May 27, 2015 § Leave a comment
Sebastian recently returned from his second weeklong trip away with his class. Compared with last year’s hand-wringing, this year it felt almost normal. Why shouldn’t a group of first- and second-graders go off to spend four nights in a dorm, exploring forests and caves, going fishing, and having dance parties? Before arriving in Belgium, we spent a fair amount of time wondering about the language-immersion aspect of the kids starting school here. But now with nearly two years of school under our belts, I find myself reflecting on some of the (admittedly subjective) things that have nothing to do with language that have surprised us—or made us anxious or crazy or just plain confused.
The school experience here has been an education for all of us. It has pushed us to be patient and to trust in a system that feels very different from what we are used to in more ways than I ever expected. Though it hasn’t been easy, I am grateful for the glimpse of something truly different. It is so easy nowadays to pick up and live somewhere else and yet effortlessly keep up with so much from home. (I can often tell you the New York weather forecast thanks to Morning Edition on WNYC.) In the end, though, it’s been our kids who have lived this different life for two years—who have done most of the hard work and, hopefully, gained from this unique time in their lives. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 17, 2015 § 1 Comment
Belgium doesn’t just do sweet—sticky waffles, chocolate galore, speculoos and other cookies—it also does sweet-and-savory. One secret to this appealing combo is an ingredient called sirop de Liège, traditionally made from very concentrated juice of apples and pears, though other fruits, including dates, apricots, and prunes, can be added. It’s not a syrup exactly, because it is basically solid. I would call it a cross between apple butter and a very sweet, dense jam.
Though it is often spread on toast as part of breakfast, it can also be used to add a rich, fruity undertone to savory dishes. For these meatballs, I turned to the cookbook What’s Cooking in Belgium. In addition to many intriguing recipes (including Rabbit in Beer with Prunes, which Frank made this past weekend), this book is full of interesting bits of information such as the history of traditional foods and festivals that celebrate certain dishes or ingredients. The meatballs themselves a fairly basic, but the sweet/tart/savory sauce (perfect to serve with a crunchy, bitter endive salad) really makes them stand out.
- 1 1/3 pounds ground pork and beef
- 4 medium onions, one minced and three roughly chopped
- 1 cup fine breadcrumbs
- 2/3 cup milk
- 2 eggs
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 tablespoons sirop de Liège*
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 6 bay leaves
- 1/3 cup white vinegar (or more to taste)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- optional: handful of dried currants
* If you don’t have sirop de Liège, the recipe suggests substituting 4 tablespoons red currant jelly and 2 tablespoons honey; I think a good-quality grape jelly would also work
In large mixing bowl beat the eggs into the milk, then add the minced onion, breadcrumbs, and ground meat. Mix the ingredients by hand and then divide to make eight balls, or boulets, each about the size of a tennis ball. (I made mine a bit smaller.) Heat a large cast iron or other heavy skillet, and cook the boulets, flattening just slightly, in oil for 10–15 minutes, turning regularly. Add 2/3 cup water and cook for another 10 minutes.
Once cooked, set the boulets and their juices aside on a plate. Use the hot pan to cook the roughly chopped onions in oil for 10 minutes. When they start turning brown, add vinegar and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Transfer the contents of the skillet to a large pot and add 2 1/4 cups water, the sugar, sirop de Liège (or substitution), and bay leaves. (If using the currants, add them now.) Bring to a boil before turning the heat down to a gentle simmer for 5–10 minutes.
In the skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter over low heat and mix with the flour. Stir and remove from the heat half a minute after the butter melts, making sure the flour doesn’t burn. Add a cup of the sauce to this roux and whisk until smooth, then return to the pot and stir. When the sauce starts to thicken, add the boulets and cook for a further 10 minutes.
January 15, 2015 § 1 Comment
It’s embarrassing to admit, but we missed the Christmas market in Brussels this year. But we did take a drive over the border to Aachen, Germany, to take in the festivities there. The weather wasn’t great and we considered not going at all, but then we thought maybe it won’t be as crowded! Apparently it takes more than an intermittent freezing rain to keep the crowds away from Christmas cheer in these parts. (That’s what the Glühwein is for.)
Aachen seems to be a pretty little town, but honestly it was hard to get any real perspective because all of the winding streets of the center were taken over by stalls selling food, mulled wine, decorations, gingerbread and other treats, and more. There were also a few small rides for the kids (though nothing like the beauties at the market in our hometown—score one for Brussels!).
We did peek into the Aachen Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in northern Europe. Part of it dates back to the late 700s and was begun by Charlemagne. It was one of the first sites in Europe to be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The inside is truly stunning, with incredibly ornate mosaics. We almost didn’t go in because it was very crowded, but Sebastian insisted that we do (twice, in fact). Sometimes it pays to listen to the kids.
December 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
I spend a fair amount of time at home and in and around our neighborhood. Luckily, I really do love our house, and I can take a walk or quick tram ride to do most of the things I need to do. It has also been a nice antidote to my previous life, in Brooklyn, when things often felt quite frazzled. It took two different subway trains to get Sebastian to school each morning, even before our commutes to work. Sometimes, while climbing the final set of stairs from the subway to reach the bustle of Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, I would allow myself to wonder if this was a normal way to live. (Not that I had any complaints about my workplace.) When you live in New York, the answer to this is yes. And no matter how much one may love that fine city—and I do—it can get to you after a while. So these days I don’t mind doing my freelance work at the dining table, and at 3:30 taking a walk to get the kids.
And yet I really should get out and explore my adopted town a bit more. Last week a friend was in town from London for a meeting, and we met for coffee. It’s no secret that when compared to nearby London and Paris, Brussels can be . . . underwhelming. Yes, it’s rough around the edges and arguably less dynamic, but it also has an underdog’s charm. Even as I poke fun at certain things, I find myself defending our little corner of the world. On my way to coffee last week I took my camera along, and while I didn’t purposely seek anything out or have a particular plan in mind, I found myself snapping away. I look forward to taking more walks in the months to come and trying to capture some of the beauty—and quirks—of Brussels.
October 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
Now that we are just days away from fall break, I find myself thinking back wistfully to the wonderful week we spent in France at the end of August. We rented a house with friends in the small town of Le Pouliguen, in the Loire-Atlantique department and just along the southern border of Brittany. It boasts (along with the town next door, the ritzier La Baule) some of the widest sandy beaches in France. But it also has la côte sauvage—the wild coast—consisting of rocky coves and tide pools and dramatic, windswept vistas. Add to this wonderful daily markets, charming towns, scenic bike rides (even if a little heart-stopping with the kids), and the most incredible chocolate cake on the planet, and we all wished we were staying for longer than a week (even if our clothes couldn’t expand enough to keep up). « Read the rest of this entry »
September 6, 2014 § 5 Comments
I’ve made a batch of apricot jam every summer except one (when I missed the short season during which apricots are available in New York) since I moved into my own apartment in Brooklyn, in 2001. Even last year, when we arrived in Brussels at the end of June and had a few other things to occupy our time (like unpack our entire household), I couldn’t resist the beautiful specimens I saw at the outdoor market. They were from Provence, and were perhaps the best I have ever eaten: sweet, juicy, and heavily perfumed. I bought 5 kilos. I quickly realized that, of all the decisions regarding the many mounds of stuff I either gave or threw away in preparation for our move, one of the few I regret was getting rid of my Ball canning jars. I thought it would be silly to bring two or three boxes of empty glass jars halfway across the world, so I listed them for free on Craigslist—and must have gotten close to fifty responses.
I figured I could find some canning jars here fairly easily, but with a very large box of ripe apricots and no luck finding any jars in our new neighborhood, I decided to store the jam in the freezer. I had never done done this before, and I was happily surprised with the results (though I shouldn’t have been surprised because my mom makes delicious strawberry and raspberry freezer jams). But I like the act of canning. It requires a blank slate of sorts. You must clear the counters and submit to an almost surgical mise-en-place. You have to slow down and focus on nothing else for that period of time in order to correctly execute each step of the process. And at the end, you have a stack of pretty jars to eat yourself (I mean share with your family) or give away. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 21, 2014 § 2 Comments
It’s less than two weeks before back-to-school around here, which means another summer is almost over. I also know this to be true because yesterday we were up at 4 a.m. following our return from California to Brussels, and after an ill-advised 3-hour nap in the afternoon, the boys were still up playing at 10:45 last night. You’d think this was the first time we’d done this! They were both great travelers, even though they only slept for two hours (total travel time: 23 hours). Our highly anticipated nearly five-week, bicoastal trek is now behind us.
It’s not easy being so far from family and friends (and believe me, California especially does feel far). There is not enough time with the former, and it’s impossible to find a way to see all of the latter. And yet we feel very lucky to be here: experiencing a different culture, having so many opportunities at our fingertips. While travel possibilities should not be understated, some of my greatest joy of living in this place at this time comes from watching our kids find their legs in a new country. On a practical level, I love that they are soaking up a new language. But they are also (hopefully) learning that they are adaptable, that there is a big world out there and they can make their way anywhere in it, that leaving what is familiar to you isn’t always easy but it is worthwhile—and, often, fun. (Of course our embrace of all things different still leaves room for cursing local quirks such as mind-boggling bureaucracy and stores’ odd opening hours.) « Read the rest of this entry »