Waterzooi – doing it Flemish-style

It’s a gorgeous afternoon. I’ve just had a slice of excellent pizza from the newly-opened Norfolk Street Bakery. Their bread and butter pudding cake looks astounding. I’m in a great mood, and I’m putting off playing Pokémon for the OneMetal Podcast. So it’s time to crack open a St. Idesbald Tripel and build a Waterzooi recipe.

Waterzooi is the most interesting thing I came across on a recent trip to Belgium. The most interesting edible thing, anyway. There were some fucking splendid beers, and a lot of interesting art, too, but gastronomically it was the Waterzooi that stood out. So I’m going to have a crack at recreating it.

This is a bit of a ramble, so you may want to just skip down to the recipe.

Waterzooi – WTF? Sounds like some kind of piscine menagerie

Waterzooi is a stew having an identity crisis in the general direction of soup. The pronunciation is something like “vatter zoy”, and you may see it spelled: Waterzootje. Julia Child likens the dish to a Bouillabaisse, and that’s more or less what Elisabeth Luard’s recipe is. Etymologically, the name is something like “boiled stuff”, and as near as I can tell it’s just what a rustic fish stew has evolved into in Gent, although chicken variations are now common.

I can’t tell you much that five minutes on Wikipedia won’t, but basically it’s a very wet stew, originally made with freshwater fish and now thickened with eggs and dairy. For me, it’s the last part that makes it interesting. The egg and cream thickening adds a richness that makes the broth a joy even without the chicken and stewed-down vegetables. I tried it at the restaurant attached to Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant in Gent, where they served it in intimidatingly giant tureens with plenty of crusty bread. It’s warming, satisfying, and just slightly unusual.

Waterzooi on the hob
Waterzooi on the hob

Like many provincial specialties (see: cassoulet and Bouillabaisse) arguments rage about authenticity or the right ingredients. Should it be a blend of fish? Should it only be river perch? What of shellfish? Is chicken even legitimate? I do not care. I’m using chicken because I suck at cooking with fish, and Cambridge sucks at providing it.

Child and Luard and bloggers, oh my.

The easiest waterzooi recipe to find online (excluding the endemic fuckery of content farms) is Julia Child’s as printed in the New York Times. Most of the food bloggers I found have re-cooked and tweaked this, and finding another was surprisingly hard. The two I used as reference points were Nami-Nami and Savour Fare

Even finding a Belgian cookbook to flip through was tricky. Granted, there are a handful on Amazon, and I have access to a copyright library, but both of those felt like overkill. There’s nothing in Leith’s fish bible, the River Cottage Fish Book, Elizabeth David, Delia, McGee,  or most of the books I flipped through. Julia Child’s is subtly different on the page, and Elisabeth Luard has, as ever, come up with some kind of deep evolutionary ancestor that while intriguing and probably authentic, is not what I want to cook today.

Luard’s stew is a dairy-free, unthickened fish broth, made with scraps and oddments. Potatoes are boiled in a stock of shellfish and offcuts, with celery, herbs, butter, and beer. It does sound pretty good.

Wine, beer, citrus and vermouth

Available recipes disagree, too, on what goes into the broth. It seems like something at least is needed to cut through the eggs/cream richness, but what? Citrus sounds risky, and I think this is going to enough of a curdling risk already. The version I tried in Gent was almost certainly made with a small dash of wine, and definitely not with lemon juice or beer. I just can’t see the beer thing working, the balance would be way off and the colour all over the place.

I’m using wine because, well, fuck vermouth.

Cornflour and thickening

Julia Child and most of the bloggers whisk the egg and dairy together with conflour. This must be a thickening/stability thing. I don’t object per-se, but something about thickening with cornflour has always rankled a little. The food network recipe – which I don’t much like the look of – uses potatoes and omits the cornstarch. That might work, but I worry about a grainy texture. Thickening with potatoes really has to be something you do on purpose, chasing a coarse, brothy vibe. But then, the Luard ur-waterzooi has potatoes all over it.

Allrecipes uses flour, but they can go the same way as the vermouth, and the less said about the food.com version, the better.

Egg quantities vary, too, and not just linearly with portions. All taken together, this is confusing. I think I’ll stick close to the Julia Child variation, but go with wine, crème fraîche, and decide about the cornflour on the spur of the moment.

Ingredients:

Julienne veg
Julienne veg
  • Chicken thighs (six in this case)
  • A large leek
  • One or two carrots
  • Two sticks of celery
  • An onion
  • Garlic
  • Chicken stock
  • Parsley
  • Tarragon
  • A couple of bay leaves
  • Seasoning
  • Three egg yolks
  • Crème fraîche
  • A glass or so of white wine
  • A little cornflour

Instructions:

This is basically just the Julia Child recipe, with a couple of minor differences.

Julienne the vegetables and slice the garlic. Toss them together with the herbs and seasonings. Bone the chicken thighs, and layer the lot up in a heavy casserole pan. I’m not wholly certain of the precise purpose of the layering, but it seems to go: veg, meat, veg, meat, veg.

Pour over the stock, and a glass of wine. I used a feisty new-world Riesling because I wanted to drink the rest of it. There are probably better alternatives. The liquid should cover the vegetables and chicken.

Bring it all to a gentle simmer and cook uncovered until the chicken is done. This really could go either way – just-cooked and juicy or well-cooked and flaky. I’m guessing it’s a taste thing, but in Gent they went with well-done.

Once the chicken is done (about the length of an episode of Babylon 5 in my case), remove it and strain the broth. I basically just tipped everything into a colander over a large bowl. But here’s where it gets a bit ticklish, and where a few recipes are a bit instructionally light.

The general directions go a bit like this: slowly work the broth into the egg and cream mixture, then mix everything back together and reheat. That’s true, but do it too fast and you’ve got a kind of sloppy, insipid, plate of curdled chicken custard. Nobody wants that.

Separating eggs
Separating eggs

So, I put the broth in one bowl, and let it cool just a little while separating out the egg yolks. The eggs, crème fraîche, and cornflour mix in another (large) bowl, and then I started whisking. Slowly whisk the cream mix, and very gently add in a ladle-full of the broth. Keep it all moving gently, and gradually add more broth. This gets called “tempering”, and basically warms and homogenises the sauce so that it doesn’t curdle. As the temperature comes back up, and the whole thing coheres, you can start to get a bit more bold with adding the rest of the stock. Towards the  end, I also added a bit more crème fraîche.

Once the sauce is fully mixed, pour it back over the other ingredients in the casserole, and slowly bring the whole thing up to temperature. I let this take 5 minutes or so, periodically stirring in mad, pop-eyed curdling paranoia. Do whatever works for you here, but don’t let it boil. The idea is that it’ll thicken as it cooks, but don’t expect roux-sauce style thickening. It’ll just stiffen slightly and become creamy and glossy.

To serve, just slop it all into a bowl, with a generous helping of broth and plenty of good bread.

I was decidedly impressed with the overall result. The egg and crème fraîche combo gives a creaminess you don’t get with just dairy on its own. The vegetable and herb flavours permeate the broth, and if the cooking time is right then the veg retains a little firmness and bite. Watch the tarragon, though. It’s a big dominating flavour, and although it should be prominent, it oughtn’t to barge everything else out of the way.

As ever, I made about an order of magnitude too much, so I guess we’ll see how it reheats.

7 thoughts on “Waterzooi – doing it Flemish-style”

  1. Roger
    If you can get Fecue ? potato flour it would possibly be better than cornflour & a better balance with the spuds

  2. I can see making this in the near future (probably with vermouth though, because in our house it’s fuck white wine).

    I’ve only become comfortable with using cornflour as a thickening agent in the last couple of months. I suspect due to now being able to judge quantities by eye. Still use it rarely though, due to associations with chalky school dinners custard and gravy. But starting to register that those associations are unfair.

    1. Yeah, cornflour has a horrible bad 1980s catering legacy, but I’m learning that it isn’t evil. Dabbling in Chinese has helped a bit there. For this I used a scant teaspoon, and it seemed to shake out ok.

      I think it gave more by way of homogenization than thickening, but hey, it worked.

  3. Ooh, excellent, I’ve just tried this with vermouth and cream, and it’s come out pretty well. I’ve been meaning to try cooking some more Flemish food; I’m in the Netherlands, but really the only Dutch food that’s any good is Belgian. (Or Indonesian.)

    While you were researching this, did you see any variations that included mustard? Mine seemed like maybe it was missing a top note somewhere, maybe all just a bit too smooth, and I wondered if mustard would make the difference.

    1. I didn’t see one with mustard, no. But now you mention it, I can well picture it working. A little really lifts a simple cheese sauce, after all.

      I agree with you about the smoothness – the whole thing can be a bit continuous and gentle. I made a very similar egg-thickened sauce this weekend that had the same problem, and tried to perk it up with white wine. It was a chicken and celery dish, so actually, I suspect wholegrain mustard would have worked well.

      If you try it, do let me know.

      1. I had the other half of it today with wholegrain mustard spread on the bread, and it worked really well. I suspect this actually means I didn’t put enough tarragon in, so that the mustard tang was making up for the missing aniseed edge, but either way it was pretty damn tasty. And now I know the word, I heard someone at work today talking about how they’d made waterzooi over the weekend too, which is a win all round.

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