Travel Spotlight: Brussels

I’m kind of a borderline chocoholic. Do I have qualms about eating chocolate for breakfast? No way! Can I eat 200g of chocolate per day? Easily. Can I stop eating chocolate anytime I want? Of courrrrseee I can….

Seriously though, I do like chocolate. Which means my dreams came true when I traveled to Brussels for the weekend. Although I was only in the land of mind-blowing chocolate for a few days, I was able to stuff myself silly on….chocolate. And other things too! Like these:

Beer

Kriek - cherry beer

Kriek – cherry beer

Belgium is known for its wide variety of beer. Plain ol’ pils? Yeah, they got that. Wheat beer? Yeah, they got that. Champagne beer? Yeah, they got that too. Fruit beer? Of course. Even non-beer fans can probably find something they enjoy. I, myself, particularly liked kriek, a popular cherry beer that was slightly sour, refreshing and light. Side note: we ordered cheese at the bar to snack on and served alongside it was celery salt and mustard. Interesting combo.

Chocolate

Chocolate cakes

Chocolate cakes

It’s no secret that the Belgians do chocolate well. I splurged on some truffles. They were smooth, rich and amazingly creamy – like no chocolate I had tasted before. Some had a very slight crunch factor that was pleasant but not overdone. Others were filled with liquer or fruit fillings. They were all good and I probably ended up giving myself diabetes. There are various chocolate shops to explore (I found myself at Leonidas) but you can also find a nice variety in supermarkets (Côte d’or is a well-known brand). And by all means check out chocolate  in other forms – such as cake! It’ll be equally mind-blowingly delicious.

French fries for dayyyys

French fries

A home-cooked meal with the omnipresent French fries

French fries are THE staple food of Belgian cuisine. What rice is to Asian cuisines (and me), French fries are to Belgian cuisine. Head to a frieterie for some freshly made, steak-fry style frites and choose from the dizzying array of accompanying sauces. Examples are aioli (garlic mayonnaise), sauce andalouse (a sweet tomato paste and mayonnaise concoction) or tartar sauce. Eat them immediately or take them to go to accompany a home-cooked meal.

Mussels

Mussels - and French fries!

Mussels – and French fries!

This seafood specialty is best enjoyed starting in the months ending in -er (September, October, November, December) to about February. Although they’re a bit pricier, they’re well worth it (in my seafood-loving eyes). I shared a portion for two with three other people and it worked well as a light meal. Although, to be fair, two of my eating companions are not the biggest seafood fans and left the other two of us to have the lion’s share (which was totally fine by me…). We ordered a classic preparation – steamed with onions and celery and served as a giant steaming heap in a kitchen pot. Other classic preparations include white wine or cream sauce. French fries are, of course, always served as an accompanying side dish to help soak up the sauce.

Waffles

Just one of these babies is for me

Don’t worry. Just one of these babies is for me

If you’re looking for a snack that isn’t completely chocolate and not completely fries, how about some Belgian waffles? I tried a strawberry and whipped cream topping for lunch in a café (yes – lunch) and a chocolate topping from a street vendor for an after lunch snack. Both were very good – the chocolate version was heavier and sweeter with sugar crystals in the batter while the café version was lighter, despite the cream. Moral of the story: I obviously ate very healthily in Belgium.

Farmers’ markets

Hand-sliced cured ham

Hand-sliced cured ham

One afternoon, I stumbled upon a farmer’s market away from the city center. It was pretty large and there were stands for produce, seafood, meat, wine and already cooked meals – many of which were authentic African or Asian dishes. I enjoyed some wine with my travel companions and then bought some saucisson and cured ham, which was sliced by hand with a knife.

I feel like Belgium has something for everyone’s tastes. If you have a sweet tooth and are realllly into chocolate, you’ll be in paradise. If you’re into bars, beer and French fries, you’ll also be in paradise. If you like seafood, you’ll also be covered! And if you want something healthy – check out farmers’ markets for fresh fruits and veggies and locally sourced products. Lastly, Brussels is incredibly diverse and restaurants representing many cuisines can be found in the city. Even if you’re not that into food, Brussels is still worth a visit. The city is gorgeous and charming, but not as overwhelming as other European capitals.

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Springtime soup! (Danke an Lise!)

Do you have chives in your garden (or for me – precariously perched on a balcony ledge) that are blossoming with wild abandon? Are you unsure of what to do with these rogue blossoms? I have good news for you – besides making nice floral arrangements, they’re also edible! Once chives blossom, they become stronger and slightly bitter in flavor. The flowers, however, have a mild onion flavor and can be used to enhance pasta or gnocchi dishes, soups, and salads.

Here’s what I did with them (Serves 2 as an appetizer):

You’ll need:

  • Fresh white asparagus (about 500g/1 lb.), washed, peeled and tough ends snipped off (save the peels and ends though!)
  • A couple tablespoons butter
  • A couple tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoons cream (optional)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Chives
  • Rogue chive blossoms
  • Diced cured ham (optional)

To make:

  1. Cover the asparagus and asparagus peelings with water and boil for about 30 minutes.
  2. Next, drain the asparagus, set the asparagus broth aside and discard the peels. Obviously keep the asparagus though – chop them into bite-sized bits for later.
  3. In the meantime, make roux by melting the butter and whisking in the flour.
  4. Slooowly add the asparagus broth in while whisking constantly (this will prevent lumps from forming). Bring to a boil to thicken slightly.
  5. Season with cream, salt, and chives. Garnish with chopped chives, chive blossoms and cured ham.

I haven’t tried this with green asparagus, although I’m sure the results would also be tasty. If you do substitute green asparagus, just keep in mind that white asparagus tends to be much milder in flavor than the green variety.

White asparagus soup

White asparagus soup

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¡Enchiladas!

Good Mexican food does not exist in the provincial German town where I live. As a southern-Californian and Mexican food enthusiast, this makes me sad indeed. So, what is the solution? Make it myself! This is not an easy task where proper Mexican food ingredients are in short supply, but it can be done. Here’s my recipe for enchiladas with some European substitutions.

Useful tip: New in the neighborhood and trying to win over your elderly German neighbors? Turns out that German grannies like enchiladas so much they’ll stop you on the way home from the market to compliment and thank you. Bring a few (non-spicy) enchiladas over around dinnertime. You’ll be a big hit.

You’ll need:

  • 2-3 cloves garlic, chopped or crushed
  • 1 large brown onion, chopped
  • 1 –  1 1/2 lb./550-600 kg chicken breasts
  • 1/2 can of beer (beer tenderizes the chicken as well as adding an extra dimension of flavor. Plus, easy disposal if there’s any left over)
  • 1 can of corn, drained
  • 1-2 green bell peppers, sliced thinly
  • 3 balls of mozzarella, sliced, for the filling (optional)
  • 1/4 cup/4ish heaping tablespoons canned tomatoes in chunks, left over from making Mexican-style rice (optional)
  • 6-8 large tortillas or wheat wraps
  • 2 cups/200g Jack or mild cheddar cheese, shredded
  • Cumin, to taste, about 1 teaspoon
  • Powdered coriander, to taste, 1/2 teaspoon
  • Paprika, to taste, about 1/2 teaspoon
  • Curry powder, to taste, about 1/4 teaspoon
  • Turmeric, to taste, about 1/4 teaspoon
  • 1/4 cup cilantro/fresh coriander, chopped + extra for garnish, if desired
  • 1 more mozzarella ball, sliced, for the topping (optional)
  • Sliced black olives, for garnish (optional)
  • Sliced green onions, for garnish (optional)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

For the enchilada sauce:

  • 3 cups/700 ml tomato sauce
  • Cumin, to taste
  • Paprika, to taste
  • A pinch of sugar
  • Salt, to taste

To make:

Fry the garlic, onions, cumin, coriander, paprika, curry powder and turmeric in oil until the garlic and onions are translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Add the whole chicken breasts and brown on each side. When the pan gets dry, add enough beer to cover the bottom of the pan. Wait for the liquid to cook off, then add more beer. Repeat until the chicken is fully cooked, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and shred the chicken. You can wait for the chicken to cool and do this with your fingers or with two forks if it’s still too hot to handle.

In the meantime, add the green peppers to the same unwashed pan that you fried the spices in. Fry the green peppers until tender. You can add a bit of liquid (some beer perhaps?) and cover with a lid to encourage faster cooking. Add the shredded chicken, corn, cilantro, tomato chunks mozzarella slices (optional) and cook until the cheese is melted and any liquid is cooked off. Adjust the seasonings and add salt and pepper if necessary. Pre-heat the oven to 400ºF/200ºC.

Meanwhile, heat the tomato sauce over low heat with sugar, salt and spices. I never measure and add in the cumin and parika according to taste. Maybe about 1 teaspoon? Cook over low heat for about 10 minutes, or until warm.

To assemble:

  • In a deep baking dish (something you would use for lasagna), place some of the chicken filling down the middle of a tortilla/wheat wrap.
  • Fold the left and right side over the chicken filling, forming a loose roll
  • Place the seam-side down
  • Once you’ve assembled 6-8 enchiladas, cover generously with the enchilada sauce, shredded cheddar and/or jack cheese and place a mozzarella slice on the middle of each enchilada
  • Bake in at 400ºF/200ºC until the cheese is melted, about 10-15 minutes
  • Pull it out of the oven and garnish with green onions, cilantro and sliced black olives, if desired

Serve immediately with plenty of guacamole, sour cream, salsa fresca, Mexican-style rice, refried beans and beer!

Tip: Sometimes the tortillas can get a little soggy after sitting for a while in sauce. To prevent this, fry them shortly in oil before filling. Don’t overdo it, they should still be bendy and flexible. I’ve also heard of dipping them in milk and then enchilada sauce after.

Variations: Vegetarian? No worries…substitute the chicken with your favorite veggies. Spinach, cheese and sour cream filling is delish. Or try out blackened, spicy mushrooms.

Enchiladas

Pure deliciousness – in any country.

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Roasted veggies

Roasted root veggies are one of the easiest, classy-looking side dishes you can make. And depending on the season and what’s available, you can change up the veggies to give the dish a different feel. I picked up some colorful carrots from the farmer’s market because they look so “spring-y.” You can also try this with normal carrots, fennel, potatoes, or celery root. Serves 2 as a side dish.

You’ll need:

  • 1-2 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 2 medium potatoes, roughly chopped and peeled if necessary
  • 1-2 fennel bulbs, roughly chopped
  • Fresh thyme, about 3 Tablespoons (can substitute dried)
  • Dried rosemary, about 1-2 Tablespoons (can substitute fresh)
  • Olive oil
  • Coarse salt, to taste (or normal salt)
  • Pepper, to taste

To make:

Preheat the oven to 400º F (200º C). In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients so that the vegetables are coated in herbs and olive oil. Spread them evenly onto a baking sheet, stick them in the oven, and bake until the vegetables are tender when pierced with a fork (about 25-35 minutes). If you prefer crispier veggies, leave them in a little longer.

For lunch today I had this with a thinly sliced turkey breast that I fried with garlic, lemon juice, fresh thyme, and coarse salt. It was pretty tasty, if I do say so myself.

Roasted veggies

Spring veggies!

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Caribbean-ish Shrimp and Squash

So the other day I was reading about tamales, as all normal people do in their free time, and I was totally intrigued by Caribbean tamales. Apparently, in Trinidad and Tobago, a Christmas tamale is stuffed with the unlikely mixture of raisins, capers, and meat (I found this information on the omniscient website Wikipedia). In awe of this crazily innovative concoction, I decided to make some Caribbean-ish style food. Seeing as I was not in the mood to actually make tamales and was instead craving seafood, I settled on the following shrimp and squash mixture. My European roommates balked at the idea, but I knew it would turn out since I’ve eaten squash and shrimp together at many a Filipino get-together. Serves 3-4. Ready in about 60 minutes.

You’ll need:

  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons coconut oil (if you happen to have this in your pantry. If not, substitute with vegetable or even olive oil)
  • 1-2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger (for ginger lovers like me, feel free to add more)
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder, or to taste
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  •  1/2 cooked, cubed butternut squash (about four cups/560g cubed squash)
  • 1/2 large green bell pepper (aka paprika), thinly sliced
  • 300g/2/3 lb. large, fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 3 green onions, sliced
  • 1 bunch cilantro (about 1 cup/35g), chopped (reserve a few leaves for garnish, if desired)
  • Juice from 1/2 lime, about 2 tablespoons
  • Dried chili flakes, cayenne pepper, or other spicy things, to taste (optional)

Dealing with unwieldy squashes:

There are two ways to deal with unwieldy squashes or pumpkins. You can either chop and peel them before you cook them (a somewhat tedious process) or you can chop and peel them after you cook them. I opt for the second option because I don’t trust my knife skills on such unwieldy gourds. To do this:

  1. Wash the squash’s skin to get any dirt off.
  2. Cut off the amount that you need. For this recipe, I cut the butternut squash in half crosswise and used the top half.
  3. Cut off the ends and slice it lengthwise. You’ll end up with two halves that should fit perfectly into a big pot.

    Prepping squash

    Step 3: Cut off the ends and slice lengthwise

  4. If necessary, scoop out the seeds with a spoon
  5. Fill the pot with about 2-3 inches/5-7 cm of water and bring it to a boil.
  6. Put the squash in skin-side down, cover, and reduce the heat. It’s ok if the squash isn’t completely submerged in water, in fact, it’s even better. It’ll cook because of the steam but won’t get mushy.
  7. Let it gently boil for about 20-30 minutes or until tender when pierced with a knife.
  8. Remove the squash and, cut side down, use your knife to peel and chop the squash into cubes. It’ll be a lot easier to handle, but a lot hotter. Don’t burn your fingers.

Dealing with less unwieldy shrimp:

Buy big, beautiful, fresh shrimp if you can. The ones I got still had the tails, legs, and shells on them. Since I’m a lazy eater, I peeled and cleaned them completely before cooking. To do this:

  1. Peel off the legs.
  2. Starting from where the head was, peel the shell off completely. If the head is still on, break it off. You can reserve the heads and shells for making fish stock if they don’t gross you out.
  3. With the back of the shrimp facing you, slice lengthwise down the middle from the tail to the head side about 1/4 inch or 1/2 cm deep. Slightly peel it apart.
  4. At this point, you may notice a clear vein running lengthwise down the shrimp. Often, it may be filled with a dark brown or black substance. This clear vein is the shrimp’s intestine and, unless you like eating shrimp poo, I suggest you remove it. If the vein is totally clear and you can’t find it, don’t worry about it. Once that’s finished, we’re good to go!

Here’s a very informative video from allrecipes.com on peeling and deveining shrimp if y’all are visual learners: http://allrecipes.com/video/24/how-to-peel-and-devein-shrimp/detail.aspx

The actual recipe!

  1. Saute the garlic and ginger in coconut or vegetable oil.
  2. Add in the curry powder, thyme, and paprika and cook for another minute or two. This infuses the oil with the spices’ flavors.
  3. Add in the bell pepper slices and fry for 3-5 minutes
  4. Add in the previously cooked squash and cook for another minute or so.
  5. At this point, the pan may be a little dry. Add in about 2-3 inches of water (5-8 cm) to the pan along with the green onions, bell pepper, cilantro, lime juice, and salt. Cook over medium heat for about 10-15 minutes or until the water has cooked off and the squash is a little mushy.
  6. In the meantime, boil the shrimp in water (3-5 minutes for small-medium shrimp, 5-7 minutes for medium shrimp, 7-8 minutes for large shrimp or prawns). When they’re done, they’ll be a bright pink-orange color. Drain.
  7. Add the shrimp to the squash mix. Adjust any seasonings and cook for another 3-5 minutes.
  8. Serve over rice and black beans with fried plantains, sliced avocado, or salsa fresca. Garnish with the reserved cilantro leaves.
Shrimp and squash

Shrimp and Squash

Variations:

  • Try adding coconut milk instead of water in step 5 for a more soupy, curry-ish mix.
  • Try with fish instead of shrimp. Or vegetarian perhaps?
  • Substitute pumpkin or other types of squash instead of butternut
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Linguine with White Wine and Clam Sauce

Assuming you like seafood, linguine with white wine and clam sauce is one very delicious,  yet easy to make dish. It’s also pretty classy and bound to impress your guest(s) (assuming they too like seafood). You can also skip the linguine, cut up some fresh baguette, and serve this as an appetizer. If you don’t like seafood, I don’t think we can be friends anymore, sorry.

I’m just kidding, you non-seafood-lovers are welcome to read along too. Serves 2 as a main, 4 as an appetizer.

You’ll need:

  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • Linguine or bread, or both! (depending on what you want to make)
  • 1 lb./.5 kg fresh clams (canned clams also work, although I prefer them fresh)
  • White wine, about 1-2 cups/240-475 ml (I add wine throughout the cooking process little by little and just keep taste-testing to make sure I like the end result)
  • Parsley, chopped
  • Butter
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)

Buying clams:

Make sure the shells aren’t chipped or broken and are shut as tight as a…..clam? If the shells are open, try and tap on them (assuming you don’t have to climb over a counter to do this). If they’re fresh, they should slowly close. This means they’re not dead and, with seafood, the fresher the better, obviously. Another plus is that clams are easier to clean when still alive. Just try not to think about that when you’re cooking them otherwise you’ll feel pretty terrible.

Cleaning the clams:

As soon as possible after buying them, stick the clams in a large bowl and cover with water. Let them sit for 20 minutes and they’ll naturally filter the water and push out any grit or sand that they’ve collected. If they’re especially sandy you can repeat this process a few times. When finished, pull the clams out of the water and scrub the shells with a bristly brush or even salt (I have to admit, I usually omit this process because the clams I get here don’t have very dirty shells. Maybe German fishermen are anal about the clams they catch?).

Now, onto the good part:

Saute the garlic and onion in butter (go ahead and be generous with the amount) until translucent. Throw in the tomatoes and saute for a minute or two. When the pan gets a little dry, add in the white wine and clams and cook until the sauce has reduced by half and has reached the consistency and taste that you like. I like mine to be still liquid, but a little thickened. It usually takes around 30-40 minutes. You can also add the clams later, as they only take a few minutes to cook, but I like to leave mine in longer so that the sauce can absorb as much clammy flavor as possible. You’ll know when they’re cooked when they open. Remove any clams that don’t open though, as these aren’t fresh. Stir in the parley, season with pepper flakes (if using), salt and pepper, and more butter (you’ll probably go to the gym tomorrow, so no worries, right?). Ladle the finished product over linguine and garnish with parsley. Alternatively, serve alongside bread as an appetizer.

LInguine with clam sauce

Linguine with clammy goodness

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Chicken and Cabbage

The other day, I bought a cabbage that weighs more than me. Since I’m not normally a regular cabbage eater, I wasn’t sure what to do with it exactly. Call it an impulse buy, I suppose. So, I decided to resurrect an old family recipe that actually wasn’t one of my favorites growing up. But somehow, the addition of curry makes it magical, as it has a tendency to do. But now I’ll have to eat this for the next month, or until I find something just as magical to do with this monstrously large vegetable. Serves 3-4.

You’ll need:

  • 1 onion, chopped into quarters
  • 1 inch knob of ginger, peeled and minced
  • Cabbage, about a handful and a half (if you can find it, sweetheart cabbage or “Spitzkohl” is absolutely great. But plain ol’ cabbage works too), sliced or diced however it works for you
  • 1 lb/.5 kg chicken, cut into cubes
  • 2-3 potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • Green onions, chopped (optional)
  • A good dose of curry (about 2-3 tsp)
  • Turmeric, to taste (about 1 tsp for me)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Nutmeg, to taste (optional)
  • 1 bay leaf (optional)

To make:

Fry the onion and ginger in oil until translucent. Add the curry to the oil and fry for another minute or two. Dump in all the veggies and chicken (“dump in”…what a classy recipe) and add enough water so that it’s level with the chicken and veggies. Add the seasonings, being sure to use a generous amount of black pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and let gently boil until the chicken is done and the potatoes are soft (about 20-30 minutes). Adjust any seasonings and serve with rice.

Cabbage = Seduction

Comfort food.

 

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