There are a few favorite tastes of Belgium, tastes I would go back in a heartbeat to savor again. The warm, sugar-crispy waffle that we got from a random street vendor the first Sunday morning that we were there–we searched for her every morning after that, but never found her again. The rich, savoriness of the beef carbonade, made with dark abbey-style beer. The crispy-outside, soft-and-pillowy-inside frites, warm from the fryer, with a mayonnaise-based sauce on the side. The beer–abbey beers, Trappist beers, gueuze and lambics…the list goes on and on. And the waterzooi. A cream-based traditional stew, sometimes with chicken and sometimes with fish, waterzooi was one of the dishes I had on my list to try after I read through my three hundred guidebooks. So when I finally saw it on the menu somewhere, the matter was settled. I ordered a bowl at In ‘t Spinnekopke in Brussels, this wonderful little restaurant that makes all of its dishes with beer, and it was heavenly. A mouth-wateringly tender thigh of chicken atop potatoes and carrots, surrounded in a creamy broth. Add to that the general atmosphere of the place, and the frenetic but friendly and helpful owner who waited on us, and it was one of my favorite dining experiences while we were there.
Saturday night, we tried to recreate that dish.
And, I would add, we were quite successful! It was flavorful but not overpowering, and the ingredients were all perfect textures: the chicken was amazingly juicy, the vegetables were tender but not mushy, and the broth was creamy without being overly rich or heavy on the tongue. We were going to make a salad to go with it, but the soup was so thick with chicken pieces and vegetables that we ended up abandoning that idea. We heated up a couple of rolls and called it a meal. We just couldn’t get over how good it was and how pleased we were with our creation. Granted, it’s certainly not a recipe for a quick meal. From start to finish, it probably took us about 2 1/2 hours to create the dish. But it was so worth it! So far, that’s 3 for 3 from that Belgian cookbook I picked up on a whim the fall after our honeymoon.
And, in addition to being a fabulous dinner, the recipe made a ton of soup. So lunches for the week ahead have never looked so good.
Ghent-Style Chicken Stew
(Gentse waterzooi/ Waterzooi de poulet a la Gantoise)
From The Food and Cooking of Belgium
1 whole chicken (about 3 1/2 lbs)
Chicken stock to cover the meat
2 sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
1 garlic clove, crushed
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 carrots, finely chopped
2 onions, finely chopped
2 leeks, white part only, thinly sliced
2 celery sticks, finely chopped
6 small potatoes, quartered
2 egg yolks
7 oz heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Handful of fresh parsley to garnish
1. Rinse the chicken and trim off any excess fat. Place the whole bird in a large pot and pour over chicken stock to two-thirds cover the bird. Add the thyme, bay leaves, clove, peppercorns, and crushed garlic. Bring to a boil.
2. Reduce the heat, cover, a simmer for about 1 – 1 1/2 hours, or until chicken in cooked and the meat begins to fall from the bones.
3. Lift the chicken out of the pan. When it is cool enough to handle, remove the skin, take the meat off of the bones, and cut it into bite-sized pieces. Put these in a bowl, cover, and set aside. Skim the fat from the surface of the stock, then pour it into a large container and set aside.
4. Melt the butter in the clean pan. Add all the vegetables except the potatoes and fry over a low heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until softened. Pour in the reserved stock and the potatoes, bring to a boil, and cool for 10-15 minutes, until potatoes are tender.
5. Mix the egg yolks and cream in a bowl. Remove the pan from the heat and gradually stir the cream mixture into the soup. (We tempered it first by slowly mixing small ladle-fuls of the hot soup into the egg and cream mixture.) Add the chicken pieces. Return to the heat and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes, until thickened. Do not let it boil.
6. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Ladle into bowls. Sprinkle with parsley to garnish and serve immediately.