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Grub Street in London last year republished one of my, hmmm, I’d say 15? favourite cookbooks of all time– The Everyone Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook, by Ruth Waerebeek with Maria Robbins.  This is a presentation of Belgian cuisine written to honour the author’s great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother within historical backgrounds and as individual personalities.  It’s a collection of recipes that feel definitive yet friendly, elegant but possible to accomplish, familiar yet novel.

At first I was taken aback by choices the publishers made in the redesign of the book.  The original edition of 1996 has headings in cursive and charming line drawings and sidebars with historical and cultural tidbits.  I’d grown attached to this book in this style.  Grub Street’s republish has striking, stylised “food-porn” quality photographs and a very close and expert attention to lettering style and layout, colour and design. The Taste of Belgium, as it’s been renamed, feels as important as the book is, which is a good thing, even if I miss the cosier quality of the earlier edition.  But I’m happy, out of print as it was, many more readers and cooks will be able to explore the delicious and savoury comfort dishes that tempt one, page after page, of either version. And the new one is beautiful indeed, masterfully designed, a book to really look at, to visually take in.

For all the dishes I’ve made through the years, Cream of Spinach Soup with Sorrel, Flemish Potato Buttermilk Soup, Roast Pheasant with Carmelised Apples, Sautéed Turnips with Cinnamon, Waterlzooi of Chicken (to name a classic), I’ve always been struck how relevant this book is to British locality (even if I find myself substituting for endive when it’s too expensive or unavailable– much as I love and try to grow it).  I notice two for salsify — “Creamed” and “My Mother’s with Mustard” which would be useful to people with those arriving in your veg boxes.  Certainly the sumptuous variety of ways to prepare root vegetables, cabbage and small game feels accessible to a British palate looking for some culinary reinvention.

Recently though I’ve found myself repeatedly making “Belgian-Style Fresh Cheese with Herbs and Radishes,”  reinvented as Fromage Blanc Probiotique aux Herbes which is such a lovely name for Kefir Cheese blended with minced garden herbs like chives, parsley and fennel fronds, which happen to be happening for us at the moment.  It’s odd perhaps that I’m most grateful to this book for this discovery, but so be it.

(In Waerebeek’s recipe, she suggests white wine and chives, parsley, chervil, tarragon, salt and pepper all as possibilities, keeping anything seasonal or available as an option. )

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Kefir is a dairy beverage cultured/ preserved/ fermented with “grains” of probiotic, good bacteria that slightly sour the milk, giving it a pleasant tang and sometimes mild effervescence.  I’m joining the Kefir bandwagon in believing that its use in daily breakfast smoothies are conferring great healing benefits to my children.  So I am making it daily — simply by adding grains I bought cheaply on the internet to fresh milk and letting the mixture sit overnight at room temperature.  I thought to use it in place of 4 parts milk/1 part buttermilk mixture Waerebeek suggests for “Homemade Fresh Cheese.”  Buttermilk and Kefir for me have become interchangeable.

Then it’s simple.  You strain the grains, keeping them to begin the next batch.  You put a cheesecloth or muslin or even a linen napkin in a strainer set over a jug or deep bowl, and pour the kefir in.

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As time passes, a minimal few hours but up to overnight, the liquid whey separates and drips down and out and the kefir becomes increasingly cheese like, much like cream cheese. (When this is done with yoghurt, it can be called labneh.)  Reserve your whey for other uses.

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Then you scrape the solid “curds”off the cloth.

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…and mix it with pureed herbs — chives reminding me so much of “scallion cream cheese” in the world of New York bagelry.

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…or in the case of today, ramson leaves (i.e. wild garlic, or ramps) I purposely planted last year in our garden.  And then in an inspired moment I added beloved Hairy Bittercress which are tiny leaves peppery as one knows a cress to be.  And spread the fresh cheese mixture (which I’d salted) on a rice cake. “Because it’s there.”  And sprinkled with dandelion petals.  Because it’s spring.

And because Ruth Waerebeek’s great-grandmother Marie, “always prepared Fresh Cheese with Herbs (and Radishes) when we came to visit and served it for the traditional afternoon snack… But her Platte Kaas never tasted the same twice. The herbs came from her garden , and her choices depended on what struck her fancy that morning…”   One get’s rather attached to Waerebeek’s culinary matriarchs in this very recommended book…

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