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[Not] Cooking Off the Cuff: A Few Ideas From Belgium

02/11/2015 09:39 am ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

We got home from a trip just last night, so I haven't had a chance to do any cooking. But as usual, our travels yielded some good ideas that I'll surely incorporate into the repertory. Here are three, all from Belgium.

In Brussels there's an irresistible snack-y appetizer that's almost as ubiquitous as fried potatoes (it would be provocative to say "French fries" so I won't): shrimp croquettes. These are made with the tiny gray shrimp that just don't turn up in New York markets, so they're a particular treat for a traveler. Most typically, in casual restaurants, they're made like other croquettes: with a thick béchamel sauce into which the shrimp are mixed before the sauce is chilled, then formed into croquettes, breaded and fried. They're okay: fun to eat and mildly shrimp-y in flavor. But the results are incomparably better if you take a slightly more labor-intensive approach - as practiced at a place like Les Petits Oignons, a nice restaurant (tourist-free except for us) recommended by Alison Cornford-Matheson, who has a European-travel website that's worth looking at. There, they make stock from the shrimp shells and heads and turn this into the croquette base, doubling the shrimp flavor. When I get around to it, I'll make these croquettes using the best shrimp I can find, chopping them up, since they'll be too big to use whole.

Still in Brussels, at Les Brigittines, we had a first course of delicate, perfectly seasoned calf's brains served warm (not hot) with a few drops of vinegar, a little raw onion and fresh herbs. I've always liked brains cooked crisp on the outside, but these tender crunch-free forkfuls might have been the best I've eaten. I haven't tracked down the exact recipe, but it shouldn't be impossible. The hardest part may be to get hold of a set of calf's brains.

Moving up to Bruges - or more properly Brugge, since it's in Flanders - I had one of those eye-opening things that shifts the usual notions of a dish. It was braised pork cheeks (one of the great braising cuts - hard, but not impossible, to find in the U.S.), but brightened through the inclusion of pickled vegetables. There were tiny gherkins (cornichons) as well as a variety of root vegetables pickled more lightly and cut into little dice. Additional brightness came from whole vinegar-and-water-soaked mustard seeds, and overt sweetness (pretty common in these parts) from roughly mashed sweet potato: a terrific ensemble. On its menu, the stylish restaurant Rock Fort proposes this as either a large first course or a small main dish; it was actually more substantial than that suggests, but then the portions both in Brussels and in Bruges were consistently large - and that is something Jackie and I won't be emulating at home.

  • Grandma's style calf's brains at Les Brigittines, Brussels
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • Pork cheeks brightened with pickled vegetables at Restaurant Rock Fort, Bruges/Brugge
    Photograph by Edward Schneider