Mussels from Brussels

Since the start of 2014, I have reverted to my old ways and make a concerted effort to exercise in the morning. When I lived uptown, five mornings a week I went for a run as the city was waking. During these ventures, I had fantastic eye candy including professionals headed to the office for the daily grind, garbage men, folks walking dogs and the likes. Each and every day I waved at the parking lot attendant on Trade Street and the hotel driver down the block. Sometimes men would be sitting in the barber getting shaved. I greeted them too. The parking lot attendants at the Ritz came to know me by name. It was terrific as I am all about diversions. I must admit, I like getting it over and done with. It leaves little wiggle room for excuses. In some regards, I am the master of procrastination. 

Working up a sweat early makes for an outstanding start to my day. Some mornings I do yoga. It is close enough that I can cradle a hot cup of coffee en route. I am besotted with my instructor and I have a pal who meets me there regularly. I have discovered a newfound respect for Ujjayi breathing! On Fridays, I hit up the Starbucks en route home. Other mornings are the gym. A bit boring really but there is a sauna. Good old executive workout. I take back roads from our house and am there in no time. My favorite route however is that of the drive from my house to the spinning studio. I leave at a time when the school lights are blinking but the roads are still relatively empty.  

In the darkness, I drive slowly and peer curiously at one or two illuminated rooms belonging to an otherwise dark house. Other family members are still asleep. I gather that the lights are on in the kitchen where someone, maybe a mother or father (probably the mother), is starting the family’s day. Perhaps this person is brewing coffee, feeding a dog, making lunches, overseeing a child doing last minute homework (as was often the case in my family) or simply enjoying the silence that the cusp of dawn brings. Such a wondrous sight, house upon house the length of the long street that I drive a couple of mornings. For whatever reason, this long stretch of budding homes makes me happy. It is somehow a familiar and very comforting scene.

Familiarity is a very interesting concept. Take food for example. Who doesn’t like comfort food? It evokes reminders of home. How many times in life have you been asked about your favorite food? How did your favorite food selection come about? When asked about what I love to eat most, I can visualize meals in my kitchen and those of others. Nine times out of ten, I can picture the scene, where I was and what that food or meal or the person I was with meant to me. It evokes memories, great ones. The same goes for the select few things that I do not enjoy eating. 

Chicken liver pate aside, I detest liver. I simply cannot stomach the stuff. I can take myself back to the place where liver first met my palate. I was in a Greek restaurant back in Germany with a colleague of mine who introduced me to his favorite restaurant. The French fries marginally redeemed the liver but it was not my cup of tea. In fact, it was downright dreadful. My dining partner was on cloud nine. He regaled me with tales of his mother’s infamous liver and how she prepared it back in Athens. Different strokes for different folks. For all one knows, eating a certain something reminds you of a trip you once took or a place previously visited. Familiar smells can do that too. Every once in a while I catch a scent, maybe it is a certain flower, I cannot be sure but I am transferred back to our happy childhoods spent in Cape Town. I cannot pinpoint what I smell but it invites the greatest of memories. Whenever Matthew smells the ocean, he is returned to a halcyon place and wonderful time in his life. He is my resident beach boy and is at his happiest when near to or in the sea.

This past weekend, we hosted great friends for dinner and I wanted to make something familiar. Stew. Irish stew at that. It’s in my blood. My mother’s maiden name is Cooper. Need I say more? My sense of familiarity was agreeably shifted when I found the below recipe for a Carbonnade or Flemish beef stew. In lieu of using red wine as most French stews call for, you use Belgian beer. I had a grand time running around Charlotte in hot pursuit of such meads.  I also picked up a bottle of Mulderbosch - one of South Africa's best! This is a marvelous dish for entertaining as you can serve it family style. I paired mine with roast potatoes though egg noodles would also be glorious. A vegetable like that of carrots, cooked squash or Brussel sprouts. A big loaf of crusty bread is a must and to keep things somewhat interesting or for those on a diet (insert yawn here), a winter salad like the one I wrote about yesterday.

Living in Germany, we visited Belgium a handful of times. It was a quick skip by car or train. I am fanatical about Antwerp. The city has an incredible fashion and art scene. During one visit, we stayed in the quirkiest boutique hotel. The bathroom was full of Acqua di Parma products and naturally, I found myself in hog’s heaven. Bruges is also a charming place. Lest we not forget Brussels. My family visited this city in 1996, the summer before we moved to Charlotte. For years I dreamed of a meal we enjoyed for lunch one day that comprised massive pots of mussels in a white wine broth with unfair amounts of garlic and large plates of crispy frites. So in short, a divergence from Ireland was in the cards and this stew more than delivered. Come 11.00 pm once the dishes were rinsed and everything else put away, we brought out fresh dishes along with the pot of stew. We broke bread, dipped as we sipped and it was quite brilliant really. Give this Flemish stew a gander!

Adapted from Saveur 


2 lb beef chuck or shoulder – if it is not already cut, make like a butcher and produce medallions
4 TBS butter
1/4 up of flour
6 slices of bacon – chopped
4 cloves of garlic – chopped
3 yellow onions – chopped
2 cups of Belgian style beer – this recipe recommends Ommegang Abbey Ale, which can be found at Total Wine
2 cups of beef stock
2 TBS brown sugar or maple syrup
2 TBS apple cider vinegar – I like Bragg’s
A bunch of thyme
A handful of parsley
A bunch of tarragon
2 bay leaves
Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper

Get On with It Already

1. Salt and pepper your beef. Let it sit at room temperature for a bit before you get cracking. Dust the beef in flour until covered.

2. Heat 2 TBS butter in your Le Creuset on medium high heat. Add the beef and brown it. Remember, you do not want to crowd the meat as this will result in steaming, which we are not trying to do. Give your beef space to let it brown accordingly. Do it in batches if need be. Hey, I did! Once the beef is nice and brown, transfer it to a plate.

3. Add the bacon to the pot, which is now home to delicious fat from the beef. Let the bacon start to change colors. Once it is cooked through but not burned, add 2 TBS of butter, garlic and onions. Caramelize the lot.

4. Once you have a gorgeous golden medley that reminds you of French onion soup (minus the broth of course), add 1 cup of the Belgian style beer. With this exercise, you want to scrape the lovely bits from the bottom of the Dutch oven. Let this all cook for approximately 5 minutes.

5. Now return your beef, the remaining beer, beef stock, brown sugar or maple syrup, thyme, parsley, tarragon, bay leaf, a couple of pinches of kosher salt and some fresh cracked pepper. Bring your bounty to a boil and reduce to simmer. Put the top on and let it be for 1.5 to 2 hours. Whatever wets your whistle or best suits your agenda.

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