We didn’t return from Belgium empty handed, of course. Mainly beer, it almost goes without saying, both Belgian and Dutch, but also a handful of the slender young leeks that we’d seen growing in flat field after flat field in the course of our drive across Zeeland and Flanders; a bunch of slender stemmed celery – mainly used for soup according to the nice lady in the shop and bought simply on the basis of being something you don’t generally see at home; a large and knobbly tomato; a big bag of those luscious cherries (the mid priced ones, we were using up left over Euro change by this point); and a six inch length of smoked eel.
Of these, the item I was most excited about was the eel, although I have to admit there was at least a hint of the thrill of the illicit about that, because I was not at all sure about the sustainability, and therefore ethics of eel fishery. If I’m honest, deep down, I knew it was wrong, but I was trying to fool myself with the notion that the main problem with eels is that their life cycles are so little understood that it is practically impossible for anyone to say with certainty what a sustainable level of fishing of them might be. And I didn’t even know which particular eels this eel was. The common – or rather, as even then I kind of knew, critically endangered – freshwater eel, or some bigger, meatier marine eel, like a conger. They certainly looked big and meaty, and they were definitely being sold by the sea, so maybe that’s what they were. Conger eels show up frequently, if not regularly, on the fish stalls at Ridley Road market, back home in Dalston, and they certainly look like one of those ugly bugger by-catch fish that we really should be eating more of to ease the pressure on the fished to annhilation stocks of the old familiar staples like cod, haddock and tuna, not that I ever have. But somewhere in the back of my mind was the recollection that one of the reasons, other than fear - have you ever looked at a conger eel? - that I never had, was that Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, in his Fish book, had told me that the conger is a species we really shouldn’t be eating at all, on account of their taking a long time (up to fifteen years) to reach sexual maturity, and even then only breeding once in a lifetime. And we certainly shouldn’t be eating it unless we’ve caught it ourselves, and even then only occasionally and with a deal of what should be, at least partly, guilty pleasure. Okay, so I didn’t recall all of that, word for word, just the general prohibition – I needed to look up the details of the conger’s breeding cycle once I’d got home – but, either way, oh bugger.
Still, we were on holiday, and local, or perhaps specifically holiday, rules applied. So ethics didn’t stop us from making sure we picked up a half kilo of smoked paling from one of the quayside stalls in Ostend before catching the Sunday evening ferry home. These were the same quayside stalls that offered the frighteningly lurid fish salads, but the eel was, aesthetically, of an altogether different, frankly higher, order. All beautiful gold grained amber skin and vanilla ice cream flesh.
Now we’re home of course, regular ethical standards pertain, and I’ve done my research, and I’m afraid I simply can’t support the consumption of eel. Which is a bugger, particularly seeing as I’d already written a draft of a blog post telling you all how good it was. Which it isn’t, it’s very, very bad, and I’m now going to have to write a whole new post, all about how bad it is, and why. You will however, have to wait for that.
In the mean time, there’s always stoofpotje.
I didn’t come home from Belgium with stoofpotje, of course. Or even the ingredients to make it, specifically, just the inspiration. Although I did end up using some of that fine stemmed celery. I could also have used one of the beers, but I had a large bottle of Leffe Brune in the rack, from when Sainsburys had them at two for a fiver, and I preferred to use that for cooking with, rather than one of the bottles I couldn’t readily replace. With fortuitous timing, Sainsburys also had a half price deal on Angus beef shin the week we returned from Belgium, so I cleaned them out of the last of that. One big lump of the beef went straight into the freezer, the other half – or just under, about 650g worth – I cut, or just pulled apart (the structure of shin is such that once you separate the meat from the connective membranes, either with a knife or just by pulling, it largely separates into appropriate sized lumps for stewing of it’s own accord, which is handy of it) into roughly inch/inch and a half dice, which I dusted in flour seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika and fresh thyme leaves. Then I made a stew, following pretty much exactly the same procedure as I’ve described before here, except in this case I chopped the carrots and the onion fine, to match that fine stemmed celery. I felt justified in calling it a stoofpotje, not only because I made it with Belgian beer (albeit purchased at Sainsburys in Dalston), and in emulation of the stoofpotje we’d come across in Belgium, but also because, at least as far as I can tell from Google, there is no such thing as a definitive recipe for stoofpotje. Which is as it should be, of course, it being, simply, a stew – translating directly, I presume, as stewpot. And the idea of there being a definitive recipe for a stew – any stew – is inherently pretty silly. I don’t even feel the need to christen this one ‘stoofpoje-ish’.
The weather the week after our return was not particularly summery, perhaps fortunately for someone itching to make a hearty beef stew, but still it wasn’t the middle of winter, so where I’d normally be inclined to serve my stoofpotje alongside a big mountain of fluffy mash, for the ultimate comfort food hit, this time I wanted a lighter potato side dish. Which allowed me to make use of those lovely leeks. I put some new potatoes (Anyas on this occasion, sliced into pieces no more than an inch thick) into a saucepan with just enough stock to cover them (Marigold vegetable bouillon, but any good stock you have to hand – be it veg, chicken or beef) and turned on the heat. While they were coming to the boil, I halved my leeks lengthways and chopped them into sections between a centimetre and an inch long. When the potatoes had been boiling for about, or just under ten minutes I dropped the leeks into the pan with them, just to blanch, and then almost immediately drained them - pouring off the stock into a bowl. I transferred the potatoes and leeks to an ovenproof dish and poured enough of the stock back over to half cover them (give them a good grind of pepper at this point, but salt only if they need it – taste the stock to check). Then I put the dish into the oven along with the stew for about the last half hour of cooking (or just until the potatoes are cooked through).
Another summery version of a typical winter’s beef stew side dish, was the red cabbage salad I made. This in place of the pickled red cabbage that I’ve described here before. I just shredded about a quarter head of crunchy cabbage and added a handful of toasted pinenuts and chopped dried apricots, then dressed it with a spiky, mustardy vinaigrette and stirred through with a bunch of parsley and tender celery leaves. This made a deliciously cruncy, crisp and fresh complement to the stoofpotje.