Yes, I enjoyed sampling Belgium’s famous beers, chocolate and, of course, frites. But what really blew me away on a recent visit were the things Belgian chefs are doing with vegetables.
My education began at JEF, a small but acclaimed restaurant in Ghent. Marinated fresh herring, just coming into season, were heaped with peas and lovage. Lovage? The last time I had encountered this robustly flavored herb was in my New York garden. It grew well but I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Obviously, I could have done something like this.
Lovage was apparently in season because it showed up–unapologetically–in another JEF dish, over a tumble of zucchini almost obscuring the dogfish beneath. A crisp, translucent slice of kohlrabi adorned the plate. Another aha moment–such a delicious and elegant thing to do with a vegetable that, like most people, I totally ignore.
At De Vitrine, another trendy Ghent restaurant, kohlrabi was braised until almost caramelized and so delicious it almost overshadowed the delicate-tasting snails also on the plate (that cloud on top is buttermilk foam). Vegetables appeared in every tasting menu course, including dessert: raspberry-dill sorbet with cucumbers and gooseberry puree.
Chef Vilhjalmur Sigurdarson of Souvenir, in Ieper (also known as Ypres), is passionate about finding creative uses for vegetables that grow in Belgium’s fertile polders. Apparently, Belgium grows at least a dozen varieties of carrots. For one dish on that day’s menu, he halved carrots to show off a beautiful demarcation between maroon and orange, cooking them al dente. Requiring a knife, they commanded as much attention from the eater as the chicken they were paired with. Tomatoes, on the other hand, were slow roasted until they could barely hold their shape, then garnished with dollops of eggplant puree and delectable whole-grain croutons.
Some of my take-aways from this experience: Figure out what grows well and what’s in season where you are. Think of more ways to prepare vegetables. Don’t stop with steaming, roasting, sautéing. Make vegetables jus and purees, such as the white and green garlic sauces I saw served with roast pork. Get out the mandoline and cut thin, crisp sheets and sprightly tendrils. Braise to bring out deep, primal flavors. Lavish vegetables with herbs, seasonings, crisp crumbs, tart dollops of good yogurt or sour cream. Instead of being generous with the protein component of the plate and stingy with vegetables, switch the ratio.
How successful I am with incorporating these techniques into my cooking remains to be seen. But one thing I plan to try right away. We ate mussels several times and one place stood out. Same plump delicious mussels as everywhere else but they had taken the trouble to cut the celery and carrots steamed with them into paper-thin slices. Sublime and so crazy simple I can do it tonight.