Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Good Morning, Sunshine

I had been writing a post about the seething rage that work in the Nigerian Archives often sends me into - and the Coke that I must then drink to sooth my soul.  (Also,  Rage Against the Machine blasting on my iPod seems to help.)  But yesterday morning, I had a freshly-blended pineapple/banana smoothie and bread with peanut butter for breakfast, followed by a lovely interview with a professor about books.  

Ah, Nigeria, it only takes the right meal and a good conversation for you to work your charms . . . I'm so easy.

Sunset from my front yard.  
(Note to my future self, lest I become too nostalgic: evening brought a run-in with police brandishing semi-automatic weapons.  So, yeah.)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thank you, George Washington Carver...

When I was in junior high I was, as I am now, a pretty big nerd.  That's why I joined my school's academic bowl team.  I think it was called the academic bowl, but it could have just as easily been "marathon for the brain" or "thinking decathalon." Why is it that all of these kinds of competitions want to combine the idea of sports with the more sedentary academic pursuits into the title?  The year my school put a team together the topic was African-American history, and that is where I learned about George Washington Carver and his obsession with peanuts.  Let's just take this moment to thank him for bringing the idea for peanut butter into the American consciousness.  That's all I was thinking this morning as I was putting these into the oven to roast.
He changed the way Americans thought about peanuts, and we can all thank him for those PB&J sandwiches we had as children...unless you're from the Netherlands, in which case you think PB&J is disgusting.  It's not as if I can't buy it in the store here.  In fact, Dutch people really like peanut butter, but they only seem to like this kind:
I love that the word for peanut butter in Dutch literally translates to peanut cheese, pinda (peanut) + kaas (cheese)= peanut butter. Calvé is made by Unilever, that giant corporation of the Netherlands, and as far as really processed peanut butter goes, it's not so bad, but it just didn't taste, well, peanut-y enough.  I'm not against eating processed food, because, well, have you seen some of the sweets I like to bake and eat?  I'm also constantly disappointed that Reese's Pieces aren't for sale in the Netherlands, as the combination of chocolate and peanut butter isn't popular here.  I guarantee there's probably only about 0.05% actual peanut product in that candy, but I could eat an entire pound bag of them.  Notice how I said I could as if I had not actually done it on several occasions.  When it comes to peanut butter, though, the peanutier the better.  We started buying the 100% natural stuff at the organic food store, but I hated forking over so much money for ground peanuts.  (Trader Joe's, I miss you and your sensible prices for things like this.) Enter my Sunday morning where I apparently had nothing better to do, except for work on a dissertation chapter, but this was much more entertaining:


After 15 minutes of roasting and 10 minutes of grinding in the good ol' Cuisinart, my experiment was complete, and there can once again be delicious peanut butter in the house.  

Friday, February 19, 2010

Baby Shower: The Preparation

A few weeks ago about 20 Dutch ladies gathered in my living room for a baby shower.  Before the party, I asked myself about a dozen times why on earth I had offered to throw such a party.  I think I had been to maybe two baby showers ever in my life up to that point, and one of those was when I was seven, so I don't have a lot of experience with this particular kind of celebration.  The words, "Well, I just have to throw you a baby shower," just kind of fell out of my mouth last fall when a friend announced that she was pregnant and due in the spring.  I couldn't think of anyone more deserving of being celebrated than this wonderful friend, and I wanted to do something special for her.

The Dutch have about zero experience with baby showers, or showers of any kind, as I discovered last year before my wedding. (As a side note: my mother-in-law and my mom put together a fantastic bridal shower/bouquet making afternoon last summer, and I think the Dutch women really like the novelty of going to an American style gathering.) I don't think anyone, including myself, really knew what to expect on that Saturday afternoon in February. Maybe that's a good thing, because I was pretty unsure about all my duties as hostess.  Obviously, one of my biggest responsibilities for the afternoon was putting the food together for an informal tea.  I had a few freak out moments during the days leading up to the shower, but I pulled it together enough to make a menu and get some baking done.
It was truly a joy to devote a few days to baking, and thanks to the lovely blog posts at Piece of Cake, I was able to find some delicious cupcakes for my guests. Seriously, I don't know what I would do without cooking blogs.  Not only do they feed my obsession to know about other people's lives, but they also give me so much inspiration.  Ever since I moved and had to say good-bye to my Bon Appétit subscription (also, the direction that magazine decided to take about two years ago disappointed me and left me feeling lost in the culinary wilderness), I've come to rely on cooking blogs even more.  Well, I felt excited standing in my kitchen trying out her recipes for chocolate cupcakes and some truly scrumptious cakes of lemon flavored heaven.

This chocolate cupcake recipe celebrates two ingredients the Dutch are famous for: cocoa powder and coffee.  I can't speak highly enough of my little percolator.  If you love espresso but can't afford the drool-worthy espresso machine complete with burr grinder attachment sitting in the window of your local cooking store, may I suggest a stovetop percolator instead?  It will only ever bring you many cups of joy.

Although it's still a little early for the tastes of spring and it will be several months yet before I see fresh, young vegetables at the market, I couldn't pass up a chance to make the lemon cupcakes.  Besides, I was craving a bit of spring, even if was just in my kitchen.  As I was whisking up the lemon pastry cream, I was trying really hard not to calculate the amount of calories, fat, and cholesterol contained in just one bowl.  Egg yolks + sugar + butter = contribution to heart disease the best lemon dessert I've ever made. 
Because after the lemon cream came the buttercream frosting and with it the use of several more packages of butter and sugar.  I bought five, FIVE, packages of butter for the shower, and I used up every, single one.
I will tell you that the cupcakes turned out very well, and the ladies seemed to like them.  I used a different frosting on the lemon cupcakes, though.  Instead of a frosting using heavy cream, I chose one that uses meringue in order to create a lighter, fluffier taste.  The lemon pastry cream is already so rich, and I didn't want to overpower the airy cake with a heavy frosting, too.  I'll post the pics from the shower this weekend along with a commentary on throwing a baby shower Dutch-style, and then you'll get to see what my finished creations looked like.

Happy Friday!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A different take

Greetings Potatoes and Yams readers! My sister Regan has asked to write a guest post about my time in Nigeria (“Don’t be too negative”), and since there’s no power and I can’t read any more books about tough, thirtysomething women private eyes who take down big corporations and small towns with secrets to hide through their persistent inquisitiveness and sheet grit, I’ve decided to comply. Please bear with me as my blogging skills are very out-of-practice.

After spending nearly six months in the Netherlands, I boarded a flight to Nigeria to visit Regan for a couple of weeks before heading back to the US. I was excited but also a little apprehensive, given that Nigeria is currently making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Fortunately, Regan assuaged my fears by meeting me at the airport with my absolute favorite thing to eat in West Africa: oranges.

Oranges in Nigeria are vastly superior to their counterparts in the industrialized world for several reasons. First, they are hideously ugly, which probably means they haven’t been bathed in pesticides. Second, they are incredibly tasty and juicy because they haven’t been bred to be seedless. But most importantly, they are eaten in the funnest way known to man. The outer rind is cut away, leaving the fruit ensconced in the soft, white part I am sure there’s a scientific name for. The Very top of the orb is cut away, revealing the fruit below. You then place your mouth over this opening and squuuueeeeeze all of the juices in. Repeat as many times as necessary to drink all of the deliciousness. As an added bonus, you can turn the orange inside out and eat whatever is left.

This magical method of eating oranges is representative of the larger trend in Nigeria (and from what I gather, across West Africa) of drink and foodstuffs that can be consumed through the squeeze method. There’s agbolumo, a fruit that tastes not entirely unlike sour glue, that you suction out the seeds and then spit back out. Filtered water comes in sachets (or “water breasts”) – rip a corner off with your teeth and drink up. And most importantly, there’s the entire line of FanMilk products. Whenever life in Africa has gotten you down, simply look for someone in a blue vest pushing around a big white cooler, hiss to get his attention, and purchase a semi-frozen sachet of ice cream, yogurt, or my personal favorite, chocolate milk. God bless FanChoco.

However, there is a dark side to this obsession of eating without chewing. Much of Nigerian cuisine seems to consist of a stew accompanied by a large side of some sort of starch, pounded and mixed with water until the taste and consistency of silly putty is attained. Break off a piece of putty, dip it in the stew, pop it into your mouth, and swallow whole. While this stuff is somewhat edible and definitely filling, I hardly consider anything you can eat without chewing to be “food.” But props to the Nigerians for figuring out a way to get nutrition without tiring their jaw muscles. They must have to keep those rested for another favorite activity – yelling.

[And by 'yelling,' Ashlyn means to say 'enthusiastically approaching life.'  Or maybe not.  Thanks for the guest blog, Ash!  Now we've hit the big-time here at Potatoes and Yams.]

Saturday, February 13, 2010


(Hour 3 of four hours stuck in Lagos traffic.  Note Ashlyn's "sweat rag," as she fondly calls it.  Ashlyn thought things couldn't get worse, until a police officer jumped into our car and demanded (I mean, 'suggested') a bribe.  
You all should totally come visit me!  Living in Nigeria is too much excitement for just one person!)

I woke up around 4am the other morning in a pool of sweat and in desperate need of some water.  (Have I mentioned that it’s hot in Nigeria?  Especially when there is no power and no breeze?)  I got up and grabbed an open water sachet, but halfway to my mouth I remembered that the day before I had gone to drink from an open sachet and found tiny ants floating in the bag, so I had to dump it out.  Then I figured that I can’t see the ants in the pitch black and probably wouldn’t be able to taste them, so I drained that sachet anyway.

This incident has impressed two things upon me: 1) I sweat a lot in Nigeria and therefore drink a metric ton of water every day and 2) my standards of cleanliness and sanitation are quite low.  But not as low as James’ standards – he has eaten pizza after dropping it cheese-side down into wood chips.  Also, a Belgium waffle that had fallen on the street, whipped cream topping and all.  (I feel bad for our future children.  We’ll just make them eat right off the floor so that we don’t have to wash extra plates.)

Now that I’ve brought up James, I’m going to embarrass him even more by blogging about my sweat mustache.  Because sometimes Diana complains about the cold Amsterdam weather and wishes she was somewhere tropical, and I say, “Be careful what you wish for . . .”  I wished to study African history (still happy with that choice, by the way), but now I’ve developed a permanent sweat mustache.  The ‘stache first appeared when we lived in Ghana.  One day James, feigning indifference, asked me if I noticed that my upper lip was beaded with sweat.  Of course I didn’t notice – when your eyebrows and elbows and scalp and in-between-your-toes are sweating, how can you be aware of a little upper-lip sweat?  But sure enough, there it was – and as fast as I could wipe it away with my handy-dandy handkerchief, it would appear again.  Bummer.

(Attempting to rid myself of the 'stache.)

I found the sweat mustache extremely irritating (so did James), until I remembered the most important rule about living in West Africa (well, apart from “Drink plenty of water, but not from the tap”): You must embrace the sweat.  When it’s hot at home, I can move quickly from apartment to car to air-conditioned Target (for example) – there is sweat, but only for brief moments.  When it’s hot in Ibadan (that is, always), I have no place to hide.  Sometimes, I even sweat as I’m taking my bucket bath.  I sweat when I eat.  I sweat when I walk.  I sweat while I sit in the library.  You get the point.  I drink lots of water (from little plastic bags . . . so awesome) and then sweat it out.  I accept the sweat; I revel in the sweat.  But I always wipe away the mustache.

(Ashlyn, how do you feel about the weather?)

Standing at the top of Olumo Rock in Abeokuta . . . sweaty, but fun.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Winter Weather

Just a few images from my run through the city yesterday.  Unlike the East Coast and parts of the Midwest, Amsterdam is not buried under a few feet of snow.  Good thing, too, because the Dutch don't deal with it very well.  When there was a weekend of heavy snowfall in December, it pretty much crippled public transportation, especially the trains, for a few days.  The night before yesterday, there was just a light dusting that fell, making everything all white and pretty again.  The wind was at my back on the first part of my run making me think it was much nicer weather than it really was.  I didn't take any pictures on the way back because of the tiny snowflakes pelting my face and eyes like shards of glass.  Kind of painful, but at least I got out of the house. 

In honor of the Olympics beginning this week, I stopped at Stadium from the 1928 summer games.  you can see that Dantes is not pleased to be outside.

I saw only a few people in the park.  It was kind of nice feeling as if I had it all to myself.

Here I am standing at the base of the only hill in Amsterdam.  On the park maps, it is actually called "The Hill," denoting its solitary status in an otherwise flat landscape.  Makes hill training kind of hard when there is only one.

I noticed just yesterday these posters plastered all over the city. It's a speed skater holding his skates in one hand and a sandwich in the other, and it's a promotion from the bread council.  I don't know who the guy in the poster is, but he's probably famous.  The Dutch love the sport of speed skating probably almost as much as they their bread products.

And for dinner last night, Niek made a lentil soup with rookworst: a great one bowl meal, perfect for a night on the couch watching Inspector Morse.

How's the weather in Ibadan, Regan?  My guess is that you are not cold.

Monday, February 8, 2010

De Zeeuwse Kust*

Almost four years ago I had the great opportunity to live in Antwerp for a month.   I took a language class and got introduced to the subtle and then not so subtle differences between Dutch and Flemish.  Think of it as first learning English in Great Britain and then heading to the U.S. for your next language class.  You would think the very close geographic location between The Netherlands and Flanders (the Flemish speaking part of Belgium) wouldn't create a great difference in the language, but there is a distinct shift in the sounds and even word choice the farther south you venture.  I thought it was really fun to learn the differences and to hang out in Antwerp.  That sounds perhaps a little more exciting than it actually was, because my language course was located outside the center of Antwerp in the little village of Wilrijk.  It was a charming place complete with lots of winding dirt paths and roosters that crowed every minute of every day.  Those roosters were cute for about the first hour I heard them, but then after that...ugh nothing more annoying than hearing a rooster crow constantly during my listening skills lab.  A bunch of us in the program rented bikes from a local farmer for the duration of our stay, and that was our main transportation to get us to class in the morning and into the city for the afternoons and evenings.

During my time in Antwerp, I spent a lot of time walking around trying to take it all in.  If you ever have the chance to visit the place, you should.  I meandered along the river and took in all the great architecture from the last 600 years.  I also got quite the overdose of Rubens' paintings in the main cathedral.  I guess when you're a really famous artist, you can show your love for your Church by plastering your buxom, lily-white ladies all over the main cathedral.  No offense to Rubens, of course.  I had just never seen so many of his works in one place before.  On top of all the artwork and beautiful buildings I got to see, I also noticed the same two advertisements hanging in bars and restaurants: De Koninck and Mussels with French Fries.  De Koninck is Antwerp's signature beer, and while not my particular favorite, I didn't leave the city without trying it out in one of its signature chalice shaped glasses.  After passing about thirty restaurants that cater to the tourist crowd and watching families dive into big black pots and wax paper cones in the center of their tables, I finally made the connection between their meals and the signs advertising moules-frites.  "Ah, this must be how mussels are served here," and, "Wow, that is a lot of mayonnaise based dipping sauces on the side."

The Belgians are apparently famous for their mussels and fries.  I say apparently, because every guidebook I've consulted on the matter (which is about two books in total, so really not a large sample size) insists that travelers should try the Belgian delicacy.  Even here in the Netherlands, they sing the praises of Flanders; the best fries I've had are advertised as Flemish fries (Vlaamse frites).  I was dying to try some good shellfish, but my language teacher advised not to eat them out of season in the summer.  The rule of thumb here is that they are best in the months ending in "er," so it would really be quite a while before I was going to get that experience.  Besides, it was the hottest summer on record when I was there, and I really felt more like eating salads and ice cream than a steaming bowl of mussels and piping hot fries.

Little did I know that, really, the meal is incredibly popular here, and Dutch love their mussels just as much as their southern neighbors.  The province of Zeeland (in the southwest of the country right on the North Sea) produces the bulk of the mussels for sale in The Netherlands.  My parents and I had some delicious mussels a few Christmases ago in the town on Middelburg, the capital of Zeeland, and I remember it as being one of those perfect restaurant experiences.  What's better than a welcoming meal in a warm restaurant after a day of walking outside in the wind and the cold?  Um...probably nothing, that's what.

So, last week just before Regan's sister left overcast Holland for sunny Nigeria, Niek and I decided we should send her off with a good, winter meal.  We were both fairly certain that there would be few french fries and even fewer shellfish waiting for her in Ibadan, and I was craving a nice serving of fried carbohydrates anyway.  Off to the Albert Heijn we went!  There was luckily one pack of mussels left.   We steamed them in a bit of water, white wine and a winter mix of vegetables while the french fries turned golden in the oven. I cheat with my fries and always buy the frozen ones in a bag, because even the promise of a delicious end result is not enough to convince me to buy a deep fryer and make my house smell like a McDonald's for a week.  We're not in a month that ends in "er" anymore, but I figured the end of January was close enough.  Oh, and before anyone asks, yes, mayonnaise was served on the side, and we all relished dipping basically everything on our plate into it.  I would have taken more pictures, but I was too busy stuffing my face with amazing, Dutch goodness.

*The post's title is just a little shout out to the Dutch music group, Blof, and their awesome song, Aan de Kust, which is all about Zeeland.  I just love this catchy tune.