Recipes from Belgium

I wasn't lucky enough to eat this dish in a Belgian home.  I came across it at a diner in my neighborhood.  It instantly became my favorite Belgian dish.  I asked Chris, a friend friend from Antwerp, for the recipe.  His mission was to get it from his mother.  My guess is most mothers have recipes they would like their sons to request.

Chris writes well in English (which is one of the four languages he speaks) so I'm including the recipe as he gave it to me. His words are in color. This is a genuine Belgian - or to be more specific, a Flemish - recipe that my mother passed on to me when she was seventy. She is not a great cook, so the recipe is not very specific.  Nevertheless, it was the highlight of every Christmas meal.  It was one of the three desert courses, after sweet rice with canned fruit and whipped cream, and before the inevitable Christmas log made of ice cream with a plastic baby Jesus on top (over which my sisters and I used to fight until my baby brother was born and he got it anyway).

Belgian Meatloaf with Cherries
Antwerp, Belgium

Meat Loaf
2 lbs meat (1 kilo)
2 whole eggs
spoon or 2 milk
bread crumbs 
sliced bread
salt, pepper, nutmeg
1 spring onion
Cherry Sauce
1 can of sour cherries
vanilla pudding powder
sugar or honey
dash of cinnamon
a suspicion of pepper

Take one kilo of the most expensive minced meat at your most trustworthy butcher's store.  (I told you my mother wasn't very specific; she has not the most effective memory and once forgot my brother in the grocery store. She could not remember if it was veal or pork she used to buy, only the price).  My aunt on the other hand, swears you get the best result with a mixture of 50% veal and 50% pork meat.

Mix it with two whole eggs – use only the eggs that you get for free from your neighbors, so you are certain they came from happy, well-fed, free range chickens.  Add some milk - a spoon or two.  Now it will get uncomfortably moist.  (I forgot to tell you, you mix the meat with your bare hands after washing them thoroughly, of course.  Americans probably prefer a kitchen utensil, but unfortunately, there isn't one able to put the necessary amount of love into the meat).  To reduce moisture and improve the consistency of your dish, add at least two spoons of bread crumbs and two slices of white bread without crust.  Use a little bit more breadcrumbs if necessary, but not too much or your meatloaf will taste of shredded paper (which was an actual ingredient during the second World War.)  Season with salt, a cut up spring onion, pepper of course, and an old lady's cough's worth of nutmeg.

You shape it like an oval peasant's bread and bake it in a pan with some excellent butter.  (Hey, it is a festive dish!  Go count your calories in the aftermath.)  Now put it in the oven for one hour at 180° Celsius.  (I don't know how much Farhenheit this is – a few hundred or a thousand?  I looked it up. It's 356 F.)  Put the meat in until it is ready (quite obvious, depending on your oven, the composition of the meat and the way you like it cooked, it can take anything from 40 minutes to an hour).  Moistening it with its own juice now and then will improve the result.  Before cutting the meat, let it rest for 10 minutes.  It will be easier to cut it up without making a mess.

Now for the cherries.  It may take some serious shopping until you find a jar of sour cherries.  Don't let them fool you with regular cherries.  They lack the slight sourness needed for this dish.  Sourness is a threatened flavor. This is bad news for the more serious cook, as it creates the necessary contrast for all other flavors.  So you pour the cherries and their juice in a saucer.  Thicken the juice a bit with some vanilla pudding powder or a tablespoon of corn starch (but not too much - as the cherries cool down, the sauce will get thicker - you don't want to end up with something you can cut with a knife).  If it tastes too sour, you can add some sugar or honey.  Some cinnamon powder and just a suspicion of black pepper will finish it off.

Now for serving the dish.  In some families they like to put it cold on the table.  That's OK.  Some prefer it lukewarm – that is OK too.  But don't serve it steaming hot, as it will fall heavily on the stomach and people will not be able to finish the ice cream log with the little Jesus on top.

When cutting the meat loaf, mother gave away the front and the end bit of the loaf to somebody in need of a little extra attention – the nephew with the broken leg or the sister who suffered disappointing school results. We tended to fight over the end part of the meat loaf, perhaps because it was the tastiest, but also because of its symbolic value.  Luckily, the number of pieces it can be cut into normally exceeds the amount of bickering children present.

Of course, it tastes even better accompanied by Belgian (cherry) beer!