Belgian Cuisine, A Cultural Sampler
Jim and I moved back to Chicago a little over six months ago. We miss our friends and the familiar surroundings of the Belgian capital just as we missed our US based friends when we lived in Brussels. One such set of Chicago friends is our quarterly dining club. A few years ago, we decided to meet and eat quarterly, rotating through the four couples’ homes. The hosts select the featured cuisine and divvy up menu responsibilities: starters, salad, mains, sides and dessert. Music and beverages complement the food. To date, we’ve enjoyed German, Italian, French, Mexican, Polish, American, etc… Jim and I hosted an annual Raclette dinner, introducing our friends to the European tradition that French and German friends had introduced to us.
During our two-year absence, our friends would send photos of their dining extravaganzas. With the seven-hour time difference, Jim and I would often get real-time images of burritos, steaks, pierogi, layer cakes, berry tarts and cream pies as we sipped morning coffee in our Brussels townhouse. Sometimes the best intentions can be so cruel….
Settled back into our home, Jim and I fell into our quarterly rotation. But we were too late in the season to serve up raclette. That rich and hearty cheese and potato meal, like fondue and tartiflette, is best enjoyed in the cold, dark winter months with snow pelting the windows and a fire roaring in the great room.
So what did we do when our turn came to host the quarterly dinner? We picked Belgian cuisine of course!
After all, we had first hand experience with the eclectic food that comprises Belgian cuisine. Belgium is an interesting country. It’s made up of three distinct cultures, each with its own official languages—Flemish, French and German. And where there’s a language, there’s usually a cuisine. Every tongue has a distinct palate. With three such different cultures, we had plenty to choose from.
Belgian food is heavy on sauces and meat. I had some of the best veal, lamb and chicken there. Rabbit is also a staple. One specialty is Lapin a la Kriek….braised rabbit slow cooked with a Belgian beer flavored with cherries. There’s also Waterzooi, a dish invented in Ghent. It’s a cross between stew and soup made with fish, chicken or vegetables. Egg yolk, cream and broth serve as the base for all versions. There’s also the very French sounding vol-au-vent, a small hollow bit of puff pastry filled with a creamy concoction of chicken and mushrooms—not your run-of-the-mill, Banquet pot pie.
The rich and heavy cuisine isn’t ideal for summer. But then, Belgium really doesn’t have a summer. The climate is cool and damp, year round. We enjoyed winters of little or no snow and daily temperatures that hit above the freezing mark. However, summers were a disappointment. Annual flowers often drowned. We were lucky to get two weeks of hot temperatures and sunny skies. Therefore, we were a little worried that Belgian food might not be compatible with a hot, sunny Chicago summer. But what the hell, we had plenty of cool Belgian beer on hand to keep us inoculated against the heat.
Warning: The images you are about to see may make you very hungry.
Gin & Tonic. Hendricks Gin infused with cucumber, rosemary and lime. Served with tonic, rosemary sprigs and cucumber slices. Although not particularly Belgian, we justified the choice because a Belgian couple introduced us to the drink last summer when they invited us into their home for a Belgian barbecue. This G&T was a hit.
Charcuterie of smoked sausage and cheese
Walk into any Brussels pub or cafe for a drink and you’ll find an appetizer of smoked sausage and cheese on the menu. It’s a typical accompaniment to beer and wine. Chris prepared a beautiful presentation of sausage and creamy Belgian cheese.
This tasty dish is often served as a Main Course. I decided to mix things up and serve it as a starter. Belgian endive is blanched until soft, then wrapped with a lean piece of deli ham. The endive and ham are cooked in a rich sauce of gruyere and parmesan cheese.
Beer, what else? Belgium is a bit far north for wine although they do make a good sparkling wine. Instead, the Belge excel at beer. There are over 450 Belgian brands. Most Americans know Stella Artois. But as we came to learn, Stella is Belgium’s answer to Budweiser and Miller. Sure there’s Maes and Jupiler if your aim is to binge drink–lower alcohol content and limited taste. No, we’ve become Belgian beer snobs, preferring the richer and higher alcohol content of Ciney, Duvel, Orval, Chimay, Grimbergen, Hoegaarden, Leffe and others. And each comes with its own distinctive glass.
Endive with Blue Cheese, Bosc Pair and Walnuts
Mussels became one of my favorite foods in Brussels. I don’t know why I never cared for them before. They seemed like a lot of effort for such little payoff. But I was wrong. The secret is in the rich liquid used to steam the mussels to perfection. Soaking baguette and even frites in the juice is heaven. One of our favorite Brussels eateries, Le Chou de Bruxelles has over 20 preparations of Mussels based on the ingredients added to the liquid
Boulettes a la Liegeoise
The Belge seem to like meatballs of any size, shape and meat contents. Boule is the French word for ball and boulette is a small ball. There’s even a Belgian food chain that specializes in boulettes called Balls of Glory. Janice’s version is a specialty of the Wallonian town of Liege. This version is prepared using Sirop de Liege which is essentially a thick sort of molasses made with apple and pear juice.
Carbonnade a la Flamande
Otherwise known as Belgian beef stew. The meat is slow cooked with caramelized onions and a rich, dark Belgian beer like Chimay Bleu. Libby served her version on buttered noodles.
Pommes Frites are the ONLY true accompaniment to Moules. And never call them French Fries for the Belgians claim the deep fried potatoes as their own. The trick to great Belgian frites is a double fry and a savory fat such as Ox. Unfortunately, I had to settle for Crisco. Needless to say, the flavor albeit good, was not the same. I even got my mother’s old 1950’s Sunbeam deep fryer out of mothballs for the night.
Everybody loves Brussels Sprouts when they’re blanched, sliced in half and sautéed with caramelized onions deglazed with white wine and balsamic vinegar.
Janice made a decadently creamy custard with berries. A perfect dish to complete the evening.
The way to know and love a culture is through one’s stomach.
Jim and I loved our stay in Belgium. I’ve captured much of our experience in prior blog posts. Of our International Cuisine group, only Janice was able to visit us in Brussels. This amazing meal allowed us to share Belgium with our friends. For one brief night, our home in suburban Chicago transformed into a Brussels bistro. We sipped flavorful beer, listened to French songs and savored Belgian comfort food.