Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hungry? Eat a sandwich!

Today I want to talk about something near and dear to every Belgian's heart (at least in Flanders... I don't know if it's the same in Wallonia). Something that is essential to the Flemish character, something ingrained in the Flemish consciousness and necessary to every Flemish person's well-being.

I'm not talking about family, or cycling, or even beer. No, I'm talking about sandwiches.
The Flemish love sandwiches. A friend of mine (who's not Flemish) says that they're sandwich-obsessed. She may have a point. They sure do eat a lot of them.

At this point, I have to clarify my use of the word “sandwich.” Where I come from, a sandwich is any hand-held food item involving two pieces of bread with something in between. It could be a BLT, egg salad on sourdough, a turkey club, peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat, a Reuben, an Italian sub, or any variation of bread+not bread+bread you can imagine.

Here in Flanders, there are different names for different kinds of sandwiches. First of all, a “sandwich” in Flemish parlance isn't a sandwich at all. It's a soft, oval-shaped roll, kind of like a dinner roll, that's often used to make a kind of mini-sandwich. But to be perfectly clear, it's the bread itself that's called a sandwich. Confusing, isn't it?

Then you have the most basic type of sandwich: two slices of bread with something in between. This is what's known around here as a boterham. As the name suggests, it's usually made with butter (never mayonnaise!) and a thin slice of deli meat, like ham or chicken. Or maybe cheese. But a boterham has just one ingredient other than bread and butter! You do not put lettuce, tomatoes, pickles or anything else on your boterham.

I remember when I first came to Belgium, I thought that a boterham was a sad and boring excuse for a sandwich. It's so thin! And it's mostly bread! It's a sign of how long I've been here that I now view them as perfectly normal. My husband eats a boterham every day for breakfast, and another two for lunch. If I had to eat a boterham twice a day every day, I'd probably slit my wrists.

If you want a sandwich with more than one ingredient, what you want is a broodje. Now, a broodje (literally “little bread”) is technically a small baguette (or stokbrood in Dutch), so to be correct, what you want is a belegde broodje, or “filled little bread.” The most basic kind is a smos, which is shorthand for lettuce, tomato, cucumber, sliced egg and mayonnaise. I prefer a smos-kaas-hesp, which is a smos with ham and cheese.

But there are many other kinds of broodjes, and this is the kind of sandwich you will most likely purchase at a café or lunch counter. It's the standard quick meal when you're out and about, and they're usually fresh and quite good.

However, I must warn you about one type of sandwich filling you might encounter in a broodje. It's something called AmĂ©ricain, which is horribly misleading and actually rather mean. As an American, I object strenuously to this misnomer, which is used to describe raw ground beef.First of all, no American is going to eat raw ground beef. Ewww! And second of all... why call it something that makes me think it's from America? Which it certainly is not.

Besides boterhammen and broodjes, you also have the many variations on grilled cheese sandwiches, which are Belgian menu staples. There's the croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese), croque madame (with an egg on top), croque Hawaii (pineapple ring on top) and croque Bolognaise (covered with—you guessed it—Bolognaise sauce). There are others besides.

Anyway, you get the idea. There are lots of sandwiches being eaten in Flanders. I know I've eaten more sandwiches since coming to Belgium than I had eaten back in the U.S. since leaving elementary school. More than fries, more than mussels or waffles, I have to say that the sandwich is really the national dish. 

(A version of this post appears on the website for Fans of Flanders, an English-language TV program aimed at expats living in Belgium. I'm honored to be one of their regular guest bloggers!)

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Crock-Pot in every kitchen

One of the hardest things about moving to a country on the other side of the ocean is getting rid of all your stuff. To this day, I sometimes think about things that I sold or gave away and wish I still had them. Some things I thought I wouldn't need again; others, I thought I could always replace if it turned out I did need them.

Once I moved in with the Belgian who's now my husband and started cooking again, I had to get used to a new kitchen, his pots and pans, and the mysteries of the Belgian grocery store--not to mention using the metric system for measurements. Everything was different. Time and time again, I found myself wishing I had my old potato ricer, or my old garlic press, or my set of nesting glass mixing bowls.

One of the things I missed the most was my Crock-Pot (the original slow cooker). I had an old one that belonged to my mother and probably dated from the mid-1970's. It, like all of my kitchen wares, stayed in Los Angeles with one of my friends. (To this day, I can spot my former belongings when I walk into a friend's house. "Hey, isn't that one of my coffee mugs?")

This is what my old Crock-Pot looked like

I started looking around for a new one... and quickly discovered that Belgians don't use slow cookers. They're hard to find, and the ones you do find (in specialty kitchen stores) tend to be expensive. Walk into any electronics store here and you will see two dozen home fryers... but not a single Crock-Pot. For the record, I never knew anyone in the Unites States who owned a deep fryer. But anyone who cooks is sure to own a Crock-Pot. Or two.

I find this absence of slow cookers puzzling considering the Belgian love of soups and stews. These days, people are getting creative and making all kinds of exotic things in their Crock-Pots: chicken mole, bread pudding, Chinese barbecue pork. But the Crock-Pot was made for dishes that need long cooking times, like your classic boeuf carbonnade or stoofvlees, a Belgian menu staple.

When I've asked people around here why they don't use slow cookers, I first have to explain what it is. And then I have to try and convince them that it's useful to be able to assemble your stew or soup, put it in the pot, turn it on and leave it for hours. Americans love the convenience of being able to cook something while they're at work, or sleeping, or out watching a softball game or a movie.

Belgians just can't seem to see the point. They're perfectly happy cooking their soups and stews on the stove, or in the oven, tending the fire and checking the pot for hours. At least, that's what they tell me. I suspect that if they actually had a Crock-Pot, and learned how to use it, they'd love it just as much as we Americans do.

This is what a fancy new Crock-Pot looks like

My Belgian husband couldn't understand why I was obsessed with buying a Crock-Pot. That is, until our most recent trip to Los Angeles.

We threw a Hawaiian-themed party for friends who couldn't make it to our wedding last year, and two of my friends volunteered to make kalua pork. For those of you who have never tasted kalua pork, let me tell you that it's one of the tastiest things you can do to a pig, and the Crock-Pot is the perfect tool for making it at home. Traditionally, kalua pork was made by roasting a whole pig in an underground firepit. The Crock-Pot is much easier.

Once my husband had tasted kalua pork, he was very motivated to buy a slow cooker when we got home. (The Crock-Pot brand isn't available here.) Luckily, the Aldi (a German discount grocery chain) near our house had them for a limited time and I picked one up for only 25 € the week we got back. I have great plans for it, starting with chicken mole and kalua pork. But I'm also planning to cook Belgian dishes in it too.

So begins my campaign to convert an entire country to the joys of the slow cooker.