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Melt-In-Your-Mouth Liège Meatballs in Brown Beer Sauce
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A little slice of Heaven
The signature dish of the “Cité Ardente”
Liège is one of Belgium’s oldest and most charismatic cities which – if visited properly – is capable of rewarding every single one of a traveler’s senses (see my photo tour hub of the city for more details ) and one’s tongue certainly doesn't lose out in the least. The most popular local dish – and there are plenty to chose from – sums of the main ideal of Belgian cuisine overall. Sweet and savory, simple, generously sauced and depending more on patience than fancy ingredients, “Boulets Liègeois” can be found pretty much anywhere in the city. However, nowhere else dishes them up quite like the nondescript Café Lequet. This small restaurant nestled along the Meuse river might not look like much but any Liègeois(e) will tell you that their meatballs (served up piping hot with textbook perfect fries and simple crisp green salad) cannot be beat. Barely €10 gets you two fist-sized meatballs along with a plate-burying portion of fries and a large salad...best accompanied with a local beer and it’s enough for most people to slowly eat their way into Nirvana.
While I would not dare say that I could ever come close to matching Lequet’s handy work, the following is a recipe for the meatballs and sauce which is perfectly doable at home and is particularly warming on a cold day. The trick to getting them to come out right is:
- Not to skimp on the bread, making sure it’s nice and soggy
- Keep the meatballs moving on a strong flame early on, getting them well-seared without becoming pyramids (no one likes eating pyramids…no clue as to why)
- Pick a nice, round brown beer (not too much of a hop character) to pair with the sweetener for a velvety sauce
Most of the ingredients are pretty run-of-the-mill apart from one: the traditional sauce sweetener. Belgians use “sirop de Liège”, a black, gummy and super sweet syrup made from concentrated apples and pears. Nowadays you there are a few online venders who sell it such as this one . While it will not give exactly the same results, a workaround can be had (see footnote).
(Very) Good Things Come In Small Packages
- 700g ground meat (for meatballs), use a mix of beef and pork for best results, otherwise just beef
- 100g bread (for meatballs), crusts removed
- 100ml milk (for meatballs)
- 2 shallot, diced (for meatballs), can substitute 1 small onion
- 1 teaspoon dried marjolein (for meatballs)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme (for meatballs), optional
- salt (for meatballs), preferably sea salt
- ground pepper (for meatballs), preferably white pepper
- butter or cooking oil (for meatballs)
- 2 onions, diced (for sauce)
- 1 tablespoon flour (for sauce)
- 2 tablespoons sirop de Liège (for sauce), see note
- 1 bay leaf (for sauce)
- 1 teaspoon dried marjolein (for sauce)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme (for sauce)
- 2 whole cloves (for sauce)
- 1 33 cl / 12 oz bottle brown beer (for sauce), mild with little/no hop character
- salt (for sauce), preferably sea salt
- ground pepper (for sauce), preferably white pepper
Time To Get Cooking!
- Place the bread in a shallow dish and pour the milk on top, leaving it to inflate (about 5 minutes…add milk if you feel you need to but not beyond the bread’s saturation point). Once nice and soggy, drain the bread well and transfer it to a large mixing bowl.
- Along with the bread, add the shallot, ground meat, egg, herbs and salt and pepper to taste. Roll up your sleeves and knead the mixture well, making sure to incorporate the bread in particular throughout. When it looks good, form 6 meatballs of similar size (should look like smallish tennis balls).
- In a deep pan, heat your butter or oil on a medium high flame and begin adding the meatballs. Make sure to use a pan that’s large enough to let you move the meatballs around constantly, searing them on all sides and keeping a roundish form. Once all sides look done, carefully remove them from the pan to a plate with a paper towel to drain the excess fat (do so gently, as they are not cooked through and can easily break). Alternatively, you can deep fat fry them until golden (around 5 minutes at 200°c)
- In the same pan, start making the sauce. Add the chopped onion and cook them on medium heat until translucent. Reduce the heat to low and dust the flour over the onions, mixing well to incorporate it.
- Add the beer (not to fast, as it may foam up) herbs and remaining seasoning along with the cloves and the sirop de Liège. Give it a stir and then let it simmer for about 20 minutes on low heat, partially covered. The sauce should be like light syrup when done.
- Gently add the meatballs to the pan and cover for 15-20 minutes on low heat (the sauce should be hot enough to finish cooking the meatballs but should not be at a rolling boil!), turning the meatballs once so all sides simmer in the sauce. If you used a deep fat fryer on the meatballs, reduce the cooking time to 10 minutes.
- Serve piping hot with fries, a green salad with a light vinaigrette and the same beer you cooked with and you’ll be smiling!
Note regarding Sirop de Liège
: If you cannot find sirop de Liège or don’t wish to spring for it, try this workaround. It will not give the same results as the real thing but you’ll get reasonably close when the dish is done:
- Press two apples and two pears
- Add a tablespoon of sugar and reduce the juice by a third in a pot on a medium-low flame
- Turn off the heat and add a little clear gelatin slowly. You want to get a consistency of a loose jam (don’t go for firmer: the gelatin will overpower it)
- Let it cool a bit to ensure consistency