of your preferred beans (*)
– 1 Polish sausage or Kielbasa
– 1 large red bell pepper
– 1 large green bell pepper
– 2 medium yellow onions
– 2 Poblano peppers
– 6-8 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped finely
– 1 28oz can of crushed tomatoes
– 1 Tbsp of sweet Hungarian paprika
– 1/4 cup of fresh dill, chopped
– 1/4 cup of fresh parsley, chopped
– salt & pepper to taste
– 2 Tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
(*) You can use any beans you like, but I prefer a combination of white cannellini beans, black beans & pinto beans.

Drain and rinse beans under cold water, set aside.

Chop peppers and onions into large dice. Crush garlic with the back of your knife, and chop into fine pieces. Slice kielbasa into small rounds.

Heat olive oil in a heavy pot, and sauté peppers, onions and garlic until beginning to soften. Add crushed tomatoes, paprika, dill, parsley, salt & pepper, and simmer until vegetables are soft.

Add kielbasa and beans, and allow to simmer until everything is warmed through. Serve over brown rice or with a crusty loaf of bread.

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.

Creamy Herbed Pea Soup

15 Aug

Ask my mother what my favorite vegetable is, and she’ll loudly proclaim: ‘SWEET PEAS!’. Well, she’d actually say ‘zveet peez!’, what with her having learned English by watching subtitled episodes of ‘The Golden Girls’ and all. (On a side note: they eat surprising few peas those golden girls!).
I’ve been in love with crisp fresh English peas for decades. Seeing them happily clinging together in their tiny pods, reminds me of lazy Summer weekends hanging out on the porch and sipping ice cold tea with your best girl friends. I know it’s a stretch, but stay with me…

With pea season arriving right around the time the winter chill leaves the early morning air, there’s nothing that stops me from planting my pajama-clad ‘derriere’ in one of our floral cabana patio chairs, armed with a mug of coffee and a bowl of fresh English peas for hulling. With the canopy of a big fat loquat tree shading our patio, I usually get the company of a few humming birds whizzing about and/or house finches, chirping loudly over who gets to perch on the top tier of our birdfeeder. These kind of lazy Sunday mornings are my favorite. The ‘house men’ are night owls and tend to sleep in late, so I have our cozy apartment all to myself, with the cats snoozing in the morning sun somewhere inconvenient or doing their cute feline chit-chattering thing to the birds in front of the open window, secretly plotting for you to break a leg as you try to avoid stepping on them when you walk back inside with a bowl of hulled peas.

I like hulling peas. Seeing them bounce around on the bottom of the bowl as they come cascading in with the help of my thumb, I can’t help but think it must feel like a roller-coaster ride to them… I’ve always had a vivid imagination. It doesn’t help much that my office cubicle overlooks the take-off & landing strips of Los Angeles International airport, and I occasionally find myself day-dreaming about being sprawled out in a polka dot bikini on an exotic white sand beach with coconut palms swaying back & forth… That is, until the roaring engine of Air Tahiti Nui’s flight #85 approaches and thunders by my 6th floor office window, which usually sets off an overly sensitive car alarm or two. I’m instantly reminded that Century Blvd isn’t even remotely near Tahiti, and if I dare squeeze my curves into a tiny polka dot bikini, I’d risk getting a ticket for bringing the human form into disrepute. But we were talking about peas… See what I mean with vivid imagination?! Sheesh.

Last Spring, I came home with a 5 lbs bag of fresh English peas from the farmers market. We pretty much ate pea-anything that week. It was as if we were on a 7-day pea cleansing program, which I’m sure exists somewhere here, in Beverly Hills or so. Among many other green adventures, I made the Summer soup below. It’s served cold, like gazpacho, and it’s such a refreshing dish on a hot Summer day, but if you like, you could eat it warm too… Aren’t peas just awesome?!

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CREAMY HERBED PEA SOUP
(A Hungry Belgian original)
– 1 large shallot, diced
– 1-2 Tbsp of grapeseed oil (or light olive oil)
– 2 3/4 cups of chicken broth
– 1/4 cup of Pinot Grigio (or other crisp white wine)
– 1.5 lbs of fresh peas (or equal amount of frozen peas)
– 1/3 cup of heavy cream
– 1 Tbsp of fresh mint, chopped very finely
– 1 tsp of fresh tarragon, chopped very finely
– 2 Tbsp of fresh parsley, chopped finely
– 1 Tbsp of fresh chives, chopped finely
– zest of 1 small lemon
– salt & pepper, to taste
– crème fraiche, for garnish
– 1/2 leek, thinly sliced, for garnish (optional)

In a sauce pan, add oil and sauté shallots over medium heat until softened, but not browned! Add broth, wine and peas, and simmer until peas are mostly tender but still bright green. Remove from heat and add lemon zest. In a blender, or with a hand-mixer, blend the soup so it’s smooth and lump-free. It should be a fairly thick but liquid consistency. Pour blended mixture into a bowl and set in iced cold water to cool the soup quickly and retain its bright green color. (Make sure the ice water won’t pour into your soup!)

When soup feels cool enough to the touch, add cream & herbs. Season with salt & pepper to taste, and serve in bowls. Swirl a dollop of crème fraiche through it and sprinkle with a few of the shavings of leek, for garnish.

Pairs really nice with smoked salmon toast or cold shrimp. Yum!

Cajun Pumpkin Soup

11 Aug

Fall is by far my favorite Season. There’s several things I like about Fall, but the biggest charm for me is that all vegetables that remind me of a stormy day in Belgium are in season: parsnips, pumpkins, rutabagas, turnips… And, you get to spice everything warmly because ‘t is the season. Sadly, Southern California has only two seasons. The difference between the two being that in Fall & Winter you may need to take a sweater with you, you know, for when the sun sets… what with temperatures dropping below 65F and all.

Every October, when the last residual heat of September slowly ebbs away, I’m excited to start feeling the crisp chill in the beach air and occasionally hear the sound of rain pounding my apartment’s roof. I confess that I didn’t like rain when I lived in Belgium. Rainy days would turn into soggy weeks, then into months, and eventually you’d start wondering if you should start building an ark and save yourself?! It’s only after several months of dry heat and blistering sun that I learned to appreciate a cool, wet day. Fall in Southern California is bliss. Day time temperatures remain a steady 60F-70F, and evenings get cool enough to cuddle with my beau and sip on spiced wine without risking a hot flash. An added bonus is that with 60F, we can still crack our windows open just a smidgen, and let the earthy smell of the damp beach sand & wet wooden boardwalk permeate our humble home.

It’s on these days that the soup below tastes fantastic. Decades ago, when my brother still lived in Amsterdam and mom & I would drive up for a weekend visit, he would frequently invite us for dinner at a restaurant called ‘The Louisiana Kitchen’, off of the Ceintuurbaan in the heart of the city. At the time, I was already thinking about relocating to the USA and eventually, my brother bought me the Cajun bistro’s cookbook as a parting gift. I’ve since adapted the recipe to my own preference, but the base recipe comes out of the book.

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CAJUN PUMPKIN SOUP
(Adapted from a recipe out of ‘The Louisiana Kitchen’ by Rob Van Berkum & Andre Numan)

– 8 cups of chicken broth
– 35 oz of cubed pumpkin
– 2.5 cups of good quality dry sherry
– 1.5 cups of heavy cream
– 3 large shallots, diced
– 3 ribs of celery, chopped
– 2 Tbsp of Cajun seasoning + more for the shrimp
– a pinch (or two) of cayenne pepper
– a cup of sliced or chopped mushrooms (any kind)
– 1 lbs of large scampi-size shrimp
– 5 slices of bacon, cooked & crumbled

Place a large soup pot on the stove over high heat. Add a splash of olive oil, and saute the chopped shallots & celery until translucent and starting to brown. Douse with sherry, and cook for a minute or so to burn off some of the alcohol. Add chicken broth and chopped pumpkin, and bring to a boil. Let simmer until pumpkin is soft and cooked through.

In the meantime, saute sliced mushrooms until browned and cooked through. Set aside.

Cook bacon, drain or pat dry and crumble. Set aside.
Shell & devein shrimp, toss in a bit of olive oil and grill in a 450F oven with a sprinkling of Cajun seasoning until done , approx 10 min.

When pumpkin is soft, blend the soup until smooth and velvety. Add cream, 2 Tbsp of Cajun seasoning, grilled shrimp, bacon and browned mushrooms and warm through in the soup. Season with salt & pepper, and add a pinch or two of cayenne pepper for a bit of heat.

Ladle in soup bowls, sprinkle with a bit of parsley and serve with corn bread.

Spicy Caribbean Fish Stew

9 Aug

OK. So a Belgian-Caribbean connection may sound far-fetched, but if you think about it, it isn’t really all that bizarre. After all, being right next door Holland, we’re directly exposed to the culture of its territories overseas and the culinary melting pot that is Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.

Furthermore, I’ve been blessed to work in the travel industry for roughly 20 years now and have always been exposed to a broader world view in that capacity. My very first job was at the much coveted chain of adventure travel stores named ‘Joker Toerisme’, a company exuding a laid back REI-kinda atmosphere. To this day, ‘Joker Toerisme‘ holds fast to its deep-rooted values of promoting sustainable travel with the utmost respect for local culture & customs, and ensures that the many tourist dollars spent overseas directly benefit the local population. I remember that the people who walked into our store were firm believers in fair trade and genuinely seemed interested in the cultural heritage of their planned destination.

Despite my desire to relocate to the USA, I absolutely loved my job there. My colleagues were among the coolest, most caring & well-traveled people I’ve had the pleasure to meet in my life. Even though I amicably quit that job heavy-hearted when an opportunity to relocate arose 13 years ago, I can pick up the phone today and talk to any of them as though no time has passed… My visits back to Belgium always include a few dinner invitations from former colleagues, which are traditionally evenings that are filled with great travel stories, reminiscing about the old times with laughter and fantastic home-cooked meals from recipes that were collected from all corners of the world.

No matter how many hours pass, these cozy evenings seem to fly by quickly. Belgians are known to be a gregarious, hospitable folk. We take great joy in welcoming guests and providing a warm, cozy atmosphere. Like many Europeans, most of my Belgian friends have traveled extensively and their homes are eclectic havens of exotic textiles & interesting knick-knack’s that were collected throughout their many adventures overseas. I remember that many years ago, my friend Griet put on a slide show about her trip to the Caribbean she had literally just returned from. To set the proper tone, her massive oak wood table was adorned with Caribbean-style stoneware, set neatly on banana-leaf placemats, and she had cooked a scrumptious spicy fish stew from the island of Aruba. The aroma greeting me at the front door was as though I had set foot ashore the Dutch Antilles… Reportedly, she had collected the recipe from the innkeeper’s cook of a small bed & breakfast in Oranjestad. Rumor has it, the cook in question fancied Griet’s fair skin & blue eyes, but let’s not go there, shall we?

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SPICY CARIBBEAN FISH STEW
(Adapted from a recipe by the ‘Arubiana Inn’ in Oranjestad, Aruba)
– 1 lbs of firm white fish (cat fish or halibut work great in this recipe)
– 1 lbs of large shrimp, shell-on
– 1 red onion, finely chopped or diced
– 2 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– 2 whole cloves
– 2 laurel leaves
– 2 Tbsp of sweet curry powder
– 1 Tsp of ground cinnamon
– 1+ spicy red pepper(s), choose as per your ‘heat’ preference (*)
– 1 cans of diced tomatoes
– 1 lemon, zested & juiced
– 3 Tbsp of sour cream
– 1/3 cup of coconut cream (or coconut milk)
– Salt & pepper, to taste
– Olive oil
– Fresh cilantro, for garnish
(*) My friend Debi over at ‘Life Currents’ wrote a great post about choosing hot peppers. Read her post here, so you can decide how ‘hot’ you want to go in choosing the kind of pepper and the quantity for this dish.

In a large heavy pan, sauté the diced onion until translucent and starting to brown. After approx. 3 min or so, add the minced garlic, curry powder, cloves, cinnamon and chopped spicy pepper(s). Continue to stir-fry the spices and onions for 3-5 min to bring out their flavors. Add tomatoes, lemon juice, sour cream & coconut milk and season with salt & pepper to taste.

Chop fresh fish into large chunks, and place chunks in these in the sauce. Make sure to submerge them in the sauce as much as possible, so they cook evenly. Let them braise for about 15 min, then add shrimp and cook for 3-5 min more until shrimp are pink and fish is cooked through.

Sprinkle some chopped fresh cilantro over the top and serve with fried plantains, bread or rice.

Cheddar Jalapeno Cornbread

22 Jul

Yesterday, on a gloomy Sunday evening, I cooked a scrumptious turkey chili and needed something on the side to sop up all the delicious juices from the chili. The thought of cornbread crossed my mind as it is such a traditional staple, and it almost seemed wrong not to serve it alongside this chili.

Cornbread has always intrigued my foodie sense, but I’ve never actually baked cornbread from scratch before because my family didn’t seem too keen on it and it always seemed like a waste to cook an entire loaf just for me. Yesterday, however, I bit the bullet and decided it was cornbread time. I got a bit spooked by the idea of making it from scratch and, I confess, I ended up buying a tin of dry jalapeno cornbread mix from my neighborhood market. I did spruce it up with a blend of jack & cheddar cheese and a dash of cayenne pepper, so that ought to pardon me a bit, no? It turned out beautifully golden in my cast iron skillet, and everyone loved it. I’ve been scouring the Internet for a recipe to make this one fresh some day, and I thought this one from Ina Garten looked like a winner to me.

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CHEDDAR JALAPENO CORNBREAD
(Adapted from a recipe by Ina Garten. Photo courtesy by Ina Garten)
– 3 cups of all purpose flour
– 1 cup of yellow corn meal
– ¼ cup of sugar
– 2 Tbsp baking powder
– 2 tsp of Kosher salt
– 2 cups of milk
– 3 extra large eggs, lightly beaten
– ½ lbs of unsalted butter (2 sticks), melted
– 8 oz of extra-sharp Cheddar, grated & divided
– 3 scallions (white & green parts), chopped & divided
– 3 Tbsp of seeded & minced fresh jalapeno peppers

Combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, eggs & butter. With a wooden spoon, stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until most of the lumps are dissolved. Be careful not to over-mix! Mix in 2 cups of the Cheddar, the scallions and the jalapenos, and allow for the batter to sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350F and grease a cast-iron skillet (or 9x13x2 oven-safe pan).

Pour the batter into the pan, smooth the top and sprinkle with remaining Cheddar and a few extra chopped scallions. Bake for 30-35 min or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool and cut into wedges or large squares.

Chili con Turkey

22 Jul

It seems ‘June gloom’ has finally arrived in coastal Los Angeles. Yesterday morning, we even got a few sprinkles of rain. I know. Shocking!

The gloomy weekend reminded me of the dreary, cloud-laden skies that blanket Belgium for a good portion out of the year, and all those times I’d cycle back home from school in fog & drizzle. Being outside in the rain is a natural state of being in Belgium. Unlike here in Southern California where even the slightest drop of rain causes widespread panic, life goes on and the world barely skips a beat. Even during school recess, I remember we’d play outside in the rain and were handed a towel to dry off when re-entering the class room after we’d taken off our boots, shuffling & sliding back to our desks on socks alone. Beautifully sunny days are scarce and – as such – they are worshipped like the Holy Grail. People swarm to the beach with their brood in one hand and an ice box in the other, or they soak up the rays over a few ice-cold beers on a sun-drenched café terrace, dotted with colorful umbrellas. I remember when I first arrived in California, I didn’t do laundry for 5 weeks straight, because it was always sunny in the weekend and on sunny weekends you simply don’t occupy yourself with mundane household chores… It later dawned on me that all weekends are sunny here, and unless I didn’t mind wearing my bikini to work, I had better get some laundry started. Pronto.

Yesterday was one of those typical dreary Belgian days by the California beach. It was a welcome change of pace from the heat wave we got the previous week, and a perfect opportunity to cook something hearty while smelling the dampness in the coastal air. Turkey chili & corn bread sounded like just the ticket.

chili 2

TURKEY CHILI
– ½ cup of diced pancetta (or 2-3 slices of bacon, chopped)
– 2 medium onions, diced
– 1 red bell pepper, ribs & seeds removed, diced
– 1 orange bell pepper, ribs & seeds removed, diced
– 1 lbs of ground turkey
– 1 15oz can of kidney beans, rinsed
– 1 15oz can of pinto beans, rinsed
– 1 15oz can of black beans, rinsed
– 1 28oz can of pureed tomatoes
– 2 15oz cans of diced tomatoes
– ½ tsp of ground cinnamon
– 1 tsp of unsweetened cocoa
– 1-2 peppers in adobo sauce, chopped (or more, if you like it spicier)
– 3 tbsp of chili powder (whichever kind you prefer)
– 1 tbsp of chopped fresh oregano (or ½ tbsp of dried oregano)
– 1.5 tbsp of ground cumin
– salt & pepper, to taste
– a few tbsp of ground masa flour, to thicken the chili if it’s too runny.

Pour beans into a strainer and gently rinse under cold water until no longer gooey. Set aside and let drain.

Brown pancetta or bacon in a large, heavy pan (or cazuela) until most of the fat is rendered. Remove & set aside. In the pancetta/bacon fat, sauté the onions until starting to soften. Add chopped bell peppers, and sauté a few minutes more until onions are turning translucent. Add ground turkey meat and sauté until browned and crumbly. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Add rest of the spices (except cinnamon & cocoa) and the chopped peppers in adobo sauce, and sauté for a minute more, just to release the flavors. Add pureed & diced canned tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Let everything simmer for another 10-15 minutes and thicken the sauce with the masa flour 1tbsp at a time, if needed.
Add cinnamon, cocoa, beans & browned pancetta/bacon, and fold everything together into a thick stew. Simmer for another few minutes to heat through.

Serve with sour cream, diced red onions, chopped fresh cilantro & shredded cheese… and yummy Cheddar jalapeno cornbread

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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