Danny was recently in Europe on business; one of his stops was Brussels. His trip motivated the theme of this post: food from Belgium, the land of Tintin. Admittedly, Belgium does not seem to be too promising a source of good food. Brussels sprouts spring to mind, and a viler vegetable it is hard to find. Belgian endive is not as universally loathed as Brussels sprouts, but Belgian endive still has few attractive qualities. On the other hand, one might regard Belgian food as a combination of the best of French and German food, but without the effeteness of French food or the heaviness of German. So good food or bad? After cooking my way through the two books of this post, I now have an opinion, although perhaps my data is incomplete as I cooked nothing with chocolate or beer.
The title of Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook is suspicious: show, not tell, we are told. If everyone really eats that well, it should be clear from the contents of the book. Our author, Ruth Van Waerebeek, is from Ghent, and has cooked in restaurant kitchens, taught cooking classes, and is an expert in Chilean cooking, having married a husband from Chile, opened a restaurant in Chile, and written a cookbook about food from Chile. Amazon reviewers like her Belgian cookbook a lot more than I do. I found the cookbook to be very meat oriented, with the salad and vegetable side dishes uninspiring. Many recipes were spread over two pages, quite inconvenient for the person trying to cook from this book.
Even though it is finally spring in Michigan and not autumn, I made “Autumn Salad with Celery Root and Belgian Endive” (page 14); I felt I had to do something with Belgian endive. For this salad, you combine sticks of slightly cooked celery root with circles of endive, watercress, and mayonnaise. I used the homemade mayonnaise that I had made for the celeriac remoulade (below). The mayonnaise made this salad; with store-bought mayonnaise it would not have been that good, and with more homemade mayonnaise it would have been a lot better.
It turns out that a satisfactory way of disguising Brussels sprouts is to purée them in a cream soup; such is the recipe “Cream of Brussels Sprouts Soup” (page 71). This soup tasted like dozens of other green vegetable purées. One explanation for the non-assertiveness of the Brussels sprouts in this soup is the very small ratio of sprouts to liquid: ¾ pound Brusssels sprouts to 12½ cups of liquid. This recipe made a lot of soup, and would be better halved. Disguised as the Brussels sprouts are, palatable as this soup is, I do not think that we will finish it all.
“Fillet of Cod Flemish Style” (page 102) was not very good, although I am inclined to blame the fish instead of the recipe. Whole Foods Market only had previously frozen cod for sale, so I just decided to get flash frozen cod for this recipe. The fish tasted bland, but was somewhat chewy, without that nice flaky fish texture. Perhaps the fish ended up cooking too long, but salmon would have fared quite well under the same cooking conditions. The recipe consists of cod, onions, parsley, chives, and lemon oven-poached in white wine. Instead of pouring the wine over the cod, this combination would have been better if the wine had been poured into a wine glass and the cod just tossed out.
“Cauliflower Timbales” (page 212) were one of the few substantial vegetable dishes in this cookbook. These are custards of mashed cauliflower, eggs, cheese, and cream. Ruth suggests serving these with either a tomato sauce or a chive cream sauce; I opted for the cream sauce. These timbales did not look like much, being pale and flaccid (tomato sauce might have helped), but they had a respectable cheese-egg-cauliflower taste. [Go to the recipe.]
Le Pain Quotidien is an internatinal chain of restaurants that had its start in Brussels with founder Alain Coumont, himself from a restaurant family. From Alain Coumont’s cookbook, Le Pain Quotidien Cookbook, it is easy to understand the success of this restaurant chain: the food in the pictures is gorgeous, and the food I made from Alain’s recipes was, for the most part, really good. To what degree this food is Belgian food, I do not know; I imagine that the menu at Le Pain Quotidien’s American restaurants and the recipes in the cookbook published in this country must be tuned to the tastes of us Americans. Still, there is a certain continental panache; perhaps they really do eat well in Belgium.
My version of “Soba, Cauliflower & Blood Orange Salad” (page 148) was not nearly as exciting as the one in the book. I could not find any of the otherworldly Romanesco cauliflower listed in the ingredients, so I used broccoli (which I chose over plain cauliflower as I already had a cauliflower dish on the menu). I did use blood oranges, but they were not as “bloody” as blood oranges can be; furthermore, the ones I used were rather small, so I didn’t get that many segments. Finally, I just mixed everything together instead of artfully swirling the soba noodles on top of the other salad parts. This salad was good enough, although I am discovering that I don’t really like soba noodles, or at least the Eden brand.
I cannot decide whether I like turnips or not. I have made several good turnip dishes since I started this blog, and so I decided to make “Chickpea, Turnip & Lemon Soup” (page 122), which is a purée of chickpeas, turnips, preserved lemon, and a few other ingredients. When I taste-tested this soup, I liked its taste a lot, but when I had a whole bowl of it before me at dinner, I just couldn’t finish it. There was something just too much about this soup. I do not know if was the turnips or some other ingredient, or just that I was not that hungry, but this was not the delicious soup that I had been hoping that it would be.
I thought that “Goat Cheese & Asparagus Frittata” (page 62) was great; Danny was less impressed, being of the opinion that eggs and cheese are obviously good together but not that special. Eggs and cream are poured over asparagus and cherry tomatoes, topped with goat cheese, and baked in the oven. When the frittata first emerges from the oven, it is beautifully puffed, and although it soon sinks down, it continues to taste just as good. This is like a quiche filling without the crust. [Go to the recipe.]
I do not understand the fig jam recipe (page 42). The recipe is simple enough to follow: simmer dried figs and dried blueberries in water with sugar, then blend it all together and add lemon juice. But what comes next makes no sense. We are supposed to “pour” (my stuff was not exactly pourable) the jam into warm sterilized jars, seal, store in the refrigerator, and use within a month. Why are we fooling around with sealed sterilized jars if we are keeping this in the refrigerator and using it all up in a timely manner? Aren’t those sealed sterilized jars for food that sits in the cupboard for a long time? I put my jam in a plastic container and put it in the refrigerator; I do not know yet if we will use it all within a month. Quibbling about the recipe aside, the jam itself was a sweet spreadable fig confection.
I made the fig jam in order to use it in “Toasted Camembert, Walnut, and Fig Tartine” (page 74). A tartine is an open-faced sandwich, very trendy these days. If Le Pain Quotidien’s tartines are typical, then this is a good trend. For these particular tartines, you toast slices of good bread, spread with fig jam, then top with cheese and finish with chopped walnuts. Stick it under the broiler until the cheese melts. The second time I made these, I left out the walnuts and did not miss them at all; the fig and cheese combination was good enough without them. I also used a lot less fig jam the second time, and even the first time used less than the tablespoon of jam per slice of bread called for in the recipe.
“Smoked Salmon and Celeriac Tartine” (page 86) starts with slices of good bread, toasted, which are topped with celeriac remoulade and smoked salmon, then stuck under the broiler to warm up the salmon. We are told to serve these with dill, lemon, and black pepper. (I tucked the dill under the salmon before broiling the sandwich, and omitted the lemon and pepper.) This was a great combination! However, I am not sure that the amounts of toppings given in the recipe make any sense. For two slices of bread, the recipe says to use 5 ounces of smoked salmon and 7 ounces of celeriac. The bread slices would have to be gigantic for this amount to fit. There is a recipe within the recipe for celeriac remoulade, and a recipe within the recipe within the recipe for mayonnaise. I made the homemade mayonnaise since there is not much else to the celeriac remoulade except the celeriac; also, I was going to use the mayonnaise in another dish. This was the first time that I had ever made real celeriac remoulade, and I was quite pleased with it. I see why it is a standard of French cuisine. It is a salad full of contradictions: mushy yet crisp, bland yet zingy. I do not think it would have been as good with store-bought mayonnaise.
“Five-Grain Fruit Bread” (page 20) is mysteriously named. I have no idea what the five grains are supposed to be. I count, in the ingredients, two grains, wheat and oats, and four seeds, flax, sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin. Apparently five of these six ingredients are “grains”; it is unclear what the left over sixth ingredient is. I made the bread in the food processor, tossing in the seeds and raisins (raisins being the “fruit” in the recipe title) after the bread dough had formed and whizzing until they were incorporated. As a result of this technique, the seeds and in particular, the raisins, became somewhat chopped up. I preferred the raisins this way: in tiny bits throughout the loaf instead of in large discrete chunks. This ended up being a good and healthy (given all the seeds) raisin bread.
To sum up: I am not too impressed with food from Belgium. I did like some of the recipes from
Le Pain Quotidien Cookbook, but then this is not only restaurant food, but restaurant food that may have strayed somewhat from its Belgian origins.
Adapted from Ruth Van Waerebeek, Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook
2 eggs, separated
¼ cup cream
½ cup grated Gruyère
1 tablespoon minced chives
¾ cup cream
¼ cup white wine
2 tablespoons minced chives
Preheat the oven to 375º. Butter six ramekins.
Separate the cauliflower into small florets. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the cauliflower, and simmer until the cauliflower is fork tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the cauliflower, and mash with a potato masher.
Mix together the egg yolks, cream, cheese, chives, and pepper and nutmeg to taste. Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold into the yolk mixture. Add the mashed cauliflower and distribute the mixture between the ramekins. Put the ramekins in a larger pan, and add boiling water to halfway up the ramekins. Bake for about 30 minutes. Cool for a few minutes, then unmold.
For the sauce, simmer the cream and wine with salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste until reduced by a third. Add the chives, and serve the sauce with the timbales.
Adapted from Alain Coumont and Jean-Pierre Gabriel, Le Pain Quotidien Cookbook
¼ cup cream
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon tarragon leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 asparagus spears, cut into ¾-inch lengths
1 clove garlic, minced
5 cherry tomatoes, cut in two
2½ ounces goat cheese, sliced
Preheat the oven to 425º. Mix together the eggs, cream, salt, pepper, tarragon, and thyme. Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized oven proof skillet. Add the asparagus and garlic and cook for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes, then pour the egg mixture over it all. Distribute the goat cheese slices on top. Put in the oven until puffy and cooked, about 10 minutes. This is most impressive when eaten right away.