When people (sometimes, if I am lucky, French people) ask me why my accent when speaking French is close to spot-on, I respond, “Ma mère était belge.” (“My mother was Belgian.”) While half of me may be Belgian, all of me has been aflutter these past weeks of the World Cup. Oh, those Red Devils.
The cooking of Belgium has been and will be going longer — and, perhaps, more successfully — than the soccer team. It is one of the world’s great cuisines and gave the globe some of its favored foods.
“French fries” aren’t French so much as they are Belgian. Really, the only thing “French” about them is the reference to the manner in which the potato is cut up (that is, “frenched,” sliced thinly lengthwise). Frying potatoes the Belgian way — fried twice in two different temperatures of oil — is the only way to perfect “French” fries, in Belgium properly and merely called “frites.”
In Belgium, there is no such thing as the “Belgian waffle.” There is, however, the Brussels waffle and the Liège waffle, so named after those two Belgian cities and resolute rivals for any crown to being the Belgian waffle. The two differ in crispness, batter makeup and doughiness. (Our so-called Belgian waffle is more like the Brussels waffle.)
A saying among European restaurant fanciers is “When it rains in Paris, it drizzles in Brussels.” By far, the largest percentage of restaurants in Belgium’s capital — itself a serious restaurant center — are French. If you wish to dine on Belgium’s more native foods — for example, those frites and the national crustacean, steamed mussels — you need to seek out homegrown Belgian bistros.
Other traditional Belgian dishes, some of which now travel the world: salmon mousse; the salad of asparagus wrapped in slices of ham; tomatoes stuffed with bay shrimp; and steak tartare — yes, it was perfected in Belgium — and there often called, interestingly, “filet américain” and made with not beef but horse. Belgians remain the heartiest eaters of horse in Europe at about 2 1/2 pounds per capita a year.
The Brussels sprout (not me, the vegetable) is a member of the mustard family and descended from the cabbage. It came from the Mediterranean basin but was popularized in Belgium’s capital region just over 500 years ago, hence its moniker. Long shunned in the United States, it is now something of a mainstay on millennials’ menus.
Much is made, especially in marketing, of the term “Belgian chocolate.” But if you think of it for a moment, growing cacao in such a northerly climate is ludicrous, not to say impossible. The Belgians both import and fashion into confections massive amounts of chocolate, this being their great contribution to candy land. That is Belgian chocolate.
One final Belgian culinary info of interest, regarding the Belgian endive (there merely called by French speakers “endive,” and “witloof” for those sizable numbers of Belgians who speak Flemish.). The Belgians are great coffee lovers and also fond of both extending coffee grounds with ground roast chicory root and enjoying the complementary taste of the latter. Some suggest that it is roast chicory’s dark chocolate-like flavor that’s the trigger.
Right around the creation of the country itself, in the 1830s, a Belgian chicory root farmer found that endive roots stored and drying in his dark cellar had sprouted white leaves, and that these torpedo-shaped bunches of leaves were tasty, if slightly bitter. Most Belgians, unlike us, eat endives poached or braised, often topped with a rich cheese sauce.
This recipe comes from my Belgian mother, who’s been following her national soccer team from a celestial perch.
Salmon with Mushroom Basil Sauce
Recipe from Madeleine M. St. John
- 4 6-ounce boneless salmon fillets, with skin on
- 1/4 pound fresh mushrooms
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup quick fish stock (recipe below)
- 3 tablespoons dry white wine
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
- 1/3 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, finely shredded
- Fresh whole basil leaves for garnish
Separate and discard the stems from the mushroom caps and slice the caps 1/8-inch thick. Heat the butter in a large stainless steel sauté pan; add the sliced mushrooms and sauté on high heat, tossing all the time, until the mushrooms are a light golden brown. Add the fish stock, wine and salmon pieces, skin side up. Cover and gently simmer for 7-10 minutes until the salmon is cooked through.
Remove the salmon from the pan with a slotted spatula and remove and discard the skin. Keep the fillets warm. On high heat, reduce the pan juices to the consistency of light syrup. Add the cream and shredded basil and continue to reduce until the mixture is thick enough to coat the bottom of a spoon. Add any juices that may have accumulated from the reserved salmon fillets and continue to reduce the sauce for a minute more. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Divide the sauce among four dinner plates and lay a salmon fillet over each. Decorate with the fresh basil leaves.
Quick Fish Stock
- 1 pound cod, haddock or other firm white fish (frozen OK)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced
- 1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
- 1 small bay leaf
- Few sprigs parsley
- 1 cup white wine
- 4 cups cold water
Heat the butter in a 2-3 quart stainless steel or enamel pan. Add the onion and celery and gently sauté over medium heat until soft, being careful not to brown. Add the fish, bay leaf, parsley, wine and water. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes, then skim off and discard any foam. Gently simmer uncovered for 45 minutes, then strain through a fine sieve. If there are a lot of particles in the stock, run through a couple of layers of cheesecloth. The stock may be refrigerated for 4 days or frozen.
Reach Bill St John at email@example.com