In De Wulf (Dranouter, BE)

Another year, another birthday, and a perfect excuse to go for a fancy dinner. This year we chose to go to “In De Wulf”, situated in the far west of Belgium (and in the middle of nowhere as well); our choice motivated by the critical acclaim they have received over the last years, as well as all the positive blog posts dedicated to their food. So naturally, I wanted to like it. I really did.

If you are a fan, you can safely stop reading and here before you’re reaching for that pitchfork to storm our house. Because we didn’t like it. The service was so-so. The wines were below par. The food was not consistent, and to be honest I was glad I filled up on bread since every course was bite-sized. (As a disclaimer I should add that this is my own view and you should not be deterred from checking it out yourself; after all, tastes differ.)

And before I make myself even more unpopular among the Belgian readers, I’ll just leave it at that and say no more. I promise the next post will be a lot more cheerful, especially since my copy of Bouchon Bakery just arrived.

The end of summer, and my birthday.

I have neglected this blog long enough now. I just needed a little break from blogging to come up with some inspiration. That, and my birthday, which for the first time made a severe dent in my otherwise cheerful take on life.

What really hit me this time was that I’m 27 now and I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life. A couple of years ago I was sure I would end up in some big investment bank or hedge fund, work my ass off for a while and rake in a nice salary in the meantime. Yet now that I’m older I’m really enjoying other parts of life as well, and giving my life to my work just doesn’t seem so appealing anymore. On the other hand, I’m currently doing a temporary job which I know is going to end withing two years. I think my birthday weighed down on me by making me feel ‘stuck’ in life.

It’s almost a month later now, and I’m largely past the proverbial wall. I’m enjoying life more now instead of worrying about what’s going to happen later. I’m following a bread-baking course (bread dough has always been sort of my nemesis), taking tons of pictures everywhere (the ones in this post have been taken at koffie Onan during a rainy Saturday afternoon) and coming up with menus for our November dinner parties. I’ll be commenting on those over the coming weeks!

Hamachi Sashimi with Watermelon “Margarita”, Cucumber, Jicama, and Yuzu Yogurt (GILT NYC)

One of the most significant culinary events for me was a dinner at GILT in NYC, September 2010. I had been at fancy-pants restaurants before, but those were usually heavily influenced by classic French cuisine, albeit with a modern twist. But GILT was something else. It was… indescribable. I would definitely mark it as the start of my more serious embarkment into the culinary arts. Shortly thereafter I purchased the Alinea cookbook. And then I went completely nuts; buying one book after another, reading hundreds of blogs, sourcing down all those obscure ingredients. I might even admit I went a little bit overboard there.

It took me a while to figure out that all those beautiful dishes in the Alinea cookbook (and the Fat Duck cookbook, …) take a small army to complete. Certainly if you’re entertaining guests, and need more than one of them. Unconsciously, I started to drift away from the grandeur of these complex pieces of heaven. I started focusing more on modest plates, but at the same time really trying to bring forward the cleanest possible flavours. Incidentally, I’m picking that one up at a lot of other blogs where the writer owns a copy of Modernist Cuisine.

The recipe is from the GILT website, the presentation is all on me.

Sashimi with  Watermelon “Margarita”, Cucumber,  Jicama, and Yuzu Yogurt (See here)

  • 1 pound of Hamachi, or other tuna, thinly sliced
  • ½ cucumber, diced
  • 1 tablespoon Togarashi seasoning
  • 1 one-inch slice of Watermelon
  • 1 ounce Tequila
  • 1 ounce Triple Sec
  • 1 ounce Lime Juice
  • 1 cup Water
  • ½ green apple
  • 2 sprigs of Basil, keep 1 sprig whole and slice 2 leaves
  • ¼ cup Greek Yogurt
  • ½ teaspoon Yuzu juice
  • 2 tablespoons Soy Sauce
  • 2 slices of Garlic
  • 1 sliced Jalapeno
  • 3 tablespoons Lemon Juice
  • 1 pinch Lemon Zest
  • 2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 5 pieces Chives, sliced
  • 1 sprig Parsley, sliced

Preparing the Watermelon:

Cut a perfect rectangle out of the watermelon slice. Add the tequila, triple sec, lime juice, and 1 ounce of water into a bowl and mix well. Place the watermelon into the bowl and marinate for 6 hours in the refrigerator. After 6 hours, remove the watermelon from the bowl and dice into medium pieces.
Preparing the apple:

Slice the apple into very fine julienne. Combine the remaining amount of the water, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 sprig of basil, and the julienne apple into a small container. Let the apple marinate for at least 1 hour before using.

Preparing the Yuzu Yogurt:

Mix the yogurt, yuzu juice, and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce well.
Dressing for the Hamachi Sashimi: Place the garlic, jalapeno, lemon zest, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, and the lemon zest in a mortar and start to mash with the pestle. When the ingredients are well mashed, add 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, sliced chives, sliced basil, and sliced parsley. Mix the ingredients together.

Note: the original recipe requires jicama instead of green apple, which we were unable to find. Green apple seemed like a decent substitute.

Pulled mushrooms with herb salsa

Reading through the entire Modernist Cuisine seems like a never-ending task. It doesn’t help either that I have a serious attention deficit when facing such a tome. So far I have nearly finished the first book and several parts of books 2 to 5. And so when I was browsing the mushroom isle in my local supermarket and saw these wonderful king trumpet mushrooms, page 3:396 suddenly sprang to mind: pulled mushrooms with BBQ sauce. The idea is that you cook the mushrooms, and then pull them apart to create a faux-spaghetti.

I wasn’t so keen on the BBQ sauce, so I tried to make a herb salsa. Tried. The whole thing was just one gigantic failure after another. I took the salsa recipe from Roux’s Sauces book. I left out the whole-grain mustard because I didn’t have any, so I tried to make my own with mustard seeds, and get this, sherry. Not sherry vinegar, like the recipe asked for, no, sherry itself. Epic failure number one, as the sherry taste was enormously overpowering. I was in a stubborn mood however, so I decided to go on, figuring it would somehow balance itself out in the end. Yeah, right. I forgot the other stupid ideas I put into the salsa, but the whole thing ended up tasting like sherry and potato. So it was a sherry-potato salsa with herbs in it just for show. Needless to say, I’m not giving any recipe for the salsa.

The mushrooms, then? They were awesome!

Pulled Mushrooms

Vacuum pack halved king trumpet mushrooms with olive or other oil and cook for 4 hours at 90°C. Afterwards, take out the mushrooms, pat dry with kitchen paper, and pull apart in strands. Serve with something better than my salsa.

Pea soup with champagne and shrimp

Pea soup served with sautéed shrimp and a healthy dose of champagne (yes, in the soup) was an upscale dish served at some of my parents’ dinner parties when I was in my teens. For the last couple of months I have been trying to reinvent this dish into a cool new ‘upgraded’ version. I was thinking gels, different textures with bacon, etc etc…Somewhere in the back of my head though there was this nagging voice warning me of taking it too far.

Looking back at all my favourite dishes over the past year that I have either eaten somewhere or made myself, I have to admit they are usually not too complicated but instead manage to perfectly balance a couple of contrasting flavours. So this weekend I decided to skip all the frivolities, gels and bacon and get down to the core of the dish.

First, there is the pea soup. I switched the recipe’s chicken stock for a fish stock, and next time I’ll make one out of the shells of the shrimp. I was only going to try this on four shrimp so I had to improvise with one of those stock cubes. I can already feel the judgement laid down upon me! In my defense, we’re living sort of compactly and therefore I don’t stock a bucket of fish heads in my freezer. (And besides, storing a bucket of heads in the freezer seems a tad macabre.) I also added half of a scraped out vanilla bean I have lying around (so just the bean, not the seeds), to add a delicate layer of sweetness.

Secondly, there’s the shrimp. At home these would be quickly boiled and grilled. I wanted a perfectly cooked shrimp for this soup, so the obvious choice was chucking them into the sous-vide unit. It did not disappoint.

Lastly, there’s the champagne. In the original, it would just be added to the soup at the last minute. Doing this will destroy all those nice bubbles, which led me to blending the champagne with a little bit of soy lecithin. That way those bubbles get stabilized and you end up with a nice and light champagne foam.

The verdict? I really think Pea Soup with Champagne and Shrimp v2.0 was a great success!

Pea Soup with Champagne and Shrimp v2.0

  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 500ml fish stock
  • 175gr peas (frozen)
  • 1/2 vanilla bean without seeds
  • Champagne
  • Soy lecithin
  • Shrimp

Sweat the onion in a little butter until golden. Add the fish stock, and let simmer for 5 minutes. Add the peas and the vanilla bean, and let simmer for 10 minutes more. Blend everything and pass through a fine sieve.

Meanwhile, cook the shrimp sous-vide for 7 minutes at 60°C.

Blend the champagne with a little bit of lecithin. (I did this on the go without any set amounts, you can always browse the internet if you want specifics.)

Assemble by filling a small plate with the soup, adding a shrimp and topping off with the champagne foam. Enjoy with the leftover champagne!

Spaghetti con granchio e pomodoro

I’m starting to realize that I have some funny conceptions when cooking for a party. Most people I know would go to the store an hour before the happening and stock up on potato chips, dips, olives or whatever they feel like. I, on the other hand, obsess for a week about what I’m going to prepare. I also make my own bread and marinate my own olives. I don’t even think about it anymore.

On top of that, I have very bad assessment skills when it comes to optimizing quantities. No, let me rephrase that: I have abysmal assessment skills. I blame my Greek background. There should never be insufficient quantities of food available at a party! This inevitably leads to overeating and that well-known stuffed feeling. Ever since I went on a self-invented diet in order to slim down a bit, I’m hitting that feeling a lot sooner than I used to. That’s a good sign health-wise, but it does provide this gnawing feeling that I’m less of a man than I used to be. I quickly compensated that by buying a nice, big dSLR camera with a big lens. I’m the alpha male of the block again!

But seriously, after such parties, of which there have been too many lately, I crave for lighter meals that don’t require umpteen intermediate steps to prepare. Enter light pastas and simple curries. Our usual quick and dirty pasta fix consists of thickening a couple of tins of tomatoes with spicy garlic oil, yet sometimes we crave for something a bit more complex. I was delighted to find this recipe for a crab and tomato pasta, which I altered ever so slightly to our taste.

I’m not sure if the original recipe required fresh crab, but since fresh is unavailable here I used canned crab. It might be heresy, but so be it; it was still delicious. This would be perfect for one of those holidays in a beach cottage, where fresh seafood is abundant. One of those fun trips I seem to be dreaming of a lot these days. Where everyone is happily cooking and eating outside on the patio.

Spaghetti con granchio e pomodoro

Recipe almost entirely taken from the Simple Kitchen Seasons blog.

  • 1 clove garlic, sliced thinly
  • Crushed red pepper flakes (to taste)
  • A can of chopped San Marzano tomatoes
  • 1 cup fish stock
  • A can of 210gr king crab meat (or fresh crab if you’re lucky enough)
  • Some parsley and mint, chopped together
  • (Fresh) spaghetti

Heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium heat, until it turns golden. Add the red pepper flakes and give the pan a couple of swirls to mix. Continue by adding both the stock and the tomatoes, and let simmer for fifteen minutes until the sauce thickens. In the meantime, cook your spaghetti according to instructions. I added the liquid from the crab to the cooking water. When the sauce is thickened and your spaghetti is al dente (which you will have timed perfectly), add the pasta and crab meat to the sauce, together with a splash of the pasta cooking water (this will also partly salt the sauce). Add some more salt if needed, plate, and sprinkle with the chopped parsley and mint (to taste).

Abolishing old eating habits (Roasted quinoa with white chocolate cream)

Old habits die hard.

As a kid, I used to terrorize my mom with all my crazy ideas about what constitutes a good meal. I would not touch anything that was covered in sauce, because in my mind a sauce was the perfect way to hide something nasty. While other kids went nuts for McDonald’s, I was disgusted by minced meat (again, why would you need to mince it if it was fine to begin with) and all condiments such as mayonnaise and ketchup. Put a drop of mayonnaise on something, and I would have rather starved than eaten it. I wouldn’t even touch the rest of the food, because somehow in my mind this stuff was like some sort of supergerm, instantly contaminating any edible object in sight.

A lot of these habits haunted me for a long time. I would even say that some of them still haunt me now. Obviously not the sauce one (really, what was I thinking), but as an example I still dislike the texture of mayonnaise. There’s just something in my mind that makes me insanely uncomfortable if I have to eat it. I enjoy it when it’s sufficiently mixed up with other stuff though, just don’t expect me to dip my French fries in it. The same goes for mustard and ketchup. Interestingly, I do enjoy a good Hollandaise.

White sauces are another example. A white sauce, like béchamel, was the pinnacle of food horror when I was younger. I guess it is related to my aversion to cheese, the idea that all those sauces contained some sort of cheese fueled my fear of those white puddles of sheer agony. Even now I’ll still get anxious when I see a white sauce. I almost never make them at home either.

It’s a slow process, but I’m overcoming my irrational fears.

Except for cilantro. That shit tastes like soap.

Roasted quinoa with white chocolate cream

The recipe for this one is really simple. You roast 1 part quinoa in a 180°C oven for 20 minutes. Then you boil it with 2 parts salted water. Let it cool. Mix with some chopped mint.

For the chocolate cream, you melt some white chocolate au bain marie (or, in this case, you can melt it over a low fire directly on the stove). Whip up some cream, and incorporate it into the chocolate. I did this entirely on feel, but I believe I used 25g of chocolate and about 20ml of cream. Just add cream until you get the desired consistency/taste.

Egg, Radishes and coffee

I had quite some coffee butter lying in our fridge waiting for me to try out one of the plated egg dishes in Modernist Cuisine, one I never got round to making. Then I remembered I saw this egg dish on some blog (I completely forgot where, so leave me a message if you know), consisting of a soft-boiled egg with white radishes on unidentified green vegetables.  The presentation looked nice, and it got me thinking about a breakfast/tapas dish that doesn’t take too long to prepare. I used regular radishes for this one, prepared sous-vide, and chopped/sliced spring onion for the green vegetables. The coffee butter is used to quickly fry the radishes and onions a bit. I used the guidelines in Modernist Cuisine for the soft-boiled egg.

The result was a well-balanced dish: the egg was silky smooth with a slightly runny yolk (honestly, sous-vide eggs are divine), the radishes and onion perfectly accompanied the egg while giving a very subtle hint of coffee. This one is a keeper!

Quick and dirty recipe

The eggs are first cooked in boiling water for two and a half minutes, then cooled completely. Afterwards, they are cooked in a water bath at 65°C for 40 minutes. Then cooled again, heated with a blowtorch, and peeled. They can be kept like this for two days; to reheat simply warm them in a batch at 60°C for half an hour. From Modernist Cuisine.

The coffee butter is made by sealing 175gr coffee beans and 125gr unsalted butter in a mason jar. Then the jar is steamed for 3 hours. Et voilà, coffee butter. From Modernist Cuisine. (Note: the coffee butter had a really pungent smell when I used it, not at all enjoyable, but the end result was worth it. Don’t know if it is supposed to behave like this, it could also be due to some coffee beans being fried for a while with the butter in the hot skillet.)

The radishes are cooked sous-vide at 85°C for 45 minutes. Again, from Modernist Cuisine.

I sliced the bottom part of the onions in 1mm oblique cuts and made a rough julienne from the upper part. You can of course cut it whichever way you like! Then quickly sauté the chopped spring onions and radishes in the coffee butter (just enough to heat them through). Serve with the heated egg, add salt and pepper to taste. (Instruct the guests to make a cut halfway the egg lengthwise and about three-quarters of the egg wide.)