Before you know it, summer vacation will be upon us. You may not have made your plans yet but if you like to travel and enjoy good food as well, why not Belgium! The reason is very simple: everybody eats better in Belgium! I should know because I was born there and I revel in the memory of all those gustatory feasts that made such an impact on my childhood.
It is not well known but Belgium has more three-star restaurants per capita than France. As a people, Belgians are fiercely protective of their culinary status which was well established as a result of the spice trade in the Middle Ages. It has also acquired and preserved in its traditions a rich combination of influences brought about by foreign invasions. If you travel there today you will find out for yourself the delightful variations that exist between the Flemish and Walloon part of the country.
I grew up in the Walloon part of Belgium not far from a monastery in the town of Rochefort known for its extraordinary beer. It was a delightful destination for excursions, especially driving down beautiful country roads before reaching the welcoming abbey. The monks tended their herb garden where I learned to recognize tarragon, thyme, sage, parsley, chives and chervil. But it was the tender leafy chervil I loved the best. To me it was a jewel among all the herbs I watched growing in our garden. It looked and tasted somewhat like parsley but incomparable in its fragrance and taste. I wonder to this day why it is so difficult to find it in the greengrocer shops in New York. But I took back some seeds from Belgium last year and dispersed them among the rocks behind the building where I live in Brooklyn. And when I went out this morning, I was greeted by the most tender green spreading out over the stones. I picked a few leaves and rubbed them into my palms to carry the scent of my childhood for at least part of the day. But today for the delight of my guests, I will recreate a Belgian dish that originates in the city of Ghent in Flanders.
Although Flanders is in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium, it was quite popular with my aunt Therese who never made such distinctions and prepared it on every special occasion. It’s one of my favorites because the scent and taste of this wondrous stew, like Marcel Proust’s petites madeleines brings me back to a past that lingers in my taste buds. And of course I will garnish the top of the dish with tender snippets of chervil!
Its name derives from the Dutch term “zooien” to boil but it really is a dish prepared with fish or chicken simmered in a soup base of egg-yolk and cream thickened into vegetable broth, carrots, onions, leeks, potatoes, parsley, thyme, bay-leaves, sage and snippets of chervil at the very end of cooking.
A simplified chicken version follows:
Take a plump roasting chicken (cut in pieces)
4 leeks (white parts only)
4 carrots (sliced into rounds)
4 sticks celery( sliced into rounds)
A bouquet garni of bay leaves, fresh parsley, thyme
Minced chervil for garnish
2 large egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream
Some large baking potatoes cut into cubes
4 cups chicken broth
2 medium onions (chopped)
3 tbsps. butter
Melt the butter in a Dutch oven. Add the onions and cook until translucent. Add the bouquet garni and cook a bit longer. Then place the chicken pieces on top and add enough of the chicken broth to partially cover the chicken. Cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove any fat or foam accumulating at the top. Add the leeks, carrots, and celery. Simmer for another 30 minutes.
Add the cubed potatoes to simmering liquid and cook until the potatoes and chicken are done (chicken will be very tender).
Remove the chicken from broth and place in a large dish. Remove the bouquet garni from the broth.
You will easily remove the skin and bones from the chicken so that you can have bite-size pieces of meat.
Beat the cream and egg yolks in a mixing bowl. Place Dutch oven over medium heat.
Take a ladle and remove some of the liquid from pot to slowly add to egg mixture. This is to prevent the eggs from curdling. Then slowly stir mixture into the broth with the vegetables. Cook over low heat, constantly stirring until the sauce thickens. Be careful not to reach boiling point. Return chicken pieces to Dutch oven. Add salt and pepper.
Place the waterzooi in a deep ( and warmed) serving dish and sprinkle tender little chervil leaves on top. A dish to remember!