By Steve VandeGriek Photos by Jan Behmer ©2020
My wife and I grew up in the north and, like many transplanted Floridians, we snicker in February at the folks we left behind. But when winter is new and the holidays approach we can feel them snickering back.
A few years ago we went to Belgium. Wintry and wonderful Brussels and Bruges. Magical medieval plazas filled with giant twinkling fir trees and Christmas markets and steaming gluwein flowing like, well, like wine. Frozen horses’ breath snorting in the chill air and sleighbells jingling behind. Decorated lanes full of local and foreign merrymakers strolling with hands full of Belgian waffles, Belgian fries, and Belgian chocolate. I know, I know, I sound like post-ghosts Scrooge. As I said, Christmas in Florida can leave me cold – no pun intended – and this really is storybook stuff. So just one more. Enormous fireplaces roaring in cozy old world establishments serving steamed mussels with fries, dozens of local sausages and hundreds of local beers that have been brewed for half a millennium.
And hearty regional dishes – more than we had time to savor, though we tried. Game paté, pumpkin soups, pheasant, North Sea shellfish, duck, rabbit, lamb stews and pigs’ cheeks with spiced cookies. (The cookies are Speculos – Trader Joe’s imports them. You’re on your own for the pigs’ cheeks.) Some classic Belgian dishes are easily done at home. The three recipes here are a cross sampling from Flanders, guaranteed to warm your cockles even if icicles aren’t dangling from your eaves.
The first is a simple side from Brussels called STOEMP. It’s mashed potatoes on steroids. Serve with or without sausages. With is the wurst choice, without is the worst. Sorry. And don’t forget the ale.
This centuries old rustic gem is best made with roughly equal amounts of potatoes and any chopped vegetable mixture you choose – cabbage, leeks, garlic, scallions, which get sautéed, spinach, turnip, the obvious Brussels sprouts or the currently chic kale, which get boiled. A little fried and chopped bacon gets bonus points. For Christmas color, I like a little red bell pepper, which I sauté with the garlic and scallions I always use, and broccoli. Whatever you don’t sauté, boil until soft. Peel, cube and boil the potatoes in salted water until soft but not falling apart. Drain and combine everything in a big pot. Throw in a good amount of grated cheese – parmesan works well, gruyere is a rewarding splurge – and a few dashes of nutmeg, some salt and pepper and milk or half and half. I like to add a dollop of sour cream. Mash until smooth and creamy, sprinkle with chopped chives and serve with whatever meat – read sausage – you desire.
VOL AU VENT – roughly French for “blowin’ in the wind” – is a traditional Flemish specialty. Puff pastry shells stuffed with chicken, mushrooms, meatballs and a white sauce. You can make the puff pastry yourself if you’re into that. I buy the frozen shells and they work just fine. A side of fries is requisite.
Boil a chicken breast and a few thighs in some water and a little chicken broth. Shred the meat, minus any skin or bones. Save the broth.
Form tiny meatballs from a half pound of whatever ground meat you like. If red meat isn’t your thing you can use ground turkey. I have, but don’t tell Belgium. Boil the meatballs in the chicken broth till cooked through.
Sauté ten or twelve cleaned and quartered mushrooms in a little olive oil.
Melt half a stick of butter and stir in a half cup of flour, a little at a time, til blended. Stir in about two and a half cups of chicken broth and a cup or so of cream until incorporated. Add a half cup of shredded cheese – any kind you want – and a couple egg yolks, a couple tablespoons of lemon juice and black pepper to taste. Combine the meats and mushrooms in the sauce and keep warm over low heat. Stir it often.
Bake six pastry shells according to the package directions. Slice off the tops and stuff the shells to overflowing with the sauce. Set the tops back on at a jaunty angle and serve with fries.
FLEMISH CARBONNADE. I could do winter all year with enough of this stew. It’s a simpler variation of the French beef bourguignon, substituting brown ale for the red wine.
Marinate three pounds of cubed stewing beef in a pint of Belgian brown ale with a few crushed garlic cloves and a couple bay leaves. Leave it in the refrigerator overnight, then drain and reserve the marinade.
Season a few spoonsful of flour with salt and pepper in a large bowl. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and toss it in the flour. Shake off any excess.
Put a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, fry the beef chunks in small batches, stirring often, until they’re golden on all sides. Transfer each batch to a plate. Leave the brown fond on the bottom of the pan. Lower the heat to medium and fry a half pound of bacon, stirring occasionally, until it’s crisp. Remove the bacon, drain on a paper towel, and crumble it. Spoon out half the bacon grease. Leave everything else in the pan.
Add a couple of garlic cloves, a couple of carrots, a leek and a couple onions – all sliced – and sauté, stirring often, for ten minutes or so until they soften and start to brown. Stir in a spoonful of tomato paste and fry for a minute or two, stirring constantly.
Add the beef, the bacon and the marinade. Throw in a few mushrooms, if you like. Bring to a simmer, scraping up all the brown bits on the bottom. Add about a cup and a half of a beef broth and beer combo, some salt and pepper and whatever herbs you have on hand. It’s a stew, not a chemistry experiment. I like thyme, rosemary, cilantro, basil. Parsley and bay leaves work. Bring it all to a boil.
Cover and put it in a 350° oven for a couple hours, stirring once or twice on the way. Check the seasoning; maybe add some salt and pepper. Stir in a spoonful of Dijon mustard. Throw some chopped chives and parsley on top. Plate it with STOEMP, fries, or roasted potatoes, and a green vegetable. Serve with a robust red wine or brown ale.
From behind a big plate of this stuff I can squint and see Bruges.