Belgium is a small country on the North Sea that borders Germany, France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Belgium is famous for all the wars that have taken place on its land and, more recently, as the home of the European Union and of NATO, among other international organizations.
But its cuisine has long been overshadowed by that of France.
Belgium is justly famous for its moules-frites (mussels and fries), its chocolate, its many beers and its answer to the famous French boeuf bourguignon: carbonnade flamande. This rich beef stew is cooked in dark beer, sweetened by slow-cooking leeks and onions and given a little zest by the addition of mustard and vinegar. It is a very comforting dish in the cold month of February.
The following menu, inspired by the foods of Belgium, would be perfect for a Valentine’s gathering. (These recipes serve 4 people.)
Purchase 2 pounds of mussels and rinse them in cold water.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large soup pot and add 1 chopped onion, 2 minced shallots and 2 minced cloves of garlic.
Cook at low heat for 3 minutes and add the mussels along with 1 cup white wine. Season with a bay leaf and 4 sprigs of thyme. Cover, raise the heat to high and cook until the mussels begin to open.
Remove the cooked mussels with tongs or a slotted spoon as they open and set them in a warm place. Strain the juices into a bowl and let the sediment settle.
Pour the clear juices into a small saucepan and bring to a boil, letting them reduce by one quarter. Swirl in 2 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter and pour over the mussels in shallow soup dishes. Accompany with a fresh baguette.
Makes 4 small portions.
Belgian Endive Salad
Trim 2 heads of Belgian endive and rinse in cold water. Dry in a salad spinner, wrap in paper towels and refrigerate.
Peel 2 golden delicious apples and cut into quarters. Remove the cores and slice the apples into thin wedges. Toss in a bowl with the juice of 1 lemon and refrigerate.
Combine in a small Mason jar 2 tablespoons minced shallots, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons olive oil and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. Shake vigorously and set aside.
At service time, slice the endive crosswise into half-inch pieces and toss with the apples, 1/4 cup chopped parsley and the dressing.
Marinate 2 pounds of beef stew meat (preferably chuck) overnight in 1 bottle of dark beer (I used Black Duck Porter from Greenport Harbor Brewing Co.), 4 minced cloves of garlic and 2 bay leaves.
The next day, drain into a bowl, reserving the marinade. Pat the beef dry with a paper towel.
Place 1/2 cup flour in a bowl with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Dredge the meat in this mixture and set aside.
Cut 4 ounces of salt pork into slices and remove the rind. Dice the salt pork and blanch in boiling water for 2 minutes.
Heat a dutch oven, drain the salt pork and add it to the pot. Let it brown on medium heat and remove with a slotted spoon.
Adjust the heat to high and brown the beef in small batches on all sides. Add canola oil to the pan if it becomes too dry.
Remove the meat and reduce the heat to low. Add to the pot 2 sliced leeks (white part); 1 large onion, sliced; 2 carrots, diced; and 2 minced cloves of garlic. Cook until vegetables are soft, then stir in 2 tablespoons tomato paste.
Add back the beef along with the strained marinade and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
Add 2 cups beef stock and a bouquet garni consisting of 8 parsley stems, 6 sprigs of thyme, a leafy celery stalk and 2 bay leaves.
Cover the dutch oven and place in a 300-degree oven. Let it cook until the meat is very tender, about 2 hours.
Before serving, stir in 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard and 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar. Add 1 teaspoon ground pepper and taste for salt. Garnish with 1/4 cup chopped parsley.
Note: Accompany this stew with the dark beer it was cooked in or a North Fork merlot.
Smashed Red Potatoes
Remove blemishes from 6 red-skinned potatoes and cut them into quarters. Add them to 2 quarts salted water and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.
In a steamer pan, steam 2 cups chopped cabbage and 4 cups kale. Rinse the kale and squeeze out the moisture with your hands before chopping it finely.
Chop 1 bunch of green onions.
Mash the potatoes with a hand-held potato masher and stir in the cabbage, kale and onions. Add a tablespoon of butter and salt and pepper to taste.
Purchase 1 pineapple, 1 package of strawberries, 1 melon and a few bananas. Trim and cut them into 2-inch or bite-size chunks.
In a double boiler, heat 1/2 cup heavy cream. Cut up 8 ounces of bittersweet dark chocolate and add it to the cream. Add 1 tablespoon amaretto liqueur and stir with a wooden spoon.
Remove the chocolate mixture from the heat and scrape it into a small, heat-proof serving dish.
Place the fruit in separate small dishes and use skewers to dip the fruit into the chocolate.
Note: Back in the ’70s and ’80s, everyone had a fondue set but most of them were disposed of long ago. If you still have one, use it, but if you don’t you can improvise as I did with no negative effects. Just put the chocolate in a warm oven before serving.