Tag Archives: comfort food

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.

Five Cheese Mac

27 Jul

One of the many fabulous dishes America welcomed with me when I first arrived here nearly 13 years ago, is a bubbly & cheesy mac straight out of a hot oven.

Sure, there are oven-baked cheesy noodle dishes in Belgium too, but they’re falling dramatically short from the cheesy, creamy deliciousness I’ve enjoyed on this side of the Atlantic. For starters, Belgian macaroni and cheese dishes lack flair and creativity, in my opinion. Almost as if nobody cared to explore the culinary possibilities of this American staple. Overall, I think American cuisine gets a bad wrap in Europe due to all the sub-par hamburger chains and cheap fast food joints that are being lobbied as a slice of ‘real’ American life. It’s entirely false, and I’ll come right out saying that I’ve enjoyed some amazing cooking & food here. So to whomever put mac ‘n cheese on the culinary map, I thank thee! (Oh, and a special thank you shout-out to Vermont extra-sharp white cheddar, Maine lobster, Alaskan king salmon, Georgia peach cobbler, Boston cream pie, Mississippi mud pie, California avocados, Texas BBQ, Missouri’s St. Louis style ribs, Hawaii’s macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi & pupus, New York cheesecake… Yeah, I rest my case).

Over the years, I’ve played around with many mac ‘n cheese recipes I found online, but I finally settled on my own creation below, which is more of a grown-up mac and has bit more depth of flavor. I hope you enjoy it as much as my family & I do.

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FIVE CHEESE MAC
(Adapted from a variety of recipes I found online)
For the cheese sauce:
– 1 quart of milk
– 1/2 cup of flour
– 8 Tbsp of good quality butter
– 1/4 cup of buffalo hot wing sauce (*)
– 6 oz of Brie, sliced with rind on
– 12 oz of Gruyere (or Swiss cheese), grated
– 6 oz of extra-sharp white cheddar, grated
– 6 oz of mild cheddar, grated
– 4oz of blue cheese, crumbled
(*) I shamelessly stole this idea from the Hard Rock Cafe in Hollywood! It gives the sauce a bit of a kick in the pants.

Make a simple bechamel sauce, by melting the butter in a pan and adding the flour. Cook for a minute until flour & butter are one, then add milk and stir until all lumps are gone. Bring to a simmer and stir until the sauce thickens. When thick, remove from heat and incorporate all cheeses into hot sauce. Add buffalo wing sauce and season with salt & pepper to your liking. Add a pinch of nutmeg.

For the mac ‘n cheese:
– 12 slices of thick cut bacon
– 1 cup of breadcrumbs or crushed corn flakes (I use corn fakes because they add a nice touch of sweetness)
– 2 Tbsp of melted butter
– 2 boxes of elbow macaroni or cavatapi, or another kind of small pasta noodle.
– 3 Tbsp of finely chopped fresh rosemary (optional)

Heat oven to 400F. Lay bacon slices out on a foil-lined baking sheet, bake in the hot oven for 15-20 minutes until browned and crisp. Set aside and let cool slightly until your are able to crumble the bacon by hand. Turn oven down to 350F.

In the meantime, bring large pot of water to a boil and cook pasta according to box instructions until “al dente”.

Drain cooked pasta and place in a large oven dish. Pour cheese sauce over it and crumble bacon all over the top. Fold sauce and bacon into the pasta, then sprinkle the top with the breadcrumbs or corn flakes and drizzle melted butter evenly over the top. Sprinkle top with chopped rosemary. Bake for 45min or so until it’s bubbly and the top layer has crisped.

So good!

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.

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

Vanilla Crepes

20 Jul

Who doesn’t like crepes? They’re a culinary hit no matter where you find yourself in the world. I believe crepes are originally French, but they’re very much a staple in Belgium as well. Millions of breakfast tables are adorned with a steaming stack of hot, buttery crepes every day, and an equal number of eager wee little fingers clumsily spread butter, jam or sugar on them as we speak. Crepes or ‘pannekoeken’ are not just for children, though. As a matter of fact, many Belgians will often gather with friends or family at their local coffee shop or ‘koffiehuis’ on dreary grey afternoons, and catch up on life and kids over a steaming hot cup of coffee and a freshly baked crepe or crispy waffle. It’s as much part of everyday life in Belgium as it is to run your car through any kind of drive-thru here in America.

Crepes are easy to bake, albeit a bit finicky and perhaps an acquired skill. Despite of what kitchen supply stores want you to believe, you actually do not need any sort of specialty crepe-making equipment. My grandma Jozefa used a regular pan, and her recipe has long been praised as the standard in crepe-baking.

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VANILLA CREPES
(adapted from a recipe by my omoe Jozefa)
– 7 oz of pastry flour or self-rising flour
– 4 eggs
– 2 cups of whole milk
– 3/4 oz of butter
– 2.5 oz of white sugar
– 2 vanilla beans

Melt the butter and combine with flour, eggs, milk & sugar. Split vanilla beans and with the tip of a knife scrape out the seeds. Add vanilla seeds to batter. The batter should be a thick liquid, that can easily be swirled or poured.

In a non-stick lightweight pan, heat a teaspoon of peanut oil until your pan is very hot. Depending on the size of your pan, pour about 1/3 cup of your batter in the pan and immediately swirl it around so you get an even, thin coating. Use a bit less for smaller pans, a bit more for larger pans. You want to achieve a thin pancake or crepe.

Crepes cook quickly, and you’ll notice tiny bubbles appear on the top within a matter of 1-2 minutes. When you see these tiny bubbles or air holes, it’s time to flip your crepe and cook the other size. Loosen the edges and use a spatula to flip your crepe, or go ‘pro’ and try to flip it in the air.
Don’t be alarmed if your first crepe came out a mess. Every Belgian knows the first one is always a dud!

Serve with butter, sugar, honey or jam. They’re delicious hot or cold.

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.

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.

Moroccan Spiced Meatloaf

8 Jul

I love the warmth and intense flavors you find in most ethnic cuisines. There’s something really homey about the scent of cinnamon, cardamom and cumin.

When I lived in Belgium, my humble 3-story house (commonly referred to as ‘the shoebox’ by a good friend of mine) stood in the beating heart of the Moroccan neighborhood in Ghent. Even though it’s been well over a decade since I called the ‘Jasmijnstraat’ my home, the inviting scent of that neighborhood is engraved into my olfactory system. I still remember stepping off the crowded tram after a long day’s work, and being greeted by the smell of roasted spiced meats and freshly baked sesame breads. I would often take the tram 1-2 blocks further, just so I could walk the extra few blocks home and pass by all the Moroccan bakeries & grocers. I loved that neighborhood. I’ve met some of the friendliest people there.

Even though our language-gap was roughly the size of the Mediterranean, my neighbors ‘Faisal & Mohammed’ welcomed me with traditional Moroccan hospitality when I moved into the neighborhood: mint tea & baklava. I didn’t catch on until much later that Faisal actually did not speak any Dutch and only spoke very broken French, but we shared a love for great home-cooked food. We frequently found common ground at the local spice vendors & small fresh produce markets, where she would often point and smile at me to indicate what the best flavor deal of the day was. As time went on, she would regularly send over her jeans-clad kids with dishes that were so delicious, that I may or may not have licked them clean. I plead the fifth.

Faisal & Mohammed, while very traditional in their Moroccan culture, loved & embraced Western culture, and married the best of both worlds. The recipe below is adapted from Faisal’s take on meatloaf. Don’t be alarmed by all the spices, it makes for a delicious meatloaf!

spiced meatloaf

MORROCAN SPICED MEATLOAF – served approx. 6 people
(adapted from a recipe by my former neighbor Faisal)

– 2 tbsp of olive oil
– 1 medium-sized carrot, grated
– 1 large rib of celery, diced very finely
– 6 green onions
– 1 clove of garlic, minced
– 1 lbs of lean ground beef
– ½ lbs of ground pork (or add ground lamb or more beef instead of pork )
– 1 tsp of salt
– a dash of cayenne pepper
– ¼ tsp of black pepper
– 1 ½ tsp of ground cardamom
– ½ tsp of ground cumin
– ½ tsp of ground cinnamon
– ¼ tsp of mace
– ¼ tsp of ground ginger
– 1 cup of breadcrumbs
– 1 large egg, whisked
– ¼ cup of milk
– 1 cup of curry ketchup, divided (for a basic homemade curry ketchup recipe, look here)

Heat the oven to 350F. Lightly grease a 9x5x3 loaf pan. In a skillet or saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil. Sauté the grated carrot and the celery until softened. Add green onions and garlic and sauté for 1 minute longer. Let cool slightly.

In a large bowl with hands, thoroughly combine the beef, pork, salt, peppers, spices, bread crumbs, egg, 1/2 cup of ketchup, and the milk. Stir in the sautéed vegetables until well blended.

Pack into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 1 hour. Spread the remaining 3 tablespoons of ketchup over the top of the loaf and bake for 15 minutes longer. Let rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

Gentse Waterzooi (chicken stew from Ghent)

6 Jul

If chicken ‘n dumplings had a Belgian cousin, it would surely be “waterzooi”. While waterzooi doesn’t come with puffy buttermilk dumplings, it ranks just a high on the creamy comfort food scale. Once you sop a piece of crusty French bread in its yolky broth, you’ll understand why this dish became a National treasure.

Translated from Dutch, ‘waterzooi’ means ‘to simmer in water’… The dish was historically nothing fancier than a simple fish boil with readily available fish like cod & perch, and potatoes. As rivers and ponds became more polluted and fish populations diminished, chicken made its debut in this classic charmer.

Today, the city of Ghent reigns unchallenged in waterzooi-land. Located in the Northwest corner of Belgium and only a short drive away from the North Sea, Ghent has placed waterzooi on the culinary map. Hundreds of restaurants each boast their own variation of the dish, all vying for the attention of the oodles of tourists that roam this picturesque city in search of waterzooi.

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GENTSE WATERZOOI
(Adapted from a recipe by ‘Restaurant De Karmeliet’)

– 1 whole chicken, quartered
– 3 stalks of celery
– 1 leek
– 3 carrots
– 6 firm potatoes (like Yukon Gold)
– 1 bunch of parsley
– 2-3 sprigs of thyme, leaves only
– 2 eggs
– 1 cup of heavy whipping cream
– 6-8 cups of chicken stock
– 2 tbsp of butter
– salt & pepper, to taste

Heat chicken stock and add chicken, let simmer for approx. 20-30 min on a low-medium fire until the chicken is done. Set aside.

Cut celery, carrot and leek into very fine strips (‘julienne’). Dice potatoes into rough chunks.
Take a large enough pan so all the broth and chicken will eventually fit, and sauté the vegetables and the potatoes in 1-2 tbsp of butter over medium heat.

In the meantime, take chicken out of the stock and peel off the skin, discard the skin.

Add peeled chicken to the vegetables & potatoes. Sift the stock to eliminate any impurities the chicken left behind, and add to pot with chicken, vegetables and potatoes.

Add 2/3 of the cream into the pot, and simmer another 10-15 min. Season with salt & pepper, to your liking.

In a separate bowl, add remaining cream and 2 egg yolks. Whisk together and gently add a bit of the hot broth one spoon at a time. This is called ‘tempering’. Keep whisking as you introduce the broth, to make sure your egg mixture won’t scramble. Keep adding broth until you reach a warm temperature. When the egg mixture is warm, take pot off the stove and gently drizzle and stir the egg mixture in the pot.

Ladle in shallow soup bowls, and sprinkle chopped parsley & thyme leaves over the top. Make sure to serve some French bread on the side, as the broth will have you yearning for more!

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