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 cafĂ© 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.