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.  LadurĂ©e 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.