Local Flavor: The Belgian classic waterzooi, simmered in a Cooperstown ale.
You’ve probably heard of Cream Ale, a brew made by the folks at Genesee. But what about heavy cream with ale (or a hoppy beer)?
I was delighted to find a recipe for a stew/soup that is wildly popular in Belgium but virtually unknown here. It’s called waterzooi, and Belgian cooks make it with seafood sometimes, or chicken at other trips to the stove.
(If I had been asked to write a segment for Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot on Masterpiece Theatre, I’d certainly have included a tête-à-tête with Miss Lemon and Captain Hastings over a steaming soup plate of this national dish.) By the way, the name is loosely translated as “a simmering, watery thing,” and derives from the Dutch word zooien (to boil). Well, we’ve banished the “vater” and the usual roth and used a Cooperstown-made ale.
Although the recipe I’ve enjoyed is a Belgian classic, it isn’t well known over here. Who knows why? It is relatively easy to make and, as in Belgium, you can vary the ingredients. It is light enough for the warmer days we sometimes have in autumn, and a tasty way to ward off winter’s chill.
Here’s the Story
Back in the very early ’90s there was a British publication similar to Country Living filled with profiles of people living the rural life. It combined decorating and gardening tips as well as favorite foods. The exact name of the magazine escapes me, but you get the idea.
The publishers decided to create an American version with similar editorial features. The new venture didn’t last long, but in an early copy, I came upon a profile of the Littlefields, an American couple who had lived in Belgium and decided to brew Belgian-style ales in the States, specifically in Cooperstown, New York. Wendy Littlefield’s favorite recipe using the ales was included, and, though waterzooi is a dish you’ll find in any book on Belgian cooking, this is one of only a few versions that contains ale. The brew replaces the more usual chicken broth, although you could include a bit of each. It is mighty good. You may also substitute a dry white wine if you choose. As I said, it is very flexible as to ingredients. I’m told that families in that country cherish their version. It is a chicken dish that I made many years ago and loved. Then I lost the recipe. Sound familiar? Perhaps the prayers to St. Anthony worked, as I obviously found the lost recipe. In making it a couple of times I changed some of the ingredients slightly but remained largely faithful to the original. Carrots, celery, cream, and leeks seem to be a must.
Let me make it clear at the outset that chicken waterzooi has nothing whatsoever to do with silly stunts at Sea World. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.) It has a great, interesting taste. The way this dish is put together brings out the flavor of each ingredient. Wendy used chicken breasts and of course you can, too, but I think the thighs have more flavor and are less likely to get overcooked. If you can’t find the peppercorns called for in the recipe below, just use a little less of freshly ground white pepper. This makes six servings
Feel free to add one or two additional pieces of chicken and note that I’ve made this with an eight- ounce package of pre-cut mushrooms. The mushrooms are my idea and may be omitted. I might add that you can use a julienne of celery root—a delicious idea. Traditionally this dish is served with boiled or steamed potatoes. You can get this effect by tossing in some small potatoes or even fingerlings into the dish when you add the ale. Or you could serve it with roasted potatoes if you like. Golly, this is truly a fun recipe. And add more ale or cream if the liquid level is low. Remember, this is a soupy stew.
Hint: be sure to slice the leek(s) and then put the slices into a colander and rinse very well with warm water to remove any sand. You want no gritty surprises when you dig into the stew. I speak from experience.
4 stalks celery, cut in little (1 to 1 1/2-inch) narrow sticks
4 medium carrots cut in small cubes or 1/4-inch rounds
6 boneless, skinless, chicken thighs (or breast halves)
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3 fat shallots, peeled and minced
1/4 pounds mushrooms, regular or a mix of your favorites, stems trimmed or removed, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 large leeks, white and tender green, thinly sliced and then cleaned (see above) under warm water
1 fat clove of garlic, minced
Fresh-snipped thyme leaves to taste (about 3/4 Tbsp.
1 Tbsp. crushed rainbow peppercorns
12 oz. Belgian ale
3 c. half and half
Salt and a bit more pepper to taste
Steam celery and carrots for 5 minutes and set aside.
Heat oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a deep skillet that will hold the chicken in one layer. Use medium heat. Sauté the chicken until golden and the juices run clear when the meat is pricked with the tip of a sharp knife—about 5 minutes per side. Remove the chicken to a cutting board, preferably one with a well to catch the juices. Cool slightly and then cut the meat into large bite-sized pieces and cover with foil to keep warm.
Add remaining butter to the pan and lightly sauté the shallots, mushrooms, leeks, garlic, and thyme for 5 minutes.
Add the ale and peppercorns, scraping the pan to incorporate any browned bits. Increase the heat and simmer about 15 minutes, until the liquid is reduced by half. Reduce the heat, add the half and half, and simmer 10 additional minutes or until the sauce thickens. Add the chicken and any escaped juices, the celery, and the carrots; heat through and taste for salt and pepper. Serve immediately in wide soup bowls or soup plates. A few thyme leaves and a dash of chopped parsley are fun on top.
Note: you could make the recipe in advance and refrigerate the steamed vegetables and the chicken. Make the base, thicken it, and refrigerate. For serving, bring all the ingredients to room temperature. Reheat the liquids and then slip in the chicken and steamed vegetables to warm; gently reheat to serving temperature (do not go above a bare simmer). I do think the dish is best made shortly before serving.
I’d serve more of the Belgian- style brews such as Ommegang, or their Hennepin or Rare Vos that are brewed in Cooperstown. I’d also recommend one of the imported Chimay ales. They come with different alcohol contents so check the labels. All are delicious. Check out our local breweries and perhaps use one of their hoppy ales like my favorite IPA. And be sure to raise a glass to Hercule Poiret. Of course, I played detective to get the recipe back—but that’s another story. Enjoy the stew and the brew.