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From Inside Peloton: Belgian Focus, Cycling and Food

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Eddy Merckx’s father was a grocer. It seems rather fitting.

Every spring the cycling world anticipates turning its attention to one small but pivotal place on the map: Belgium. There is no doubt that professional racing in Belgium captures the heart and imagination of cycling fans like no other place in the world. Why is that? Perhaps before the peloton can make its way to the Grand Tours in and around France, Italy and Spain, a very specific Belgian mindset first defines the form and character of the Cyclist for us each year. In this kind of universal, Platonic way, it is Belgium itself that reminds us of what it really means to ride—and this reminder arrives early in the year, when the weather is still biting and riders must confront the conditions of their environment with a much larger purpose in mind.

Words & food preparation: John Madruga
Images: Susan Madruga

The reminder that Belgium (the country and the people) and Belgian racing offers us is this: set your course, know your limits and endure the pain; in the end, there is always a reward. There is pride in that. Like the Belgian one-day races that define the UCI spring calendar—Ghent-Wevelgem, Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and La Flèche Wallonne—time, attention and detail are also given to the country’s other passion: food. Not lost on even the most common dish, the overriding intention of Belgian cooks is to make the statement that food matters. Ingredients are gathered the day of the meal, as the home chef takes the time to visit his/her local grocer, butcher and baker. The items are selected carefully, with an awareness of what the completed dish will be. The meal is prepared. The table is set. The family gathers and everyone waits as the meal is presented. Nothing is rushed; this is something that has taken time to prepare, and so everyone savors what is before them. What is presented on the plate is far from an afterthought, something quickly prepared to fill up the family. This is food with a purpose—a purpose to show the love and care Belgians take in the kitchen, to celebrate timeless traditions and the importance of seeking out the finest, freshest ingredients possible. It’s a daily event, and like the races that define the region, preparing a meal can become an all-day affair—long stretches of time spent in the kitchen, four to seven hours—the time it takes for the peloton to complete the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Liège–Bastogne–Liège or La Flèche Wallonne. So while the riders exhaust themselves for hours on the bike, they can take solace in knowing that awaiting them in the end will be a beautiful, hearty, restorative meal. Once again, in the end, there is a reward; it’s the Belgian way. Enjoy.

THE STARTER
Asperges op Vlaamse Wijze (White Asparagus, Flemish Style) Serves 4 to 6
An appetizer sets the tone for the rest of the meal—maybe soup, a small salad or plate of winter vegetables. For Belgians, perhaps the most prized starter is a classically prepared plate of white asparagus.

WHAT YOU NEED
3 pounds white asparagus or the freshest local asparagus you can get
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
3 large eggs, hard-boiled and peeled
1½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice
¼ cup finely minced fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

HOW TO DO IT
1. Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil.
2. Meanwhile, use a vegetable peeler to remove the thick woody skin of each white asparagus stalk from just below the tip to the stem end. If using green asparagus, just trim the lower part of each stalk.
3. Bunch the asparagus spears together and trim them to about the same length. Tie the bundle together with kitchen string.
4. When the water boils, lower the heat, add the asparagus and simmer until they are tender, 15 to 30 minutes depending on the thickness. Cover the pot only if you are cooking white asparagus. Remove the asparagus bundle and drain on a kitchen towel. Be careful not to break the delicate asparagus tips.
5. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. If the hard-boiled eggs are completely cold, plunge them for 1 minute into the asparagus cooking water to reheat and then peel.
6. In a small mixing bowl, mash the eggs with a fork. Add the melted butter, lemon juice and parsley. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir to mix.
7. Arrange the asparagus on individual plates. Cover each portion with the Flemish sauce, leaving the tips uncovered. Serve immediately while everything is still warm.

BEEF AND BEER
Les Carbonades Flamandes (Flemish Beef Stew Cooked in Beer)
Serves 6 to 8
Contrasting the subtle flavors of the pristine stalks of white asparagus is a popular Belgian dish that will bring your strength back after a long day on the bike. This is a hearty, dark and rich stew, simmered in beer—perfect for a typical brisk day in Belgium.

WHAT YOU NEED
4 lbs boneless stew meat, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large onions (about 2 pounds)
24 ounces Belgian beer
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1½ tablespoons red currant jelly (or brown sugar)
1 tablespoon cider or 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

HOW TO DO IT
1. Season the beef cubes with salt and pepper and dredge with the flour. Shake off any excess.
2. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large heavy skillet over high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the beef cubes and sauté until nicely browned on all sides. Work in batches so as not to crowd the beef cubes, or they will steam instead of sauté. Add 1 tablespoon of butter, if necessary. Transfer the beef cubes to a heavy Dutch oven.
3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter to the skillet and melt over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 15 minutes. If necessary, raise the heat toward the end of the cooking time. It is important to brown the meat and onions evenly to give the stew its deep brown color. The trick is to stir the onions just enough to avoid burning them but not so often as to interrupt the browning process. Combine the onions with the meat in the Dutch oven.
4. Deglaze the skillet with the beer, scraping with a wooden spoon to loosen any brown bits, and bring to a boil. Pour the beer over the meat. Add the thyme and bay leaves.
5. Simmer, covered, over low heat until the meat is very tender, 1½ to 2 hours. Before serving, stir in the red currant jelly and vinegar; simmer for 5 minutes. This sweet-and-sour combination will give this hearty stew its authentic Flemish flavor. Remove the thyme sprigs and bay leaves. Taste and adjust the seasoning and serve.

BEANS AND POTATOES
Warme Luikse Sla 
(Warm Green Bean and Potato Salad from Liège) Serves 4
The 1980 version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège is still regarded as one of the most memorable classics in history. As is often the case in Liège, weather was an issue, however in 1980 it dominated the entire race. Forget the Stockeu and Pévenage climbs, on this day the toughest thing for riders to face was snow. Now commonly referred to as “Neige-Bastogne-Neige” (Snow-Bastogne-Snow), Bernard Hinault spent just over seven hours in the saddle, attacked with 80 km to go and finished 9:24 ahead of Hennie Kuiper of Holland and Ronnie Claes, the lone Belgian on the podium that day. Of the 174 riders that lined up, just 21 finished the race. Guaranteed they all sought out a hot bath and a hot meal in Liège that night—a meal that very well could have included this salad.

WHAT YOU NEED
6 to 8 new red potatoes (about ¾ pound), scrubbed
Salt to taste
1 pound green beans, trimmed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 ounces slab bacon, cut into 1 x ¼-inch strips
¼ cup red wine vinegar
2 shallots or 1 small onion, finely chopped
¼ cup finely minced fresh parsley
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

HOW TO DO IT
1. Cook the unpeeled potatoes in boiling salted water, covered, until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain.
2. Cook the green beans in plenty of boiling salted water until tender but still crunchy, 10 to 15 minutes. Do not cover the pot or they will discolor.
3. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle but still quite warm, peel them and cut each potato into 4 pieces. Combine the potatoes and warm green beans in a salad bowl.
4. Melt the butter in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon strips and sauté until crisp but not too brown, 4 to 6 minutes.
5. Pour the bacon and the rendered fat over the green beans and potatoes.
6. Deglaze the warm skillet with the vinegar and reduce over high heat by two-thirds, 1 minute. Pour over the vegetables and combine well.
7. Season with salt to taste. Sprinkle with the shallots, parsley, and a generous grinding of freshly ground black pepper.

Of course, Belgium is known for its array of bakeries, pastry shops, chocolatiers and other world-class desserts. No menu is complete without a finishing sweet touch, but the everyday meal does not need to always end with an elaborate display. A straightforward, down-to-earth end to an evening meal can be as simple as offering a plate of cookies, fresh fruit and good chocolate. Use this recipe as a base for simple but satisfying end to a fine dinner.

HAPPY ENDING
Macarons 
(Flemish Macaroons) Makes about 24

WHAT YOU NEED
1 cup whole blanched (peeled) almonds
¾ cup sugar
2 large egg whites
½ teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon rose water or orange extract (optional)

HOW TO DO IT
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. Grind the almonds to a fine powder in a food processor. Add the sugar and pulse a few times until combined. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Add the egg whites, almond extract and rose water, if using. Use a rubber spatula to combine all the ingredients. You should have a rather sticky dough that is stiff enough to drop in small mounds onto the cookie sheet.
3. Drop rounded teaspoons of the mixture onto the prepared cookie sheets, leaving at least 3 inches between mounds.
4. Bake until light brown, 15 to 20 minutes. The insides of the cookies should remain soft and chewy.
5. Immediately remove the cookies with a metal spatula to cool on a wire rack.
6. When the cookies are completely cooled, store them in an airtight container, where they will keep for several weeks, or freeze them for up to 3 months.

All recipes are from Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook by Ruth Van Waerebeek, Workman Publishing, 1996.

From Issue 12. Buy it here.