Mussels from Brussels

Belgium is home to some of the finest food in all of Europe – combining traditional Flemish cuisine with the high culinary French influence from the south. So, with all this elegant food – especially in Brussels, Bruges, Liege, Antwerp and Ghent – visitors are often

Mussels, pomme fritte and Belgian ale

surprised to learn that Mussels (or Moules to the locals) are generally regarded as the national dish of Belgium and can be found all across Belgium’s small land mass. Many restaurants offer mussels several ways – cooked in beer, cooked in wine, finished in cream, etc. They are sometimes served with a salad, and almost always with pomme fritte (french fries) and crusty bread (to sop up the sauce). A simple dish down to a fine art.

Belgian-style mussels are quick and easy to make as an appetizer or a main course. As a starter, you’ll want about half a pound of mussels per person. As a main dish, figure on 1.5 pounds per person. I like to serve them in bowls; be sure to have a large bowl for shells at the table. When serving them as a main course, have crusty bread and pomme fritte as side dishes.

Belgian-Style Mussels

3 pounds black mussels

1 bottle Belgian beer

1 Tb. olive oil

4 oz. bottled clam juice

1 large shallot (or small onion) – coarsely chopped

6 cloves garlic – coarsely chopped

1 leek – sliced (optional)

1 tsp kosher salt

Fresh-ground black pepper to taste

2 Tb butter

Wash mussels under cold water, discarding any that have begun to open. In the olive oil, saute the garlic, shallot (or onion) and leek until soft – about five minutes. Add mussels and stir in pan to coat with oil and vegetables. Add beer and clam juice and cook – stirring frequently – until mussels open completely (about 10 minutes). Add butter, salt and pepper an stir in. Serve immediately (and don’t forget the fries and baguette).

Belgian Beer for Mussels

Most of the time, I like to drink the same beer I cooked the mussels in. Hoegaarten (a witbier) is excellent, as is Duvel and Westmalle Tripel. If you want to play on the edge, try making mussels with a sour gueuze (Lambic beer) or a West Flanders Red (like Rodenbach). Make sure you get enough beer to cook and drink with the meal as well.

Lamb That Melts In Your Mouth

Back when I was just out of college, a friend and I decided to make dinner for a couple of young women we were trying to impress. It would be a gross understatement to say that we were not that savvy about food and, as usual, we were low on money. We couldn’t believe our amazing luck when we found lamb shanks on sale really cheap at the grocery store. Lamb shanks – like little individual-sized legs of lamb, right? We were golden! Back home, we put them in the oven to roast, prepared the rest of the meal, opened the rotgut wine we had scored and lit the candles. Our dates oohed and ahhed when we served up the beautifully roasted little “legs” . . . until they tried to cut into them. Okay, a little hard to cut . . . maybe it’s okay to pick them up like a turkey leg and just chomp down. Long story short, these babies were tough! We were now figuring out why they were so cheap; they were largely inedible, despite the fact that they looked and smelled great. I did learn that night that it doesn’t matter how bad the food is, as long as there is enough wine on the table.

It was many years before I ate another lamb shank, but when I had one at a restaurant at the urging of a business colleague, I couldn’t believe how great it was. Nothing like the jerky-on-a-bone I had made years before. When I told my co-worker my lamb shank story, she laughed and told me that lamb shanks are not a premium cut of meat (they’re the shin of the lamb). The only way to make them tender and flavorful is to braise them. The slow wet cooking method (braising involves cooking the meat in liquid along with aromatic vegetables in a covered pan) breaks down the fat and tough connective tissue and makes the shanks fall-off-the-bone tender, juicy and delicious. I was determined to learn how to make them at home, and was pleasantly surprised at the results.

Braised Lamb Shanks

Braised lamb shanks over creamy polenta

4 meaty lamb shanks – trimmed of as much fat as possible

2 small onions – each cut into four slices

2 medium carrots – peeled and cut into two-inch diagonal slices

2 celery ribs – cut into two-inch diagonal slices

3 whole garlic cloves – peeled

1-1/2 Tb tomato paste

3 sprigs fresh thyme

3 small sprigs fresh rosemary

1-1/2 cups dry red wine (Chianti classico, Merlot, and Spanish Rioja all work well)

2-1/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

In a large Dutch oven, heat one tablespoon of olive oil, season shanks with salt and pepper and brown shanks, turning once . When browned, set shanks aside on plate, pour all but a couple of tablespoons of fat from the pan, and add the onions, celery, carrots, tomato paste, garlic, thyme, rosemary and a pinch of salt. Cook 4 to 5 minutes over medium heat until vegetables soften. Add wine and broth, scraping bottom of pan to deglaze it. Bring to a simmer, place shanks back in the pan and cover. At this point, you may place the Dutch oven in a 350 degree over, or continue to cook on the stovetop. Braise for one hour, then uncover. Continue braising for 30 more minutes until the tops of the shanks are nicely browned. Flip the shanks over and braise for another 30 minutes. At this point they should be fork tender and nearly falling off the bone. Remove pan from heat and let rest for 20 minutes.

Spoon creamy polenta (see recipe below) into bowls and place a shank in the middle of each. Place vegetables around each shank. With ladle, or using fat separator, remove as much fat as possible from the sauce. Turn up heat and reduce cooking liquid by a third to a half, adjust seasonings and pour some over the shanks, passing the remaining sauce at the table. In place of the polenta, try mashed potatoes or a mixture of specialty and brown rices. On a cold night, you’ll think the Pearly Gates Cafe opened just for you.

Creamy Polenta

Polenta is basically corn grits and it is the primary starch in several regions of Italy. It can be cooked somewhat dry and sliced, or made like a creamy porridge (my preferred preparation). Bring 6 cups of water to a boil, adding salt and pepper. Add 1-1/2 cups of good quality polenta (preferable Italian) in a slow stream, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to lowest setting and and stir every 5 minutes or so to avoid polenta sticking to pan. After 30 minutes, stir in 3/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese and 3 (1TB each) pats of unsalted butter.  Give it a good stir and and serve under lamb shanks. Bon appetit!

Spiced Lamb Chops with Onions and Olives

Lamb is a favorite of mine and I’m always looking for new ways to fix it. Of all the lamb I have ever had, the lamb in Spain was the best. For one thing, the Spanish use real lamb (as in baby sheep) rather than the mutton we often get here under the guise of lamb. The difference in flavor and texture is unbelievable.

We recently had friends over for dinner and I tried a recipe that reminded me of the lamb I had in Spain. It was easy to prep ahead of time and was a big hit! I used racks of lamb cut into chops, which, along with the seasonings and olives made for a very Mediterranean dish.

Spiced Lamb Chops with Olives and Onions

Spiced Lamb Chops with Onions and Olives

2 Racks of lamb – cut into 16 rib chops

1 cup pitted kalamata olives

2 medium yellow onions – sliced thickly

2 lemons – halved and sliced thickly

1 Tb olive oil

2 cloves garlic – minced

1/2 tsp coriander

1/2 tsp cumin

1/2 tsp paprika

1/8 tsp ginger

1/8 tsp nutmeg

1/8 tsp allspice

2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

2 tsp salt

Mix together the garlic, coriander, cumin, paprika, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, 1-1/2 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper. Rub the mixture onto the lamb chops. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread the olives on a baking sheet, sprinkle with 1/2 tsp pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Spread the onions on another baking sheet and sprinkle with 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Place the baking sheets into the oven and roast olives for 10 minutes. Remove olives and leave the onions in for another 10 to 20 minutes until browned. Remove and keep both olives and onions warm.

On a medium-hot fire, grill lamb chops, turning once. Because these chops are small, they will only need 3 to 5 minutes per side, depending on how well-done you like them. Grill the lemon slices lightly (30 seconds per side) while the chops are cooking. To serve, place chops on plates and spoon olives and onions over them. Garnish with the grilled lemons.

Serve a full-bodied red wine with this dish – a cabernet sauvignon, merlot, or Spanish Rioja would complement it nicely. Or, try it with a Belgian abbey ale or American IPA. Enjoy!

The Joy of Risotto

Lobster risotto

Lobster Prosecco Risotto

When you think Italian and think starch, pasta usually comes to mind. In some regions of Italy, though, the starchy component of the meal is often risotto – the elegant and creamy rice dish that works as a starter or main course. With origins in Piedmont, Lombardy and Veneto – all in the northern part of Italy – risotto can be simple or elaborate. It is made with high-starch medium-grain rices – like Carnaroli, Arborio and Vialone Nano – that release starches during the cooking process to give the dish its creamy texture. There are lots of variations on risotto, incorporating cheese, vegetables, meats, poultry, seafood, mushrooms and herbs.

Relax. It’s easy

Many cooks have a fear of risotto because they think it’s too complicated or volatile to make. This could not be further from the truth. Risotto is basically a simple dish and anyone can make it easily in an ordinary kitchen. Contrary to popular myth, you do not have to stand over it constantly and fret over its imminent self-destruction during the cooking process. Have your ingredients prepared and measured beforehand and follow the simple instructions below to make perfect risotto every time.

Basic Risotto

2-1/2 cups Carnaroli rice (or Arborio or Violone Nano)

6 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

1 yellow onion – chopped fine

4 Tb unsalted butter (divided)

2/3 cup dry white wine

1-1/2 cups grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese – finely grated

Salt and pepper

Bring the stock to a boil in a saucepan and keep it hot during the cooking process. In another heavy saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter (or substitute olive oil) over low heat and saute the onion for 5-6 minutes until softened and translucent. Add in the rice and stir to coat with the oil. Stir and toast the rice in the pan until white spots appear in the centers of the grains – about a minute or so. Add the wine, and stir until liquid is absorbed – about 2 minutes more. Begin ladling in the hot stock until the rice is just covered. Maintain at a simmer. As the stock is absorbed, ladle in more – keeping the rice covered with a “veil” of stock. Continue this process until the stock is gone and the rice is slightly al dente. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter (not olive oil this time) and the Parmesan cheese. Salt and pepper to taste. Let the risotto rest for a few minutes and serve hot.

An easy variation on this is Risotto Milanese – the signature risotto of Milan. Make as above, but stir in a teaspoon of saffron toward the end of cooking. Grinding the saffron in a mortar and pestle will release more rich saffron flavor. The finished risotto will be a beautiful golden color.

The guilty secret of very rich risotto

I had some friends over for dinner one night and while I was running around trying to get ossobuco onto the table, I asked my friend Rosemarie (a very accomplished cook) if she would put the butter in to finish the risotto. Rosemarie, whose family is Italian, did so and brought the risotto to the table. It was the richest creamiest risotto any of us had ever tasted – absolutely amazing! I later asked Rosemarie how much butter she had put in, thinking she might have put in more than the specified two tablespoons. She told me she put in an entire stick of butter! “That’s how we make it in my family,” she said. It was incredible. Big butter was not lost on Julia Child and Paula Deen. If you want really rich risotto, go for it – and hit the gym the next day!

Lobster Prosecco Risotto

One of my favorite risottos – this makes an amazing main course. Rich lobster, cream (in place of cheese) and a crisp prosecco (dry Italian sparkling wine) create a luscious and decadent dish.

2 small to medium sized live lobsters cooked in water with one tablespoon of salt

3 cups prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) Optionally, use a dry white wine.

3 Tb. butter

1 large yellow onion – minced

1-1/2 cups Carnaroli or Arborio rice

1 tsp. lemon juice

1/2 cup heavy whipping creme

2 Tb fresh Italian parsley – minced

1/4 cup fresh chives – snipped – plus whole chives for garnish

Freshly ground pepper

Remove the meat (tail, claws and body) from the lobster shells and cut into small pieces. Put the shells back into the cooking liquid and reduce over high heat to 3 cups. Strain cooking liquid through cheesecloth into a saucepan along with the prosecco. Heat to almost boiling and keep hot throughout the cooking process. In a heavy saucepan, melt butter and saute onion over medium heat until soft and translucent. Stir in rice and stir to coat with butter. Saute until white spots appear in the centers of the grains – about a minute or two. Start ladling in stock and keep at a simmer – maintaining a “veil” of stock over the rice. Continue this process until the stock is absorbed, the rice is tender and creamy but al dente – about 20 minutes. As you add the last of the stock, add the lobster meat, cream, lemon juice, chives, parsley and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. garnish with chives and serve immediately.

Enjoy risotto in place of a pasta course, as a side dish or as a main course. It’s easy, versatile (you can add vegetables, mushrooms, meats, seafood or almost anything else you have around) to create a unique, satisfying and elegant dish.

Tuscan Seafood Soup (Livorno style)

Tuscan seafood soup with clams, shrimp and crabmeat

Versatile, healthy, more than a bit exotic and EASY – Livorno-style seafood soup. . . a perfect fall or winter dish that can work year round. It’s perfect for entertaining because it’s mostly prepared ahead of time and can be finished in less than ten minutes right before you sit down. The versatile part is that you can use any combination of seafood you like – fish, shrimp, scallops, squid, crawfish, lobster, crab, clams, mussels . . . whatever. I usually try to use three types of seafood, but you can go with one . . . or ten. Clams, mussels and shrimp add to the visual appeal – especially the shells. If you keep some frozen seafood on hand, you can whip this up in a half hour when you want something good but don’t want to put in a lot of kitchen time.

Livorno-Style Seafood Soup

4 lb  mixed fish and shellfish

3 Tb  extra virgin olive oil

1  small yellow onion – chopped

3  garlic cloves – chopped

2 lb  Roma tomatoes – peeled and chopped (or one 28 oz. can of diced plum tomatoes)

1 cup  seafood stock *

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 slices coarse country bread

1 Tb  chopped fresh Italian parsley

* I always keep a couple bottles of clam juice in the pantry as it’s a good stand-in for homemade seafood stock. Simmering shrimp shells and fish trimmings in a pint or two of water also makes a nice quick stock. In a pinch, you can just use water.

Wash and prepare seafood in advance. Cut fish into bite-size chunks. Store refrigerated until ready to use.

In a soup pot, sauté onion over medium heat until translucent (about 5 min). Add garlic and sauté until fragrant (about 1 min). Add tomatoes and stock, bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste (the dish is traditionally peppery). At this point you can cover the pot and remove from heat until 10 minutes before you’re ready to serve.

Toast the bread until golden in the over or toaster. Place a slice of toasted bread in each bowl and sprinkle with parsley. When you’re ready to eat, re-heat the broth and stir in the seafood. When the shellfish (clams and/or mussels) open (about 10 minutes) the soup is ready. Top the bread with hot soup, making sure that each bowl gets an assortment of seafood. Alternatively, bring the soup to the table in a tureen or large bowl (for visual effect) and pass around the bread. Enjoy!

Putting a Rotisserie Chicken to Work

You’ve gotta love rotisserie chickens! They’re tasty, cheap, healthy and QUICK. And, you can get a lot of mileage out of one if you work it a little.

My favorite rotisserie chicken is from Costco. Clearly a loss-leader at $4.99, they’re way bigger than most and usually moist and flavorful. I generally get at least three meals from one.

Meal 1: Rotisserie chicken.

Meal 2: Chicken salad or Thai curry (white meat); pulled chicken with barbeque sauce (dark meat); chicken soup (both)

Meal 3: Homemade chicken stock (bones, carcass)

Pretty good for a $4.99 item.

Recipe: Homemade Chicken Stock

There’s nothing like good homemade chicken stock for soups, braises, risottos and sauces. Besides the fresh taste, you can control the amount of salt in the stock. Even “reduced salt” canned stocks have a ton of sodium. I make stock with no salt and add the salt I want when I make the final dish.

Saute 1 onion, 2 stalks of celery and 2 carrots (all diced) in a little olive oil in a stockpot. Don’t add salt. When aromatics are softened, put in 8 cups of water and the chicken bones and carcass from the rotisserie chicken. Add 2 bay leaves and 1 teaspoon of whole peppercorns and simmer for several hours. Cool, strain and bag up in Ziplocks (3-4 cups each). Freeze until you need stock.

Recipe: Chicken Noodle Soup

Chicken Noodle Soup

Dice 2 medium onions, 3 carrots, 3 stalks of celery and 2 cloves of garlic. Saute in 3 tablespoons of olive oil until soft. Add 8 cups of homemade chicken stock and cut-up chicken (white meat, dark meat or both). Bring to boil, add a bag of egg noodles, season with salt and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes or until pasta is cooked. Garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro. Good with sauvignon blanc or a German or Czech pilsner.

Pucker up. . . you’re going to love sour beers

So, I was at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver a few weeks back. It was great as always – 1900 beers to taste. Everything came off smoothly this year – big success.

Something I noticed this year was a lot more sour beers, which seem to be among the hot beers in brewdom these days. Until about 10 years ago, most sour beers came from Belgium or Germany. The Berliners love their city’s Berliner Weisse, a light-bodied and pale wheat ale with a nice touch of lactic sourness. Some drink it with a splash of grenadine or woodruff syrup, but many like it straight.

P1000486Belgium, however, is the European capitol for sour beers. In addition to its classically sour and earthy Lambics, there are Flanders browns and West Flanders reds – both sour beers – from the Flemish parts of the country. The Belgian brews get their sourness and complex aromas and flavors from a combination of wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria that are both airborne and resident in the wood of the aging barrels. These microorganisms produce a “spontaneous fermentation” – as opposed to the usual fermentation brought on when brewers yeast strains are added to beer. This combination of wild microorganisms gives the beers their characteristic tart-citrus sourness and earthy “horse blanket” aroma and flavor. The result is an intense blast of flavors, huge complexity and a sense that you’re traveling back in time to a 13th Century Flemish village. I have long been a fan of real Belgian Lambic. After several years of aging, these beers are dry, complex and intensely sour – often resembling Champagnes or sparkling wines more than traditional beers. Sour beers are often flavored with various fruits – mostly sour cherries and raspberries – a practice dating back hundreds of years to a time when hops were not the only flavoring added to beer.

To my surprise at the GABF, there are a growing number of sour beers made in U.S. Microbreweries and they’re damn good. They are also pretty innovative in their recipes, many using fruits, herbs, spices and special aging barrels. Some that I tasted were exceptional. New Belgium Brewery’s La Folie remains one of my very favorites – patterned after a West Flanders red, it is intensely flavorful and delightfully sour . . . and now available outside the brewery. Coopersmith – also from Fort Collins, Colorado – had a really nice and quite authentic Belgian-style Kriek (sour beer flavored with tart cherries) at the GABF this year. The Russian River Brewing Company from California had some killer sour beers, including their Temptation, Supplication, Beatification and Consecration beers – aged in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet barrels. There were a number of other sour beers at the GABF and most were well made. You probably won’t find them too far from where they are brewed, as each is handmade and labor-intensive, thus limiting supplies. Ask for sour beers at your local beer store – and give them a try. They’re modern art in a bottle. It’s nice to encourage American craft brewers to cut loose and get creative.

I have to throw in my two cents about home-brewing sour beers. I’ve made a lot of them over the years – some great and some . . . interesting. It’s a style that is not that had to brew and tend to. The creative possibilities with sour beers are pretty much endless. The hard part is patience. Sour beers take from two to three years of aging to really develop their complexity and depth of flavors, and a lot of brewers end up drinking them well before their prime. My advice – put them in the back of your closet, mark them with a “don’t drink before (date)” tag and leave them alone. You’ll be rewarded.

Leave a comment if you’re interested in more on sour beers in general and/or how to brew them.