Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dam tot Damloop 2010

Once a year, Niek and I take part in one of Amsterdam's biggest running races, the Dam tot Damloop.  It's a 10 mile race that takes you from Central Station in Amsterdam (The Dam) through Amsterdam-Noord to Zaandam (the "other" Dam) on the other side of the water.  Here's a little map I made for you in gmaps pedometer shows you the race.
Going to Amsterdam-Noord is like entering into a completely different world, one that doesn't have a lot to do with the goings on in the city.  Zaandam, as far as I know, is famous for its ties to the shipping industry, a visit by Czar Peter the Great in the seventeenth century, and delicious Verkade cookies.  I was trying to make a comparable analogy for the relationship between Amsterdam and Amsterdam-Noord to big cities in America, but the best I could come up with was the New Jersey/Manhattan or San Fernando Valley/Los Angeles relationship.  I kept thinking I should shy away from those, however, because they are loaded (super-loaded) with negative connotations for the areas that aren't considered as urban, and I mean Amsterdam-Noord no disrespect, nor do I mean any disrespect to New Jersey or the S.F. Valley.  In fact, I absolutely love this race and all the people who come out to support it.  Only about the first half-mile is run in Amsterdam.  After that you enter a tunnel that takes you under the water of het Ij and spits you back out in Amsterdam-Noord.  The course of the race feels like a ten-mile long street party as you pass through neighborhoods ready to take on the day with beer tents, speakers blaring upbeat 90's music (really, Jump Around by House of Pain made my run just that much better), and friendly updates on the Amsterdam vs. Rotterdam soccer game.  I especially loved the woman calling out encouragement to all the runners by saying, "Water hier en in Zaandam een bier." Water here and in Zaandam (the finish) a beer, because the promise of a good beer would make anyone run faster.  I believe that tactic worked just as well for me during a half-marathon in Green Bay a few years ago.
I especially love the fruit stop somewhere around the half-way mark.  The race has your normal water and sports drink stops with the truly disgusting Dutch sports drink, AA, which tastes kind of like an orange lollipop and coats your mouth like candy.  Why so many people clamor to grab their cups of it, I have no idea.  I have avoided it ever since my first (and last) sip.  At least the race isn't that long, and I wasn't in it to win it so I just stuck with the water.  But back to that fruit stand...It's about four cafeteria tables long and it was full of banana slices, orange slices and fresh melon slices.  Whoever decided this needed to be a staple of the race is a genius.  Without that little break, my last five miles would have been much less enjoyable.  I have started to look forward to getting to that stand, and I'm grateful to the jolly Amsterdammer in the apron just chopping away at all that fruit. Seriously, he looked really happy to be chopping up fruit.
All in all, I absolutely loved the Dam tot Damloop this year even if my legs felt like lead and a slightly annoying guy kept passing me and slowing down, passing me and slowing down.  Great running music on the course and lots of slightly inebriated spectators made for an enjoyable afternoon.  Niek had a great race and improved on his time from last year by almost fifteen minutes.  He's so awesome.  The only complaint I have, why no water at the finish? I do wish they would hand that out instead of a bottle of AA Drink, but I don't think it's in the Dutch genes to reach for water.  They think Americans drink too much of it.  I'll bet plenty of runners even ran to the nearest coffeehouse after the race to quench their thirst.  Oh, wait, that's what Niek and I did, and yes, my latté was quite delicious (after I had had my bottle of water).

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The End of Summer

After a week that found me buying tights and unpacking my boots not to mention scrambling to find the season's first pumpkin for pumpkin soup (hooray), we got a Saturday with blue skies and a warm breeze.  I think the plant world knows that this might be summer's last hurrah before we settle down for some hearty stews chock full of root vegetables.  The grocer's stand seemed to bursting with peaches, melons, tomatoes and currants.  I had a hard time containing myself, and I would have bought those quinces if I hadn't remembered that my canning supplies didn't make the trans-Atlantic boat ride last fall.  I'm still mourning the loss of my mom's canner, but the sadness was quickly replaced by, let's face it, a disproportionate for the situation feeling of joy when I saw the crate full of ARTICHOKES.  I didn't even know artichokes had a fall season, which explains my surprise.  We scooped them up along with some great Hass avocadoes that were on super sale and hurried home so we could get on with the rest of our day.

I love Amsterdam in the waning days of summer, because everyone celebrates a warm weekend day like it will be the last one for at least six months.  Strangely, that seems to be the action Amsterdammers take whenever there is a warm weekend, but maybe it felt more pronounced to me today, because I know the short days of fall are right around the corner.  We took the dog to the park, just like every other dog owner, and threw tennis balls until he flopped into an exhausted heap under a tree.  We window shopped, browsed the bookstore and finally made it to the knitting store.  All in all a wonderful Saturday in the city.  I still can't believe I was craving pumpkin soup on Tuesday and today all I wanted was a salad and steamed vegetables.  Judging by the number of people eating ice cream cones or drinking a white wine, we weren't the only ones in a summer mood.

So here was my tribute to the end of summer in Amsterdam: steamed artichokes, broiled salmon with avocado and lime with a simple salad.  Thank you, Dutch grocers, for making this meal possible.  I'm a little disturbed how the picture highlights my obsession with the color green and my love of Finnish design.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Crossing over to the carb side

I just want to post a little note about a particular eating habit I picked up rather seamlessly last week.  The first time I was in the center of the city running some errands, and I was starving.  I could have bought a candy bar or a little bag of chips, but instead I made a beeline for the nearest bakery and bought a croissant for €0,70.  The second time was on Saturday morning while Niek and I were doing our grocery shopping.  We had just finished going for a run, and there wasn't much in the way of food in the house, hence the grocery shopping trip.  Right after we purchased our three loaves of bread from the baker (that's not a typo, the two people in house consume three whole loaves of bread per week) which also consisted of an embarrassing incident involving the woman behind me in line making a comment about me kissing the loaf of still warm bread in my hand and my stuttering reply that I was merely smelling the bread and not kissing it in some sort of strange ritual which is what she had assumed, I practically ripped open the bag to eat a piece of bread for breakfast.  Apparently I've passed over into the Dutch universe where it is the norm to always stave off hunger by eating bread and just bread.  If you couple this eating habit with my newly found ability to ride a bike in the rain while I hold an open umbrella, you almost can't tell the difference between me and the Nederlanders around me.  If only I could grow about eight more inches...then you really might start to think I was Dutch.

That is all.  Back to yet another overdue chapter, a looming deadline, and a conference panel application, etc., etc.

I think I write a lot about bread on this blog.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cooking and Gender

Last week I had an experience that almost turned me into a vegetarian: I bought chicken from a butcher specializing in sustainable/organic meats...and it was the most expensive chicken I have ever purchased.  While the nice lady behind the counter told me the price and started packaging the bird in fancy paper touting all sorts of organic stamps and labels, I just stood there in a weird shocked silence, unable to take it all in, and then with my body on auto-pilot I paid.  The whole way home I just kept telling myself that it wasn't possible I just paid that much for a chicken and if this was the cost of buying "responsible" meat, we were going to have to 1) find second jobs, 2) stop caring about how livestock is treated, or 3) give up meat. None of those really feel like good options to me, and I haven't yet worked out what we're going to do about it, but in the meantime we won't be roasting any more chickens.

I found myself at the butcher in the first place, because we were having friends over for dinner (diehard meat eaters who wouldn't touch a vegetable with a ten-foot pole, or fish or cheese), and Niek wanted to work on his chicken roasting skills.  In the last few years, he's become something of a chicken roasting afficianado, and he'll most likely be working on perfecting his technique for the next few decades.

And this brings me to the actual point of the post, which is supposed to be about the gendering of cooking and my experiences in the Netherlands.  Growing up in the Heartland, I didn't see a lot of men using their skills in the kitchen.  I don't think I can say that any of my childhood friends' fathers cooked, and I don't remember my dad ever making us dinner (now that my dad is retired, he's taken on a lot more of the dinner making duties, so kudos to you, Dad).  Grilling on the barbeque doesn't count, since I would say it's seen as a pretty masculine activity.  There are plenty of discussions in our modern world about how home cooking is still perceived as women's work, and I really wanted to site this article, but my proxy server to the university's research library wasn't granting me access, although I found an amusing anecdote about gender and cooking here and a rather angry assessment of Michael Pollan's take on the matter here.  Interestingly enough, all of the partners of my friends know their way around a kitchen, and some of them even do the majority of the cooking in the relationship.  Regan should tell you about her husband's forays into bread, cheese, and beer making.  I'll refrain from using my guy friends as a representative slice of American culture since I dabble a little more in that crazy intellectual/academic world than most people.  But whoah, am I digressing a little bit?

This is really about gender and cooking in my home away from home.  Most of the home cooking I have experienced in the Netherlands has either been in my own household or in that of my in-laws where my mother-in-law wouldn't dream of preparing a meal and my father-in-law has been in charge of family dinners since my husband can remember.  It was early in our relationship that I learned that Niek's dad was the cook of their house, and I remember being a little shocked hear it.  It shouldn't really have come as a surprise to me considering that Niek cooked dinner for us on our second date and cooks about half of the time now.  Maybe if both of us didn't work it would be different, but since we both find ourselves busy with work and we both actually enjoy cooking, we are able to maintain a fairly even split.  I love that I find myself in a family that supports everyone's interests and skills and doesn't really seem to divide household responsibilities among any sort of gendered guidelines.  Are there swaths of Dutch culture that see women as being responsible for cooking simply because they're women?  Absolutely.  Is it a hard an fast rule everyone ascribes to?  No, and I am quite happy for that. 
Niek's chicken and roast potatoes were a rousing success the other night, even if he didn't think the skin was crispy enough.  Cooks are usually their own worst critics, which I know from personal experience.  It just gives him another reason to try again the next time we have a few friends to dinner, although we may have to wait at least a few weeks.  I'm  going to have to brace myself for the cost of buying another organic bird.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The things we carried (in our suitcases)

As I stood over my suitcase last week trying to figure out how we were going to pack everything without going over the weight limit, I started questioning my dependence on American goods.  As you can see, I brought back the every important essentials of life like cake flour and chocolate chips.  It really took more willpower than I thought it would not to buy the seven other varieties of King Arthur Flour at the local grocery store.  I'm pretty sure most people who visit the U.S. do not think to themselves, "I should really bring this rye flour back with me.  I might need it if I suddenly get the urge to make myself some bread.  Maybe I should go get some of that corned beef I saw on sale, too.  Then I could feel like I was at a deli anytime I want!"
It's all about what makes you feel at home...to a certain degree anyway.  I just keep wondering what I would find in other ex-pats' suitcases.  I have to believe anyone living abroad feels compelled to bring back little pieces of home when they return from a visit.  You should have seen the various products I pouted and fussed about leaving on the shelves of Trader Joe's in Chicago.  I also left a bunch of linens and family pieces that had belonged to my grandmother at my parents' house, much to the disappointment of my mother, who is working to downsize.  I regularly thwart her attempts as I continually ask her to hang on to stuff I know I'm going to need at some unassigned time in the future.  To my parents with a house larger than my apartment: what a storage facility I've made out of my childhood bedroom.  Sorry.

We did pretty well coming right in at the weight limit for our luggage.  We could have made it without borrowing a second suitcase from my parents if it hadn't been for these:
With a much greater selection and much better prices in America, our luggage coming back from the States will always have at least a few books.  I think I should be thanking Delta for restricting the weight limits this year even more.  I can't imagine what else I would have thought to bring back if I had had double the weight limit.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Vacation officially over

I took an unintentional break from blogging during the rest of my time in L.A. and then the three weeks I spent at my parents' house in Indiana.  There was just a lot going on, and I was too tired to open my computer most days, let alone write a blog post.  That's alright since I saw most of the people who read my blog.  To those of you who do read and I did not see during my almost eight weeks in America (which is a shame and it would be nice to meet in real life sometime) you can catch up with my picture journal below.  Because, I just know you are dying to know what I did.  My life is, after all, intensely interesting.

Here we go...
I studied a bunch with my friend, Naomi, and we drank a lot of coffee together, just like true graduate students should

Regan arrived home from Nigeria (yea!), and finally after many years of cajoling she convinced me to go to Disneyland. Ask Regan about Disneyland sometime.  She will tell you all about her happiest place on earth.  It was actually way cooler than I thought it would be and it was lovely to have one last day with Regan and Naomi.  Thank you, Regan, for convincing me to go.
After leaving L.A., I was reunited with Niek in northern Indiana and spent three weeks relaxing and helping my parents finish some home improvement projects (no photos of those, though).  I was also in a wedding on the banks of the Ohio River.  My friend and her family made all the food for the reception, and it was delicious.  The bride and I had a nice laugh about the local culture down in southern Indiana.  She pointed out that the reception hall was located conveniently next to the Royal Order of Rednecks Lodge complete with a rebel flag hanging proudly in the mayor's yard...I wish I were kidding about that, but I'm not.  At least Niek got to experience another side of America.

We managed to squeeze in a trip to Chicago for a few days where we marveled at Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, walked around the city, visited the Art Institute, ran along the lakefront, and I introduced Niek to the joy of a deep dish pizza.
And then it was back home just in time to celebrate my town's festival.  Niek and I ran the 5K (Niek's first, and he was amazing) and ate an apple dumpling (the only real reason to be at the festival).  We declined the polka dancing and missed the yodeling contest (my town was founded by Swiss immigrants), but overall had a good time in small town America.  And since you know how much I love to eat, rest assured we took advantage of summer's bounty (sweet corn, blackberries, blueberries, tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden, cantaloupe, etc, etc, delicious).
And just for fun, here is how I poured milk onto my granola every morning.  I never tire of watching the Delftware cow vomit up milk.
That is, in a nutshell, what I did over the last seven weeks.  There were plenty of other things I did not document with my camera, and I would say it was a successful trip for my work and as a vacation.  I was sad to leave, but I'm happy to be home.  Thanks to the Gladware I insisted on buying and bringing back with us, we even got to enjoy peaches fresh from the tree and tasty, Michigan blueberries one more time before the plane touched down.  Way better than the "breakfast" the flight attendant tried to give us. 
Hope you all have had a nice summer.  It's back to work and back to blogging.  

Monday, July 19, 2010

O dabo.

Goodbye, Nigeria!  Goodbye, early mornings and roosters crowing, bucket baths and banana-peanut butter breakfasts.  Goodbye to the sound of the generator, a constant dull roar that is the soundtrack to my Nigerian memories.  Goodbye, danfos and okadas and 'slippers' that I left behind.  Goodbye, cold Cokes, Shapes, Cheese Balls and Gin-gins.  Goodbye, efo, eja and eba!  Goodbye to my Nigerian friends, who never had qualms about telling me that I looked more tired or fatter than before . . . and who were wonderful just the same.  Goodbye, sweat rolling down my elbows and from the back of my knees.  Goodbye, loud music on the street corners and time spent in 'greeting.'  Goodbye to runs by the pond, honking cars, dusty documents, meals eaten on my favorite yellow plate, mornings in the market and evenings filled with baking and bootlegged dvds.  Goodbye, goats.

I hope to see you all again.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

California birthdays and beer cake...

I'm back in L.A. now, but I don't want to forget to post something about the great birthday celebration for my friend up in Davis now almost two weeks ago.  I can't believe that my time up there has already come and gone.  I don't get to see my friends very often given the fact that an ocean and almost an entire continent lie between us.  When we get together, there really should be at least one celebration of some sort to mark the occasion.  Luckily it was my friend's birthday, and we could all celebrate the fact that she is older than I am and always will be.  I love that a universal component to celebrations is good food.  We made a collaborative effort to create a fitting dinner for the day.  That meant my friend was on drinks duty, her husband manned the grill, and I volunteered (perhaps, begged would be a better word) to make a cake.

Here is a picture of my friend making a raspberry-rose gin rickey.  I had no idea what would go into that drink, because I don't think I had ever heard of it before.  It sounds like something my grandparents would know how to make.  The cocktail coupled with the apron she's wearing had us making jokes about 1950s housewives.  In fact, while she was making it, she told me that's her style of cooking: putting herself in charge of the cocktail hour while her husband preps the grill.  I wondered if we could have placed ourselves any more strongly into strictly defined gender roles.  Maybe we're all taking this Mad Men craze a bit too seriously these days.  Honestly, it was all in good fun, and who can resist wearing a cute apron?  I know I couldn't.

I had to wear something to protect my skirt while I dealt with the intersection between beer and baked good.
Honestly, how many shots of butter can this blog take?  I promise, though, this one was completely necessary.  It's the first time I have melted butter for a recipe in beer!  My friend loves chocolate and beer equally, and when I found a cake recipe that incorporated both, there was no way I was not going to try it.  I would show you a picture of the finished product, but we were too busy having a good time, and I completely forgot.  I think that was an indicator of a great party.  You can see how much I and two of my best friends enjoyed the cocktails and also how much my friend's nephew relished the taste of stout and chocolate.

It was a wonderful summer bar-b-que, and there couldn't have been anything more enjoyable (and perhaps also nothing more American) than a summer evening out on the patio with the grill going, side dishes packed with produce from the garden, and a picnic table full of friends and family.  I've kind of missed the easy camaraderie that only seems to happen with close friends.  It felt nice to back in California with my friends for a while, but strangely enough, I'm now starting to miss the Netherlands just a bit.  If only I could find a way to transplant my friends along with a big backyard and a massive grill to Amsterdam.  Then I would be all set.

Friday, July 2, 2010


I'm back already!  To discuss something very important: the deliciousness of coconuts.

Actually, Diana's post on eating locally made me think about the availability of food here in Nigeria.  Many of the ingredients we buy in the market are local because, well, they have to be.  The system for distributing goods in Nigeria is shaky at best, so farmers sell their produce (vegetables, fruits, chicken, beef, etc.) close to home.  Locally-grown food is incredibly cheap: a huge bunch of greens for vegetable stew only costs 20 naira (about 13 cents).  A large bag of okra costs 50 naira (30 cents).  However, there is also a surprising amount of food imported into Ibadan.  Most of the vegetables come from the Middle Belt or northern Nigeria.  Much of the fish is frozen and flown in from abroad.  Whole stalls are dedicated to selling only canned and pre-packaged foreign goods.  Even ingredients grown in Nigeria are often processed somewhere outside of the the region.

There is little variety in the options of imported foods, but every week brings new and interesting local produce to the market.  Right now, for example, mature coconuts are in season and being hawked on every street corner.  (See how I brought this discussion back to coconuts?!  Phew.)  I love fresh coconut meat, pried out of the shell and sold in large pieces to eat as a snack with roasted corn.  In fact, if I don't reign it in a bit, I might turn into an ear of roasted corn myself.  With a side of coconut.


Sarah, my housemate, and I decided to try opening a coconut ourselves.  It provided ten solid minutes of entertainment, between throwing the shell as hard as we could at the floor and then trying to pry out the pieces with butter knives.  I am happy to report that the only lasting injury was a small cut to my ankle.

{Yes, my legs and arms are completely different colors. Kind of awesome, huh?}

Carried away by our coconut fever, Sarah and I have even started baking a mean coconut cake.  Of course, we use canned coconut milk from the supermarket and have thus far been too lazy to grate fresh coconut for the glaze.  But it is a Nigerian coconut cake in spirit.  I promise.

(recipe adapted from 'Vanilla Bean-Coconut Cupcakes' in the April 2009 Bon Appetit)

2 cups flour
2 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter
1 1/3 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup coconut milk

Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

In a saucepan, heat leftover coconut milk (from 13-14 ounce can) with a spoonful of sugar, allowing liquid to reduce slightly.  Mix in 1 cup flaked/shredded coconut and pour glaze over warm cake.

{James checking out our coconut cake via Skype.  Mmmmmm.}

I have just one more week to eat locally in Nigeria - wish me luck!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Eat Locally...Really Locally

From Amsterdam to L.A. to Davis, CA in less than a week.  I've been up here in northernish California since last Monday visiting some good friends.  I have forgotten how incredibly hot it can get up here in Davis, and while the heat of the mid-afternoon sun leaves me heading for the nearest air-conditioned spot, it's apparently very good for the produce around here.  Notice our crazy adventures in my friend's dad's garden.  Her parents had been on vacation for a few weeks, and we volunteered to go over and do a little gardening only to be attacked by the largest zucchinis in the world.  They were everywhere and they were gigantic.  You can see in the picture below that I was nearly swallowed whole while picking them.  Thank goodness we had some zucchini bread recipes.  I also made one of my favorite soups all with ingredients from the garden.  It's during moments like those that I am a little sad that all I have is a balcony with a herb pots, but after an hour trimming the blossoms off of chard plants in 95 degree heat, I wasn't so sad about not having my own garden.
There's a reason why the local food movement has taken a firm hold in California.  When you can grow almost any summer fruit or vegetable imaginable within a 60 mile radius of your house, it's pretty easy to eat locally.  I'm not knocking it.  I do love to walk through farmer's markets like the one I went to on Saturday in Davis.  One sweep down the aisle left me feeling hungry and ready to dive into a crate full of tomatoes.  We talked to the blueberry farmers from Fresno and even the local woman selling worms for all your backyard composting needs.  

Outdoor markets in California, for all their beauty and variety, always have an air of unattainability and superiority to me.  Going to a farmers' market is a little bit like how I browse through designer boutiques; I might get a few small items here and there, but I'm not going to buy a new wardrobe in one afternoon.  It must be the artisnal cheeses and the twenty varieties of baby beets for sale that give off the slightly elitist vibe, although I readily admit that I love the market just the same.  After all, I was the one standing there plotting ways I could hide 8 oz. jars of lavender honey in my carry-on luggage.  California markets are just a fun diversion that present you with a bunch of inspiration for cooking and living.  If I hadn't seen all those stalls selling crate after crate of gorgeous figs, I probably wouldn't have felt this insatiable need to make something right this second with figs.

Lucky for me my friend's brother had a fig tree bursting with fruit.  I can eat a lot of figs on my own, but even after living without them since my move to Amsterdam, I couldn't finish a few pounds before they went bad.  A few minutes of searching online  coupled with a need to cool down led me to a fig ice cream recipe and a really nice food blog.  Locally grown tastes really good covered in sugar and heavy cream. 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

O, dear blog readers, the end is drawing near.  
I leave Nigeria for the United States in less than two weeks 
. . . and I still have so much to tell you about my life here! 

Let’s start with this: my housemates and I just returned from a trip to Calabar in eastern Nigeria.  It was beautiful.  Wonderful.  Awesome.  I am now wondering why I was smart enough to get into graduate school but not smart enough to choose the nice part of Nigeria to study.  JK, western Nigeria.  Kind of.  

I have to admit that it took a trip to the east to help me realize that 'interesting' is not the only positive adjective to describe Nigeria; it can also be beautiful, peaceful and relaxing.  Traveling home on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, it occurred to me how much the insane population density of western Nigeria effects how people live and move and relate to each other - in ways that ratchet up the intensity of day-to-day interactions.  And yet I like the challenge of living in Ibadan; it is endlessly fascinating to reflect on how both the remote and more recent past have shaped this society.  Also - you never run out of things to complain about.  How convenient for those of us who enjoy such a pastime!

Back to Calabar, where I traveled the Delta creeks by boat, swam in a waterfall, visited a drill monkey sanctuary and knocked back a few shots of locally-distilled gin . . . all in the name of research.  One of the fun things about visiting a new region was seeing the different foods it offered.  We ate delicious suya covered in a groundnut spice, tender chicken pepper soup and whole roasted fish, basted in a sweet pepper sauce.  We also found some new fruits that we can’t buy in the west: lychee and an ugly brown nut with velvety skin.  When you pry it open, you find that the flesh is a brilliant orange.  We couldn’t figure out the name of this fruit, so we call it orange nut fruit.  Creative, right?!



In conclusion:  Nigeria is beautiful.  The fruit is amazing.  Lychee tastes like candy.  Towns with trees and sidewalks are nice.  A lot of people live in this country.  They deserve to have a functioning government which can sustain an expanding economy and provide social services.  The end.