One Week In Belgium.

Keith and I were originally planning to go on this vacation in the fall.  We both like to travel off-peak for better deals — not to mention for better chances of dealing with smaller crowds of tourists.  Just as we were about to book our tickets for November, Keith realized that such a trip was impossible; he’s TAing a class (beginning tonight, actually) that runs through December… which is how we ended up in Europe in August, surrounded by other visitors.

Here are the Belgian highlights:

Grand Place, BrusselsTuesday
Checked into the Hotel Metropole, Belgium’s only hotel from the nineteenth century that is still operational.  Braved the crowds and wandered around the Grand Place before sitting down to an early dinner at Chez Léon.  Ordered moules á L’escargot with frites and the house beer (€22.20).  Ate outside; it was very warm, and besides, we don’t get to dine al fresco often in Boston.  I think it has to do with permits, which is a shame.  Wandered around a bit more and, after visiting the Manneken Pis, ended up drinking beers outside at A La Mort Sabite.  I had a Lambic Blanche, which was dangerously good.  A girl could get in trouble easily drinking those.

Darlington Brussels, 3Wednesday
Darlington‘s living in London now; she took the Eurostar in to hang out with us for the day**. Ate breakfast in the hotel, then headed out for a gossipy walk.  Sites visited included the Place du Grand-Sablon, Parc de Bruxelles, the newly-opened Musée Magritte Museum*, the waffle vendor outside the museum, Pierre Marcolini on Avenue Louise, A La Bécasse and all the nice little neighborhoods in between.  At Pierre Marcolini, we bought an obscene amount chocolates and had a tasting on a bench directly outside.  Similarly, at A La Bécasse we each ordered the “Lambic Dégustation” and sampled Timmerman’s Lambic Doux, Lambic Blanc, Kriek and Bourgogne des Flandres.  After a sad goodbye, Keith and I walked over to the Saint Catherine neighborhood for another mussels dinner at Le Pré Salé.

Pretty Antwerp StreetThursday
Hopped a train to Antwerp; met an incredibly friendly Dutch woman who gave us a tour of the Grote Markt before going on her way.  Ate an unremarkable (but economical!) pizza lunch at Da Giovanni.  Meandered  into Walter and Yohji Yamomoto.  Couldn’t find the Ann Demeulemeester store and MoMu was closed, so headed over to the river Scheldt, where we ate more waffles and watched couples make out.  The view’s romantic, so we couldn’t blame them.  Looked like it was going to rain sowe walked back towards the center, and just before the water started crashing down ducked into Quinten Matsijs and had a couple beers.  (Later, I found out it’s the oldest bar in Holland and Belgium.)   Dinner at Amadeus, back to Brussels for one last beer, then bed.

Pictureseque BrugesFriday
Caught a train to the incredibly picturesque city of Bruges, which is so pretty it’s almost ridiculous.  Also ridiculous were the sheer amount of people present, taking photographs of the canals, the city hall and Sint-Salvator Cathedral.  Checked out the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where I lit candles for my grandmother and grandfathers.  Ate sandwiches from Deldycke whilst sitting on the river Dijver, then dropped into ‘t Brugs Beertje, which stocks over three hundred Belgian beers.  I tried two different flavors of Lambic; Keith ordered a ‘t Smisje Dubbel after a mostaardbier by the same brewery.  Dinner at the mundane Poules Moules before we traveled back to Brussels.  Nightcap at Le Corbeau.

Ghent SkylineSaturday
Mid-morning train to Ghent.  Got the bus to the center, walked over to see The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb at Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral.  Lit some more candles.  Climbed way too many narrow winding stairs at Gravensteen, a castle from the Middle Ages that sits practically in the center of Ghent.  Incredible views, though interrupted by cranes.  Drinks at De Dulle Griet, which means Mad Meg and is a very famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Utterly delicious dinner at Brasserie ‘t Klokhuys, where I ate a Flemish beef stew and frites (€12.70) until I was stuffed.  Beers at Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, where we met a retiring-in-one-week naval man who insisted Keith have a Rochefort 10.

Another vantage point of the Grand Place, BrusselsSunday
Last day, sort of, in Belgium — our plane tickets were round-trip out of Brussels Airport.  Brunch at Café Mokafe in one of the covered galleries in the city.  People-watch while chewed crusty baguette sandwich, then Keith-watched as he ate a waffle while we walked to Delirium Café for a beer.  Directly across the entrance is the Jeanneke Pis, which made me wonder what is up with this city and peeing children.  Strolled around aimlessly until stopping for a break at Chaff on the Place du Jeu de Balle.  Fell madly in love with the cleverest street dog ever, then stopped by Lola for dinner before packing up at the hotel.

* I know it is redundant.
** Darlington took some of these photos.
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

A Mussel Dinner.

Don’t tell Keith, but the mussel and I have been having an affair for years.  Do you blame me?  Is it possible to resist their briny flavor and luminescent shells?  (Not for me.  I’m like a bird — if it’s shiny or sparkly, I must touch it.)  I remember my very first mussel, served to me by my mother when I was in grade school.  Retrieving its melon-colored innards from within its dark casing was both fun and rewarding, and the taste was spectacular — faintly sweet and scented of the ocean.

You would think that since I’m obviously so very enamored with the mussel that I would indulge in it with as much frequency as I do cheese — that is to say, daily.  Sadly, that’s not the case.  In fact, I had never even had a mussel cross the threshold of my home, believe it or not, until recently.  Cooking a bunch was one of the many things that I simply hadn’t gotten around to, even though for ages I’d been reading about how quick and easy it is to steam them.  Not only that, I keep on encountering literature indicating that these little guys are an incredibly cheap meal to make, and one that has impressive results.  In today’s economy, I can’t think of a better reason not to make something so high-impact for so few dollars.

Since I wasn’t able to get over to the fishmonger, I ended up purchasing my mussels at Whole Foods, where I picked up two two-pound bags for just over six bucks.  Later I realized that four pounds of mussels seem like a lot more than they actually are; after each tender little treasure is removed from its shell, you’re left with considerably less weight.

I was the most nervous about prepping my mussels, as the last thing I wanted to do was spend my after-dinner hours hovering over a barf bin or groaning in the emergency room.  Mark Bittman‘s advice was the most helpful:

“Discard any mussels with broken shells, or those that don’t close when tapped lightly against a hard surface (the counter or sink, another mussel, or a spoon); they’re dead.”

I separated my mussels into “reject” and “accept” piles, rapping the suspect shellfish against the ridge of a cast-iron pot.  It was flat-out fascinating, watching their little lips close in super slow-motion.  It’s a handy trick.

mussels-on-the-plateHere’s a few tips more that I picked up:

  • Cleaning and priming are the most time-consuming part of mussel cookery, and a step that positively must not be skipped or rushed.  Take the time to scrub each little shell uner cold water with a brush, removing any hairy beards and tough little barnacles you encounter.
  • Soaking is not necessary. In fact, it’s a big no-no.  If you do soak your shells, you’ll kill the mussels before you have a chance to steam them.
  • Buy a baguette, taking care to pick an extra crunchy one.  You’re going to want to sop up all those juices after you’ve emptied each shell.

Fennel-Steamed Mussels Provençal, from Bitten by Mark Bittman
Makes four portions

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
½ cup Pernod or Ricard, or 4 whole star anise
1 cup chopped tomatoes, if desired (canned are fine, drained first)
1 sprig fresh tarragon, if desired
At least 4 pounds large mussels, well washed

  1. Place the oil in a large pot and turn the heat to medium; one minute later, add the garlic, fennel, fennel seeds, liqueur, and tomatoes and tarragon if you’re using them. Bring to a boil, cook for about one minute. Add the mussels, cover the pot, and turn the heat to high.
  2. Cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels open, five to ten minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the mussels and fennel to a serving bowl, then strain any liquid over them and serve.