The first time I moved to France, I was fourteen. It was via an exchange program that had me placed with a family in the north of France – nearly Belgium – and when I arrived from New York's JFK airport, it was in Brussels, and not Paris, that I landed.
I had been to France once before, that I could remember: to Paris, where my father and I walked the quais of the Seine and visited famous art museums when I was ten years old. Four years later, which is a long time in the mind of a fourteen-year-old, I arrived in Brussels in late September and was surprised at the stark difference between the city I had fallen in love with and this land two hours to the north.
We spent little time in Brussels that first day, just enough to drive past it and peer at the beffrois towering above the city, those famous northern bell towers that leer from above over comparatively tiny towns. But I got my fill of northern sights from the window of the car, tainted the entire car-ride back with drizzles that clouded my view. The sky was deeply gray; the grass was deeply green. It was midday, I knew, but the combination of jetlag and early autumn weather made me unsure.
It wasn't until several weeks later that we actually visited Brussels: we piled back into the car and drove over the border once again, from northern France to southern Belgium, which really isn't that much of a difference at all. We exited the car into the streets of the major European metropolis, though this fact had to be explained to my by the patient host mother escorting us through the streets of the city that, to me, seemed more like the tiny town one finds inside a snowglobe than a major political center: its large, open squares lined with multicolored buildings that looked as though they had faces and personalities.
While in Brussels, we did as you're supposed to and ate Belgian waffles with ice cream, but once at home in the north of France, another Brussels classic consistently found its way onto my plate: endive, the bitter lettuce that is so frequently tossed with apples in salads, was caramelized and braised to be served as a side dish, a welcome warmth in the cold dreariness of the North.
In Brussels in the winter, there are few inexpensive, fresh vegetables to be found. But endive – sold for more than a dollar apiece in the States – can be purchased in large bags for a Euro at the local grocery store, or hand-selected from the farmers who pick them at Sunday's Midi Market near the South (Midi) train station. Eat them raw in salads, or use them for this Belgian side dish.
Recipe: Braised Endive
- 3 endives
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 1 tsp. sugar
- ½ tsp. salt
- Rinse the endive, and slice them down the middle from root to tip, leaving the root intact.
- Heat the butter over medium heat until melted, and place the endives, sliced-side down, in the pan. Cook about 5 minutes, until the endives have browned, then flip and sprinkle with sugar and salt.
- Fill the pan with about an inch of water, then cover and cook until the endives are tender and the water has evaporated, about 15-20 minutes (add more water if necessary).
Emily Monaco is native New Yorker, living and writing in Paris since 2007. She loves discovering new places and, of course, their local cuisines! Read about her adventures in food and travel at tomatokumato.com or follow her on Twitter at @emiglia