Monday, May 30, 2011

Food and Pregnancy

As I have navigated the waters of prenatal care in the Netherlands, I have made my mental comparisons with with food suggestions/restrictions found in the U.S.  Of course, my knowledge about the U.S. comes solely from my friends with kids and the sometimes scarily paranoid women from's message boards.  So, I try to make my comparisons with a grain of salt.  During my first visit with my midwife (pregnant women don't see an OBGYN here unless there is a medical issue) and again during a less than entertaining "Enlightenment Evening" program I was required to attend in my first trimester, I learned what it was that the Dutch medical community, not to mention the Dutch government, thought it best for pregnant women to eat.  I translated some of the highlights from the government website (kind of like the USDA) for the blog:

General guidelines according to the website:

·       Eat according to the “Disk of Five.” *It's like the food pyramid, and I love how important bread is.  I was told at my meeting that pregnant women should aim for six pieces of bread a day.
·       Drink 2 to 3 glasses of milk and 1-2 pieces of cheese per day.  Instead of milk you can have buttermilk, a yogurt drink, chocolate milk, yogurt or vla (kind of like pudding).
·       Get enough iron, for example from whole grain bread and red meat.  Eat foods rich in vitamin C during meals to help with iron absorption.
·       A vegetarian diet is fine.  Make sure you get enough B-vitamins and iron.
·       Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, are not harmful during pregnancy.  *Women on freak out about this all the time.
·       Too much vitamin A can be harmful to a fetus.  Therefore, don’t eat more than 3000 mcg of vitamin A per day.  This pertains to animal products and supplements.  Because there is so much vitamin A in liver, it’s best not to eat it during pregnancy.  *My Dutch pregnancy book notes that the vitamin A found in things like butter or margarine doesn’t pose a risk.

Here are the things best avoided:
·       Sandwich toppings: don’t eat more than one sandwich with liver products, like paté, per day
·       Coffie: the maximum number of cups of coffee per day should be 4 because of the caffeine.  Tea and cola also contain caffeine, but from these products you shouldn’t drink more than eight glasses (assuming you don’t also drink coffee).  *I should note that a glass of soda here is about 8 oz., which is way less than what you would get in a restaurant in the States.
·       Fish: Fish is very healthy.  But don’t eat:
o   Vacuum-sealed fish found in the refrigerated section like smoked salmon, eel, mussels (these can be eaten if cooked first)
o   Raw fish or shellfish, like oysters *Although the website states this, I was told by the midwife that raw fish is perfectly fine if I know that it’s fresh.
o   Swordfish, Bluefin tuna, shark, or king mackerel.
o   Eel from Dutch rivers *What does that say about Dutch rivers?
o   Fatty fish no more than twice a week, because of the dioxins *During my "Elightenment Evening" we were told that fatty fish, like herring, is good to eat.
·       Meat: no raw meats (like steak tartar, carpaccio) and liver
·       Licorice: Don’t eat too much licorice or drink too much licorice tea.  *Gross.  I promise not to eat too much licorice.

There were other things on the list that I expected to see, which I didn't include here (just the usual suspects, like "get enough folic acid," and "don't drink alcohol or consume drugs").  All in all, however, the list feels less restrictive to me than what I've observed in the U.S., but as I said before, I'm looking at the American dietary suggestions from afar.  I do think that the most striking differences between here and the U.S. were the suggestions for bread and dairy products (so many!) coupled with the much more lax attitude about caffeine consumption.  In fact, it feels to me like it's a more lax attitude about consuming potentially harmful things (like *gasp* sushi) than what I've gathered about attitudes in the U.S.  I don't really know how restricted pregnant women feel in America, but I do know that I was once chastised by a pregnant friend during a chat session for suggesting she get a cup of coffee when she said she really wanted one.  Seriously, I got a mini-lecture about caffeine and low birth weight.  There are plenty of suggestions for diet here, but most of them verge more on moderation instead of complete exclusion.  Again, that could be my interpretation of it, as that corresponds more with my philosophy about healthy eating during pregnancy.  If I were in the U.S., I'd probably eat the same way I do here, regardless of my health provider’s suggestions.

I do wonder if the seemingly more permissive attitude about diet during pregnancy has to do with the fact that healthy, pregnant women are monitored here less in general.  During the first half of my pregnancy, I have seen my midwife twice, never had an internal exam, been weighed once, and have already had the last of my two routine ultrasounds.  Other than that, I've pretty much been left to just go live my life.  Obviously, I can call my midwife at any time if I have concerns or a problem, but I was told that there really is no need to see me if everything feels fine.  As the weeks go by I'll see my midwife more, but she won't weigh me (I haven't come across a single weight gain recommendation beyond the standard, "don't eat as if you are eating for two"), and I won't have another ultrasound unless there appears to be a problem.  I happen to like this hand-off approach but could see plenty of women not enjoying it, and there have been a handful of times I have wished that it was routine to see my midwife more often, if only just to listen to the heartbeat.  (Sidenote: I was told by the midwife at my last appointment that I could always call and make an appointment to do just that if it would ease my mind, but I've never felt that I truly needed to do it.  Trust me, I would call if I wanted to or felt I needed to.)

One of my friends jokingly asks me if I get in my six pieces of bread a day, and I'm afraid to let the Dutch authorities know that that usually doesn't happen.  I guess as long as I stay away from the raw meat and keep it under four cups of coffee, they won't send anyone in for me, but that would be true no matter where I lived.  In the end, they are only suggestions.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Finally, some white asparagus

The first time I ever tasted white asparagus—or even knew of its existence, for that matter—I was sixteen and just a few hours into my summer “study abroad” in Germany.  It was June, and I had arrived that fine summer day just in time for the midday meal.  My host mother, as good of a Hausfrau as I have ever met, always made sure there was a warm lunch on the table for me and her two teenage daughters when we would come home from school.  On that particular day I was jetlagged and confused.  My German, I readily admit, was not very good at that point, and every conversation going on around me felt confusing and unfamiliar.  I didn’t really understand what was going on as I sat in the kitchen watching Inga, one of the daughters, speed off on her bicycle only to come back about ten minutes later with a bag of spears that looked pretty much like this.

A little magic happened on the stove, after which we sat down to a truly delicious meal.  I needed to get over my initial feeling of, “What the hell?  Aren’t asparagus supposed to be green and much smaller than this?”  My hesitation lasted about five seconds, because there was nothing about these white stalks to remind me of the handful of times in my life I had eaten mushy asparagus from a can.  We had it a lot for the first few weeks, and then suddenly, it was all gone.  No more asapragus in the fields, no more white asparagus for me during my stay.  I bought it a few times at Whole Foods in Los Angeles, but it was always expensive and a bit of a let down.  Nothing really compared to my memories of German Spargel.  I should thank my lucky stars that I live here now.

I think most Dutch people would be horrified to know that I very clearly linked asparagus with German cuisine for years.  It was only two years ago, during my first spring in the Netherlands, that I learned how important asparagus is to Dutch identity, especially in the southern provinces where the bulk of the fields are located.  You can find biking and walking routes through the fields and a list of asparagus related celebrations here, if you're so inclined.  Don't think that I haven't looked at it already and planned an afternoon excursion.  Even if I couldn't make it to the fields, I wouldn't suffer.  The supermarkets, vegetable stands, and restaurants in Amsterdam all boast big signs for "Asperges."

There are a million ways to prepare asparagus, but since this week was my first foray into cooking with the real deal, Limburgse asperges, I felt I owed it to myself and Dutch cuisine to make it the classic way.  Oh, Dutch cuisine...I would say that lots of traditional Dutch dishes are not complicated (not a bad thing) and often involve boiling things to varying degrees of doneness.  

The traditional asparagus meal includes boiled asparagus spears, boiled potatoes, a hard-boiled egg, and a few rolls of thinly sliced ham all with a nice layer of melted butter poured on top. That's why I had three pots boiling on the stove and one tiny saucepan melting butter.  The asparagus has to be peeled before cooking, as the outer layers are tough.  The peeler in the picture above is a special asparagus peeler, and if you believe the description on the back of the packaging, you will learn that no household is complete without one.  Seriously, I had no idea my kitchen had been lacking in such an important tool.  I altered the recipe slightly to include the potato skins (because I like it that way), and we had a fewer pieces of ham on the plate.  Really, how many ham slices can one person eat?...Actually, don't answer that.  I probably could eat quite a few pieces if I weren't also consuming massive amounts of butter and starch.

Here I am, tentatively pouring butter all over our plates.  Apparently believing everything is better with butter is not simply reserved for baked goods:

 I asked Niek how I did for my first attempt.  He was pretty pleased with my mad skills (i.e. the ability to boil things), although I think I need to peel a few more layers off next time to make the bottom of the stalks a little less tough.  I could buy one of those fancy pots made only for cooking asparagus, but that seems like a ridiculous investment.  Here's a close-up of dinner and also a picture of Niek taking in the amazing smell while the dog looks on from his chair.

I couldn't eat like this every night, but it's fun to feel a little Dutch every once in a while.  Besides, the asparagus season is so short, I need to take advantage of it while I can.  Before I know it, it will be gone again for another year.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mystery bag

I am so excited about what is in this bag, I can barely contain myself.

Tomorrow for dinner I am going to prepare asparagus that was picked fresh from the field.    Niek's dad brought back four pounds for us when he went to visit his brother yesterday in Limburg.  Four pounds!  I would make it tonight, but we just had asparagus yesterday at Niek's parents' house.  I'm trying to space out the deliciousness over the next few days.  I've been looking forward to this day since the last asparagus season.  Hooray!

And in something completely unrelated...My mom asked me last night if the tulips were blooming yet.  She asked because their winter never seemed to end this year, and I'm pretty sure most of her bulbs are just now brave enough to peek their heads out of the ground.  Sad to say, the tulip fields bloomed here while I was in California and London.  Instead, this is what greeted me when I took out the dog this morning.

 It's already time for the poppies here, a flower I personally associate with California...well, California and the illicit opium trade of Afghanistan.  I just love that they seem to sprout up wherever, even in the cracks of the sidewalk.  Hope this gives my mom hope that she, too, will soon have some flowers blooming in the yard.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Another Queen's Day

Saturday marked the third Queen's Day (Koninginnedag) I've celebrated in the Netherlands.  While we didn't escape the city and head to the beach like we did last year, we avoided most of crazy fun going on in the center.  We skipped the drunken parties on Queen's Day Eve and avoided the throngs of Holland's  orange-clad youth living it up in Museumplein.  Instead, Niek and I got up and enjoyed coffee on our balcony like the totally civilized adult that we are--or at least pretend to be when the occasion calls for it.  Honestly, I didn't want to waste a gorgeous Saturday morning, and besides it's finally strawberry season.  I bought my first pound of them at the neighborhood market this past week.  They were mostly small, and they were incredibly delicious.  I'm pretty sure they were grown in a hothouse, as most produce here is grown, so I guess it's a stretch to call it strawberry "season."  They were so much more delicious than the strawberries I've been buying from Spain (the California of Europe, as Niek likes to call it).  Paired with croissants, Intelligentsia coffee and a vase of spring's first peonies, you really can't go wrong.

I like to think that the dog agreed with my assessment of the morning, although he is pissed that our new balcony table takes up most of his precious lounging space.  He looks cute enough in this picture, but I think he really wants to give me the finger and push that damn table out of the way.

So I don't think that I have mentioned before that in addition to the crazy amounts of drinking that happen for Queen's Day, the other big activity for the day is setting up huge garage sales.  At first, I was excited about this aspect of the holiday, until I found out that the Dutch are much less selective about what makes it to their rummage sale piles than Americans.  I'm pretty sure most people just collect all the crap that has accumulated in their closet over the past year, set it on a blanket on the sidewalk and hope that someone will give them a Euro or two.  At the end of the day, they pack up all of their stuff in a box, and put it back in their closet until the next Queen's Day rolls around.

If you don't have sidewalk space of your own to claim, which you need to do at least the night before by using tape and chalk to mark your territory, you can head to one of the major selling areas.  Niek and I ended up in Vondelpark, the center of activities for children.  Here, you can buy children's clothing, really old car seats, books, beat up strollers, etc., etc.  
 There were also lots of kids performing musical numbers and tons of homemade carnival game stands.  All of that was very cute, but it was just so crowded.  I think we spent maybe half and hour walking around before our friends' baby felt totally overwhelmed and insisted on taking a break. Good call.
I did not sample any of the homemade delicacies lining any of the stalls.  Apparently, the thing to do is set up your own food stand.  This could be as simple as pancakes or as labor-intensive as loempias (Indonesian egg rolls).  Some guy even had his own cotton candy machine.  Niek told me that I could set up a stand with cupcakes and cookies next year.  That sounds like hell to me, so I think I'll pass.  I did love this boy's enthusiasm for his stacks of pancakes:
After braving the crowds of children and parents in Vondelpark, it was time for the real joy of the day: sitting out on a bar's terrace with a witbier.  Oh, wait, no witbier for me this year.  I comforted myself instead with a kroket sandwich (pulverized meat product that is breaded and fried).  Looking at the picture makes me wonder if a beer might have been the healthier option.  
All in all, a good holiday.  It is really time to get back in the kitchen and start blogging about cooking and food again.  It is, after all, spring.  Maybe I'll even convince Niek that we need to go to the asparagus fields.  Maybe.