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.
September 6, 2014 § 7 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 »
June 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
On Wednesdays, school in Belgium lets out at noon. This might seem like a cushy deal (for the kids anyway), but in my experience Wednesday is the craziest day of the week. There’s the mad dash home for lunch, persuading the youngest and soon-to-be-grumpy member of the family to take a nap, and then waking him up prematurely (and grumpy) in order to get to whatever activity has been signed up for. So on a recent gray and rainy Wednesday it didn’t take too much complaining of some probably make-believe malady to convince me to skip the activity for one day—and make a chocolate cake instead. Not just any chocolate cake, but one made with olive oil. It’s based on this recipe by Nigella Lawson, which I came across recently. I made the version that uses flour instead of ground almonds. I used a little bit less sugar and mixed all-purpose and whole wheat flours. Unsurprisingly for a chocolate cake from Nigella, it is delicious. It’s very moist, and while the olive oil taste isn’t at all overpowering, you can tell this cake is a little different. And because we all know how good cocoa is for us, I think this could even be considered almost healthy, right? (RIGHT?) Nigella says to beat the eggs, olive oil, and sugar until they are a “pale primrose” color. Is this right? I actually have no idea what color primrose is. Have I mentioned how in love I am with my covered cake plate? Here’s the recipe (in metric, but you can search online for cup equivalents):
Chocolate–Olive Oil Cake
- 50 g good-quality cocoa powder (sifted)
- 125 ml boiling water
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 125 g flour (I used all-purpose and whole wheat)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 150 ml olive oil
- 200 grams sugar
- 3 large eggs
- confectioner’s sugar for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 325°F/170°C. Grease 9-inch springform pan with olive oil. Measure and sift the cocoa powder into a bowl, and whisk in the boiling water until you have a smooth, still runny (but only just) paste. Whisk in the vanilla extract and set aside to cool. In another smallish bowl, combine the flour with baking soda and salt. Put the sugar, olive oil, and eggs in a large mixing bowl and beat vigorously for about 3 minutes, or until you have a pale primrose, aerated, thickened cream. Turn the speed down and pour in the cocoa mixture. Once it is all incorporated, fold in the flour mixture. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for about 35 minutes (Nigella says 40–45 minutes, but mine was done sooner), or until the sides are set and the very center, on top, still looks slightly damp. Let cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, and then ease the sides of the cake with a thin spatula and remove it from the pan.
February 4, 2014 § 6 Comments
Just before the holidays, the boys’ school hosted a soirée with an international theme. Everyone was asked to contribute a traditional food from their country, which would be offered for sale on the night of the party. I pondered for a moment, and thought, of course: chocolate chip cookies. We haven’t yet met another American at the school (although it is plenty international), and while chocolate chip cookies are not exactly original, I figured they would be welcome. Imagine my surprise when the table representing North America was filled with about nine platters of slightly different chocolate chip cookies.
Given the variety on all the other tables, it was pretty embarrassing. While of course there is amazing cooking to be found all over the U.S. (a big reason I miss Brooklyn!), and much of it is trumpeted as American cuisine, I realized that it is largely a style, an attitude, rather than specific dishes that speak to a national identity. A beautiful farm-to-table roast chicken with seasonal vegetables sounds great, but it’s not recognizably American. Of course, that’s part of the beauty of our country: that there are so many traditions, no single dish could possibly even hint at the whole.
So one weekend morning over pancakes, it dawned on me that this is something typically American, that no other cuisine does anything quite like it. Crêpes, blini, palačinky, and untold other variations, sure. But none of these is the same as a stack of fluffy, warm pancakes served with maple syrup and a side of bacon. It inspired me to invite our neighbors to partake of our weekend tradition. (Though they have spent time in the U.S. and certainly had pancakes before, I’m proud to say they did have an epiphany here: bacon and maple syrup!)
I’ve made a lot of pancakes in my day. We probably have them at least every other weekend. My “recipe” is very forgiving, and it has changed over time. It is loosely modeled on this one, which includes ground flaxseed and chopped walnuts. But it is also easy to change based on what’s in your cupboard at any given time. This is my current iteration. For a change from syrup, I love these with fresh lemon juice and sugar sprinkled on top.
- 2 cups flour (I generally use a mixture of whole wheat, all-purpose, and buckwheat)
- ½ cup fine cornmeal
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 ½ cups buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- butter for cooking
Whisk together dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk together buttermilk and eggs. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients and stir just until incorporated. (If too thick, add a little more milk or buttermilk.)
Heat large (preferably cast-iron) skillet and heat over medium heat, then swirl in a pat of butter. Add batter to skillet by scant 1/4 cupfuls. Cook until bubbles appear on the surface and undersides are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Flip pancakes and cook an additional 1–2 minutes. Reserve on a platter in a warm oven, and continue with the rest of the batter. Serve with warm maple syrup.