Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas 2012

After a few days of gluttony, we're embracing a pared down diet over here. Christmas was, as always, a family affair that rotated around the dinner table. Christmas seemed to sneak up on us this year, and I felt woefully unprepared. Most of the presents were bought a few days before they had to be given out, and we didn't do our meal planning until just before my parents arrived. I choose to blame this on a combination of celebrating Sinterklaas and being busy with things that interest me more than decorating a tree: finishing a free-lance project, reading Slate, getting outside for the few minutes a day that it isn't raining, keeping a toddler from careening to certain injury from the top of the sofa.  I'm not a Christmas fanatic, and I am often very glad to live far away from months-long Christmas displays in Target and the custom of putting up the tree on Thanksgiving evening.

What I totally got behind this year was our Second Christmas (December 26) dinner. We usually celebrate with my parents, who are staying with us, and a few close friends. In the past I've viewed it as a chore, since one of our friends doesn't like seafood and the other doesn't like cheese.  Because I tend to shy away from preparing meat, mostly because I am lazy, I've had a difficult time coming up with menus that suit everyone.  This generally leaves me a nervous wreck.  I also prefer to make fun desserts, although the crowd of meat eaters at our table gets less excited about my efforts than I generally do.

This year, we did it differently.  I nixed the dessert and bought some nice bonbons (insert frowny face for no Holiday baking), and Niek declared we would be roasting pork belly.  Pork belly?  Where are we going to get a 6 lb. pork belly? It turns out that there is an amazing butcher about five minutes from our house.  I must have walked past that place hundreds of times thinking it was nothing special.  His display case holds mostly potato salads and a few chickens.  Given the modern Dutch penchant for heat-and-serve meals, I wrongly assumed he would not have pork belly.  When we walked over there on the Saturday before Christmas, the place was packed.  Niek asked the lady behind the counter about our cut of meat, and I heard her shout into the back, "Do we still have pork belly today?"  The butcher came out and asked how much we needed.  Next thing I knew, he was hoisting almost half a hog onto a back counter and grabbing a sharp knife. Honestly, it's been years since I've been to a real butcher  shop, and I've never ordered such a large cut of meat.  Even though it was a really simple cut, it was pretty awesome watching him work.  We were so excited about our purchase, and we couldn't stop talking about having an actual butcher in our neighborhood. I'm kicking myself for not going in before now.  I think that experience is what got me excited for making the meal and entertaining friends.

Niek did most of the cooking, although I stepped in as sous-chef/baby wrangler throughout the afternoon. Here's Niek getting ready to prep the huge chunk of meat we bought:

The roasting pan we borrowed from my in-laws barely fit in our oven.  Seriously, we had about 1/8" on either side.  We were so terrified it wouldn't fit.  The recipe we used called for cooking the meat at a high temperature (250 degrees Celsius=482 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first hour in order to create a crispy skin.  It certainly worked, but it also created a smokehouse in our living room. Our oven is so small that the meat came closer to the oven's heating elements than we would have preferred. We had expected a bit of smoking but not to the degree we had. All our windows stayed open for about an hour.  It was either get a little cold or feel like we were living in a campfire.  

I'm so proud of Niek's cooking abilities.  The meat was delicious, says the woman who has no great love for pork.  It was, however, a really fatty cut and not one that I would want to eat weekly.  For Christmas, though, it hit the spot.  I was sad to see the evening end.  This is really the first time I felt like I truly embraced the fun of a second Christmas.  The 25th was all about my father-in-law's amazing meal--and it certainly was amazing--but the 26th was our chance to relax and have fun in our kitchen. I suppose we'll have to get more adventurous next year, since we now know where to buy our meat.

Even the toddler had a good time.  Did you know giant spoons are more interesting than food?

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Winter Blahs...

Last night I read a post on a blog about a woman who sits under a light therapy lamp at least once a day all winter long, and I got a little jealous of her miracle lamp.  This morning it wasn't truly light outside until almost 9:00 a.m., and as I ran through the streets of Amsterdam in darkness watching kids and their parents heading to school with their bike lamps on, all I could think about was this feeling of winter blah.  It hit me early this year.  Usually I don't get this way until mid-January, and by that time there are only a few weeks left of nasty darkness before the days become exceptionally longer.  Not sure what it is about this year, but we haven't even reached the shortest day yet.  I'm almost there, almost there.

The terrible news about the school shooting has not helped much and has left me quite weepy in the evenings as I listen to NPR's Morning Edition while cooking dinner.  Technology has made it so that I can feel connected to American current events and culture even when I would rather bury my head in the sand. 

I've been surprisingly good at keeping the winter food blahs at bay.  It's mostly due to my love of Ottolenghi's vegetarian cookbook.  I would shower the world (or at least all of my friends and acquaintances) with his books if I could.  I know that I need to broaden my horizons and add a few more cookbooks into the rotation--forlorn Tessa Kiros books on my shelf, I'm thinking of you you--but I can't get enough of his warm and hearty meals.  Maybe it's because he lives in London and knows a thing or two about the cold days when the damp seeps in.

I need to go make some soup and stare at my Christmas tree for a few minutes before I head outside and soak up the few hours of overcast sun that we still have today.  Only a few more days until the sun starts staying up longer.  

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sinterklaas 2012

Het Sint Nicolasfeest, Jan Steen.  Image via Kunst en Cultuur
I was almost certain that I had written something about Sinterklaas before (Feast of St. Nicholas), but glancing through my archives I noticed that there wasn't a post dedicated to it, and I don't have a label for it.  How could I have gone so long and remained silent on the subject?  The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas on December 5 (Feast of St. Nicholas Eve).  Sinterklaas comes on his white horse with his helper, Zwarte Piet, to deliver gifts to the deserving children of the Low Countries.  Yes, I have a problem with the blatant, racist overtones of the black helper to the white saint, although very few people here seem to be troubled by it.  If you want to know more about that from an expat's perspective, you can read the Jessica Olien's Slate article from last December.

As a fairly integrated foreigner, I try to roll with the differences in culture without succumbing to or becoming an apologist for the aspects I find less than acceptable.  I like to think I do the same with American culture, too, although it is tougher when you're on the inside trying to observe your own sense of identity with a critical eye.  I told Niek that we could celebrate Sinterklaas with Johanna if he wanted to, but that I would draw the line at letting her wear a Zwarte Piet costume or ever, ever, ever wearing blackface.  Seriously, that is just not going to happen.  I'll happily explain to her when she's old enough to understand why it isn't acceptable.

I think we would have let Sinterklaas pass this year without any sort of celebration if we hadn't been invited to a party at our friends' house.  It was a pretty serious affair replete with a visit from Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet themselves.  My friend's brother-in-law filled the role of Sinterklaas and her brother happily dressed up to play the part of Zwarte Piet.

Never have I seen children so excited and terrified all at once.  I suppose it's the same mixed bag of reactions you would see at a mall while kids wait to sit on Santa's lap.  Just like Santa, he knows whether you've been good or bad, and also just like Santa, he brings you gifts.  Instead of elves to do his bidding and manual labor, though, he's got an army of Zwarte Piets to carry his bags, pass out the gifts, and throw (literally throw, as in chucking with full force) handfuls of little cookies and candies to the waiting throngs of children.  The last part is what Johanna liked best as she scrambled around the living room picking up the cookies and popping them in her mouth before I could stop her.  Sitting on a  stranger's lap...yeah, she did not allow that to happen.

Here's a pic of Piet getting ready to throw the pepernoten (the hard, spice cookies) to the crowd.

I really am not sure what Johanna thought of the whole operation.  This was taken a few moments before her name got called.  When Niek brought her closer, she just started wailing.  Right there with you, kid.  I didn't want to sit on the Sint's lap either, even though I had to.

Here's Niek showing me how it's done.  Good times.  All the adults got the traditional chocolate letters. My "D" was pretty delicious.

Honestly, this is my favorite pictures from the entire day.  Sinterklaas, at its heart, is a child-centered holiday, and every parent wants to capture the memories of childhood.  With the explosion in popularity of the smartphone has come the instantaneous record keeping of daily life done en masse.

That was our first Sinterklaas celebration as a family.  I still don't know how to broach the subject of Zwarte Piet with the Dutch.  For the most part I just look at all the Piet decorations and the Piet costumes with a mixture of awe and irritation.  However, I love seeing how excited all the kids get about Sinterklass visiting and their anticipation for the likely gifts they'll receive. The kids were so cute and really bought into the theatrical display of their beloved Sint.  I'll have to see how Johanna reacts next year when a towering man in a miter tries to lure her onto his lap with candy and presents.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

**I wrote this post a week ago with the intention of adding the pictures later in the day.  Unfortunately my computer had other plans.  No pictures for now, but I'd better put the post up about Thanksgiving before we get too deep into December.  Besides, I have a Sinterklaas party to blog about.  Let's all hope I can post pictures for that one.**

Oh, yes, it was that time of year again already.  As always, there was no way to celebrate the holiday on Thursday.  This always depresses me a little bit, and I think even more so now that Facebook and Instagram light up with a million posts wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.  My mood was also not helped when I stopped in for coffee in my regular café and ended up talking to a Notre Dame fan.  The man was obviously American and had a Notre Dame jacket on, so I asked him if he was from Indiana--just to be nice.  He was, in fact, but had about three words to say to say to me after learning that I was not from South Bend and not a Notre Dame fan.  Ugh, that man only served to reinforce my stereotypes about Fighting Irish fans.

The rest of the day was fine and busy with prep work.  A quick call to my father-in-law that night confirmed that the bird had arrived and was big enough for our group of ten.  The only questions in my mind were weather the roasting pan was big enough and if I could just squeak it into the oven.  My father-in-law assured me that everything would fit with room to spare.  He was half right; it all fit, but I had to take out my oven thermometer to get it to fit.

I took Martha Stewart's advice this year and did as much prep work before the actual day arrived.  She was right, I was less stressed on Saturday, but it didn't dissipate my stress, it merely redistributed it.  At least I had help in the kitchen on Friday: two babies (mine and my friend's) and a good friend doing all peeling and chopping that I hate to do.

And for the first time, I felt very good about the bird.  I resisted the urge to take it out early since I, yet again, failed to insert the instant-read thermometer correctly and got a skewed reading of the internal temperature.  Fifteen-pound turkeys don't cook in two hours, they just don't, so I turned off the temperature alarm and kept my eyes on the clock.  All in all, a great success.  I miss my family and friends and get a little homesick, but this year really felt like a Thanksgiving day.  Maybe it was the mass chaos caused by the kids, or maybe it's because I feel more at home here now.  What's really helped make it feel like Thanksgiving are the massive amounts of leftovers we have in our fridge.  I think I may have one more turkey sandwich left in me, and after our turkey soup tomorrow-oh God, there is enough soup for Thursday's dinner--I'll be ready for a break until next November.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Running with a baby in Amsterdam

I'm used to seeing all sorts of strange, wheeled conveyances here.  I passed a mattress store the other day and saw a special double bike with a trailer bed attached to it for deliveries.  You know, it didn't phase me at all.  It must mean that I've been here long enough not to be surprised by these sorts of things.
photo from
Years ago during my first visit to the Netherlands, I ran past a woman on a bicycle and did a double take just to confirm that I actually saw her transporting a newborn baby in a car seat on the back of her bike.  All the safety issues popped into my head, and I wondered if it would even be legal to bike with your baby that way in America.  What about the helmet laws?
photo from
There must be twenty (or even more) different ways people transport their kids on bikes here.  If You have to get from A to B, and if it's too far to walk, you have to find a way on your bike.
Two kids?  No problem.  photo from
Two kids?  Kids and a dog and groceries?  Sure.  photo from

I have even embraced--more than embraced, I absolutely love it--bicycle transport with a baby and cycle all over the city with Johanna in a seat on the front of my bike.  All of this is to say that nobody really pays attention to the way kids or goods get transported.  

What, then, is with all the stares I get when I go out with the running stroller?  I have the B.O.B. Ironman.  We brought it back as checked luggage when I was 35 weeks pregnant.  I would have gladly ordered one here, but I couldn't find a retailer.  Running stroller choices here are almost nonexistent.  As comfortable as the Dutch are throwing their kids in a wooden box on the front of their bike, they are not fans of putting their kids in a running stroller.  However, I've seen people jogging with babies in regular strollers, a sight that makes me cringe as I envision those tiny wheels not being able to handle a turn and then tipping the stroller over.

Honestly, I thought it was all in my head that people were staring at us.  But, no, people really do look at us with an expression of confusion or bewilderment...and point.  The pointing is the weirdest, as if to say, "Hey, look at that weirdo mom running with her baby."  Maybe it's because I wear a lot of spandexy type pants?  It's cold, I wear running tights.  Running strollers are incredibly popular in the States (I have been led to believe) and maybe even in other parts of Europe.  Why not here?  I'm still trying to figure it out, but my guess is that it is a combination of limited space and cost.  If you've already invested a lot in an everyday stroller--let me tell you, lots of Amsterdammers own rather expensive, durable strollers--are you prepared to drop even more into a stroller you can only use for running?  For suburban, American families with a garage, a running stoller is no big deal.  I do wonder if running strollers are popular in the U.S. for urban runners.  Our BOB claims some prime real estate in our hallway and does not fit into our tiny car.  If I ever meet any other running moms here, I'll have to ask them how they do it and where they stash their kid during a run.  My guess is that they leave the kids at home with grandma.  I should ask my mother-in-law to retire or just get used to the pointing.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hiatus over?

Honestly, it's just really time for the blog hiatus to be over.  I think I would feel better if I just got back into some form of writing at least once a week.  Are you allowed to come back to a blog after a six-month break?  Would it help if I said that I have been suuuuper busy, even if that has not always been true?

Here is the long and the short of it, which explains why I didn't write a word for so long.  I quit grad school and didn't want to talk about it any more than I already had.  I was then an unemployed, grad school drop-out and feeling kind of crappy about the whole thing even though I was so much happier than when I was in I-don't-want-to-write-my-dissertation-hell, and I didn't really want to discuss it on the interwebs.  I was suffering from some chronic injuries leaving me unable to run or exercise at all, making me sad and feeling gross, which I absolutely did not want to talk about.  All this blahness didn't really put me in the mood to cook creatively or make witty observations about life abroad, which is kind of a problem when those were the mainstays of the blog.

At the start of fall everything finally started coming together, it would seem almost effortlessly, but that would be a lie; there was a lot of effort involved. Still, it was amazing to see all the pieces falling into place.  I have a tentative job offer that I am truly excited about.  (Hello, full-time employment, I'm so excited to be reacquainted with you!)  My injuries, although still present and accounted for, are settling down and giving me a few good, albeit short--so horribly short--runs every week.  And, obviously, fall cooking is in full swing.  My favorite time of year to cook has come once again.  It's a good thing my toddler girl likes roasted vegetables is all I'm saying on the subject right now.

Anyway, time to get back to a bit of cooking and a bit of blogging.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Things I love about the Netherlands...

Fava beans are just a regular veggie that you can find in the frozen food section of any supermarket.
Name in Dutch: tuinboontjes (little garden beans).  I've seen them fresh at the grocer, but I was in a hurry today.

It's gloriously warm, and I feel like salads for dinner almost every night.  This one I thought would be easy, and for the most part it was, until I realized I would need to shell each individual bean.  As I stood in my kitchen for twenty minutes spitting flat beans out of their waxy coating while simultaneously trying to entertain a teething baby, I completely understood why some people prefer to eat fast food every night.  Enough with this whole foods movement, let's go get some french fries.

But then it all just came together: the lemon slices, the crisp radish bits, the creamy avocado, and yes, those hearty fava beans.  Even the baby seemed to appreciate the effort, diving into the salad with gusto.  I felt so happy.  Thanks, Amsterdam, for making my dinner enjoyable tonight.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Dutch Barbeque

A friend of ours called this week to invite us over for barbeque.  You never know how long the summer is going to last here.  If it's warm, you'd better get your white beers on the patio in while you can, because the rainy, fall weather could start before you know it.  We don't have a yard, and I'm not dedicated enough to the art of grilling to lug supplies to a nearby park.  I'm so lucky that one of our friends lives to grill in the summertime and also that he has a backyard to unwind in.

Barbeques are meat-heavy affairs here.  Not that they aren't in the U.S., but you're pretty much out of luck here if you're a vegetarian.  At least in the U.S. you stand a chance of finding some potato salad or maybe even some vegetable kebabs.  At a Dutch barbeque I have been offered hamburgers (which are more like sausage patties), chicken kebabs, bratwurst, and pork chops.  Get ready for animal protein overload.  It's all delicious, but it's not something I can handle more than a few times a year.  I suppose that's why I find it such a treat; it feels so decadent and slightly irresponsible of me to eat such a protein-dense meal.
Someone is not a fan of her new sunglasses.

While the meat may take center stage, it would really be nothing without the important lineup of condiments.  Forget your standard ketchup and mustard (although those were on the table, too).  It was time to get crazy with garlic cream sauce and satay.  Everything gets dipped in the sauces, absolutely everything.  I'm not joking, you dip every bite in a sauce.

Dear God, whatever you do, don't forget to serve bread.
I realized once we got Johanna to sleep that this was the first evening we've been out with friends past eight o' clock since our baby was born.  Does that make me boring or responsible?  I do love that we still had the requisite cup of coffee/tea after dinner and that it was served with stroopwafels and gevulde koek (cookies filled with almond paste).

Probably one of my favorite moments of the night: our friend's dad starting the fire in the outdoor stove with a blowtorch.
Brings new meaning to the slogan,"be prepared," doesn't it?

No, we were not cold.
What an amazing start to our three-day weekend.  It's Pentecost here tomorrow, which means we have Monday free for Second Pentecost Day.  Hope the sun is shining wherever you are.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

RIP, my dear converter

When you decide to move to another country and you also decide to ship all of your kitchen appliances to the aforementioned new country, there is absolutely one essential piece of equipment that you must purchase: a converter.  I'm not talking about those little, adapter thingies you buy at Target before going on a trip.  You can slap those on your cell phone charger and gleefully plug it in willy nilly all over Europe.  When I studied abroad in Germany, I thought an adapter was all I needed to get my hairdryer to work.  Guess who may have started a small fire and ruined a nice hairdryer?

For appliances like my Kitchen-Aid and my Cuisinart, I've relied heavily on a converter.  The thing weighs about as much as I do and takes up some prime real estate on my kitchen counter.  It has done its job well, so I don't complain much when I have to lift it to clean (which I do just about never).  Unfortunately, it's been  quite sick these last few months, and I'm afraid that it's finally given up.  It's bought the farm and is probably frolicking through the open spaces of transformer heaven, relieved to no longer work long hours as the Crock-Pot hums or to convert all that energy while the mixer paddles swirl around.

So long, my invaluable sidekick.  *sigh*  Time to get a new one.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Seriously, I have a lentil addiction

We've been looking for different types of protein to feed Johanna lately.  I seem to have handled daily life pretty well with minimal protein, but those nurses at the doctor's office really like to scare new parents into thinking that their children are all horribly malnourished.  I was told last week that she's old enough for meat and was handed a list of acceptable foods.  Since we're not huge meat eaters--and I don't want my child to wast away to an anemic nothingness--we've gone a little crazy with the legumes.  Yes, it absolutely has something to do with Yotam Ottolenghi, but I really think it's because the "legume" aisle at the Moroccan grocers just looks so beautiful.  I want to take every variety of lentil home and put them in gorgeous jars on a shelf (note to self: buy gorgeous, glass cannisters...and a shelf).

As a huge departure from the typical Dutch bread party that lunch tends to be, here is a lunch around these parts recently.  Red lentil and cheese wedges with veggie and fruit slices.

I even made hummus this week, because I happened to have dried chickpeas laying around.  The chickpeas were left over from my disastrous attempt to make falafel a few weeks ago (seriously, what is up with our middle eastern cuisine kick?).  I'm not sure I'm cut out for frying food.  Every time I'm supposed to cook something in a large vat of oil, it ends in disaster.  So glad the hummus only required the food processor.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Koninginnedag 2012

Yesterday was Queen's Day, a day marked by orange-clad, drunken Dutch people wandering the streets of Amsterdam.  Although our baby wanted to join the crowds in the center, we put our foot down and decided to enjoy the first amazing day of weather in other ways.  I did the mom thing and dressed Johanna in Dutch colors.  Here she is eyeing our  oranjetompoes (thousand layer cake with orange frosting).  The tompoes comes from the HEMA, the Dutch equivalent of Target.  I told Niek that I wanted to embrace the tradition and buy a slice.  Stauch defender of republicanism that I am, I can't quite explain my enjoyment of a holiday celebrating the House of Orange.  Can you really say no to the tradition of buying a piece of cake--and a surprisingly good piece of cake to boot?  Slicing the tompoes in two was about as close as I came to cooking all day.  We had places to be!  Oh wait, Niek sliced the cake for us...

Because...wait for it...we finally made it to the bulb fields!  Every spring we have said we would go, and there's always been a reason we didn't make it.  Yesterday, everything just came together, including the weather, and we hopped in the car.  In less than half an hour we found ourselves driving along seas of vibrant colors.  Honestly, it really is an amazing site.  It looks like someone spray painted fields with swaths of bright colors.

Years ago a friend of mine, who was living in London at the time, invited me to fly over and meet her in the Netherlands just to visit the bulb fields.  I can't tell you how disappointed I was then when I couldn't make it.  I've had Niek's friends scoff at my desire to see the fields.  They think of it as something tourists do.  Yeah, I'm okay with that.  We joined all the other tourists in taking the requisite picture in a field of blooming flowers.

It was definitely the last weekend to enjoy the tulips.  The flowers were really open, and some of the fields had already been cleared of the flowers.  The flowers have to be cut away from the plant in order to make the bulbs salable.  I wanted to say that the plants are deflowered, but no, that isn't the right word. The plants are topped and then look like this:

We saw a lot of farmers out in the fiels topping their plants.  How much do you want to bet that the two boys in the cart were less than thrilled to be spending their Koninginnedag working?  At least they're wearing orange.

When we drove past a daffodil field, I made Niek stop the car so I could jump out and take a picture.

Most of the hyacinth fields were definitely past their most beautiful point.  We did see these still in bloom.  Can you even imagine the amazing smell?  The air was so sweet with the fragrance of hyacinths.

So that was our Queen's Day this year.  We would have stayed longer, but Johanna was less enthusiastic about the outing than I was.  No matter.  We can return next year.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ottolenghi Crazy

We are experiencing a bit of an Ottolenghi obsession in this house at the moment.  I don't consider this to be a bad thing.  If you aren't familiar with Yottam Ottolenghi's cookbooks, his column in the Guardian (on which Plenty is based), or his London restaurants, I highly suggest poking around various websites and getting to know his food.  It's with a tinge of regret that I didn't call enough in advance for reservations at his restaurant the last time we were in London.

The recipes seem to be filling a need for our general food cravings: lots of pulses (chickpeas, lentils, and beans), aromatic spices, and complementary layers of simple ingredients.  Listen to me, sounding as if I ever in my life used the word pulses to refer to beans--must be the Ottolenghi wearing off on me.  Maybe it's because we've been in that no man's land of fresh ingredients, otherwise known as early spring.  The beginning of asparagus season this month has signalled a turning point, but the month preceding it was hard for us.  We've drawn a lot of inspiration from the cookbooks.

Our favorite recipe so far has got to be the Quinoa Salad with Dried Iranian Lime.  Alas, no dried limes to find here in Amsterdam--we're substituting lime juice and lime zest.  If you're in L.A. and you want to know where to get them, I've got a few addresses for you.  I lived in The Valley (the San Fernando Valley to you non-Southland people) for a few years, and the gigantic Persian market in Van Nuys was probably one of the greatest redeeming values of living "so far" from all of my friends.  This recipe has appeared twice on our menu in the last week-and-a-half, despite the extra effort of going to the super-chic supermarket for the orange sweet potatoes, honestly really worth the extra step. Besides, the youngest member of our family has really gotten into sweet potatoes.  As you can see, the eggplant from the soba noodle salad has also been a hit with the younger crowd.

 Lots of changes going on in the house at the moment.  A growing baby, making some travel plans, making some choices about a career move.  It's all been a little overwhelming, but when doesn't life seem to be really full.  I will say that it feels like with the arrival of spring, life (and cooking) has become more manageable.  Maybe I just needed some more sunlight.  Well, I've got my wish; the sun rises here a little after 6:00 a.m. and sets well after 8:00 p.m.  This is good for me but not so great for a baby, who hates to go to sleep.  We finally broke down and ordered a massive black-out shade for our bedroom window.  Whatever keeps us rested and sane, right?

Now go make some Ottolenghi recipes.  You can thank me later.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Corned Beef, or not

You know, every year I think I'm going to write this amazing post about St. Patrick's Day.  It would involve me finding delicious corned beef somewhere within the city limits of Amsterdam.  To a Dutchman, corned beef looks like this:
I'm not even sure what that product is made out of, but it is certainly not what I expect corned beef to look like.  Niek even enjoyed eating it on his sandwiches until I took him to a Jewish deli in Indianapolis and forever after made him sad that we live so far away from things like rye chips and kosher pickles.  [As an aside, I found a Jewish deli in Amsterdam and am planning a trip soon.] Corned beef and cabbage is not a dish I have often eaten, but my mom made it a handful of times for St. Patrick's day when I was a kid.  Every year I figure, why not celebrate a completely historically inaccurate, over-the-top holiday with a little meat and cabbage?  Why not, indeed.
I've taken slight issue with the holiday ever since I wrote my first history paper in college on the biography of St. Patrick.  Up until that point I had no idea that the real St. Patrick went by the name Patricius and considered himself a Roman on the fringes of the Empire.  All that driving the snakes out of Ireland lore had to wait for the hagiographers High Middle Ages.  That suddenly sounds like a cool job to me, a hagiographer.  I'm just imagining some monk closeted away in a monastery trying to figure out how he could make the lives of the saints more interesting.  Creative writing is a challenge no matter what century you live in.  Anyway, I'm really fine with the evolution of a saint's day becoming the day people wear green, get three sheets to the wind and regret their hangovers the next day.
However, looking into this corned beef and cabbage tradition has added a new element to the whole American interpretation of St. Patty's Day.  Maybe it's also the reason I can't find corned beef here.  It is apparently not considered an Irish dish at all.  Maybe Continental Europeans have no use for the stuff, either.  I'm ashamed to admit I didn't know what the "corned" in the beef actually meant until I looked it up for this post.  Can we all breathe a sigh of relief that I own a copy of McGee on Food & Cooking?  Whew, now I know that the "corn" refers to the large grains of salt used during the preservation process.  I also had no idea that corned beef was an important export product from Ireland during the early-modern period (shame on me, the Early-Modernist for not knowing that), although it was the English colonists in Ireland calling the shots at the time.  Raising beef for export meant less space to grow crops for the colonized inhabitants.  I think we can all agree it's the Irish did not feel like they were getting a fair shake from the ruling English.  So, yeah, corned beef not as Irish as this American girl seemed to think that it was.  
St. Patrick's Day was not acknowledged anywhere I could see.  It was just another Saturday in Amsterdam, although I was horribly disappointed to miss a sour beer festival on Saturday night.  That would have been awesome, but you know, babies tend to be cared for.  Time enough next year for the sour beer festival.  And, no, I didn't find any corned beef.  Sad, I know.  I took a Slate article's advice and made potato leek soup instead.  Potatoes we have in abundance.  Thanks, New World, for giving Ireland the potato and in a really roundabout way making me feel like I celebrated the life of a Roman missionary.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


This past weekend we had friends stay with us for a visit.  We know them from Los Angeles, but they are currently in Paris for work.  I e-mailed an open invitation to stay with us if they had time to get away, and before I knew it they on our doorstep.  Weekends like this are one of the reasons I am forever grateful that we have a spare bedroom (a luxury for Amsterdam).  What our flat lacks in ambiance--no views of 17th century canals here--it more than makes up for in square footage.

We had a great time together, and even Johanna got a bit of socializing in. Babies discovering the existence of other babies is an entertaining site:
We had some very simple dinners, since no one was up for big cooking projects with babies in need of a lot of attention.  Can I add that I got to have an almond croissant on Saturday for my breakfast thanks to our incredibly generous friends?  We managed to get everyone out of the house while coordinating the needs of two small beings operating on different schedules.  That is no mean feat, I assure you.  On Sunday, there was even enough warmth and sunshine to enjoy the first spring beer outside. 

More importantly, check out the special treat our friends brought for us:
Yes, yes, macaroons are hot right now.  Have they surpassed the cupcake yet as the dessert du jour?  I've had macaroons here, and they've generally fallen flat.  They're either too gooey or too damn sweet.  These, however, from the macaroon store in Paris were heavenly.  Ladurée keeps the standard flavors around but also is not afraid to get a little more experimental and creative.  The macaroons on the left were chestnut and pear, apparently a new flavor.  My favorite was the violet, but the cherry, rosewater, cassis, and salted caramel were all also amazing. 

Paris is about a five-hour drive from here (unless you have a baby that needs to be fed/changed/comforted), which is relatively close.  Parisian treats, however, are a world away. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

"proud to be an American..."

I suppose I should never complain again about not being able to find root beer here. I wonder if anyone ever buys this.

With a name like Stars and Stripes I bet you can just taste the flag.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pea Soup

image from Unox
It's pretty impossible to live in the Netherlands and not take notice of what can be considered a national dish.  I think there is a soft spot in the collective Dutch soul for pea soup (erwtensoep or snert in Dutch).  It's inevitable, every winter  up go the ads for Unox (a brand falling under that behemoth known as Unilever) pea soup.  Unox also produces the most popular brand of rookworst (sausage) in the Netherlands.  As you can see in the ad above, Unox marries the two products quite well to one another.  While its quite evident that pea soup is beloved here, it's not entirely clear to me why it's this soup in particular that can be thought of as Dutch. 
While digging around the internet, this site explained that pea soup was used during lent in the Netherlands as a substitute for meat-based stews and bouillons.  I'm no food historian, so I can't say whether that was the case in other parts of Europe, but it would certainly make sense to create a nutrient dense and plant-based food during that all important season of abstention.  It makes me think of the Starkbiere festival in Bavaria, historically created to add extra calories to diets lacking in meat during a time of year when there was very little in the way of non-animal foodstuffs.  Why don't Americans have fun late winter traditions like this?  Who wouldn't want to get crazy drunk with a bunch of friends while wearing Lederhosen and listening to polka music?  Too many Protestants?  I'm digressing, and besides, the Netherlands has had plenty of somber Calvinists who don't pay attention to Lent.  Furthermore, do you see the amount of pork in that bowl of soup?  Nothing meat free about it.  While some form of the dish may have had its roots in days of yore, the current variation is heavy on the pig.
I love this drawing from an internment camp in Indonesia during WWII.  In it women are serving, among other things, pea soup to the camp inhabitants.  That such a heavy, winter dish had its place in what was most likely a hot and humid camp.  Then again, I think they took what they could get and most certainly would not have been dissatisfied.
image from Het Geheugen van Nederland
I'm actually surprised at myself for not making pea soup sooner.  When I was a kid, I remember my mom making it.  I don't remember why, but one time we had a ham bone at home, and she used that to make the soup.  Here, too, traditional recipes call for a ham bone or pigs feet.  If I knew a good butcher, I might have made the effort to find the pigs feet, but I honestly didn't want to go to the trouble.  Instead, I went the vegetarian route.  Thanks, 101 Cookbooks blog
Besides, pea soup is typically served with a very dense rye bread and a fatty cut of cured pork known as katenspek.  It's a great accompaniment to the somewhat sweet flavor of the peas.  I can't imagine having the meat on the side plus worst in the soup.  I'm Episcopalian, after all--the vegetarian soup with a side of meat feels like a good compromise for Lent.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Any excuse to use my ramekins

Although my pasta in cream sauce last week was a bust, the creamy chicken pot pies I made did not disappoint.  My brother-in-law and his girlfriend came over for dinner last week, so I felt like we needed to make something other than pasta or frozen pizzas (both insanely popular choices for us two sleep-deprived souls).  I keep checking the weather every morning, and in case you're wondering, yes it's still cold outside.  Cold weather means my go-to entertaining recipes require the use of the crock-pot or the oven.  Chicken pot pies, I thought, would be a good choice, and they're "easy." 

The chicken pot pies of my youth came frozen in single serving boxes.  Usually my mom would heat one up for me on nights they were going out.  I loved them even though I almost always burned my tongue in my impatience, probably because they were mini.  While I could make this recipe in a large casserole dish, it would really take something away from the novelty of an individual serving.  That is why I truly love my ramekins.  I bought the ramekins not even knowing what I would make in them, but I just couldn't resist their cuteness.  Someday I'll make crème brûlée, someday.  Until then, there's chicken pot pie to be baked...
It still surprises me when I make meal so deeply ingrained in my American cultural context, and it seems foreign to those around me.  A chicken pot pie, everyone knows what that is, right?  Of course, this one is slightly different from the Swanson pies we kept in the deep freeze.  The Dutch make all sorts of baked dinners, ovenschotels as they are categorized.  A stewed oven dish is something they've seen hundreds of times, but I think it's the biscuit topping that throws them for a loop.  Even though they love their buttermilk--have I mentioned before that my drink choices at Dutch history conferences usually consist of milk or buttermilk?--they don't seem to cook or bake with it at all.  Maybe it's because they also don't really use baking powder or baking soda?  For whatever reason, biscuity things are a novelty to our guests.
So glad they were a success.  Staring at that picture makes me want to make them again, and that might yet happen.  We've still got plenty of chilly days left on the calendar.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Day in the Life

Laura over at Navigating the Mothership likes to do "day in the life" posts quarterly and invites others to join in.  I've always thought it would be fun but was never sure if it fit into the theme of my blog.  Since my blog seems to be fairly theme-less at the moment, I thought why not.  There's not much going on here at the moment: pretty much same ol' thing, which became painfully clear to me after spending Thursday "documenting" myself.  Oy, I need to do more!
Lest the above freezing temperatures would have us forget, the utter darkness at 7:15 reminds me that it's still winter out there.  Better than in December, though, when I swear the sun rises at 9:00.
Dirty pan I left to soak overnight.  Our sink is small, so I could only soak half.  What's that I hear?  A baby?  No time for tea!
Niek doesn't have to leave for work quite yet, so he gets Johanna washed up and dressed while I make his Dutch lunch of four sandwiches and have some breakfast.

 Niek leaves for the day, and I putter around the house, folding laundry and kissing a baby.

Inevitably, Johanna poops.  So, you know, off to the changing table.
Some friends of ours just had a baby, and I do the proper Dutch thing: I send a card.  I don't really know what to write, so I browse back through our cards and google a bunch of sentences to make sure it's all spelled correctly.  My spelling in Dutch is really atrocious.
After that, we pack up and walk to the post office.  I miss being able to leave outgoing mail in my mailbox, but the Dutch just don't do that.  I shouldn't complain; we live a stone's throw away from a post office.
Five minutes later we're home, and Johanna is ready for her 10:00 nap.  She sleeps.  I try to get some work done.   When she wakes up, there's a diaper change involved somewhere along the way and I'm ready for lunch: grilled cheese and a tangerine.
While she plays, I answer some e-mails, eat some chocolate and make the bed.

1:00 time for another little nap for her and time to read blogs and to do a little more work.
1:45 the baby is up and we head out to run errands.  On this particular day, I have to go to a store west of Amsterdam, so I catch the tram near our house.

Ugh, I don't know why, but Osdorp depresses me.  I think it's all the low-cost housing from the 70s and 80s.  I feel like I've entered another universe.
The weather is holding, and I'm only a few miles from home.  I decide to walk back instead of taking the tram.  Johanna sleeps in the carrier, and I get to enjoy some fresh air.  Because she's sleeping so well, I stop at the drugstore to get her some baby nasal spray for stuffy nose.  Why is there a creepy worm on the packaging?

Also, this sign amuses me.  English is quite prevalent here but not always appropriately employed.  "Street corner work," really?  I'm not sure they really thought that through.

We're home by 4:00.  There's another diaper to be changed.
Playtime on the ground and an attempt to read the paper.
After a bit of a struggle, Johanna conks out for her last nap around 5:30.  I head to the kitchen to make dinner.

Just pasta with veggies in a cream sauce.  I think it would have been better had I run to the store for actual cream instead of just using the milk I had on hand.  Still, it wasn't bad.
6:15 Niek comes home and the baby is awake.  Just in time for our family meal.
Around 7:00, we put the munchkin in her pajamas and settle down for a few stories.  Of course, Johanna wants to get in one more meltdown before bedtime.
Johanna is asleep at 8:00 but woke up a few times.  No time for adult conversations.  By 9:30 she is down for good (I hope), and we do the geriatric thing by going to bed.  You know, I believe that someday I will feel well rested again.