28 September 2009

SIDE TRIPS: To Market, To Market!

There are open-air markets every day in a town or village around here. My favorite one is on Sunday mornings in the nearby town of Aubel. It’s smaller than the raucous, lively market in my town, but the quality of the food is extremely high. Most of the food sellers are selling what they’ve produced themselves, rather than re-selling food that they’ve bought. The food is local, fresh, and I love dealing directly with the producers.Not all of the vendors here are producers as well, and some of the producers mix ‘imported’ food with their own stuff. But the atmosphere here is always happy, the food is good, and the 15-minute drive is through some gorgeous countryside. I love to go.

Yesterday morning I took my camera and brought back some photos, so if you’re too far away to come to the market with me, you can come along on a virtual tour!

This man sells sausages that he’s made. There are several different kinds, some spicier than others. Some have herbs and others are made with different kinds of meat in them. He also sells a prosciutto-like dried ham made from wild boar, a specialty of the Ardennes. Have a taste!

Next comes cheese. Because we're a cheese producing region, there are a lot of cheese vendors at this market. I had to get there very early this morning to get this photo--normally this counter is three or four people deep. He has cheese from Belgium, France, Italy and Germany. But the photo he wanted me to take was the one on the right, with the local cheese, Herve. Aubel is situated on the plateau of Herve, where a soft, ‘strong’ (read stinky) cheese is produced. I’ve seen this cheese for sale in markets in Provence, where it’s much appreciated for its strong flavor. These people not only produce the cheese, they also have free-range eggs and cream cheese for sale.

And of course, fruit and veggies!

The big vendors are often resellers, ‘though some of their products may be local. “du Pays” means it’s from the Region. “Belgique” means it’s from Belgium. The grenaille potatoes you see above are firm, for boiling. Other strains are better for mashed potatoes, still others for the famous Belgian fries.

This woman is selling a traditional specialty of the region, cuberdons. These little cones have a soft, jellied center. The range of flavors is amazing, though the traditional one is raspberry. YUM! The colors glowing in the sun were irresistable for me. I bought an assortment.

I love this guy. He sells eggs, butter and whatever orchard fruit is in season from the back of his car. No fuss, no fancy booth--just opens up his car and sells it to you. His butter tastes of what his cows have been eating--flowers, onions, garlic sometimes. It’s wonderful to cook with.

Along with the buzz of crowds shopping and the merchants hawking their wares we have music. And smells. The smell of fresh bread, of spices, of vegetables and fruit. Someday they’ll invent a camera that can capture sounds and smells--

This is where I often buy my goat cheese. She also has homemade jams and honey from her bees.

More cheese. This man has cream cheese from both goats and cows. He also has hard gouda-like cheeses with garlic, herbs, spices in them. In the spring there’s one with nettles! If I want one he doesn’t have, he can tell me when it will be ready. His cheeses are local, they’re organic, and I love buying them from the person who milked the cow.

It’s mushroom season! The mushroom lovers are out combing the forest, finding c
hantarelles, girolles, cepes and trompettes de mort. I have to confess that I don’t have any confidence in my own ability to identify mushrooms--I don’t hunt them. I buy them. This year is not a good one for mushrooms in Belgium, because we’ve had a dry and glorious summer, without our normal rains. So many of the mushrooms available here are from France.

We’re not far from the North sea, so of course there’s a fishmonger. What I like about his stuff is that it doesn’t smell like fish. It smells like the sea. It’s fresh and always good. It was hard to get photos because it’s all behind glass and the sun was shining.

I grew up in the Southeastern part of the US: Ham. Barbecue. Greens. Okra. One of the things that I miss here is ham. You can buy it, but it’s already cut and it’s often bland and tasteless. You CAN’T buy a ham to cook at home, though. I don’t know why. I think maybe because the ovens are smaller and a whole ham wouldn’t fit? Or maybe because it’s just not the tradition here. In any case, I have finally found a source of wonderful ham. This young lady and her grandmother sell ham and fresh meat at the market. This ham is reallyreally tasty. It’s sliced by hand, and you can specify which piece you want. The grandmother told me that it takes three months to make a ham, and her family has been hamming since 1904. There aren’t many farmers who still make their own ham. Most of it’s commercial. I will patronize this family as long as they are there. Good ham is something one shouldn’t have to do without!

We are currently having a dispute between the dairy farmers and the supermarkets. The farmers are paid only a fraction of what it costs them to produce the milk. As we used to say when I was a consultant, “You can’t lose a little on each one and make it up in volume”. So a group of young dairy farmers is selling milk directly to the public in the market.

Can you see why I like this market?

24 September 2009


A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to be able to participate in a professional cooking course in Siena. We spent all morning, all afternoon, and into the night cooking. We prepared traditional Tuscan food and learned how to select, prepare, and cook the freshest ingredients. I also learned at a gut level (maybe I should say at a FEET level) how physically demanding restaurant work is. I went back to our apartment

every night exhausted, with my feet hurting and my head full of wonderful ideas. Some nights I couldn’t sleep because my hands ached from having rolled out pici (a round,eggless, spaghetti-like pasta) for 30 people by hand.

From this course I took away many things. Fond memories of meals and friends made, ideas shared in Italian and English and French. That wonderful moment when service was finished and we all finally sat down and ate something--sometimes the ribs that we had used as a roasting rack for the pork, or the brown, crusty ends of the turkey roll, or maybe just a bowl of rice with pepper and fragrant, grassy Tuscan olive oil. It was then that we enjoyed the bonds forged by working hard and performing a seemingly impossible task together.

I took away from the course a better understanding of ingredients and a sense of the Italian way of putting them together. I also took away from the course a notebook stuffed with recipes and ideas (of course!). In it are some classics, some cheffy new Tuscan dishes, and this soup. This is the soup I make when the weather first turns cold and I want something hearty. This is the soup I make when I am having company and I don’t have the time or energy to fuss a lot. This is the soup I make when I want to remember the taste of Tuscany in the autumn.

This soup is hearty, and it's a meal in itself served with salad and some crusty bread. It's also vegetarian, even vegan if you replace the butter with olive oil.

I have seen a lot of recipes for chickpea soup, but I’ve never seen this one except in my course. The first time I tasted it I almost cried, it was so good: complex, layered flavors, golden color, crunch from the croutons. Try this. You owe it to yourself.

Tuscan Autumn Soup (Passata de ceci)


7-8 cloves garlic

4 shallots or 1 large, mild onion

5 cups soaked, cooked chickpeas

12 - 15 sage leaves, the fresher the better

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 stick / 50 g butter

12-15 bay leaves, the fresher the better

Leaves from a bulb of fennel

4 oz/ 100 gr tomato paste or plain tomato sauce

1 cup brandy or white wine

5-6 doses of saffron

3-4 small dried hot peppers

To serve

3-4 slices stale bread

a walnut-sized piece of butter

In a deep pot, simmer the chickpeas and their cooking liquid with the sage leaves.

If your saffron is in threads, add it to a little hot water and let it steep. If it’s powder, you can just add it directly to the soup at the end of the cooking (below)

In a frying pan, melt the butter with the olive oil and add the chopped garlic and onions. Crumble the dried peppers over it, and add the bay leaves. Saute over medium low heat until the bay leaves are soft and fragrant and the onion and garlic are translucent. Do this relatively slowly, as you’re infusing the oil and butter with the flavors.

Add the tomato paste/sauce and the brandy/white wine. Cook over medium heat till it’s almost dry. Remove the bay leaves and add the mixture from the frying pan to the chickpeas.

Liquefy with an immersion blender or by transferring to a blender. Add water if necessary to get the consistency you want. Put the bay leaves back in and add the saffron and the fennel leaves. Turn the heat off and let it sit for at least an hour. Really. This makes a huge difference. Don’t forget to remove the bay leaves again before serving.

Before serving, cut the stale bread into cubes, and melt the butter in a small pan. Add the bread cubes, toss, and let brown slowly over medium-high heat. Toss from time to time to brown them evenly on all sides.

Ladle the soup into bowls, add the hot croutons (I love the sizzle), and enjoy!

Serves 4 if they like it and 10 if they don’t.


1. You can substitute four cans of chickpeas. I don’t have to tell you that it’s better with the dried, soaked beans, but if you’re pressed for time, go ahead and use the canned. It’ll still be heavenly.

2. I never understood the point of bay leaves before this recipe. But now they’re among my favorite herbs. The smell of them as they sautee is out of this world.

3. In Siena we didn’t use fennel leaves, we used finocchio fiori, which are the dried petals of wild fennel flowers. Unless you’re in Tuscany, you’re probably not going to find this. Believe me, I’ve tried. You can substitute fennel leaves, if you can find a bulb with leaves on it. I just keep finocchio fiori in the freezer, and stock up when we’re in Italy.

4. You can skip the fennel flowers and the saffron if you can’t get them, but you’ll miss a subtle layer of flavor, as well as some of the golden color.

5. While this might seem like a fussy recipe, remember, it’s ITALIAN. Everything is approximate. Feel free to play with it!

6. This recipe is gluten free if you leave out the croutons.

23 September 2009

Free to a Good Home

To whom it may concern,

I’m writing to see if you can provide a home for my Mandoline. This nifty kitchen tool saves hours and hours of work. With it, you can slice things very fine very quickly. You just slide the to-be-sliced item back and forth over the veryvery sharp blade, and voila! You have perfect, uniform slices.

You can slice carrots, zucchini/courgettes, cucumbers, anything you can hold in your hand. You can also slice fingers, if you’re stupid. But wait! This Mandoline comes with a safety device, specifically designed to protect fingertips from the veryvery sharp slicing blade. This device cleverly grips the item to be sliced, keeping fingers behind a shield, where they belong. Only a very stupid person would use the Mandoline without the device, because the blade is veryvery sharp, and is designed to slice anything that passes over it--carrots, tomatoes, beets, fingertips, it doesn’t care. But WE do, so we have the clever safety device, which only a very stupid person would refuse to use.

Because sliced off fingertips bleed a LOT, and we don’t want to have blood all over our items-to-be-sliced, do we? And it’s hard to type with a bandaged finger--it wants to hit two keyts at opnce. And with a bandaged finger you have to wear a nasty-smelling latex glove in the kitchen to keep it dry and your hand will smell like latex all the time. No, no, we wouldn’t want that. That’s why we have the safety device. Which comes with the Mandoline. Free.

This Mandoline needs a good home. Don’t let the fact that it’s tasted human blood scare you. It really CAN be trusted...



Photo courtesy of Sur La Table

20 September 2009

SIDE TRIPS: Farm lanes

We live in farm country--beef, lambs, goats, fruit, cheese, milk. All around us are farm lanes, a network of dirt/gravel roads used by the farmers for generations to bring their animals to and from the pastures and their farm equipment home. They’re rough roads, often muddy in Belgium’s damp climate. They offer this city kid some wonderful rambles. They say you can go from here to Germany without ever hitting real pavement.

Today I took a walk down this lane. You can see the light dappling the lane, and the hedgerows on either side and the trees that make a tunnel for me to stroll through. What you can’t do is feel the gentle breeze and smell the new-mown hay. You can’t hear the bees buzzing or the cattle lowing or smell that almost-fall smell. I’m sorry that you can't, because it’s lovely. It’s a popular place to walk. I sometimes see my neighbors out for a constitutional.

As I walk along, I see these guys cooling off in the shade of the big trees. I can hear them gently lowing. I can smell them gently...nevermind.

I grew up in the Southeast US, prime blackberry country. But I never picked them, because in Georgia, where you have blackberries, you have chiggers. These are microscopic parasites whose bites ooze and itch for several weeks. I’m not kidding. I had roommates that didn’t stick around as long as chigger bites. They effectively kept me away from blackberries for many years. Blackberries grew all around me, but I had to BUY them if I wanted them.

So you can understand that when I walk down the farm lanes and see these growing in the hedgerows, I’m very happy. I can walk along and pick blackberries all day long and not have a single chigger bite to show for it! I think I’m in heaven. I think it’s free food. It is, I guess.

But wait a minute. I’ve discovered that the blackberries here are guarded not by chiggers, but by these. Stinging nettles. I’d heard most of my life about stinging nettles, but had never actually encountered one in person. We didn’t have them in Georgia. We had chiggers instead. If these nettles touch you, it burns and itches for about a day and a half. Bah. Nothing compared to chiggers! One day last month as I was picking blackberries, I stepped in a hole and in order to avoid falling into a bed of stinging nettles, I grabbed a big, bare handful of .... stinging nettles. Ouch. My whole hand burned for a couple of days, in spite of frequent applications of baking soda. But you know what? It was NOTHING compared to chiggers. And a small price to pay for wild blackberries. A small price to pay indeed.

Ouch, all the same

19 September 2009


Today is International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

So avast, me hearties, and get yerselves talkin fierce! Today is also the day when yer Beauty and her Matey are returnin from their sojurn in Germanland. AAaarrrr. We managed to get by without having to walk the plank, and we’re lookin’ forward to gettin’ back to our own little pirate island. Till then, I have a little ditty fer yer readin’ pleasure (apologies to Dorothy Parker)

I should like to ride the seas,

A roaring Buccaneer;

Cutlass banging at my knees

A dirk behind each ear.

I should like to dance and laugh

And pose and preen and sway

And rip the hearts of men in half

To toss the bits away.

I should like to strut and curse

Among my blackguard crew...

Instead I’m writing little verse

As proper ladies do.

AAaaaarrrrr! ......... >ahem<

Photo setup courtesy of Fairydust Studios in Aachen, Germany.

15 September 2009


We love pasta. We eat a lot of it. Almost all of the sauces that I use for pasta are made in the time that it takes the water to boil and the pasta to cook. ‘Cause I don’t like to wait.

This recipe was inspired by a pasta dish I had in Venice. It was tagliatelli with salmon in a cream sauce (see the inspiration?). It lacked something. The salmon didn’t have much flavor, and the sauce was pretty bland, without even the usual Italian suspects: garlic, onion, celery, tomato. I asked the waitress for some parmesan, and she looked at me, shocked: “Il pesce non si mangia con il formaggio!” Ok, I KNOW fish isn’t eaten with cheese, but let’s be frank here, there wasn’t much fish in there. And it needed SOMETHING.

This recipe uses smoked salmon. We cook it. I know, I know, heresy. I really like smoked salmon, but sometimes I find it too smoky. Too salty. Too strong. Cooking it makes it softer and less smoky. And it’s wonderful cooked like this, with the added punch that comes from cardamom and pink peppercorns.

Double heresy: cheese with fish. I know. But it works here. Especially if you have a bit of peccorino with truffles in it lying around. Wowiezowie, is that wonderful. But just parmesan will do. I don’t know about you, but whenever I have cream and pasta I just HAVE to have parmesan. Or peccorino. With or without truffles.

Go ahead. Live dangerously. Try it--cooked smoked salmon, cream, cheese, all of it. You know you want to.


1 pound / 500 g tagliatelli

1 shallot, chopped fine

1 clove garlic, chopped fine

1 tsp olive oil (I use oil infused with hot peppers)

4 pods cardomam

2 Tbsp pink peppercorns, plus more to sprinkle on top

1 tsp chopped fennel leaves (or 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seeds) - optional

1 cup / 50 cl light cream or half-and-half

1/2 lb / 250 g smoked salmon, chopped

1/4 cup grated parmesan or peccorino, plus more to sprinkle on top

  • While the water boils for the pasta, saute the shallot and garlic in the olive oil in a pan large enough to hold the pasta (I use a wok).
  • When the water is boiling, add some salt and the pasta.
  • Open the cardomam pods and crush the tiny black seeds and the pink peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. If you’re using fennel seeds, add them too. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, use the flat bottom of a glass to crush the spices on a cutting board.
  • Add the crushed spices to the garlic and shallot, toss to coat with the oil, and saute for about 30 seconds. Add the cream and the fennel leaves (if you’re using them). Stir to blend.
  • Add the chopped salmon, toss to coat with the cream, and cook on low heat till the salmon is cooked, then add the parmesan or peccorino.
  • When the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the pan with the sauce. Stir to coat the pasta.
  • Serve with additional grated cheese, pink peppercorns and some fresh-grated black pepper.

Serves 4 if the like it and 10 if they don’t.

Note: I know this has cream in it. But in the end it’s not that much per serving. I’ve tried this with low fat creams and cream substitutes, and it just doesn’t work--it curdles when you add the salmon. Ew.

´Nother Note: We´re still on holiday, and internet access is spotty. If you leave a comment, I promise-cross-my-heart to get back to you when I get home. Thanks!

12 September 2009


Ok, since I live in Belgium I feel that I have to post a chocolate recipe. This one is special. I only share it with my closest friends. I make this when I want a blast of intense chocolate flavor without a lot of heavyness. No, that's not really true. I make this when I want some chocolate bliss.

Use the best chocolate you can get—at least 60% cocoa. Yes, there's cayenne pepper in this. If you hate cayenne, then close your eyes when you put the pinch of it in, but trust me on this, ok? Just do it. The same with the black pepper. It should be as finely ground as you can get it—I grind mine in the pepper mill and then crush it more with my mortar and pestle. You don't want chunks of pepper in here, only the depth of flavor.

Adapted from this David Lebovitz recipe.


1 cup (225 ml) cream

1/2 cup (100g) sugar

pinch of salt

1/8 tsp instant espresso

pinch cayenne pepper

1/8 tsp finely ground black pepper, crushed even finer in a mortar and pestle

1/2 cup (50g) unsweetened cocoa powder -- the best you can get

4 ounces (110g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, cut in small pieces -- also the best you can get

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup (225 ml) milk

1. In a medium-sized saucepan, mix the cream and the cocoa. Whisk it until the cocoa is incorporated into the cream. Add the sugar, salt, instant coffee and the peppers.

2. Heat, stirring constantly until it comes to a boil.

3. Remove from heat and add the chocolate and the vanilla. Stir until the chocolate is melted and then add the milk.

4. Chill, then freeze in an ice cream freezer.


  • You can pour the liquid into popsicle forms and freeze it that way. This works very well.
  • You can replace the cream with half and half or even milk. This will reduce the richness, of course.
  • You can replace the instant coffee with Kahlua.

Serves 4 if they like it and 10 if they don't.

08 September 2009

CLASSICS: Caesar Salad

I love new things. But sometimes I just have to go back and revisit the classics. After all, there's a reason they're classic, eh? This is one of my favorites. When summer comes and the Romaine lettuce starts to come in, I love to make this salad. With a cheese tartine, it's a light meal.

The dressing is essentially a fancy mayonnaise, and I love the complexity of its flavors. YES, it's got anchovies in it (eeewww, I can hear you saying), but they're really necessary to achieve the depth of flavor in this. Don't leave them out, I beg you. It's worth it. Don't leave out the Tabasco, either. It doesn't make the dressing hot, it just makes it perfect. In fact, don't leave anything out. Promise me that you'll make it just like this, at least the first time. After all, there's a reason it's a classic, eh?

I like to make the croutons, let them cool, and mix them with the dressing before I add the lettuce. That way the creamy dressing has a chance to get to know the crunchy croutons.

2 heads Romaine lettuce
1 0z/25 g shaved parmesan (or you can use fresh grated)

2-3 slices bread (I like to use a sourdough rye), cut into small cubes
1-2 tsp olive oil

1 small clove garlic
1 oz/25 g/half a small can of anchovies
1 egg yolk
1/4 t salt
1 T lemon juice
1/8 t dry mustard powder or 1/4 t strong mustard
1/2 T Worchestershire sauce
1-2 dashes Tabasco
2 oz/50 ml good olive oil
2 oz/50 ml unflavored oil (canola/colza or sunflower)
2 T water
1 oz/25 mg freshly grated parmesan.

First, make the croutons. Put the olive oil in a frying pan and heat it gently. Add the bread cubes and toss to coat them with the oil. Heat over medium heat, tossing frequently, until brown and crunchy, about 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Cool.

Wash and dry the lettuce, and tear it into bite-sized bits. Put it in the fridge to crisp while you make the dressing.

To make the dressing, put the garlic through a garlic press into a bowl. Chop the anchovies and add them, along with the egg yolk, salt, lemon juice, mustard, Worchestershire sauce and Tabasco. Whisk/press/mash all this together, and add the oils s-l-o-w-l-y. Remember, you're making a fancy mayonnaise here, so the mayo rules apply. GO SLOW. (Or, you can do what I do sometimes and put it all in a glass with an immersion blender and whizz it. But you still have to add the oil slowly.) If it gets too thick, add some of the water. It should be thicker than vinaigrette but a little thinner than mayo. It should pour, but just barely. I'd add some water anyway, to help the oil emulsify in the egg yolk.

Put the dressing in your salad bowl, and add the grated parmesan and the cooled croutons. Mix well. Add the lettuce which should by now be really crispy and fresh. Toss gently. It may take a few minutes to toss it all, but take your time. It's worth it. Sprinkle with the shaved parmesan to serve.

Serves 4 (as a main course) if they like it and 10 if they don't.

  • You can add garlic or herbs to the oil before you put the bread cubes in to have flavored croutons. I don't do this, because I tend to use hearty bread with a lot of its own flavor.
  • You can of course add chicken or ham or shrimp or grilled slices of beef to this salad. Or you can add them to the tartine you have with it. Or you can serve them on the side and keep the crisp lettuce with its cloak of dressing.
NOTE: This recipe is gluten free if you leave out the croutons.