A traditional Flemish Chicken stew
I haven’t added a Belgian recipe for a while, so I thought it was high time to cook one of the classics – Waterzooi. It’s a nice recipe for this time of year when the weather is a little unpredictable, a comforting dish but surprisingly delicate and relatively light – delicious rain or shine.
Waterzooi originates from Ghent in Flanders and would have traditionally been made with fresh water fish, but this variation containing chicken is now more common and is a great example of the sociology of food – the change in recipe indirectly caused by one of the first recorded acts of industrial espionage.
By 1798 the British led the world in textile manufacture. Lieven Bauwens, a tanner from Ghent resolved to get to the bottom of this success and mounted a daring mission to Britain, whereupon he discovered the secret of the Britain’s booming industry – the spinning mule.
Bauwens broke one of these machines down into its constituent parts which he then smuggled back to Ghent in shipping containers of coffee and sugar. The British discovered Bauwens’ plans and issued a warrant for his arrest, but not before he had made good his escape. He returned to Belgium where he reassembled the spinning mule and began the mass manufacture of textiles and in so doing helped kick-start the industrial revolution in Ghent.
What has all this got to do with Waterzooi? Well the industrialisation of Ghent led inevitably to widespread pollution, killing off the fish in the rivers Scheldt and Leie. This forced cooks to find an alternative ingredient for their local dish Waterzooi, they turned to Chicken as a substitute and the recipe stuck, still being served in restaurants today alongside the original.
Enough of the historical preamble, what is Waterzooi? It’s actually just a very simple soupy stew of chicken (or fish) and vegetables where the broth is enriched with egg yolk, cream and a little lemon juice. It’s incredibly simple to make, relatively economical and most importantly, very tasty! It’s not as unhealthy as it first appears as you don’t actually need to use that much cream and there is no butter or frying involved – just a gentle braise.
I used jointed chicken thighs and drumsticks for this recipe, although braising a whole chicken would be more traditional – just increase the cooking time accordingly. You can serve this with whatever you like, I prefer steamed waxy potatoes drizzled in little melted butter and rolled in chopped parsley. Some good crusty bread on the side to mop up the delicious sauce is essential.
In our household growing up we would eat this occasionally, but more often than not my Mother would make a very similar dish (and one of my all time favourites) Poule au Riz – a kind of French/Belgian equivalent of another favourite Hainanese Chicken Rice. As such my enduring childhood memories of Waterzooi are not so much of eating it, but of reading about it in Asterix in Belgium!
Cooking time: 1 hour
Serves: 4 portions with leftovers
1 Whole chicken or chicken thighs and drumsticks – allow 2 or 3 per person
500ml Chicken stock
3 Celery ribs
2 Garlic cloves
3 Bay leaves
10 Black peppercorns
6 Sprigs of thyme
Small bunch of parsley
150ml Double cream
Pinch of grated nutmeg
2 Egg yolks
1-2 Tbsp Lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Roughly chop 2 carrots, 2 leeks, 2 onions and add to a casserole dish, along with the garlic, chicken pieces, black peppercorns, thyme sprigs, bay leaves and a few sprigs of parsley. Add the chicken stock and then top up with water until everything is just covered by liquid.
Ideally you want all of this tightly packed together in the casserole dish, so you get a nice, full flavoured, concentrated broth:
Heat the casserole and bring to just below boiling point before reducing the heat to a very gentle simmer, cover and leave to cook for 45 mins. If you are using a whole chicken cook for 1 hour 15 mins.
Take the casserole off the heat, remove the chicken pieces and put to one side, you can remove the chicken skin at this point if you wish, I do. Strain the broth and discard all of the vegetables. Return the strained broth to the casserole along with the chicken pieces.
Cut the remaining carrot, leek and celery into thirds, julienne them and add to the casserole along with a very thinly sliced onion.
Return the casserole to the heat and simmer for a further 10 mins.
Beat together the cream and egg yolks and add to the casserole, along with a pinch of nutmeg, salt and pepper, stir well to fully incorporate and heat very gently for a further minute before removing from the heat. Finely chop the remaining parsley add most of it to the casserole, reserving a little for garnish. Add the the lemon juice, stir well, taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking.
Serve with some simply steamed potatoes and crusty bread.
A note on this recipe:
The use of egg yolks to thicken and enrich the sauce is the only vaguely tricky thing about this recipe. It is crucial you apply as little heat as necessary after they are added as the egg yokes can curdle, keep the casserole at the lowest heat for the briefest time possible. Similarly if you are making this in advance, take it right up to the stage before adding the cream and yokes and stop there. Reheat when needed and add the yokes and cream at the last moment.