No Bitterballen, Please!

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?

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.

Where’s Holland?

September 22nd, 2010

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-csGDoSSZyc

 For those that don’t know where the Netherlands is, it’s a small mitten-shaped country in northern Europe that borders the North Sea. Edged by Belgium and Germany, it’s capitol is Amsterdam. For some reason, some Americans think Amsterdam is the capitol of Copenhagen.  (psst, Copenhagen is the captol of Denmark). It’s about the size of my home state, Connecticut and has over 16 million inhabitants.  To most adequately describe the landscape,  its best to look at a painted landscape from the Old Dutch Masters.  Rembrant, Vermeer, etc… What you see is lush green, pancake flat land dotted with fluffy white sheep and motionless grazing cows.  The most prominent landscape feature is the sky.  Big sky.  Dramatic sky.   Water is another prominent feature of the Dutch landscape.   

The Netherlands is at or just above sea-level and in some places below.  The dyke and drainage system of the Netherlands is a global feat. Water is everywhere. From small creeks to rushing rivers, all carefully monitored and designed to keep our feet dry.  To minimize danger, all children are required to attend swimming classes at a very young age.  For their efforts, they are rewarded with a series of diplomas.   

 Because of the high population of Holland, space is at a premium. Most of the land is reserved for practical use; housing, agriculture, wetlands.  There is very little space for forests and wild nature.  During World War II, most of the forests were destroyed.  After the war, trees were replanted in neat rows, a probable symbol of returning to order.  What they have now is a landscape completely controlled by the public works department.  Neat and orderly. Every tree, bush and blade of grass is lovingly beaten into submission. 

 Real estate  here is expensive with the average middle-class dwelling costing about 275,000 euros (about $325,000). An average middle class family will live in a home of about 1000 square feet.  This house will usually be 3 floors including an attic and share at least one wall with neighbors.  You can think of condominiums.  The back yard will be the width of the house (about 18 feet) and about 30 feet deep.  Because of the high water table, houses rarely have basements.  For me, this was culture shock #1, Space. 

 While most people complain bitterly about it, the Dutch transportation system is actually  quite good.  The maintenance of the roads is the best in Europe with 3, 4 and 5 lane highways of perfectly flat non-spatter ashpalt. If  even a small crack apears, large signs are put up and construction crews immediately fix it. The public transportation is top notch with buses and trains going to every town at a most cost effective fare.  Cars, trains and buses aside,  it’s not difficult to tell that the #1 method of travel in Holland, is by bicycle.  The best advice I ever had when I first got to Holland:  “If you hear pling-pling…get the hell out of the way!” And it’s true. In Holland, bicycles rule.  Get out the way.

Below is a recipe for Dutch pancakes called “Pannenkoeken” .  They are more a relative of a crepe than the pancakes that we know in the US.  Except they are bigger, thicker and hartier and perfect for practicing your flipping technique.  Most of the time, they are eaten for dinner and can be eaten plain, sweet or savory.  Enjoy!

Pannenkoeken (for 4 people  – not including the ones that fall on the floor while flipping)

 2 eggs

2 cups of milk

1 1/2 cups flour

¼ teaspoon of salt

Butter or magarine

Add ins:  crisp bacon, sliced appled, mushrooms, cheese, ham, or use your imagination. 

 Add all but the add ins in a large bowl. Mix thougoughly but do not wisk.  The idea is to be smooth without incorporating too much air in it.

For plain ones: 

Melt about a tablespoon of butter or magaring in a meduim sized non-stick frying pan over med heat.  Using a soup ladle, pour one ladleful of batter in the pan, swirling to to cover the bottom of the pan.  It should not be too thick but a bit thicker than a crepe.  Wait about 1 minute or so until golden brown on the bottom. Loosen sides with a small spatula or a butter knife.  Now…the hard part…take the frying pan by the handle…swirl the pancake around a little…then jiggle it to the end of the pan.  Using a push/pull motion, flip it to the other side.  At this point you will either “TA-DAA!”  or hear a greasy splat as if hits the floor.

It will take practice.  Better make a double batch just in case.  When it’s golden brown.  Its done.  Slide it on a plate. Dont be afraid to stack ém high. 

 For apple, banana, mushrooms or bacon ones:  Put the fruit or bacon in the pan and cook a bit before you put the batter in.  Proceed as above.

For cheese:  after the flip, sprinkle shredded cheese over the top.  Cover to let the steam melt the cheese. 

Rebecca's Favorite Pannenkoeken

 Traditional toppings are brown sugar, powdered sugar and/or a carmalized sugar syrup called ‘stroop’.  I’ve never seen it in the US.  However, maple syrup, jam, or honey work just as well.  Try them rolled up with  Nutella,  bananas and chopped hazelnuts inside – AWESOME!

Got a favorite way to eat Pannenkoeken?  Let me know 🙂

Kitchen Therapy

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.

Pancake Mondays

September 19th, 2010

Hi! Welcome to the Pancake Mondays Café! My name is Lisa and I’ll be your server today.

It’s times like these where I wish my name was Flo or Rosie. That would make my introduction more believable. Hmmm, pancakes. My mind drifts to a tall stack of thick buttermilk ones, dotted heavily with raspberries and served with sour cream and real maple syrup. A side order of sausage, please. Yes, and coffee, black. For the rest of my family, the there is no other option. “Chocolate-chip pancaaaaakes” they sing to me like my own private Sunday morning opera. Then in a symphony of clanging silverware, the piled-high platter of buttermilk goodness is reduced to a greasy smudge of melted butter and chocolate.

Yes, pancakes, the official Sunday breakfast of my family.

“But why Mondays?”, you ask. That’s very good question indeed. The reason is thus; the standard fare that graces our table every Sunday morning is only a fluffy fantasy during the week. Sure, we’ve all done the breakast-for-dinner routine on busy weekdays. But pancakes for breakfast? Now that’s luxury!

You see, I’m an American living in the Netherlands (Holland) with my family. While living in Europe has its benefits, I have to make do without the everyday things that I used while living in the US. Aunt Jemima does not live here. Pancakes, like many other items mean from scratch, and of course, I’m going to give you the recipe.

Sunday Best Pancakes

2 C Flour
2 T sugar
2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
2 eggs lightly beaten
2 T vegetable oil or melted butter
2 1/2 C butter milk
Fresh or frozen berries, or chocolate chips. (Bananas will work too)

Wisk everything except berries/chips in a bowl. Over med heat, spoon onto a butterd skillet using a gravy spoon. Dot with berries, fruit or chips. Flip over when bubbly on the top. Let cook for about 1 minute more. Serve with butter and syrup. Try sour cream on berry pancakes. It’s delicious.