Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mmmm, beer. Part 1.

Yikes!  I have seriously been slacking on the blog-writing front lately.  Maybe because I’m finally busy doing real research?  Or maybe because the Nigerian National Archives have finally crushed my spirit and I can only drag myself home at night to watch boot-legged Arrested Development on my laptop as I cry into my fried-fish-and-stew?  Well, maybe a bit of both. 

Newspapers are photocopied by slicing the pages out of the bound book and then shoving them back in haphazardly.  
Oh, the pain in my heart.

Anyway, before I had even left the Netherlands, Diana and I planned that I would write a post about beer.  Now, as I sit here nursing a cold bag of water, memories of deliciously-cozy beer drinking are fading fast, so I better get it all down quick.  (As a completely useless aside, lesson learned for next time you are kickin’ it in West Africa: don’t walk around carrying your water sachet clamped in your teeth or you will inevitably run into a coffee table, drop said sachet, soaking yourself and your unread books and leaving you with an enormous bruise across your shin.  Just a friendly tip.)

Demonstrating the water-breast hold.  Use at your own risk.

Although I seem to be spending a lot of time talking about beer, I am not a huge fan of the drink myself.  I prefer champagne or gin and tonics.  But my husband loooooooooves beer.  The fancy-pants kinds.  I might even call him a “beer snob” but I know he hates that because “(exasperated sigh) Regan! Beer snobs only drink one kind of beer – I’ll drink anything.”  Oh, ok.  He’ll drink any of the $8 beers on tap at Father’s Office; he’s a man of the people.  (I kid, honey!  Love you!!)  So, a trip to the Netherlands and Belgium must involve some tasting of beer.  Our first and most important stop:  Gollem, a tiny bar in central Amsterdam.  I love that 1) the bar is un-ironically named after a Lord of the Rings character and 2) when Dutch people say the name, it sounds just like Gollem himself would pronounce it  - you know, super evil because the Ring has destroyed his human-ness and therefore he has to speak like he’s clearing his throat all of the time. 

This little place has recently hit the big-time and now has two other locations, diluting its charm somewhat because, you know, we’re Americans and we think everything in Europe should be tiny and there should only be one.  Except for Ikea.

Ikea hotdogs.  Yum-o.

Nevertheless, we love the Gollem and sitting in an ancient and steamy bar with friends and family while the snow falls outside is a wonderful thing.  Try it!  Gollem has an overwhelming selection, so populist-beer-drinker-James got to try some new ones and I confirmed the fact that I love sour beers.  The more sour, the better.  Which is weird, since you’d think that I wouldn’t like odd-tasting beers because I think most beer tastes like rotten (rhymes-with-kiss).  (By the way, I’ve been giggling to myself for the past two minutes because thinking about how to describe most beers reminded me of the time that James was sitting at our kitchen table and he called some guy from school a ‘prick’ and my mom got all wide-eyed and gasped “James!” and I couldn’t breathe because I was laughing so hard, especially when James told me that he thought it would be ok to use that word because my mom said “pissed off” all the time.  Ahh, the good ole days.)

One of the best beer shops in the entire world is located directly across from Gollem.  It’s run by two Irish guys who begrudgingly answer questions and have a fat cat that stalks the street, making sure everyone is behaving.  We dropped by this shop at least three times, first for stocking stuffers, then for beer to take back to LA, then for more beer to take back to LA.

Lest you think that all we did is shop for and/or drink beer, here are some pictures of our walk to the beer store:
In case you’re wondering, James is making that face because I insisted on re-taking the picture 
after I saw that my scarf had not covered my double chin in the first shot.  Maybe he needed a drink . . . 

See, we meandered, we admired the views, we caught snow on our tongues.  Such lovely times.

Mmmm, beer. Part 2.

Wow!  I was just flipping through the iPhoto album of our trip to look for pictures of beer and I realized that I completely forgot about our long weekend in Germany.  See, drink enough water sachets and your past begins to fade until all you can remember is what it’s like to be hot and dusty and in need of a bucket bath.  But look!  James, Ashlyn, Chad and I took a post-Christmas trip along Germany’s “Fairytale Road.”  We drove, saw old things and ate/drank.  It was awesome.  (Please note in the following pictures that my younger brother came to Europe in late December without a coat.  Even though we had this conversation before he arrived:  Me:  “Chaddy, you still have a coat, right?”  Chad:  “Yeah, that puffy one.”  Me:  “Oh good, that’s a warm coat and it is really cold in the Netherlands right now.”  Chad:  “Cool.”  Message not received, apparently.)

Because my family is cool and thought that seeing a statue of Gauss was pretty exciting.  

I made James take this picture because I have an obsession with small doors and stairways . . . I hope that someday one of them will lead me to a magical world where I’m a witch who is at least as smart as Hermione Granger.  Or where I become Anne Shirley before she gave up writing to raise Gilbert-Blythe-babies.

And then there was the romantic vacation-within-a-vacation that James and I took to Antwerp.  We’ve decided that Scotland and Belgium are our ‘go-to’ Europe countries.  Scotland because it has an interesting history and isles and lots of space with no people and Belgium because it has old buildings and beer and waffles.  (Although James, being a good African-historian-husband, is made uncomfortable by Belgium’s colonial past.)

Most importantly, after all of this beer-drinking in good company, I decided that my drink-with-a-pizza-on-a-Wednesday-night beer is Rodenbach.  It is sour and delicious – almost as good as a cold bottle of Coke.  I know, Important Decisions must be made.  After all, I’m nearly 30 and I need to know these things!

The moral of the story?  Delicious beer is easy to find in Europe.  Also, it is waaaay cheaper there, making you think that it is ok to drink a lot more.

A toast to all seven of our dear readers and to great memories!

(And now all of this blogging has made me punchy and I'm about to share way too much information: this picture made me think about the time that Diana sent me a video of a German woman giving birth to cheer me up.  We’re weird, I know: but the man in the video was wearing black socks and orange pants and the woman only had on a flannel shirt, which we found hilarious in all of its German-ness.  And when I described this video to my sister, she said that I would probably wear my gray cashmere cardigan while giving birth.  Which might be true, but ewww – now my favorite cardigan is known as “the birth cardigan.”  I think I need a new one.) 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

On writing and a recipe

This is more a post about being a grad student than living abroad.  As much as I would like to say that my life is more adventurous because I live in Europe, it's really kind of boring.  That is because, as my advisor never ceases to remind me, I have a dissertation to write.

For the first few years of grad school, I dreamed of the day I would finally be finished taking classes, done with preparing for exams, and even free for a little while from the responsibilities of teaching.  There was going to be this magical time in my future when I would sit in my little office in the mornings while I wrote chapter after chapter.  I was going to finish my writing and be done with my program in record time and then get some great professorship somewhere.  Yes, and also in this dream scenario in between all that productive writing, I would have time to do all this other stuff I love, like running and baking with some canning on the side, and then I would master some other equally awesome activity like becoming an expert seamstress. Well...ha ha hahahahahahahaha haha ha ha ha...ha.  I have no idea what kind of crack I was smoking, but that is not how dissertation writing happens for 99.5% of the people out there, I'm inclined to believe.  Okay, I have known maybe two incredibly disciplined and organized people, who wrote awesome dissertations and finished way ahead of schedule, but in case this post hasn't made it clear, I am not one of those people.

This first phase of writing has been really difficult, but I think getting started on any large project can be a daunting experience suck.  I thought maybe it's because I up and moved to another country, but as it so happens, my friends in California have experienced some of the same issues I have.  So apparently, the difficulties related to sitting by yourself while you attempt to write and write and write and write while keeping yourself motivated are about the same for everyone.  (If writing is really easy for you and you produce academic research at lightning speed, please do not tell me.  It would just demoralize me and break my spirit.)  But isn't that how everyone's job is?  Even if you have your dream career, isn't it just difficult sometimes to get out of bed in the morning?  I have my productive weeks and my less than productive weeks (guess which kind this is), and I'm hoping that the super-manic, incredibly fruitful weeks balance out the ones in which I would rather stare at my wall all day than write a chapter.

Cooking this year has been a wonderful therapeutic tool for those days when the writing or the attempt at writing didn't go so well; on my great writing days, it's a welcome reward for a day's work well-done.  Still, cooking and really thinking about how my food relates to my own culture as well as the one I find myself immersed in has been a great outlet.  It's also forced me on many an occasion to leave my office and go interact with the world.  There have been weeks in which I have only left the house to go for a run, and I have also realized that I have gone five days without speaking to anyone other than Niek.  I mean, I live in Amsterdam, for crying out loud!  I should celebrate the fact that I live somewhere awesome.  Grocery shopping gets me back out among the living.  I hop on my bicycle and at the very least say, "hello" to the guy behind the counter while I'm buying my carrots.  Leave it to food to force you to interact with society.

I don't want to leave you without a recipe for an easy dinner that makes me happy to serve and even happier to eat.  When Regan and James were here, I made this quick, laid-back meal for the night they returned from Belgium.  It was also the first Monday after the Holidays; Niek was back at work and I was back to writing.  After all the rich food and all the Holiday goodies I needed something that was simple, warm and comforting.  I've made these tarts with different combinations of vegetables and various soft cheeses for the mixture, so adapt it to your tastes and the season.
The Belgian Waffle and the fresh mint tea are optional.

  Potato Leek Soup with Simple Mushroom and Bell Pepper Tarts:

Rustic Potato-Leek Soup
adapted from The New Best Recipes
3-4 leeks (mine were fairly large and thick)
a few tablespoons of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of your pan)
1 Tbsp. flour
5 c. chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 3/4 lbs. red potatoes (about 5 medium), cut into 3/4-inch dice (I leave the skins on for texture and flavor)

1. Cut off the roots and tough dark green portion of the leeks and discard.  Slice the leaks in half lengthwise and chop into 1/2 inch pieces.
2. Heat the oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat.  Stir in the leeks, increase the heat to medium, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are tender but not mushy, 15 minutes; do not brown the leeks.  Sprinkle the flour over the leeks and stir to coat evenly.  Cook until the flour dissolves, about 1-2 minutes.
3.  Increase the heat to high; whisking constatnly, gradually add the broth.  Add the bay leaf and potatoes, cover, and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered until the potatoes are almost tender, 5-7 minutes.  Remove the pot from the heat and let stand, covered, until the potatoes are tender and the flavors meld (10-15 minutes).
4.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.

Mushroom and Bell Pepper Tarts
adapted from Simple Leek and Ricotta Tarts at, October 2007

1/4-1/2 lb. chèvre, a.k.a. goat's milk cheese, softened (This weight is approximate.  I usually just pick out the package I am pretty sure will be enough for four people.)
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
8 pre-cut squares of puff pastry
1/4 lb. mushrooms, thinly sliced (I usually choose button mushrooms because of availability and price)
1 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced
2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves (dried are also fine, but you will probably need less)

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F).
2. Meanwhile, place the chèvre, parmesan and eggs in a bowl and whisk until smooth. Add in the thyme and grind a bit of pepper into the mixture.
3. Place four puff pastry squares on a cookie sheet.  Spread the cheese mixture over the pastry squares leaving a 2 cm (3/4 inch) border. Place some mushrooms and bell pepper on top.  Layer each tart with another puff pastry square and repeat the process with cheese mixture, mushrooms and bell pepper.
5.  Bake for 25–30 minutes and serve.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

West Africa Meets Western Europe, Part II

Oh, you're wishing for warmer weather, Diana?  Don't worry - I'm working up a little post all about sweating -- just for you!  Anyway, I'm so glad that you enjoyed my Nigerian dinner.  Sharing food in Yorubaland is a symbol of companionship and a promise of peace.  Now we cannot make war against one another!  (I know your kind.  You Cornhuskers are notorious war-mongers.)

So are you ready for my take on Dutch food?

As far as I can tell, Dutch cuisine relies heavily on meat, cheese and potatoes.  But what European cuisine doesn’t include plenty of meat and cheese?  And as a certain historian friend reminded us over dinner, potatoes probably didn’t become an important part of the Dutch diet until the nineteenth century.  So why do we identify certain foods with a particular nation-state?  And when did ‘Dutch’ become a signifier of national origins anyway?  (Insert note from said historian-friend: “um … also in the nineteenth century.  After the Napoleonic wars and the Congress at Vienna, the victors re-divided parts of Europe and set in motion what historians see as the rise of nationalistic movements.” . . . Thanks, historian!)  Wait, I’ve lost my train of thought . . .

Oh yeah.  Niek not only graciously put up with us crashing in his apartment for two weeks, he also cooked us a delicious meal.  Stampot.  As I understand it, this one-pot dish is the beef stroganoff of the Netherlands.  (Or, for our California friends and family: the salad of the Netherlands.  I still can’t reconcile myself to the idea of salad-as-a-meal, unless that salad includes a large helping of meat and a side of bread.  My mom made an awesome Hot Thai Beef Salad.  Now that’s a meal.) 

Ok, here’s where I admit that I wasn’t paying terribly close attention to what Niek was doing as he cooked because I was packing/baking a pie/drinking.  Phew.  I also apparently forgot to take any pictures.  So for a visual, here is an earlier picture of Niek making dinner.  Look at that poise, that focus.  Even James is paying rapt attention to the way he is seasoning the onions.

Back to the stampot.  I remember a sausage being warmed up - a sausage that we bought out of a bargain bin at the HEMA (the Dutch Target).  Apparently, it is called ‘rookworst’ and is very Dutch.  Rumor has it that the Dutch are a thrifty bunch, so it seems right that this rookworst is their favorite sausage.  (I, too, have a fine sense of thrift: my favorite food is a $1.59 chocolate-banana shake from a Sonic Drive-in.)  And then there were lots and lots and lots of potatoes being boiled and mashed.  I also remember Niek stirring bags of something called ‘andijve,’ although it is more like a lettuce-y kale, into the potatoes.  Then there was the seasoning, courtesy of the former Dutch colonies (everyone gets in on the stampot fun!): cumin, ground coriander seeds, nutmeg (freshly grated, of course).  We’re talking gourmet home-cooking here, people.  Dutch style.

The finished product:

Source: Dutch people . . . as interpreted by Diana!

Approximately 2 lbs. of potatoes (Niek always guesstimates and throws about two medium potatoes per person in the pot)
½ lb. cubed bacon
andijve or similar greens, roughly chopped (Note: After my exhaustive 30 second search on the internet, I’m pretty sure andijve is escarole.  If you can’t find that, I would recommend a hearty green like kale.)
1 rookworst or similar pre-cooked, smoked sausage (optional)
salt, pepper, ground coriander seeds, nutmeg

1.  Peel and roughly cut potatoes.  Place in a pot and fill with water until the water covers about 2/3 of the potatoes.  Cook until soft, but not mushy, about 15 minutes.
2.  In the meantime, cook the bacon and reserve the grease from the pan.
If you want to serve sausage, as well, begin to warm the rookworst by placing it in simmering water.  Once warmed, slice into 1/3” pieces.
3. Once your potatoes are cooked, drain the pot.  Add a small amount of milk to the pot of potatoes and begin mashing with a potato masher.  We use one like this.
4.  To get a good mashed consistency, continue to add milk and a bit of the bacon grease until the potatoes no longer seem too dry.  You don’t want to overmash here.  The potatoes should be a bit “lumpy.”
5.  Season to taste.  You’ll need very little salt because of the bacon and sausage.  Niek uses probably 1 tsp. coriander seeds and scrapes the nutmeg over the rasp about a dozen times.
6.  Stir in the bacon and sausage.
7. To prevent too much wilting, fold in the andijve until its well incorporated just before serving.

This is everything you need on one plate.  Carbs?  Check.  Vegetables?  Check.  Sausage?  Check.  I was full after about five bites.  Stampot is the perfect winter meal, filling you up with warm potatoes all the way down to your toes.  Thanks to wonderful friends for introducing us to such fine potato-based cuisine!

West Africa meets Western Europe

I finished my chapter (kind of, revisions will come in due time I’m sure) and sent it off to all the people dying to know about creating social networks before the days of Facebook and Twitter.  I haven’t joined the ranks of Twitter nation, because a) I see it as another way for me to waste time when I’m stressed about getting my work done, and b) I’m a little afraid to be that connected to the world.  Installing chat programs on my computer was a big step for me, leading me to believe that I wouldn't be able to handle too many tweets.  But let’s not fear technology, shall we?  Without, I would never get to talk to Regan.  Regan, who has an internet connection but sometimes no power…and no internet connection.  If my modem’s lights stop blinking at me for more than five minutes, I start to freak out, so perhaps I wouldn’t do so well in Nigeria.  Then again, it’s a lot warmer there right now and the sun stays up for more than five hours a day, so...Perhaps I should rethink my dissertation topic.  Regan, do you know if there were some early-modern, intellectual networks I could research?  Maybe written in languages that are already in my repertoire?
All this to say that I know very, very little about cultures in West Africa.  Most of my knowledge comes from Regan and the one visit I made to the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam (inicidentally with Regan).  Thank goodness for this blog, or I would continue to be woefully ignorant on the subject of living in Nigeria.
While Regan was here, she attempted to infuse my home with a little bit of African cuisine.  I would say that I was a really active participant in this attempt, but the truth is I did very little besides eat.  So on a wintry Amsterdam night we sat down to eat some typical West African food.  At least, I will assume that it is typical, because Regan told me so, and I trust her implicitly.
Here she is, hard at work removing the skins from black eyed peas for the moin moin:


It is much harder than it looks to remove those skins.  Actually, maybe it's easier than you would think, because I don't know how many of you have ever attempted to do this.  I could be showing my ignorance on the many uses of beans here, but it had never crossed my mind to grind beans through my hands until all of the skins peel away.  I've eaten plenty of foods with bean paste before, but I had never really thought about how one would go about making it.  Regan told me that it takes her neighbor and cook, Abigail, about ten minutes to get the job done; it took the two of us half an hour with a lot of effort.
There she is adding some peppers (I think) to the beans.  I really should have written the recipe down, because I cannot remember everything that went into this dish.  There were the beans, peppers and the dried shrimp powder.  I do know one very important ingredient we could never have left out:
Once everything was sufficiently mixed together, Regan set them in a water bath to cook.  In Nigeria, you can cook the moin moin in rolled up leaves, which I'm sure create some amazing flavor.  We didn't have anything other than these little, heart-shaped ramekins in the house that would work.  Thank goodness for bridal shower gifts is all I have to say.

Here you have it, a wonderful West African meal.  The moin moin is the yellow slice on the right.  It was so delicious and has the consistency, but not the taste, of a moist corn bread.  It had such a rich and deep flavor that was so filling in such a protein-rich dish.  At the bottom of the plate is jollof, a rice dish with tomatoes, courtesy of James, which he learned how to make when he and Regan were living in Ghana.  We had a spinach salad with dried cranberries and goat cheese to round out the meal.  I don't know if the cranberries are all that representative of Nigeria, but it satisfied all our cravings for a bit of green. Regan also told me that Nigerians eat a lot of greens in their diet, so the spinach seemed quite fitting.  Although, she did add that they don't really eat their greens raw.  Don't hold it against us, West Africa.  We've lived in L.A. for too long, and we really wanted some salad.

Regan, can you come back to Amsterdam and make me some more Nigerian food?

To make your very own moin moin (I believe it's pronounced moy moy, the same kind of sound you would make to say, "Oy vee, my arms hurt from squishing peas through my hands for half an hour."), here is Regan's handy recipe:

Nigerian Moin Moin
adapted from Regan's observations in Nigeria

1. Soak two handfuls of black-eyed peas for 20-30 minutes.  Then rub them together and rinse until all of the skins have been removed.
2. Blend beans with a quartered red pepper, a hot pepper, half an onion, a few cloves of garlic, a couple of teaspoons of smoked shrimp powder, a little vegetable oil, salt and Maggi (of course!)..  The mixture should have the consistency of split pea soup.  Add a little water if you need to thin it out.
3. Pour mixture into oiled ramekins (or plastic cups or tin cans - we're not worried about the leaching of chemicals around here, people).  And don't be stingy with the oil!
4. At this point, you can add a slice of boiled egg or a piece of meat or fish to each ramekin.  This is up to you - go crazy.
5. Place ramekins in a pan and fill halfway with water.  Bring water to a boil and then simmer until moin moin has hardened.  This takes at least 30 minutes.

This is a very forgiving recipe.  You'll need the beans, but otherwise use what you have.  In Nigeria, it is usually eaten with rice or fried chicken.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Saturday morning errands

Saturday morning, or afternoon depending on the time I feel like getting dressed and facing the outside world, is my shopping day.  Most Dutch people I know go shopping every few days or so.  Refrigerators here are smaller and most apartments don't have the storage capacity to keep all the goods a normal American household would collect in one trip to Wal-Mart or Costco.  Niek and I, however, live in a brand new building on the the edge of the city, and our refrigerator is considered gigantic by Dutch standards (might I just add that it would be tiny in America), and we can get by on shopping once a week.
We jump into our little car with our shopping bags and head over to the Moroccan supermarket:

Niek was looking for parsnips for a stew he was going to be making that night, but we couldn't find any this week.  But look at the beautiful turnips we found instead. 
This is the place we buy most of our produce.  We also get any flour, grains, or dried beans here.  The selection is always better than the standard supermarket. Oh, and the nuts.  Don't forget the nuts.

Here I am trying my best not to pose stupidly for the camera.  Niek kept telling me to look at him, but I was hoping for more of an action shot.  Not that there is a lot of action involved in holding a shopping bag.

Once we finish at the Supermarkt Morakkaan, we head over to the Dutch institution, the Albert Heijn.  These stores seem to be on almost every street corner in Amsterdam, but most of them are pretty small.  People want the convenience of a store within walking distance so they can easily do the shopping everyday.  We kind of live in this no man's land, however, and the result is a "larger" AH with a parking lot that most people drive to!  Let me say that although the AH in our neighborhood is HUGE compared to most (except for the Super XL Albert Heijns, and yes, they are called Super XL), it would still fit inside the produce section of your standard American supermarket.  
There seems to be a fascination with packaging in the Netherlands.  I wasn't expecting this in Europe at all when I arrived, and it confuses me just a little.  I've been trying to figure out why there is such a love of wrapping plastic around produce here.  The pictures show tomatoes and pre-cut potatoes, but pretty much all of the vegetables are packaged. Even the bell peppers are individually wrapped.  If I ever figure out the cultural impulse to package, I'll let you know.

Hello, yogurt section.  Yes, in this small store, there are two corner walls dedicated to yogurt; yogurt drinks, yogurt desserts, yogurt smoothies, yogurt, yogurt, yogurt.  How the Dutch love their dairy...and then their bread.

But where is the baking aisle?  Baking aisle?  No, no, you mean the baking corner.  It's that one over there.  Yes, that neglected one over there by the magazines and the diet products.  Yes, you're right, it really only sells mixes for everything and a few one pound bags of flour.  Because, as I've said in an earlier post, the Dutch don't like to bake.  (Note to self: I will not rant or get upset about the lack of baking supplies.  I am not upset.  I am not upset.  No, really.  I've come to terms with it, and I am not upset.  You make compromises when you live in another country.  I have traded baking for an abundance of delicious cheese and amazing beer.  Oh, the sacrifices I've made!)

I would also post pictures of the packing job I have to do every week at the check-out, but it's just too stressful, and I didn't have time to take pictures.  It remains a mystery to me how Dutch people are able to pack their groceries so quickly, but if you take to long, people get really upset.  Bagging my own groceries under sever time constraints is an event I dread. Most of the time, I throw everything back in the cart and fight my way to a corner where I am able to bag everything without fear of being yelled at or accidentally putting my tomatoes under my canned goods in my haste.

And what would an errand run be without walking past the flowers every corner florist in Amsterdam has for sale?  Can you tell people are anxious for the spring?  Me, too.