Every spring the cycling world anticipates turning its attention to one small but pivotal place on the map: Belgium. There is no doubt that professional racing in Belgium captures the heart and imagination of cycling fans like no other place in the world. Why is that? Perhaps before the peloton can make its way to the Grand Tours in and around France, Italy and Spain, a very specific Belgian mindset first defines the form and character of the Cyclist for us each year. In this kind of universal, Platonic way, it is Belgium itself that reminds us of what it really means to ride—and this reminder arrives early in the year, when the weather is still biting and riders must confront the conditions of their environment with a much larger purpose in mind.
Words & food preparation: John Madruga
Images: Susan Madruga
The reminder that Belgium (the country and the people) and Belgian racing offers us is this: set your course, know your limits and endure the pain; in the end, there is always a reward. There is pride in that. Like the Belgian one-day races that define the UCI spring calendar—Ghent-Wevelgem, Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and La Flèche Wallonne—time, attention and detail are also given to the country’s other passion: food. Not lost on even the most common dish, the overriding intention of Belgian cooks is to make the statement that food matters. Ingredients are gathered the day of the meal, as the home chef takes the time to visit his/her local grocer, butcher and baker. The items are selected carefully, with an awareness of what the completed dish will be. The meal is prepared. The table is set. The family gathers and everyone waits as the meal is presented. Nothing is rushed; this is something that has taken time to prepare, and so everyone savors what is before them. What is presented on the plate is far from an afterthought, something quickly prepared to fill up the family. This is food with a purpose—a purpose to show the love and care Belgians take in the kitchen, to celebrate timeless traditions and the importance of seeking out the finest, freshest ingredients possible. It’s a daily event, and like the races that define the region, preparing a meal can become an all-day affair—long stretches of time spent in the kitchen, four to seven hours—the time it takes for the peloton to complete the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Liège–Bastogne–Liège or La Flèche Wallonne. So while the riders exhaust themselves for hours on the bike, they can take solace in knowing that awaiting them in the end will be a beautiful, hearty, restorative meal. Once again, in the end, there is a reward; it’s the Belgian way. Enjoy.
Asperges op Vlaamse Wijze (White Asparagus, Flemish Style) Serves 4 to 6
An appetizer sets the tone for the rest of the meal—maybe soup, a small salad or plate of winter vegetables. For Belgians, perhaps the most prized starter is a classically prepared plate of white asparagus.
WHAT YOU NEED
• 3 pounds white asparagus or the freshest local asparagus you can get
• 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
• 3 large eggs, hard-boiled and peeled
• 1½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice
• ¼ cup finely minced fresh parsley
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
HOW TO DO IT
1. Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil.
2. Meanwhile, use a vegetable peeler to remove the thick woody skin of each white asparagus stalk from just below the tip to the stem end. If using green asparagus, just trim the lower part of each stalk.
3. Bunch the asparagus spears together and trim them to about the same length. Tie the bundle together with kitchen string.
4. When the water boils, lower the heat, add the asparagus and simmer until they are tender, 15 to 30 minutes depending on the thickness. Cover the pot only if you are cooking white asparagus. Remove the asparagus bundle and drain on a kitchen towel. Be careful not to break the delicate asparagus tips.
5. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. If the hard-boiled eggs are completely cold, plunge them for 1 minute into the asparagus cooking water to reheat and then peel.
6. In a small mixing bowl, mash the eggs with a fork. Add the melted butter, lemon juice and parsley. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir to mix.
7. Arrange the asparagus on individual plates. Cover each portion with the Flemish sauce, leaving the tips uncovered. Serve immediately while everything is still warm.