Recently, a Belgian colleague of mine (who is also a regular reader of this blog) was kind enough to give me a copy of her favorite Belgian cookbook written in English, entitled the Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook. Notwithstanding the hokey name, it really is a gem, with 250 classic recipes from one of Europe’s great cuisines, the product of an intriguing confluence of Latin (French) and Germanic influences.
The book includes a recipe for one of my favorite Belgian dishes, which I hadn’t made for many years, waterzooï de poulet: chicken poached with aromatic vegetables and the resulting broth turned into a velvety cream sauce. It is remarkably simple to make, light yet rich, and thoroughly delicious. Here is my slightly simplified version of the recipe.
Ingredients (for 4-6 persons)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, chopped or julienned
1 stalk of celery, chopped or julienned
A large dab of butter
1 kilo (2 lbs.) chicken ‘tenders’ (or other parts, skinned)
A bouquet garni of bay leaf, fresh parsley and fresh thyme
1 liter (4 cups) of chicken broth (or as much as you need)
2 large potatoes, cut into cubes
For the finishing:
1 egg yolk
Ladleful of cream
Some minced parsley
In a large casserole or saucepan, sauté the onion very gently in the butter until soft, making sure that the onion does not brown. Add the carrot and celery and continue sautéing for a minute or two more. Then add the chicken pieces, turning them in the butter for a few minutes, just until the meat stiffens a bit. Add enough broth to cover, nestle the bouquet garni among the chicken pieces, and simmer, covered, until the chicken meat is done. The cooking time will vary according to the size and type of meat. Twenty or 30 minutes will do for chicken tenders (boneless, skinned chicken thighs) while chicken breasts, for example, will take much less time, probably no more than 10-15 minutes at the most. Add the potato cubes to cook along with the chicken and vegetables about 15 minutes before the chicken is done.
Turn of the heat, and remove the chicken pieces and the bouquet garni from the pot. When the chicken has cooled off a bit, cut it into bite-sized pieces. (If using bone-in chicken pieces, bone them before cutting up the meat.) Discard the bouquet garni.
Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolk and the cream in a bowl. Then whisk in a bit of the hot broth from the pot to ‘temper’ the mixture. (In other words, you are raising the temperature of the mixture—this helps prevent the egg from scrambling during the next step.) Then, stirring all the while, add the mixture to the pot. Bring the pot back to the simmer, stirring constantly, until the broth thickens enough to coat a spoon. The texture should be velvety but not too thick. Be careful not to let the broth come to a boil, or the egg may scramble.
Add the chicken pieces back into the pot, folding them gently into the sauce. Allow to simmer very gently for a minute or two to reheat the chicken.
Taste for seasoning and serve in heated bowls, garnished with a sprinkling of minced parsley.
NOTES: The traditional recipe calls for the use of a whole stewing hen, which is simmered in water for several hours. The bird is then removed and skinned only after cooking. You could also use a large whole chicken, which should take about an hour to cook. The longer cooking time produces a wonderfully rich sauce. My quick version above uses cut-up chicken pieces, which take only a fraction of the time to cook. I find that chicken thighs work best, as they have superior flavor, but those who prefer the breast, of course, are free to use it. To make up for the flavor deficit, though, be doubly sure to use some good, rich homemade chicken broth as indicated instead of water.
The waterzooï treatment can be made with rabbit instead of chicken and even with fish, and any number of other variations. As my friend’s cookbook says, “throughout Flanders, one can find as many variations of waterzooï as there are church towers on the horizon.”
You can make an ersatz version of waterzooï de poulet with the leftover chicken from making broth: Just simmer the aromatics in a bit of butter as indicated, add the broth, bring it to a simmer for a few minutes to cook the vegetables. Then thicken with egg and cream as indicated and add some cut up chicken meat. Leftovers never tasted so good…