Archives for Commentary Category\

Lekker Gezellig

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

 Lekker Gezellig

 Ok, class.  The first word in this ‘Dutch for the non-Dutch’ class is the word:  Lekker.  Lekker in the broad term means delicious or tasty.  “Lekker koffie” means that the coffee is delicious. When describing food, the word is mostly accompanied by a hand gesture of a back and forth wave next to one ear.  This is done as if you were swatting flies.  Mmmmm, lekker (wave).   While it’s mostly used to describe food, it’s also abused in many other ways.  If you were to say that a person is attractive, you would say that he or she is a “Lekker Ding”  or Delicious Thing.  If you were content to take it easy on a Sunday afternoon, you would say “Lekker Chillen” meaning Delicious Relaxing.  Ok, so there’s something lost in the translation, but you get my point.  So as you see, lekker is a good word to know in Dutch.  

 Another interesting and often abused word in Dutch is: Gezellig.  The first thing you need to know is how to pronounce it.  Some say that Dutch is not a language but a throat disease.  This is because the most remarkeable sound is the ‘G’.  No, no.  It’s not like the sound in ‘girl’ but a throat clearing sound that comes from waaay down deep.  Hhhaaaggghhhhh. Now add extra phlem and you got it. Yeah, like gargling with a mouthful of hot potatoes.  Go on  try it:    Hhhhaaaagghhhaaaazzzellihhhgggggaaahhhh.  That’s how you pronounce it.  The Dutch will claim that it does not translate to English as if in some kind of secret code or something. Loosly translated, it means ‘cozy’.  It is usually used to describe intimate gatherings in close quarters.  Since the typical Dutch living room is tiny, you can easily sum up that every gathering is …gezellig.

Another interesting thing to know when learning Dutch is that some words are very similar to English.   To make things plural, sometimes (and I say ‘sometimes’ here) you can get away with saying the English word and add an  “–en” suffix and there’s a good chance that you’ll be understood.  Examples are, if you want to have some books, you will ask for the “boeken”  (pronounced “booken”) , pens;  “pennen” ,  and so forth. However, sometimes it just doesn’t work at all.  As in an incident in a restaurant when a newly expat American ex-colleague asked for the ‘billen’ (Asked for the bill. Sounds logical, right?). This led to a suprised waiter and a round of laughter from her Dutch colleagues.  You see, ‘billen’ does not translate to “the check” or “the bill”…but it means someone’s rear end.  You can imagine her embarrassment when she found out that she asked for the waiters butt. 

 Today’s recipe is for doughnuts.  To the credit of Holland, there are very few places that actually sell these ‘Fat Pills’.  Personally,  I made this recipe out of curiosity and prodding from my oldest daughter.  I have to admit, the results were quite good and she was over the moon.

The original recipe makes 18 very large doughnuts.  Unless you are making enough for a party, I don’t know any self-respecting mother that will allow 18 doughnuts floating around their kitchen…so here is a halved recipe that makes about 9. 

 Yeast Raised Glazed Doughnuts

 1 envelope actie dry yeast

1/8 Cup warm water

¾ Cup lukewarm milk

¼ Cup sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 egg

2 tablespoons shortening

2 ½ Cups flour

Oil for frying

For Glaze:

½ Cups butter

2 cups confectioners sugar

1 ½ teaaspoons vanilla

4 tablespoons vanilla

Directions:

 Put 1/8 Cup water in a large bowl. Sprinkle yeast over water. Let stand 5 mins.

 To the yeast mixture, add milk, sugar, salt, egg, shortening, and 1 cup flour.Mix at low speed with mixer or by hand for 2 mins.  Beat in remaining flour ½ cup at a time until dough no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl.  Knead for about 5 mins until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Place dough in a greased bowl. Cover with a dishtowel and place in a warm place to rise until double volume. 

 Turn dough onto a floured surface and roll out to ½ inch thickness.  Cut with floured doughnut cutter. Let doughnuts rise, covered, on a cookie sheet until double volume.

 Melt butter and confectioners sugar in a small saucepan. Add vanilla and mix until smooth.  Remove from heat. Add water a tablespoon a time until thin. 

 Heat oil in deep fryer or large skillet to 350F (175C)  Slide doughnuts into hot oil.  Turn over when golden brown (about 1 minute). Remove from oil and drain on a rack. Cook up the holes too J.   Dip in glaze on both sides while still hot. Decorate with your favorite sprinkles.

Wrong Coffee

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Wrong Coffee

“Fasten your seatbelts we will be landing shortly”, chirps a Dutch-accented voice from the loud speaker.  It will be my very first time in the Netherlands and it will be my home base for the next 9 months. “A 9-month all-expense paid trip to Europe”, my manger promised me.  I’m so excited I could hardly sleep on the overnight flight. With me, I have only one suitcase and only a vague idea where I need to go once I get off the plane.  Heart pounding with anticipation,  I look out the window to the rapidly approaching ground. Through the foggy window,  I am stunned to see the most breathtaking sight; an eye-popping patchwork quilt of the most vivid colors imaginable as far as my tired eyes could see.  It’s  April and the  tulip fields of Haarlemmermeer are in full bloom and glowing in the early morning sun.   Simply awed, my nose pressed flatly  to the window, I try to take it all in. “Wow”, I say to myself , an anticipatory chill coursing over my skin, “This is going to be amazing!”

Landed,  my head pounding with caffeine withdrawal,  I plot my first move;  Coffee!  I need a coffee!  Suitcase in hand, I plow down old ladies and small children to get to the coffee bar across from the gate.  I’m in a hurry.  “Coffee.  Black.  To go.  Please.” , I say with staccato  authority to the seemingly uninterested woman behind the counter.    Thirty seconds of tamping and whooshing  and then  a ceramic cup and saucer is slid before me.  On the saucer is a small cinnamon cookie. Inside the cup is a perfectly drawn cup of coffee. A thin crema separating the hot black liquid from my view.  “No, No,  I wanted this TO GO!”,  I demand, cranky with jet-lag.  Impatiently, she scolds me like my old third grade teacher. “Sit down, relax and drink your coffee.”, she spits.  Obediently, as if listening to my mother, I slink onto the tall bar stool and begin to sulk. Letting the warm scent caress my face,  I feel the haste release from my body.  I take a small, careful sip as if tasting coffee for the first time, resisting the urge to down it in one gulp.  A small sigh as I begin to breathe again. Even though I’m in a busy airport, I’m  light years away.  At this point,  the only things in the world are me and my new friend, Coffee. 

If there is one thing worth living in Holland for, is the coffee. Coffee is a very important staple in the Netherlands and is taken very seriously.  Maybe not as seriously as they do in Italy, but serious enough to be able to get a decent cup nearly anywhere.  The coffee here is strong and flavorful.    Many Americans find it too strong.  My coffee-addicted mother drinks tea when she’s here.  While coffee from machines comes in many different forms,  standard coffee comes in 4 basic types:  Coffee, Espresso, Cappuccino,  and Coffee Verkeerd (which is more milk than coffee. Translated as “Wrong” Coffee).

In Holland, all socializing starts with coffee. The process of serving it is rather ritualized, which I find amusing.  It goes something like this; when you arrive at a person’s house, you are immediately offered  a cup of coffee, sometimes  even before you get your coat off.  Seems normal, right?  Well, cookies are always served with coffee.  However, you can only have one. The host/hostess will take a tin of cookies out of the cabinet. Remove the lid. Pass around the tin. Put the lid back on and put it back in the cabinet. When the second round of coffee is served. The tin comes back out, the lid comes off…and the ritual starts again. When I had everyone over for one of  Marko’s  decade marking birthdays,  I put a big tray of cookies on the table.  I figured everyone could  take  as many as they wanted.  I thought Marko’s grandmother was going to die!  She took one look at the cookies, gasped in indignation, and said “Is that an American tradition?” “Its rude not to.” I said. By the look on her face, you’d have thought I’d had a steaming pile of cow manure on the table. Needless to say, after my announcement of  ‘open season’ on the cookies, they disappeared quickly.

The following recipe is popular in our own coffee ritual (and its really good with cold milk, too)

Chocolate Peanut-butter Surprise Cookies (makes about 25)
Adapted from King Arthur Flour (Magic in the Middles)

Chocolate Dough

1 1/2 cups  All-Purpose Flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup granulated sugar (plus extra for dredging)

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/4 cup smooth peanut butter

2 Tablespoons milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg

Peanut butter filling

3/4 cup peanut butter any kind

3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease two baking sheets.
To make the filling: In a small bowl, stir together the peanut butter and confectioners’  sugar until smooth.  With floured hands or a teaspoon scoop, roll the filling into one-inch balls. To make the dough: In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. In another medium-sized mixing bowl, beat together the sugars, butter, and peanut butter until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, milk and the egg, beating to combine, then stir in the dry ingredients, blending wellTo shape the cookies: Scoop 1 tablespoon of the dough (a lump about the size of a walnut), make an indentation in the center with your finger and place one of the peanut butter balls into the indentationBring the cookie dough up and over the filling, pressing the edges together cover the center; roll the cookie in the palms of your hand to smooth it out. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Optionally, roll each rounded cookie in granulated sugar, and place on the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between cookies.Using  the bottom of a drinking glass,  flatten each cookie to about 1/2-inch thick. Bake the cookies for 7 to 9 minutes, or until they’re set and you can smell chocolate. Remove them from the oven and cool on a rack.

If you don’t roll them in sugar, they are really good with chocolate icing made with powdered sugar, cocoa, and a bit of milk. (just using melted chocolate works too).  These cookies actually taste better after a few days (if on the off-chance they last that long)

No Bitterballen, Please!

Monday, September 27th, 2010

When you think of great Dutch achievements, you think of them as great explorers, travelers and businessmen.  Yes, the Dutch are all those things, but what they are not are good cooks.  Go ahead, name one important culinary achievement made by the Dutch?  OK, Dutch Apple Pie,  I’ll give you that one.   But for the rest, forget it.    

As I mentioned in the last post, the Dutch look at food as a means to stay alive.  My images  of making pasta with my mother and planning Christmas dinner (IN JULY) with my sister are not shared here.  The Dutch eat simply and go into a convulsive shock when presented with something out of their comfort zone. “The farmer doesn’t eat what the farmer doesn’t know” the adage goes.    The diet here consists heavily of  bread, potatoes, cruciferous vegetables, and small quantities of meat (as compared to American diets).  A typical breakfast consists of un-toasted sliced bread, a smear of heart-friendly-fake-butter-spread so light if might not even be there and some sort of topping. ‘Hagelslag’ is a favorite.  Hagelslag can best be described as chocolate sprinkles like the kind you put on ice cream. Not chocolate flavored sprinkles, I tell you,  but real chocolate.  So picture this, buttered bread with real-chocolate sprinkles.  On her visit, my best friend Amy was so impressed she brought  3 boxes of hagelslag home for her family.   

Lunch usually consists of Broodjes (BRO-jes).  Sandwiches basically.  A broodje is a soft bun, like a hamburger bun, a roll , or bread slice, again lightly smeared with the heart-friendly-fake-butter-spread with 1 thin slice of cheese or lunchmeat on top, usually eaten with a knife and fork.  People will eat 3 or 4 of these for lunch (In contrast to Americans who eat one thickly piled sandwich).  I remember this episode of Rachael Ray on her trip to Amsterdam going GOO-GOO over these broodjes and saying how awesome they were.  Hardly , Rachael!  What people do for ratings, I’ll never know!  

Dinner is simple to prepare, takes about 15 minutes to cook and mostly revolves around the vegetable and potatoes.  I have to admit, the quality of the vegetables in the Netherlands far surpasses the quality of the typical American supermarkets even though the Dutch will complain bitterly about the quality.   Here, we rarely eat canned or frozen vegetables.  The question of “What’s for dinner?” , is almost always answered with the vegetable.  The meat on the other hand is terrible; small, tough and tasteless. This is really surprising since a good portion of the land is for livestock.  Export, is the reason.  They get a better price exporting the better cuts of meat rather than selling it here.  You will find meats in nice little perfect 100 gram portion sized packages without a trace of fat.  Meat is usually pan fried in heart-friendly-fake-butter and served with jus, rarely ever cooked in the oven.  Potatoes are usually served boiled or pan fried.  When served, they are feverously mashed by the eater and smothered with the above mentioned jus.  Vegetables are boiled or steamed .  Sometimes the entire contents of the plate is mashed together and eaten.  

Sometimes it just cooked that way.  The Dutch are crazy about this dish called ‘Stampot’  and it’s just as it sounds.  Put potatoes and a vegetable in a pot, cook it to death and then mash it together.  It’s quick. It’s simple and it keeps you alive another day. 

But what about the title?  What are these bitterballen?  Bitterballen are the quintessential  party food of Holland.  No festivity no matter how formal is complete without these fried orbs.  Bitterballen are essentially  fried golden brown breaded balls of meat gravy.  Croquettes,  if you will.  Perfectly round and about the size of a super-ball.  Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside and served with course mustard or garlic mayonnaise for dipping.   I hate the damn things. 

As far as stampot goes, this is one of my favorites.  I keep about a quarter of the chopped frisee leaves aside to be mixed in after cooking.  This gives a nice bite and a fresher taste. 

Frisee Stampot  (4 people)

1 lb of white potatoes, peeled and quartered. 

1 large head of frisee, washed and chopped.

4 tablespoons of butter (or to taste)

½ Cup cream (or milk)

¼ teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg

2 teaspoons coarse mustard (or to taste)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 onion chopped

6 ounces bacon or pancetta chopped. 

 In a large stock pot, cook potatoes in water and a bit of salt over med-high heat.  In the last 5 minutes of cooking add ¾ of the chopped frisee.  When the frisee is wilted and the potatoes cooked, remove from heat and drain.  Mash together.  Add butter, cream (milk), salt, pepper, mustard, and nutmeg.  Mix well.  In a sauté pan, sauté bacon and onions in a bit of oil.  When bacon is cooked and the onions light browned,  add to the potato mixture.  Add the rest of the frisee.  Mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings. For a bit more zing, add another teaspoon mustard.  Mix well and serve. 

Roast chicken or pork shoulder is excellent with this.  Serve with gravy made from the drippings.

Who are the Dutch?

Friday, September 24th, 2010

This question was raised in the classic Seinfeld episode from the last post .  When I first told some people that I was moving to Amsterdam,  I got mixed reactions; Sadness from my family, Happiness from acquaintances, and outright jump-for-joy-envy from my party-animal friends.    As you know,  while Holland is most famous for tulips, windmills and wooden shoes, Amsterdam,  has a more dubious fame: legalized pot and prostitution.  

Before I go into this, I have to give you this little caveat.  I’ve been here a long time.  I think waaay too long and you know what they say…familiarity breeds contempt.  So take what I say with a grain of salt. 

 The first thing you notice about the Dutch is their physical attributes.  They are mostly tall, thin, blond haired and blue eyed.  To a short, fat brunette like myself, they are forever a source of my envy.  When you meet a Dutch person, they seem cordial and business-casual. However, when you live with them on a daily basis, they are a bit chilly and distant. Matter of fact.  This is how they conduct their lives, probably as a result of their Calvinistic heritage. They have a directness that I still can’t get used to.  Sober, controlling and mostly void of enthusiasm.    “Just be ‘normal’  and you’ll be crazy enough”  as the saying goes here.   For an off-the-chart enthusiast like me, it was culture shock #2.  Calvinistic Culture.

Most occasions, from the happiest to saddest,  are met with the same vapid regard.    This year, the Netherlands football (Soccer) team made it to the World Cup Finals.  People from every other country in the known universe would’ve been dancing in the streets for days.  But not the Dutch, noo nooo.  The Dutch treated this event with sober , reserved interest.   “We have to work tomorrow.”  was the answer when I asked why people weren’t more excited about the event.  WHAT?  Work TOMORROW??  But the PARTY is TODAY!!!

Even though they seem friendly, the Dutch are very difficult to make friends with.  Most of their friendships were formed during their youth. People who work together rarely become friends. I don’t make friends with my colleagues, I hear often. They are very clear about who is and who is not their friend.   This is in contrast to Americans , who call everyone their friend, from their closest  friend to the remotest acquaintance.     As a non-Dutch person, I find it virtually impossible to make friends here.  In 12 years of my residence, I can count the number of Dutch friends I have on one hand. One finger to be exact. 

Unlike most European cultures, Dutch culture does not revolve around the kitchen.  Dutch food is bland, overcooked, and usually takes less than 15 minutes to prepare.   It’s utilitarian. There to serve the sole  purpose of keeping you alive.  Eat to live.  Culture  shock  #3. The Food.   Believe you me,  I’ll spend many a blog complaining…uh…discussing this fact. 

One of the good things I’ve seen here is the overall concern for the family unit.  School kids come home for lunch every day so mother’s (and sometimes fathers)  stay home to receive them.  They work either part time of not at all.  In recent years, there has been a surge of women hitting the workplace. With this, kids are more often placed in day-care  before, during, and after school.  My family is a bit unorthodox.   We both worked in IT,  I drew the short straw and had to work full time with the reasoning that my salary was higher and we would have at least one stable income.  He was given the opportunity to start his own business in web development.  A function that he could easily balance with caring for young kids.   Anyway, enough about my family,  back to my grand generalizations.

Another good thing is that dinner in the Netherlands is served almost universally at exactly 6pm where the entire family is ‘aan tafel’ or at the table.  My family is no exception.  When I’m held up at work, even for 15 minutes, dinner goes on without me and I end up eating alone.   Now that I think about it, it’s seems more about regiment than  family.

I know I’m not painting a very pretty picture about my Dutch hosts.  Actually,  I find their cool directness quite refreshing at times.  I mostly know where I stand with people here.  The roles are clearly defined;  family, friend, colleague, stranger that gets a bit of my time and then gets sent on his way into the grey, rainy, darkness.  Clear.  But once, just once,  I want to jump up in the air in the middle of a busy market and yell “YIPPEEE!!!”  without fear of someone putting me in a looney bin. 

(Excluded from this story are my absolutely wonderful in-laws, Wiljo and Tineke, who are the most talented, enterprising and enthusiastic people I know.  Not only do they work full time jobs, they own their own business making beautiful stained glass objects.  You can see their lovely work at:  http://www.wentglasatelier.nl)

Tonight for dinner is an ancient recipe from my family:  Swiss Chard and String beans.  This recipe has been around in my family for probably over 4 generations and is easy to make.  The chard comes from my garden.  A terrible crop this year.  If you don’t have access to swiss chard, use large leaf spinach (wild spinach, not baby leaf) , or beet greens.   Enjoy:

Swiss Chard and String beans (for 4 people)

½  to 1 lb fresh string beans, topped and tailed and cut in half

A large bunch of Swiss chard or other earthy, leafy greens like beet tops. Washed.

4 large cloves of garlic, sliced  (adjust to taste)

½ Cup Olive or Vegetable oil

1 teaspoon dried chili pepper (or to taste)

Plain Foccacia bread  or Raw bread dough

Fresh grated parmesan cheese

In a large soup pot.  Add string beans and enough water to cover about ½ inch.  Salt generously.  Cook over med-high heat until nearly done, about 10 mins.  While the beans are cooking, cut the stems off the chard and cut to about ½ inch lengths.  Add to pot. Cook another 5 mins.  Meanwhile, chop the chard leaves.  Add the leaves to the pot and cook yet another 5 mins.  The liquid should be about half the depth  of the vegetables.  If more, pour some off, if less, add more water.  Meanwhile , in a small pan over high heat, add chili pepper to oil.  Cook until very hot and the pepper begins to sizzle rapidly.  Remove from heat, and add garlic.  Careful, the water in the garlic will cause a mini-explosion in the oil.  When the garlic stops sizzling, add to the vegetables.  Let sit for about 30 mins to let the flavors meld.  Taste. Add more salt if needed.

While melding, if you are using bread dough, you’re going to make fried doughs.  To do this, pinch off a tangerine-sized ball of raw dough.  Stretch thinly but without holes.  Fry in med- hot oil.  When browned (about 30 seconds), flip and fry for another 30 sec.  Repeat.  

To serve:  place one fried dough or large piece of foccocia on a plate.  Scoop a large portion of srting bean mixture on the bread.  Liberally grate parmesan cheese on top.  Serve as vegetarian main course or serve smaller portions for lunch or appetizers.

 Save leftover dough for the next morning.  Make Googles for breakfast.  Fried dough with either powdered sugar or cinnamon-sugar.

Kitchen Therapy

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Like I said, my name is Lisa.  I’m an American living in the Netherlands with my husband and two amazingly beautiful daughters.  How I got to Europe is a well worn story.  I blame my work.  As an international IT professional, my manager asked me if I would be interested in a “9 month, all-expense paid trip to Europe”.  Me?  No husband, no kids at the time.  I couldn’t believe such an opportunity was presented to me.  Before I knew it, I was on the next plane to Amsterdam.  Fast forward to twelve years later.  I’m still here.  A house, a husband, and 2 kids richer.  

  Living in Europe has been a great opportunity for me but it also has heartbreaking drawbacks.  As I reach middle age, I find myself struggling with the many issues that many my age do.  Issues like the guilt you feel when having to choose between caring for aging parents and raising children, and desperately trying to change a career while simultaneously being our family’s main source of income.  Undertakings like these are difficult even when close to the support system of your family.  I find them nearly impossible from 3500 miles away. Like many people, I escape to my kitchen when I need to make sense of life.  Lately, I spend nearly all my free time there.  Sometimes I feel alone in this but I just know there are other people out there wrestling with the same thing.  I am using this blog not only for my own personal therapy but maybe also serve as some resource for others in the same position. 

 Over the course of this blog, I would like to share the ups and downs of life abroad, changing my career and steaming my way through midlife crisis.  And, of course, share some home made kitchen therapy too.