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Blue Cheese Potato & Rutabaga Gratin

1 Aug

Belgium is big on potatoes, hence our national love affair with French fries… Potatoes were also my grandpa’s favorite dish, and genetically, I think that’s where I got my potato-love from. He especially liked mashed potatoes, with loads of butter & cream, to the point where they had to be served in a shallow bowl to ensure all that buttery deliciousness didn’t land on the antique parquet floors.

To further add to my love for potatoes, both mom & dad would take me to local farms for basic provisions like milk & eggs, butter, tomatoes… I was very little and I don’t remember many of them, but I do vividly recall one of them. It had a stone arched entrance with large, cast-iron gate doors that creaked when you pushed them open, and the old stone farm house & buildings were wrapped around a cobblestone courtyard, complete with the prerequisite droppings of horse manure and hay shoveled in the corner. The grounds were guarded by a large mutt that once bit my brother in the ass was allowed to roam freely and would come barrelling down towards you, stopping only a few feet shy, and then taunt you with his bark until the farm hands would shoo it away. You never knew which corner ‘the creature’ would come from, and as a little girl, that made me grasp my mother’s pants extra-tightly out of fear for death by wild canine. To further confirm my belief that this was purgatory, the plump farmer’s wife would often beckon us into the farm house in her stained apron and with a semi-toothless smile, and then proceed with pinching my cheeks with her callused, rancit smelling hands. The farm ‘office’ had several yellow sticky fly traps hanging from the ceiling with a handful of flies desperately trying to free themselves from certain death, and I always tried not to look at those things, because it made my little heart weep for the shimmering blue-green souls. The only upside I remember about that particular farm was that we were allowed to play on the potato fields whilst serious business was conducted inside the office. On occasion, we’d be handed a small garden shovel by a farm hand and asked if we’d like to go digging for spuds. I loved digging for potatoes! To me, it was like hunting for buried treasure: you never knew whether you’d come up with tiny little ones or the BIG monster kind that earned you serious bragging rights. Our loot would be taken home and prepared, and somehow it always tasted waaayyy better then when we’d buy potatoes from the store. I think I learned early on that farm fresh food tastes better then the stuff you buy in the grocery store.

Just like my opa, potatoes have a special place in my heart and on my hips. Belgian cuisine is the more down-to-earth sibling of French cuisine, and as such it is heavily French influenced. However, being more of a hearty meat & potatoes kind of country, we worship the lowly tuberous crop alongside many other root vegetables like turnips, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga etc. Potato gratin is one of those dishes that seem to always make it to family get-togethers during holidays or festivities, and often in duplicate too. I’m not sure where precisely I got the recipe below from, but I think I based it loosely on ‘Gratin Dauphinois’ and then sort of made it my own over the years.

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BLUE CHEESE POTATO & RUTABAGA GRATIN
– 1.5 lbs of firm-cooking potatoes (Yukon Gold, for instance), more or less even in diameter
– 4-5 medium rutabaga
– 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– 1 cup of heavy cream
– 1/2 cup of half & half
– ½ cup of chopped fresh thyme
– 6-8 oz of Gruyere cheese, shredded
– 4 oz of blue cheese crumbles (Danish Blue or Roquefort work great)

Heat oven to 375F. Peel and wash potatoes. Peel rutabagas. With your mandolin slicer, slice potatoes and rutabagas into thin, even slices (approx. 1/8 inch thick).

Butter an oven pan on all our sides. In the bottom of the pan, make a ¼ inch layer of the potato slices and rutabaga slices combined (you can mix & match them, so your ¼ inch thick layer has a bit of both), overlapping them a bit. Sprinkle with some of the blue cheese and a bit of the fresh thyme, then lightly toss some gruyere over top. Repeat this process until you reach the top of your pan. Reserve about 3-4 oz of the gruyere and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine milk & cream, add /minced grated garlic and salt & pepper to taste. Add remaining thyme, if you have any, and give everything a good stir. Pour all of it over the potato/rutabaga mixture in your pan. The cream mixture will thicken as the potatoes release their starch, so don’t worry if it looks a bit too soupy at first. Cover pan and cook in a 375F oven for approx. 30-45 min, until potatoes & rutabaga are tender and easily pricked with a fork. Uncover, sprinkle remaining Gruyere over the top and brown until the broiler until cheese is nicely melted, a bit browned on the edges & bubbly.

Blue Cheese Potato & Rutabaga Gratin

1 Aug

Belgium is big on potatoes, hence our national love affair with French fries… Potatoes were also my grandpa’s favorite dish, and genetically, I think that’s where I got my potato-love from. He especially liked mashed potatoes, with loads of butter & cream, to the point where they had to be served in a shallow bowl to ensure all that buttery deliciousness didn’t land on the antique parquet floors.

To further add to my love for potatoes, both mom & dad would take me to local farms for basic provisions like milk & eggs, butter, tomatoes… I was very little and I don’t remember many of them, but I do vividly recall one of them. It had a stone arched entrance with large, cast-iron gate doors that creaked when you pushed them open, and the old stone farm house & buildings were wrapped around a cobblestone courtyard, complete with the prerequisite droppings of horse manure and hay shoveled in the corner. The grounds were guarded by a large mutt that once bit my brother in the ass was allowed to roam freely and would come barrelling down towards you, stopping only a few feet shy, and then taunt you with his bark until the farm hands would shoo it away. You never knew which corner ‘the creature’ would come from, and as a little girl, that made me grasp my mother’s pants extra-tightly out of fear for death by wild canine. To further confirm my belief that this was purgatory, the plump farmer’s wife would often beckon us into the farm house in her stained apron and with a semi-toothless smile, and then proceed with pinching my cheeks with her callused, rancit smelling hands. The farm ‘office’ had several yellow sticky fly traps hanging from the ceiling with a handful of flies desperately trying to free themselves from certain death, and I always tried not to look at those things, because it made my little heart weep for the shimmering blue-green souls. The only upside I remember about that particular farm was that we were allowed to play on the potato fields whilst serious business was conducted inside the office. On occasion, we’d be handed a small garden shovel by a farm hand and asked if we’d like to go digging for spuds. I loved digging for potatoes! To me, it was like hunting for buried treasure: you never knew whether you’d come up with tiny little ones or the BIG monster kind that earned you serious bragging rights. Our loot would be taken home and prepared, and somehow it always tasted waaayyy better then when we’d buy potatoes from the store. I think I learned early on that farm fresh food tastes better then the stuff you buy in the grocery store.

Just like my opa, potatoes have a special place in my heart and on my hips. Belgian cuisine is the more down-to-earth sibling of French cuisine, and as such it is heavily French influenced. However, being more of a hearty meat & potatoes kind of country, we worship the lowly tuberous crop alongside many other root vegetables like turnips, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga etc. Potato gratin is one of those dishes that seem to always make it to family get-togethers during holidays or festivities, and often in duplicate too. I’m not sure where precisely I got the recipe below from, but I think I based it loosely on ‘Gratin Dauphinois’ and then sort of made it my own over the years.

20130801-154359.jpg

BLUE CHEESE POTATO & RUTABAGA GRATIN
– 1.5 lbs of firm-cooking potatoes (Yukon Gold, for instance), more or less even in diameter
– 4-5 medium rutabaga
– 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– 1 cup of heavy cream
– 1/2 cup of half & half
– ½ cup of chopped fresh thyme
– 6-8 oz of Gruyere cheese, shredded
– 4 oz of blue cheese crumbles (Danish Blue or Roquefort work great)

Heat oven to 375F. Peel and wash potatoes. Peel rutabagas. With your mandolin slicer, slice potatoes and rutabagas into thin, even slices (approx. 1/8 inch thick).

Butter an oven pan on all our sides. In the bottom of the pan, make a ¼ inch layer of the potato slices and rutabaga slices combined (you can mix & match them, so your ¼ inch thick layer has a bit of both), overlapping them a bit. Sprinkle with some of the blue cheese and a bit of the fresh thyme, then lightly toss some gruyere over top. Repeat this process until you reach the top of your pan. Reserve about 3-4 oz of the gruyere and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine milk & cream, add /minced grated garlic and salt & pepper to taste. Add remaining thyme, if you have any, and give everything a good stir. Pour all of it over the potato/rutabaga mixture in your pan. The cream mixture will thicken as the potatoes release their starch, so don’t worry if it looks a bit too soupy at first. Cover pan and cook in a 375F oven for approx. 30-45 min, until potatoes & rutabaga are tender and easily pricked with a fork. Uncover, sprinkle remaining Gruyere over the top and brown until the broiler until cheese is nicely melted, a bit browned on the edges & bubbly.

Princess Slaw

31 Jul

I would be lacking proper patriotic pride if I didn’t feature something ‘witlof’ on here. After all, this bitter leafy vegetable ‘is’ Belgium’s pride, so much so, that it is commonly referred to as Belgian Endive in English. Like Vegas brides, witlof was discovered entirely by chance. The story goes that it was someone at the Botanical Gardens in Brussels who happened to store chicory roots in a dark cellar, and then later discovered that they had produced fragrant white leaves. Like so:

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In 1872 some of this ‘witlof’ was sent to Paris, where it was later show-cased in an exhibition… and everybody lived happily ever after! Well, maybe not everybody.

As a child, I was never a big fan of raw witlof. Braised, these little cabbages caramelize and turn somewhat sweet, but left raw, the white leaves have a rather bitter crunchy bite. At the time, my juvenile palette wasn’t ready to embrace this without a fight, especially not considering there were sweeter salad options available. Nonetheless, mom loved endive salads and so we ate them. As odd as it may sound to America’s culture of coddling its brood, Belgian children typically grow up eating whatever the adults eat around the table, give or take the prerequisite portion control or cutesy approach to prevent excessive sulking. Being a foodie herself, mom was particularly insistent on expanding our palettes and exposing us to different flavors and foods from around the globe. Her tenacity in this fiercely rivaled my stubbornness, to the point where she once cooked spinach 4 days in a row and fed it to me with each meal, simply because I refused to eat the required 3 spoonfuls for good measure. Four whole days!!! If I even remotely hinted that I was hungry, I’d be at the table with my darned reheated bowl of spinach. I endured four days of ‘spinach prison’, before my young brain grasped the concept that I wasn’t going to win this one… um, yeah. Not that I’m stubborn or anything.

But, we digress… Yesterday, my Flemisch childhood friend Hadewych private-messaged me over Facebook to sing praise about my blog (she’s very pretty AND intelligent!), and asked if I was going to feature witlof and root vegetables, as these are true Belgian staples. She shared a recipe for a delicious, crisp witlof salad with red beets and happened to mention, tongue-in-cheek, that she calls it ‘Princess Slaw’ since the beets give the salad a pink hue and her young daughter Sam is easily bribed with anything pink and/or “princess” these days… Hadewych: 1 – Sam: 0.

With Belgian Endive costing you your first born an arm & a leg over here, and our finances seriously challenged, I got creative and played around a bit with Hadewych’s salad recipe. However, originally this slaw is made with thinly sliced witlof, rather than fennel. My more budget-friendly version below is still pink, so I’m sticking with ‘Princess Slaw’. In honor of a little blue-eyed girl named Sam.

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PRINCESS SLAW
(Adapted from super-mom Hadewych’s recipe)
– 1 large red beet, roasted (*)
– 1 tart apple, like Granny Smith
– 1 small/medium fennel bulb
– 2 Tbsp of good plain mayonnaise
– 3 Tbsp of Greek yogurt (or crème fraiche)
– juice & zest of 1 lemon
– 1 tsp of good mustard
– 1-2 Tbsp of chopped fresh parsley
– salt & pepper, to taste
(*) When working with beets, it is good to know that they will stain not only your hands, but also any porous material you place them on. If you don’t like your equipment or hands turning a bright pink, use a plate to cut them. The color will wash off of your hands after a few washes, but you could also wear latex gloves.

Heat oven to 400F. Cut stems off of the beets (no need to peel the beets!), and wash them so you get rid off all the dirt. Wrap each beet individually in aluminum foil. Place in the hot oven and roast until beet is fork-tender. For a tennis ball-size beet, this will be approx. 45 min.
Take beet out of the oven, and let cool until able to handle. Unwrap and rub beet under cool running water. The skin will slip right off without much effort! Chop into small cubes.

While the beet roasts, zest lemon and squeeze juice into a small bowl. Add mayo, yogurt, mustard and salt & pepper, to taste. Stir until you get a smooth dressing. Set aside and let flavors develop a bit.

Cute stems and ends of the fennel. Remove outer layer, and cube fennel heart in very small dice or slice thinly. Peel & chop apple into small dice as well.
Add chopped beet to bowl with fennel & apple. Pour dressing over the top and stir to coat everything. The slaw will turn bright pink. Sprinkle some roughly chopped fresh parsley over the top.

If you are a fan of raw beets, which I am not so much, you can also roughly grate a raw beet and the apple with your box grater, and combine it with with the thinly sliced witlof or fennel. Enjoy!

Curried Zucchini Cakes

29 Jul

My good friend Glynis posted a picture of her delicious home-grown zucchini crop on Instagram the other day, and freely confessed she had been on the hunt for zucchini recipes on Pinterest lately. My mind instantly went to a stack of curried zucchini cakes I whipped up months ago. I think last time I thought about frying up zucchini cakes in my skillet was probably when one of my colleagues arrived at my desk with a bag of monster-squash. She had grown them from seedlings and – by the sentiment in her voice – I could tell she felt comforted knowing her squash babies’ were going to someone who would love them as much as she did… I thanked her for sharing her glass house crop, and promised her I’d turn them into something magically delicious for lunch. Like Mary Poppins. Almost.

I’m not sure if these things happen to just me or everybody else, but at times I think my brain just randomly archives itself when it reaches system overload on all the foodie stuff. There are certain dishes I love and vow to put on regular rotation, and then, for some bizarre reason, I completely forget about them for months! Zucchini cakes are one of them. Every time I fry them up I fall in love with their crisp deliciousness and that token dollop of tart crème fraîche that goes on top, but somehow it nearly always takes some sort of a visual stimulus, like Glynis’ Instagram picture, for me to go “oooohhh, zucchini cakes!”.

I figured that I should post these forgotten gems on my blog, and hopefully I won’t forget about them anymore. Right.

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CURRIED ZUCCHINI CAKES WITH GOAT CHEESE & PINE NUTS
– 4-5 small zucchini, grated (approx. 2 cups)
– 2 small carrots, grated (approx. 1/2 cup)
– 1/2 of a small onion, grated
– 2 Tbsp of finely chopped fresh dill
– 1/2 cup of feta cheese, crumbled
– juice of 1 lemon
– 1 cup of flour
– 3 eggs
– 1.5 Tbsp of sweet curry powder
– salt & pepper, to taste
– olive oil, for pan-frying
– mild goat cheese (*)
– toasted pine nuts
(*) Soledad‘s lemon-lavender goat cheese is delicious with these fritters!

Grate zucchini and place in a cheesecloth-lined strainer. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and lemon juice, and let drain for 15-20 minutes. Afterwards, take zucchini and squeeze excess out of the vegetables. Place in a large bowl.

Add grated carrot and onion, eggs, flour, feta cheese, dill, and curry powder, and combine into a chunky batter. Add salt/pepper taste.

In a heavy skillet, heat olive oil until nice and hot (but not smoking) over medium heat. Place a hefty scoop of batter in the pan and press down a bit to flatten out. Cook until brown & crisped, +/- 4 minutes. Flip over and brown the other side.

Transfer to a 200F oven to keep warm, while you cook the rest in batches.

In a separate pan, toast pine nuts for a minute or so. Be careful, cause they burn easily!

Serve the zucchini cakes while still warm & crisp, with a dollop of goat cheese on top and a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts.

Dilled Cucumber Salad

25 Jul

Belgian Summers are notoriously finicky. Either the weather stays fairly overcast and entirely too cold for the time of the year, or the country is hit with a sweltering, oppressive heat wave that makes you wish you never cursed the wet dreariness from the past 7 months in the first place. With temperatures generally hovering between ‘%$!@, it’s freezing!!’ and ‘jeez, it’s still raining?!’, most brick homes are not equipped with central cooling either. During these brutally hot summers, windows and doors would be propped open, protected by colorful ribbon-screens to keep flies & bugs out (*), and you’d at least get the illusion of air circulating. Buckled under Mother Nature’s oppressive grip, I swear you could practically hear a faint, collective moan wafting through the air.
(*) unless you lived in our home, where a certain someone that I am not naming, thought it was fun to braid those vibrantly colored ribbons together into a visually pleasing work of art, and you’d inadvertently end up with the mother-ship of all mosquito colonies in your house. I’m not proud of it.

On those blistering days, we predominantly lived in our grassy backyard, barefooted. I can’t remember a Summer day on which we did not precariously shuffle a tray of plates & silverware to our teak-wood table. Our dinners on these sultry evenings were long family gatherings, in which we’d eat for a few hours by citronella candles and watch the threatening thunderstorms crack & pour down from underneath the comfort of our covered garden patio. The crisp cool air that followed these torrential Summer storms, made it all worthwhile.

Requesting a cooked meal on these sweltering days would have sent any respectable housewife into a tizzy, but our mom merely looked us in the eye with James Bond-like ‘cool’ and would calmly announce we’d be having salad for dinner, with some sort of barbecued meat, to distinguish lunch from dinner. For good housekeeping measure.

Mom got very creative with salads, and I remember loving most of them. Those summertime salads were also my first introduction to – insert dramatic drum roll here – the mandolin slicer! I think I must have been all of about 7-8 years old when I was allowed to touch one very carefully under the watchful eye of El Commandante mom, and was specifically instructed to always use the protective guard that comes with any mandolin slicer. Ha! The irony.

The crisp cucumber salad below is one of my favorites in my salad repertoire. It’s a play on Greek tzatziki. I think I got this recipe from mom, but I’m not entirely sure as it’s one of these dishes that just live in my head and surface out of nowhere. Either way, this tangy refreshing salad is perfect for hot Summer days…

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DILLED CUCUMBER SALAD
(Inspired by Greek tzaziki)
– 4 seedless cucumbers, preferably hot house
– 16 oz of Bulgarian yogurt (or plain yogurt. Not the thick Greek-style yogurt)
– 1 Tbsp of white wine vinegar
– juice of 1 fresh lemon
– 3 Tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil
– 2 cloves of garlic, depending on size & strength, pressed or minced (or more)
– 2 Tbsp of fresh dill, chopped
– 2 Tbsp of fresh mint, chopped
– a handful of fresh chives, chopped
– 1 Tbsp of fresh lemon zest
– salt & pepper, to taste

Half & seed cucumbers lengthwise, and slice into very even, medium-thickness slices. A mandolin slicer works great here, but watch your fingers and knuckles. (not that I know anything about that! OK???) Place slices in a colander or sieve, and sprinkle liberally with salt. Place something heavy directly on top of the slices of cucumber, and let them drain out 15 min or so bit over the sink.
In a large bowl, combine yogurt with olive oil, lemon juice and white wine vinegar. Stir until you get an even consistency, it should be fairly liquid, dressing consistency. If it’s not enough, add a splash of water. Add garlic one clove at a time, and taste to desired garlicky-ness. Add salt & pepper to taste as well.
Add cucumber slices and fold until everything is well-coated. Fold in chopped herbs and cover. Set in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, so cucumbers have time to absorb the delicious yogurt vinaigrette.

Perfect as a side with grilled shrimp or salmon!

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.

Rémy’s Ratatouille (Rat-a-too-ee)

16 Jul

So…how many of you saw the title and instantly wandered off to romantic Paris in their mind, with its cobble-stoned rues and fresh baguettes? Right? A few Christmases ago, my sweetheart surprised me with Pixar’s ‘Ratatouille’, and I instantly fell in love with it for more reasons than just the adorable rat Rémy and the equally as lovable man who gave me the movie in the first place. I loved it because it teaches us a very simple but important lesson in life: no matter who you are or where you come from, there’s always something wonderful around the corner when you follow your passion. Aw.

Now the thing is, there’s nothing even remotely Belgian about ratatouille. It’s a dish straight out of French cuisine, Provence to be precise. As children, my brother & I spent many Summer vacations in our family’s sweltering caravan, on a dusty campground at the Cote d’Azur. How lucky were we?
Ratatouille is reminiscent of the flavors of my childhood vacations, so it has a special place in my heart, right next to the smell of gasoline and roasted salty & sweet peanuts. Don’t ask.

Rémy didn’t actually cook ‘ratatouille’ as his showcase dish for Mr. Anton Ego, the austere & disdainful food critic in the movie. No. Rémy cooked ‘Confit Byaldi’.

While similar in flavor, Confit Byaldi is the more elegant version of its often too soggy & overcooked Provençal cousin ratatouille. Visually stunning, Confit Byaldi tempts with caramelized layers of equal size slices of zucchini, yellow squash, Japanese eggplant & roma tomatoes, all resting happily on a bed of piperade sauce. Doesn’t that sound sexy already? And with all these gorgeous Summer vegetables making a happy appearance at your local farmers’ market right now, the timing couldn’t be better.

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CONFIT BYALDI
(adapted from Thomas Keller)

For the Piperade sauce:
– 1/2 red bell pepper, seeds & ribs removed, finely diced
– 1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeds & ribs removed, finely diced
– 1/2 of orange bell pepper, seeds & ribs removed, finely diced
– 1 small clove of garlic, minced (+/- 1 tsp)
– 2-3 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
– 1.5 cups of crushed tomatoes
– 1 small onion, finely diced
– 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, left whole
– salt & pepper
– 1 bay leaf

Heat olive oil in a pan and sauté onion & garlic over medium-low heat until onions are soft but not browned, +/- 8 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, thyme & bay leaf, and simmer until everything is very soft and very little liquid remains, about 10 minutes. Add peppers and simmer until soft, another 8-10 minutes or so. Discard bay leaf & thyme, season with salt & pepper.

For the vegetables:
– 1 zucchini (4 to 5 ounces) sliced in 1/16-inch rounds
– 1 Japanese eggplant, (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
– 1 yellow squash (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
– 4 Roma tomatoes, sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
– 1 small red onion, sliced thinly but make sure rounds stay together and don’t fall apart
– 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced in rounds
– 1 tsp minced garlic
– 2 tsp of extra-virgin olive oil
– 1 tsp of chopped fresh thyme leaves
– 1/2 cup of sliced black olives (if you hate olives, you can totally leave them out. No big deal)
– salt and pepper, to taste

(*) I use a mandolin to slice my thumbnail all vegetables nice & evenly, but you can definitely do this by hand as well. Just make sure all slices are even in size.

Spread piperade sauce on the bottom of an oven-proof pan. Heat oven to 250F degrees.
Arrange alternating vegetables in a close spiral, so that 1/4 of each slice of vegetable sticks out. Repeat until pan is filled and all (or most) of the vegetables are used.

Mix garlic, oil, and thyme leaves in bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle over vegetables.

Cover the pan with foil and seal well. Bake until vegetables are tender, about 2 hours. Uncover, turn oven to 400F and bake for 30 minutes more, or until the dish is slightly browned and liquid has mostly evaporated.
Take out of the oven and sprinkle olives and fresh thyme over the top.

I typically serve this over couscous or brown rice, barley… You name it. Chicken or fish are great with this dish as well.

Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta & Shallots

12 Jul

Behold: spruitjes!

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Don’t hate! ‘Spruitjes’ are without a doubt the most misunderstood vegetable in this world. Their cabbagey deliciousness is completely under-appreciated, in my humble opinion. The problem with ‘spruitjes’ is that most people who label them the fruit of Satan, don’t buy them fresh. For purists like me, that’s strike #1. Worse yet, the misunderstood sweetlings are then dropped into a pot of salted water and boiled until there’s no sign of life left in them. Strike #2!

Spruitjes are truly delightful when cooked the right way. You simply *must* buy them fresh on the stalk, when they are still happily clinging to the mother ship. Slice them off individually with a sharp knife and remove all of the darker loose leaves. What you really want, is the lighter green darlings that are hiding behind those loose outer leaves. Trim the fibrous bottom a bit, so you have a nice looking, handsome sprout. Et voila, you can hardly go wrong from here…
(As an added bonus, you’ll end up with a mighty green light saber when all of this is done, not that we ever indulge in anything Star Trek in this house)

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BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH PANCETTA AND SHALLOTS
(in the manner of The Hungry Belgian)
– 2.5 lbs of Brussels sprouts (+/- 1 large stalk)
– 1/4 lbs of pancetta, cubed into fine dice
– 1 shallot, finely diced
– 4-5 sprigs of fresh thyme, chopped
– 2 tbsp of butter
– juice of 1/2 lemon
– salt & pepper, to your liking

Slice the little cabbages off the stalk as listed above. Take the cleaned & trimmed fresh sprouts, and slice each one in half or in quarters, depending on the size. You can also leave them whole, it’s up to you.

Chop the fresh thyme finely.

In a heavy pan, such as cast iron, cook the pancetta until beginning to brown. Remove and set aside. Melt butter in the remaining pan drippings and cook shallot until softened and translucent. Add sprouts and cook over medium heat for approx. 6-7 min, until they are bright green, beginning to brown and somewhat soft. You want your spruitjes to still have some ‘bite’!
Add 2/3 of the chopped fresh thyme and pancetta back in the pan, stir and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes. Season with salt & pepper to your liking, and sprinkle fresh lemon juice & remaining fresh thyme over the top.

Please don’t hate. Try these, they’re delicious!

Twisted Mashed Potatoes (Stoemp)

8 Jul

If there was one thing my brother & loved when we were kids, it was ‘stoemp’. Mom would make it quite often, as we lived on a single-mom budget, and it’s one of those dishes that pack a ton of deliciousness on a few pennies.

Stoemp (pronounced ‘stoomp’) is a delightful mash of creamy potatoes and any vegetable your kids will eat you fancy that can be mashed with the potatoes. It’s often prepared with carrots in Belgium, and served alongside juicy browned sausage, with the buttery pan drippings drizzled over the mash. It’s pure awesomeness, believe me.

Now that I’ve outgrown my ‘Bunny & Friends’ dinner set, I still enjoy a good potato-vegetable mash. Not only is it a bit lighter and healthier, I feel that it gives plain ole mashed potatoes a more interesting flavor. It’s ‘feel good’ comfort food without fearing the immediate expansion of your hips.

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CAULIFLOWER, LEEK & FENNEL MASH
(makes enough to feed a family of 6… or your husband)

– 1.5 lbs of yellow potatoes
– 1 medium size head of cauliflower
– 3 leeks, sliced thinly
– 1 medium fennel bulb, very finely diced
– 3-4 tbsp of butter
– 1/3 cup of fresh thyme leaves
– salt & pepper to taste
– Pecorino-Romano cheese, grated (for topping, optional)

Cut cauliflower and pull florets apart. Discard outer green leaves and rough stems. Soak florets in a bath of salty water for a few minutes, to entice all bug friends to vacate the cauliflower NOW. Cut potatoes into chunks, roughly about the same size as the cauliflower florets so they cook evenly. Put potatoes and cauliflower into a large pot, and bring to a boil. Simmer until done and easily mashed.

In the meantime. Cut the dark green tops off of the leeks, and slice off bottom root. Slit each stalk in half lengthwise and rinse under cold running water, separating the layers a bit, to remove any dirt. Dry stalks with paper towels, and slice them into thin rings or strips.
Cut green stems, top and bottom root off of the fennel. Slice bulb into thick slices and finely dice each slice into small pieces like you would an onion.

Melt 1 tbsp of butter in a pan and sauté fennel over medium-low heat. When fennel is starting to soften (+/- 4-5 min), add leeks and continue to sauté until vegetables are soft, slightly browned and caramelized.
Sprinkle thyme leaves over vegetables, and sauté an additional 2 minutes to release the flavor of the thyme.

Mash cauliflower and potatoes with 2-3 tbsp of butter, add leek & fennel mixture, 1 clove of minced garlic and salt & pepper to your liking. Use a wooden spatula to combine everything together.

Sprinkle some grated Pecorino-Romano cheese & thyme leaves over the top and serve hot.

Wickedly Zesty Pickled Peppers

6 Jul

A few weeks ago, I came across food porn an inviting recipe from Deb Perlman at Smitten Kitchen for pickled vegetables. It looked so colorful and beckoning. In my giddy foodie enthusiasm, I sent it to my good friend Jolene, who would sell her left kidney for a pickle , and I pledged to make it that day. And then I forgot about it. Until today, when I noticed that a handful of bell peppers in my refrigerator had sadly abandoned the freshness club.

As I mentioned in my homemade mustard post earlier, something pickled of any sort makes a frequent appearance on any Belgian farmer’s table. Pickles are often served alongside cubes of farmers’ cheese (boerekaas) or Gouda, pâté, hunks of grainy brown bread and a Trappist beer. So when I stumbled upon Deb’s pickled vegetable recipe, it spoke seductively to my Belgian heart. There’s something magical that happens to your tastebuds when vinegary crunch and Gouda meet.

Deb’s recipe is a winner ‘as is’, but I didn’t have all the vegetables on hand and I also wasn’t particularly enthused by the idea of pickled sugar snap peas. In short, I took her recipe and ran with it… I added a few extra flavor components, like fennel seed and crushed red peppers for extra wickedness, and added a red onion & some garlic for oomph.

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WICKEDLY ZESTY PICKLED PEPPERS – makes approx. two 16oz jars.
(Adapted from a recipe by Smitten Kitchen)

– 1 red bell pepper
– 1 yellow bell pepper
– 1 orange bell pepper
– 1/2 of a red onion
– 1 large carrot
– 2 whole cloves of garlic
– 1 cup of distilled white vinegar
– 4 tbsp of white sugar
– 2 tbsp of salt
– 1/2 tbsp of fennel seed
– 1 tbsp of yellow mustard seed
– 1 tbsp of black pepper corns
– 1/2 tbsp of celery seed
– 1-2 tbsp of crushed red pepper, depending on how much bite you prefer.

“Julienne” all vegetables (except cloves of garlic) and set aside. If you have a mandolin slicer with a julienne blade, great! If you don’t have a mandolin slicer, try to finely slice your vegetables into thin strips as even in size as possible. (* if your mandolin is as angry as mine is, you may want to keep some band aids around)

In a small non-reactive sauce pan, heat vinegar, sugar, salt and all spices until sugar & salt dissolve only. Add water and stir. Let cool to lukewarm.

Place 1 clove of garlic in each glass (or non-reactive) jar.Divide sliced vegetables over jars, and gently pour vinegar mixture over the vegetables until completely submerged. You want to make sure the spices are more or less evenly divided over each jar as well.
Put the jars in the fridge and let the pickling feast begin. They will be pleasantly zesty in about 2 hours, and will continue to pickle a bit more over time. However, the flavor won’t change much from the first 2-4 hours of pickling. Provided you keep the peppers submerged in the vinegar at all times, they should last in your fridge for about 1 month.

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