image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

Belgium…is…complicated.  This is going to be a long post…just a heads up. If European countries were superheroes, Belgium would be a C-lister at best…maybe France’s sidekick. But everyone knows things about France’s history: Charlemagne, The Man in the Iron Mask, Marie Antoinette, stuff from Les Mis, and that they have the dubious reputation for always surrendering. You might surrender, too, if you shared a border with Germany in the early 20th century, I’m just saying. What is overlooked is that each time Germany wanted to invade poorly-defended northern France, how did they get there? The answer was inevitably: through Belgium.

A recurring theme when examining Belgium is “division”. The country is the physical divide between Latin and Germanic Europe. The country’s population is deeply divided culturally, and linguistically, between two groups: the Walloons and the Flemish. And when, in World War II, the Germans wanted to divide the Allied Forces, it was into Belgium they had to go.

The Flemish people originated in Flanders, in the north of Belgium, and speak Flemish, which is a form of Dutch and therefore a Germanic language. The Walloons hail from Wallonia in the south and speak a Romantic language which is from the same family as French. After the country gained independence in 1830, the Walloon population held much power and thus the following century and beyond exhibited the Flemish peoples trying to gain equal status in language and political influence. Despite progress, even to this day there is much social friction between these two groups.

Having just seen The Imitation Game about Alan Turing and attempts to break Axis communication codes during WWII, some parts of history stood out to me as I read about Belgium. So this is going to be heavy on the war history, sorry if that doesn’t interest you; I will get to the food eventually.

 

As I said earlier, Belgium presented a gateway into a weakly defended part of France. Because of this, the Germans launched three campaigns aimed at this area, one in WWI and two in WWII. This was such an important tactical location going back to the time of Charlemagne, due to the Ardennes Forest. A large, heavily wooded, almost 3 million acre area, which could conceal anything. In August of 1914, at the early days of the First World War, the Germans and French battled resulting in a German victory and roughly 22,000 French casualties. The subsequent years of occupation are referred to as “the rape of Belgium”, due to the large amount of violence carried out against the civilian population. But at least everyone learned a valuable lesson about the forest so it would never happen again….wait….they didn’t?!

Fast forward 26 years to 1940. After their defeat in WWI the Germans are back and this time…it’s personal. So Hitler thinks, “Well it worked last time”, and moves a huge amount of troops and tanks through the Ardennes. Although the Belgian army was sure this was coming and even had intelligence to prove it, the French General dismissed the maneuver as not possible, despite the beliefs of many of his own commanders. It, of course, did happen; the Germans had a decisive victory and broke into France. Less than a month later, France surrendered and this time the body count for the Allies was closer to 185,000. But it would NEVER happen again…………… you have got to be kidding me.

It is four years later…December 1944 and the Allies have momentum after the D-Day landing and subsequent quick movement towards Germany. Hitler desperately needs to separate the British and American forces in northern France. So…of course…because it has worked every time in the past, he will launch a Blitzkrieg assault directly through the Ardennes with immense armored forces. The attack completely surprised the Allied Forces. The attack…completely SURPRISED…the Allied Forces. Are you…kidding me?!

This was the infamous Battle of the Bulge.  It occurred in spite of information which emerged later that several intercepted German coded messages alluded to an operation, but were not given merit or acted upon. The name of the battle was colloquially given as the Allied line bulged after being struck by the Blitzkrieg. This was the costliest battle of the war for the United States, suffering roughly 75,000 casualties. Had it not been for Patton’s near impossible maneuvering of the 3rd Army 90 degrees and breaking the siege of Bastogne, thus stopping the German offensive, it could have been much worse. But it will never happen again?…Right?

Ok, history lesson over. Let’s talk about endives! They are a member of the Chicory family and the Belgian variety is arguably the best in the world. It is a very unique vegetable, leafy, tangy, but crisp and flavorful. They can be steamed, baked, boiled, or stewed. Filling them with seafood is also a common preparation. I chose to use them as the signature ingredient because, while so much of Belgian cuisine is close to French, I found them to be part of the Belgian identity. These were prepared au gratin and wrapped in ham- I just went to the deli counter and asked for very thick slices of black forest ham (probably about 1/8” thick).

The crisp earthy flavors of the endive melted perfectly with the cheesy and salty combination surrounding it. I would recommend them as a good vegetable to use for those who don’t like strong, bitter green flavors. Plus the beautiful floral white/pink colors look gorgeous.

As a side dish I made Stoemp aux Poireaux/met Prei (mash pot with leeks), which is a hearty seasoned mashed potato and root vegetable dish (turnip, parsnip, leek, etc). Once again illustrating the division of the culture, the dish is titled with both the French and Dutch word for leeks. This would not be something you would find on a menu for high dining. This at-home comfort food is delicious, versatile (use any root vegetable you like), and made to hold you through those long winter months. I also drank a Belgium amber ale recently and it was…not terrible. That is high praise from someone like me, who only drinks stouts, and that is usually only during the World Cup… and I still think beer is disgusting.

I particularly had a lot of fun making…and eating…these dishes. Belgium is somewhere I would like to visit someday, and certainly a difficult place to truly understand.

Next we go to Belize whose motto is “Under the shade I flourish”…I think I’m going to like it there…

 

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Belgian Endive au Gratin

4 servings

Ingredients:

 

Belgian endive, trimmed

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese, divided
  • 1 teaspoon grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg, or amount to taste
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • 4 slices deli-style ham (at least 1/8″ thick slice)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

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Directions:

  • Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Place the endives into the water. Cover, and cook until tender, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Place the butter into a saucepan, and melt over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, and stir until the mixture becomes paste-like and golden brown. Gradually whisk the milk into the flour mixture, whisking constantly until thick and smooth. Stir in 3/4 cup Gruyere cheese, Parmesan cheese, nutmeg, salt, and pepper until well blended. Cook gently over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
  • Preheat an oven broiler (on low if possible).
  • Drain the endives. Wrap each endive with a slice of ham, and place into the prepared baking dish. Pour the cheese sauce over the endives. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup Gruyere cheese and parsley.
  • Cook the endives under preheated broiler until cheese is golden brown and sauce bubbles, about 10 minutes.

 


 

Stoemp aux Poireaux/met Prei

2 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 12 large potatoes, peeled (russet or yellow)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 12 cup cream/milk (I used 1%)
  •  1 small onion, finely chopped
  •  1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 2 medium leeks, finely sliced (don’t use the very dark green bits)
  • 14 cup stock (vegetable, chicken, beef, whatever you have)
  • 12 to taste salt and pepper
  • 12 to taste ground nutmeg

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Directions:

  • Cook the potatoes until they are just tender (you can cube them which will speed up the cooking time). Drain well and mash.
  • While the potatoes are cooking, melt the butter in a large frypan over medium heat.
  • Add the garlic and onion, and cook until just softened, then add the leeks and saute until everything is just translucent.
  • Add the cream/milk and stock. Simmer for approximately 10 minutes.
  • Drain the onion mixture but reserve the liquid. Put the liquid back into the pan and reduce by half. This will take 5 minutes or so.
  • Once the sauce is reduced mix the onions and potato mixture together. Then return to the pan and stir the sauce through until well combined. Season to taste.
  • If the mixture is too dry add more milk very carefully.

 

 

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image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

…it’s funny because I learned recently that I am in fact 1/4 Belarusian… and I’ve been drinking White Russians for years! Why is that funny? Read on…

I’m not sure we have had a country yet whose name I will struggle to explain fully. This is largely because in the last century, few regions have gone through so much change as those associated with “Russia” and the USSR. And here is the start of the problem, there is a difference between Russia and -Rus’ . I honestly don’t want to spend the whole blog talking about this, because I know could, so I will say if this type of thing interests you, go search the web for the full details: it won’t be hard to find. Belarus literally means White Rus’ , which often gets translated to White Russia. Using this translation today would be an anachronistic mistake, and could border on the insulting. The origins of the issue are of course debated, between an ethnic meaning, a term denoting the areas unconquered by the Mongols, or the direct translation as White Dew. Regardless, the main aspect to focus on is actually the second word.

 In short, there is a long standing identity clash between what is Rus’ and what is Russia. The former term is the elder of the two which denoted from medieval times current day Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Western Russia. This term later became “Ruthenia,” which in the 17th century morphed into “Russia”. Thus, the identity associated with the earlier names signified the Eastern European self. Today, to avoid confusion…uh huh…you will see the lands belonging to the earlier definition written as “Kievan Rus’”.

 Following the Russian Revolution, and towards the close of World War I, Belarus declared independence as a people’s republic, as they were occupied by German forces. Not long after, the Red Army replaced the Germans and exiled the young government, replacing it with the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (part of the USSR). As of this writing, the council of the Belarusian Democratic Republic is the oldest current government in exile at roughly 98 years old. Although free of the USSR since 1990, the current president who was elected in 1994 has an authoritarian style and has kept several Soviet era policies. The country’s Democracy Index rating is always the lowest in Europe and many people label it as repressed and not free.

The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in northern Ukraine occurred less than 10 miles from the Belarusian border. Roughly 70% of the radiation bled over into Belarus and 1/5 of their land, including much farmland, is still affected by fallout today. In 1994, Belarusian scientists discovered that certain rapeseed varieties can pull radioactive material from the soil cheaply and effectively. They have increased the amount of rapeseed cultivation over the last 20 years and still hope that it can ultimately undo some of the damage done.

 Throughout their history there has also been a lot of interaction with their neighbor to the west, Poland. A lot of land has changed hands between Belarus and Poland through several conflicts and treaties to get us where we are today, with them sharing a 250 mile border. The main dish I made has a name of Polish origin, though it is equally as popular in Belarus. This is a Meat and Potato Babka.

Now, for those Seinfeld fans or patrons of traditional Jewish bakeries, this will be a departure from expectations. There are few desserts I love more than a good chocolate babka (yes, cinnamon is fine as well). So I was surprised to see the term used in a savory application. This is a fairly simple meat and potato casserole, and there is nothing wrong with that. Although not much to look at, the salty flavor is melt in your mouth wonderful.

I find that when dealing with a simplistic dish, the factor which holds the key to success is often the ratio of ingredients. This is true for a basic chocolate chip cookie, lasagna, or bread dough. The fewer ingredients there are, and the less technical skills which are required, exponentially inflate the importance of precise balance of ingredients.

Accompanying the savory babka, I prepared a Pskovsky, which is vegetables served with a hot mushroom sauce. This is a super healthy side dish with very little fat (only what you brown the mushrooms in) and the sauce is luscious. Instead of dicing my potatoes as instructed, I had leftover grated ones, so I went ahead and used those which changed the texture of the dish (why my picture isn’t reflective of how yours would be). I think I added more mushrooms than called for also, because I love mushrooms, so it is open to interpretation. Overall, this was not the most visually appealing meal, but it played well on the tongue and isn’t that what REALLY matters?

Next we go to Belgium…and Lee…drinks…a non-stout beer?! You heard it here first…

 

  


 

Meat and Potato Babka

3 servings

Ingredients:

7 potatoes
7 oz meat, finely chopped
1 large onion
1 egg
3.5 oz milk
salt, to taste
vegetable oil

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Directions:

Add a little oil to a pan and use to fry the meat until well browned but not cooked through. Add the onion then season with salt. Continue frying until the onion is golden brown.
Grate the potatoes then place in a clean tea towel (or salad spinner) and wring out the excess moisture. Transfer to a bowl and beat in the milk and egg. Season with salt to taste. Grease an oven-proof casserole dish with vegetable oil then spoon the meat and onion mix into the base then pour the potato mix over the top.
Transfer to an oven pre-heated to 350°F and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is a nice golden brown in color.

 


Pskovsky

3 servings

Ingredients:

3 potatoes
2 carrots
1 turnip
5 tbsp frozen peas
For the Sauce:
5 tbsp (1/3 cup) vegetable stock – WHICH YOU WILL MAKE IN THE FIRST PART
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp flour
1 onion, finely diced
1 celery stick, finely diced
3 tbsp button mushrooms,diced (or more)
sea salt, to taste

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Directions:

Wash the vegetables, peel and dice.
Add each vegetable (except the peas) to a separate pan, cover with a little water and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until tender (add the peas to one pot for the last 5 minutes of cooking).
Drain the vegetables (keep the stock) then combine the vegetables.
Meanwhile add about 2 tbsp oil to a pan. Add the mushrooms and fry for 2 minutes then scatter the flour over the top, mix to combine and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Whilst still stirring carefully add 5 tbsp of the reserved vegetable broth, stirring quickly to ensure there are no lumps. Add the onion and celery and season to taste.
Simmer very gently for 15 minutes. Serve the vegetables in a bowl, covered with the hot sauce.