Thursday, April 28, 2011

The White Gold of Holland

Visit Maastricht’s markets and food stores in the springtime, and you will be confronted with sights like this:

 That’s white asparagus (and you can see some lovely Limburg strawberries in the bottom photo, too), and I’ve mentioned its abundance at the weekly markets. It’s a specialty of the southern regions of the country, and unlike the more familiar green kind it grows underground and is harvested before reaching the surface. It is apparently kind of a big deal in foodie circles, nicknamed “white gold” because of its high market prices (this must refer to prices overseas or in places where it’s not grown in such abundance; here it’s only a bit more expensive than the green kind). I’d never seen white asparagus before arriving here and I was at first reluctant to cook with it: it’s a bit unappetizing-looking, with it’s pale color and fat stems, definitely not as pretty as the green kind. But I tried some local green asparagus last week and it was deliciously fresh and tender (I didn’t even have to peel the stalks, which with asparagus in the States you almost always have to do so they’re not chewy), and so the other day I decided to go for it and get half a kilo each of both white and green.

Well, after having tried the white, I can say that fresh, locally grown and presumably recently picked asparagus is wonderful, but it’s probably not really worth paying extra for the white kind unless you’re into the novelty value. It all tasted pretty much the same to me. I boiled it (a bit too much, I will admit, as it was a little soft; still getting the hang of this whole “cooking” thing) and served it with pasta in a creamy sauce.*

*Made, I’m a bit ashamed to admit, from a powdered mix, several packages of which I found in a kitchen drawer, leftovers from previous tenants. They’re actually pretty tasty, and they are, after all, a Dutch product. Powdered and liquid bases for sauces and soups seem to be popular here, as are bouillon cubes. So you can call it cheating if you want; I’m calling it research.

Asparagus (asperges), both white and green, is all over restaurant menus in Maastricht right now. They are a very seasonal vegetable, only harvested in the spring, and the white ones are a typical food served at Easter. Most often they’re boiled and served with Hollandaise sauce as an appetizer, with the addition of ham or eggs making it a full meal. Todd’s a vegetarian and I’m not a huge fan of eggs (and forget making a Hollandaise sauce, I wouldn’t even know where to start), so we went the pasta. It was quite delicious, especially reheated the next night with a nice hunk of goat cheese melted into the sauce:

(You can get a glimpse of the white pieces in there, though they kind of blend into the pasta. It's not a great pic, but Todd was in the middle of eating when I remembered I wanted to get a shot, and I didn't want to interrupt him a second time to get the perfect picture!)

Tis the season, so get to your nearest market and pick up a bunch of asparagus. Even if it’s not local, it will at least be seasonal and so likely to be almost as tasty as Limburgian white gold!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Daily Bread

If you ever visit Maastricht (or anywhere else in the Netherlands, for that matter) one thing you will probably notice right away is that the Dutch love their bread (brood, pronounced with a short “oh” not a long “oo”). No low carb diets here: sandwiches (broodjes) of cold cuts and cheese are a prominent feature on lunch menus, and there’s practically a bakery on every corner. Which makes sense, seeing as the southern provinces of Zeeland and Limburg (where Maastricht is located) are traditionally the best grain-growing regions of the country. Bakeries typically stock the usual kinds of bread you’d find in the United States and other Western European countries: white (wittebrood), whole wheat (volkorenbrood), rye (roggebrood), etc., along with baguettes, various seeded and multigrain varieties, and rolls (and pastries of course!). You can buy just a portion of a loaf if you don’t want a whole one (very convenient for two-person households), and the baker will use a nifty machine to slice it for you at no extra cost.

I’ve made the rounds of almost every bakery within walking distance of our apartment, on both sides of the river, and I’ve tried a number of breads and sweets from a bunch of different places. I like to go to shops where it seems as if the bread is baked onsite (a lot of specialty shops that sell gourmet breads, cheeses, spreads and things outsource their loaves from a bakery, which doesn’t make them any less quality, it’s just fun to shop onsite while I have the chance. How often do you run into an actual bread bakery in the States, after all?).

Luckily I don’t have to go far; there is a bakery right next door to us called De Bisschopsmolen, “The Bishop’s Mill,” that doesn’t just make their own bread, they make their own flour for the bread as well. It’s a traditional working water mill, the oldest in the country, dating from the 7th century (I don’t think the building and mill there now are original; I think those are from the 1700s, and are definitely restored. I’m working primarily from the mill’s Dutch website translated using Google, so you never know). They get most of their grain from local farmers, and deliver some of their milled grain to the Gulpener brewery, makers of Korenwolf hamster beer!

As for their bread products, the Bishop’s Mill is distinctive because they use Kollenberger spelt, a traditional medieval grain. Their bread is soft and light and very flavorful. In addition to the typical wheat breads and rolls, they also produce specialty breads with ingredients like yogurt, nuts, honey and beer (Gulpener, of course); savory products like sausage rolls and pizza-type things (a lot of their ingredients, if not local, seem to come from Spain); and, of course, sweets like cookies, cakes, and the famous Limburg specialty, vlaai (see photo above). Vlaai translates roughly to “flan,” but it’s actually a pie, similar to an American-style pie but flatter, if that makes sense. They can be large or individually-sized, with three main varieties: fruit fillings (apricot* and cherry seem to be particularly popular) with a lattice crust sprinkled with pearl sugar; vanilla custard with a crumb topping (kruimelvlaai); or a kind of rice pudding (rijstevlaai).  

*I can recommend this one! Though the crust is a bit chewy compared to the flaky, shatter-at-the-touch of a fork quality many Americans associate with pie crust. According to The Dutch Table, this is because it’s made with a yeast dough rather than a pastry one.

These things are all available to go, of course, but there is also a little café located in the rooms between the mill itself and the retail counter where you can sit down to lunch on some of their products. I haven’t eaten there yet, but I imagine it would be pretty cool to know that what you are eating was literally produced right next door. The tourists certainly seem to enjoy it; there are often hordes of them taking tours through the mill (which apparently offers workshops as well) and eating in the café on weekends. Oh well, one of the perils of living in the heart of a medieval city, I guess.

And here’s some pictures. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cookies for Breakfast, Literally (And Chocolate, Too!)

Today I want to talk about toast. Actually, the things you put on it. I made an interesting discovery soon after arriving in Maastricht, one that made me kind of excited, to be honest: the Dutch put sprinkles on their toast. Observe:

 Called hagelslag in Dutch and usually eaten on buttered toast for breakfast (the butter helping the sprinkles to adhere), these were invented by Gerard de Vries in 1936 for a company called Venz, and are named after hail, apparently a common weather phenomenon in the Netherlands (looking forward to that)*. The picture you see above is a box of extra puur, or extra dark, chocolade hagelslag by De Ruijter, the biggest producer of bread toppings in the country. The box says it’s at least 45% cacao, which is why it can be called chocolade; if it’s under 35% cacao, it has to be called “cacao fantasy hagelslag” (perhaps implying that it’s pretending to be chocolate. Or that it wishes it was chocolate?).

There’s plenty of variety when it comes to this stuff. Here’s part of the Jumbo supermarket’s selection (like all photos on this blog, you can click to enlarge):

 As you can see, they’ve got both dark and milk versions, as well as other flavors like fruit and aniseed (these have no chocolate in them). There are also similar products such as vlokken, or flakes, which are just what they sound like: flakes of chocolate, available in dark, milk, white and in combination. Muisjes (little mice) were actually my first introduction to this type of Dutch food (and are the oldest such product, invented in the 1800s): they’re candy-coated aniseeds and are traditionally eaten to celebrate the birth of a baby on top of a crispy bread-like thing called a beschuit, or rusk. The candy is colored: boy babies get blue and white, girls get pink and white. I had beschuit met muisjes at the Jumbo grocery store, which was offering them to customers in celebration of the opening of its 200th store (I don’t think the 200th store was the particular branch I was at, I’m not sure where it was opening). They’re actually pretty good, although I am not normally a huge fan of anise-flavored things; they gave the very plain, dry rusk a pleasant sweetness but, despite the anchoring layer of butter, tended to scatter everywhere when bitten into. So a word of warning: hagelslag and muisjes make a fun but very messy breakfast treat.

On to the next item: in a previous post I espoused the glories of Nutella, and also mentioned that stores in Maastricht stock various similar sweet, pseudo-healthy spreads (yay, alliteration!). Besides the chocolatey versions, I mentioned speculoos pasta (speculoos cookie spread). Since I am a fan of the cookies and since our jar of Nutella was running low this morning, I decided to give it a whirl. Here’s another picture in case you forgot what it looks like and don’t feel like finding that other post (I will eventually include links back to old posts when I mention them, promise!):

 Now, when I initially saw this crunchy speculoos paste on the shelf, I assumed that it was some sort of peanut or other nut butter flavored with speculoos spices, with bits of cookie mixed in. But I was wrong. Here’s the list of ingredients, translated with some difficulty (using a crappy free online translator) by yours truly:

  • Speculoos, which in turn contains:
      • Wheat flour
      • Sugar
      • Vegetable oil
      • Molasses
      • Risjmiddel which I think is either baking powder or soda
      • Soy flour
      • Salt
      • Cinnamon
  • Rapeseed (canola) oil
  • Sugar (again!)
  • Lecithin
  • Citric acid

In case you couldn’t work it out from the ingredients list, basically this is a spreadable cookie. Which would be fine, mind you, if it didn’t also say this on the side of the jar (in both Dutch and French, by the way):

Rich in unsaturated fat
Source of Omega 3
Without coloring agents
Without added flavorings

Now, that last one just doesn’t make any sense: of course they added extra stuff to it, that’s what makes it taste good and keeps it spreadable. It’s there in the ingredients, which obviously don’t simply list “speculoos.” Just literally grinding up a bunch of cookies would not produce anything close to a product meant to be spread on bread. So that’s just nonsense.

Equally nonsensical, though not perhaps from a marketing standpoint, is trying to pass this off as anything remotely good for you. I mean, come on, a source of Omega 3? From where, exactly? I never realized vegetable fat and sugar were so healthful. I believe the company behind Nutella recently got sued for this same sort of thing, branding their product as a healthy breakfast food when in reality it’s more like putting frosting on your toast. Not that I’m necessarily against that, mind you (I’ve been known to eat both frosting and Nutella straight from the jar/can), but it’s downright misleading to pretend that Nutella is as healthy as, say, peanut butter, which is what the advertisements were implying. At least Nutella does have hazelnuts and skim milk in it (listed after the sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oil, of course), which do legitimately contain some healthy fats and protein. The speculoos spread has absolutely zero nutritional value as far as I can tell.

And you know what? It’s absolutely delicious.

* As always, most information in this post is brought to you by Wikipedia. Some of it, however, comes from another blog I stumbled across recently called The Dutch Table, by a Dutch expat living in the U.S who is cooking and baking her way through the culinary repertoire of her home country. If you find any of the food-related topics I have discussed on this blog at all interesting, definitely check out The Dutch Table; as a native Limburgian, I assume this woman knows what she’s talking about, and the dishes she recreates (with recipes included) look scrumptious.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Vrolijk Pasen!

In case you missed it, today is Easter Sunday (Pasen). Here in Maastricht, this means two* things: 1) Everything is closed. A lot of stores are closed here on Sundays, but on Easter even things that are usually open on Sundays are closed. This in turn means that 2) people have nothing else to do but hang out with their families and gorge themselves on the enormous variety of Easter treats available in grocery stores and bakeries.

*Actually, this particular Easter there is a third item of note: it’s also my birthday! I’m 24 today! But since we figured most places would be closed today, Todd and I celebrated last night with dinner at a Greek place right around the corner from us. Pretty good, but my God is it expensive to eat out here! I don’t know if I’d go back to this restaurant: at typical Maastricht prices, you should only eat at places you really really enjoy, and I’d say this was just average. It was only steps from our door though, and off the main drag so pretty empty, unlike other places more scenically located, so it has that going for it.

Anyway, enough about me, more about the goodies! The Dutch are seriously into Easter-themed baked goods and sweets (and so am I, in case you hadn’t noticed). So yesterday I decided to take my camera for a spin in the supermarket and document some of them (I think I’m starting to become known by the people who work there as the weird American who photographs their food. At least I haven’t been asked to leave yet.) Just to give you an idea, this shelf displays only a small fraction of the goodies on offer (you can click any picture on this blog to make them larger, by the way):

 A lot of the packaged goods in stores are products (koekjes and koeken, or cookies and cakes, mostly, though you can see meringues in there too) available year-round that have been “Easterized” with the addition of yellow icing and/or pastel sprinkles, and the tacking on of paas or lente (Easter and spring, respectively) to the name. Let’s take a closer look at a few:

This one is a treat that is actually made specifically for Easter (forgive the cellophane, I felt weird going into bakeries to photograph the fresh ones):

Paasstoll or Paasbrood: Fruited Easter bread. Probably the most ubiquitous Easter treat to be found here. The supermarkets all carry a number of varieties and every bakery seems to make their own version. It’s basically a sweet yeast bread with various nuts and fruits (sometimes no nuts, but always raisins and often candied peel as well as other fruit), often dusted with powdered sugar and occasionally frosted. The taste is very similar to stollen, the German Christmas bread, and in fact the Dutch also serve Paasstol at Christmas, when it is called Kerstol. I think most European cultures have a similar bread served at either Christmas or Easter or both. The thing that makes Paasstol unique (and particularly wonderful, to me at least) is the log of almond paste* that is enclosed within the dough before baking, giving it a yummy surprise in the center when you slice it.

*The Dutch seem to be as crazy about almonds as they are about waffles: they’re liberally sprinkled on at least half the baked goods here, and almond paste and marzipan make frequent appearances. Gevulde koeken, which just means “filled cookie,” a buttery round pastry filled with almond paste (amandelspijs), is one of their national treats. There is also a spiced version, gevulde speculaas, which I haven’t managed to find yet somehow.

As in America and pretty much every other Western culture that has succumbed to rampant commercialism, the stores in Maastricht also offer more egg, bunny and chicken-shaped confections than you can shake a stick at. Like these for instance:

Paashaasjes: Easter bunny rolls with an egg tucked inside. Or these:

Brioche chickens! (That’s “Fruited Spring-bread," [Voorjaars-brood; voorjaars is a synonym of lente] you see in the background: I think it’s basically the same thing as Paasstol but without the almond paste.) Of course there’s marzipan bunnies and chicks (mmmm, marzipan, one of my favs!):

And Easter wouldn’t be complete without… chocolate!

I can’t count how many of those little chocolate eggs I’ve consumed since I’ve arrived, and the stores carry a ton of flavors here, as evidenced by the shot of the Jammin candy store’s chocolate egg stand, above (I just tried a dark chocolate one flavored with advocaat, a custard-like liqueur made with egg yolks, sugar and brandy, apparently a typical drink at Christmas, like eggnog, but also popular now at Easter). They do not, however, have marshmallow Peeps, possibly my favorite Easter candy from the States (they do shape their weird, fruity marshmallows into bunnies and chicks and things, but that is obviously not the same thing.) Luckily my mom, possibly anticipating this, sent me an Easter package containing a box of yellow bunny Peeps (superior to the original chicks, in my opinion, because you can bite the ears off):

Since Todd doesn’t really like candy (!) and had never even heard of Peeps before now (!!), I have them all to myself! Happy Easter everybody! Or as they say in the Netherlands (as you may already have guessed from this post's title) Vrolijk Pasen!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

My New Favorite Condiment

I am most definitely a condiment person: I love strong-flavored sauces, dips and spreads of all kinds. I will put barbecue sauce on anything, I have been known to choose Indian dishes based on what kind of chutney comes with them, and in my opinion bread is mostly a vehicle for jam, peanut butter and/or Nutella. Likewise vegetables for Ranch dip and chips for salsa and guacamole. As a child a frequent snack was ketchup sandwiches on potato bread, and I hate to admit, but I would probably still eat that if pickings were slim. And now, thanks to the wealth of goodies left behind in the kitchen cabinets of our apartment here in Maastricht, I discovered a brand new condiment, which I will be experimenting with heavily in future:

Introducing kecap (or ketjap) manis.

According to Wikipedia (are you sensing a theme in my food research method?) kecap manis is a type of Indonesian soy sauce made sweet and syrupy with palm sugar (as opposed to salty and thin like the familiar Chinese variety). Indonesia was a Dutch colony for over three hundred years, and as with other colonial relationships, a certain mingling of cultures occurred over that time. Though this mingling was nothing like the cultural cross-over that occurred between Great Britain and India, there are a few Indonesian restaurants around Maastricht, as well as native products like those bottles of sweet and pungent goodness you see above. It's a pretty strong flavor and a little goes a long way (unless you crave strong flavors like me, in which case you may want to eat it by the spoonful. Ahem). I made a pan-Asian dish last night with fresh quick-cook udon noodles, sesame oil, this soy sauce and the "Naughty Spicy Dried Bean Curd" from the previous post, which oddly enough, wasn't spicy at all.

Needless to say, when I leave the Netherlands in June, a bottle of kecap manis will be traveling with me, just in case it's hard to find in the U.S.

Has Your Tofu Been Naughty?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Pub Quiz Round Two!

Todd and I went to the John Mullins pub quiz again last night, meeting up with the same foursome as last time: Eric, Jill, Brian and Roseanna. (Remember them from the Euro-American, cross-cultural barbecue?) Our team actually did pretty well, coming in fifth place, despite the slurring and mumbling of the (apparently, we couldn’t actually see him, but it seemed obvious) increasingly drunken question reader. And I actually contributed significantly to this one, in that I was responsible for the correct answering of at least four (count ‘em: 4!) questions! This is unheard of in games of trivia, at least for me. If you ever want to slaughter me at a board game, suggest we play Trivial Pursuit (do not, however, suggest we play Boggle. I will kick your ass. Ask my family).

One question had to do with hostages and money exchange between the U.S. and another country in 1962 (answer: Cuba), which we got right only because I was thinking out loud and said something like, “Wasn’t that the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis?” and Todd was like, “Yeah that’s the answer!” So I didn’t really know the answer to that one, but I was still a factor in the correct answering of the question.

The other three questions, which I actually knew the answer to, were about, you guessed it: food! And for the knowledge of these food terms, I have to directly thank all the food blogs I read every day when I should be doing more productive things. Specifically, I think Clotilde’s excellent blog about living and eating in Paris, Chocolate and Zucchini, has contributed a lot to my food knowledge, and especially of French (and Spanish, as she delves in Spanish and Basque food occasionally too) food terminology. So, to end the suspense, the three questions were as follows (paraphrased because I either don’t remember or couldn’t understand the exact wording):

  1. What is the main ingredient in marrons glacees (sp?).
  2. What is the French word for raspberry?
  3. What is the English term for the Spanish dish bocadillo?

Did you get any of them? Here’s the answers:

  1. Chestnuts (marrons glacees means “candied chestnuts” in French)
  2. Framboise (also the name of a famous raspberry-flavored beer, as you may remember from a previous post of mine)
  3. A sandwich (though somewhat different from the American conception of the sandwich, as they are always made on a small baguette or roll sliced lengthwise, rather than on sliced loaf bread. They usually contain some kind of cold cut or sausage; the Spanish are particularly partial to ham and other pork products)

So that was my triumph at pub quiz. The other players were all in awe of my wisdom and knowledge (not really, though I think they may have been a little impressed). Oh, and I tried raspberry beer! Twice, actually, though not Framboise. Raspberry beer, at least here in Maastricht, is called rose beer (as in rose wine, though I don’t think they have anything to do with each other besides the color). Monday night Todd and I went for drinks on the Vrijthoff and I ordered a Rose Max, which was very good, a pretty deep red, but so, so sweet! It was like drinking diluted, slightly carbonated raspberry syrup. I love sweet things, so this wasn’t too much of a problem, but may act as a warning for people who don’t like sweet drinks (those people may want to avoid fruit beers in general). Last night I tried another rose beer called a Korenwolf, from Gulpener brewery in the Netherlands. This tasted more “beer-ish” than the last one, and less sweet, though still quite so. Here’s a picture of the empty bottle we took home because I forgot to bring my camera to the pub:

See that little animal in the middle of the label (it's not very clear, I know)? That’s a “korenwolf,” aka a European hamster. Why would a brewery pick a hamster as their mascot? The name does sound pretty cool in Dutch, I’ll admit, but they give it away with the cute little guy on the bottle. Hooray, it’s Hamster Beer!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Shameful Confession

I have a confession to make:

I go to McDonald’s almost every day. Here I am in Maastricht, a beautiful, medieval Dutch city with plenty of quaint cafes with outdoor seating on scenic plazas beside gorgeous old churches and where do I buy my daily coffee? That’s right, McDonald’s. Why do I commit this travesty, patronizing this bastion of crappy Americanized fast food?

Because it’s a good deal, that’s why. For 1.60 euros I get a (admittedly small, but strong) cup of coffee, with a speculoos cookie thrown in for free, as mentioned in another post, and I can sit there forever if I want and take advantage of something European McDonald’s have that American ones should get on pronto: free Wi-Fi (that’s “wee-fee” in Dutch). I have two options on my side of the river, one on the Vrijthoff square and one on the Markt; both have outdoor seating with a great view for people-watching. Here's part of the great view from the Vrijthoff Mickey D's:

Those are statues. I have no idea what they are. I don't think anyone else does either, cause every time I'm in that square I see people standing there scratching their heads. Maybe something for Easter? Those are Easter colors, right?

The point being, I can soak in the same atmosphere as that offered by the surrounding cafes that line the squares, without paying at least 2 euros for an even smaller cup of coffee, and no Wi-Fi. Also, if you want to sit inside, the McDonald’s restaurants overseas aren’t like the American ones with grimy floors, sticky seats and screaming kids everywhere (at least, that has been my predominate experience at Amerian McDonald’s); they’re actually pretty nice inside, and always spotlessly clean (except for the one right next to King's Cross/St. Pancras Station in London, which is filthy, but that one's an exception).

I have yet to sample any of the food offered at the Dutch McDonald’s, but it seems like pretty standard Mickey D’s fare. Except they have stroopwafel McFlurrys. I may have to get one of those at some point... Also, there's this:

Salsa sauce! The Belgians are redundant (this was from the window of a McDonald's in Brussels). And on that note, I leave you for today.

P.S. Happy Passover! No Seder this year obviously (I'm not religious, anyway), but when the parents come visit in a couple weeks we might do a belated Passover-style meal, if I can find matzoh here, that is. If I do I will write it up here.

Monday, April 18, 2011

S'More Improv: An American-Style BBQ in Maastricht

First off, I have to recant on a claim I made in a previous post, that Europeans have not yet discovered the joy that is chocolate and peanut together in one confection. Turns out they have:

Though in my defense, while you can find chocolate-covered peanuts in Maastricht, Reeses treats are still unheard of. So there.

In that same post I believe I mentioned that when I was living in London, I couldn't find graham crackers anywhere. Nobody I asked about them even knew what they were, and when asked I found I really couldn't explain what they were. How do you explain the taste of graham crackers, anyway? What is "graham" flavor?

Anyway, since nobody on this side of the Atlantic has heard of graham crackers, it follows that nobody has heard of s'mores either, right? Wrong actually: at least one Dutch person has heard of them (because she lived in America for a while, naturally), and on Saturday Todd and I, having been invited to a good, old-fashioned, American-style barbecue, were treated to s'mores, Maastricht-style!

The barbecue was held at the home of a couple we met the night of the pub quiz at John Mullins (last Tuesday, remember? We'll be attending again tomorrow.), Brian and Roseanna. Brian is American and Roseanna is Dutch, and they recently bought a home just outside of the city proper. So Saturday afternoon, Todd and I, armed with two bottles of white wine, walked over to Eric and Jill's apartment (Eric is Todd's colleague and Jill is his wife, you met them at John Mullins, too), where we grabbed a taxi. Eric brought all the necessities for Old-Fashioneds (whiskey, bitters, oranges, sugar, as well as Coke for Jill), which he began whipping up as soon as we got there while we all chatted and played with Brian and Roseanna's adorable dogs.

Eventually another couple, the last guests, arrived, and Brian set about grilling. This man grills like a champ: there were sausages, chicken drumsticks (some of the best chicken I've ever had, and I'm not normally a chicken fan), tuna, salmon, veggie & pineapple skewers, potatoes, plus warm baguettes with various spreads. Apparently there were hamburgers and hot dogs waiting in the wings, but we were all stuffed by the time round one and the appetizers were demolished, so we decided to skip them and take the dogs for a walk along the river instead. Or at least, the girls walked the dogs; the boys decided to play football (American-style touch, to fit the theme of the party). Getting bored watching a bunch of skinny economists play football, the girls and dogs headed back to the house, where we broke into the dessert Jill had brought: two kinds of cookies (really more like biscuits or scones) curtesy of Martha Stewart, one with fresh strawberries, another lemon-flavored with lemon icing.

Then when the boys returned, Roseanna revealed the dessert she had planned: S'Mores! I was excited because I haven't had s'mores in forever, but I was also concerned. How would we make s'more without graham crackers and Hershey's chocolate? They have chocolate here of course, but it mostly comes in very thick bars that wouldn't really work for s'mores (the chocolate has to be thin enough to melt on contact with the marshmallow, forming the requisite ooey-gooey mess. Roseanna's ingenious solution was to improvise with readily available ingredients, like all good chefs do. Here's what we used for our s'mores (once we got a fire going in the grill, which took some doing):

First, marshmallows. These aren't the exact ones we used (I didn't bring my camera to the bbq because I didn't want to freak out people we just met by taking pictures of their food; I'd rather just freak out people at the supermarket who I probably won't see again), but they give you an idea of the strangeness of Dutch marshmallows. I have yet to see any that are just plain old, white marshmallows; they all seem to be colored and flavored, like these strawberry ones. Sounds disgusting, but they actually worked pretty well; I guess once you scorch sugar it all tastes pretty much the same. Now for the next ingredient:

Again, not the exact product used, but same basic idea, and a true stroke of genius on Brian and Roseanna's part: crispy cookies coated on one side in milk chocolate, which replaced the Hershey's bar in American-style s'mores. While not close in flavor to graham crackers, they are delicious and the right texture (though a bit thick, best to use one snapped in half rather than two whole cookies). And the chocolate coating was thin enough that it melted into the marshmallow and got all gooey, the way s'mores are supposed to be. I dub these Euro s'mores an unqualified success despite the lack of some key ingredients and the freaky fruit marshmallows, and a great way to wrap up a cross-Atlantic barbecue.

And as a added bonus, unrefrigerated milk in the supermarket:

Weird right? Todd hasn't opened the bottle he bought yet (he's still working through the buttermilk), so I can't report on the taste. The rest of this shelf, by the way, contained unrefrigerated whipping cream and yogurt drinks, which I was going to photograph for your viewing pleasure, but a woman working there was shooting me suspicious looks so I decided to hightail it before she tried to confiscate my camera or something.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Happy Accident of Fennel

Last Friday I mentioned the large market that sets up in the Markt square every week here in Maastricht. Well (and this is very exciting news) I just recently figured out how to post pictures up on this site, and so I hereby bring to you some pics from yesterday's market, curtesy of the digital camera my mother has so kindly bestowed upon me (actually my getting her camera was a complete accident: my sis accidentally absconded with it when she flew out to California to visit me before I left [remember the Top Chef dinner?] and since my mom has an online business and can't be without a camera for more than a day or two, she just bought a new one and let me keep this one. Thanks mom!) Anyway, the market:

That's the Markt, with the market taking up most of it. Usually it's an empty square.

This aren't very good pictures cause I wasn't sure how the people working the stalls would feel about me photographing them, but those are the fish stalls that comprise maybe a quarter of the food market in Fridays. I mentioned last time that besides selling fresh fish, these guys will also fry their wares to order, and you can glimpse some happy shoppers feasting in the top picture (next week I'll try to get some better shots of the fish market maybe).
There's lots of other stuff for sale too, especially meat:

But also fruits and vegetables. Here's the speciality of the season, Limburgian strawberries and white asparagus.

Don't those berries look scrumptious? I bought a box and devoured them the same day, which is probably the best way to do it as they are so soft and fresh I'm sure they would't last more than a day or two.
Besides food, there's also a large flea market in the center, which all kinds of stuff. It was pretty crowded but here's a shot to give you the general idea:

And of course it wouldn't be the Netherlands without flowers!

So that's the Friday market. Again, I will try to get some better pictures in the coming weeks. But for now, on to the meat of the post (which is me trying to be all clever and ironic, maybe you'll figure out why in a bit): 

That there is fennel. Not onions. Fennel. I have never cooked with fennel before; I always just assumed that because it smelled vaguely licoricey and has been described as tasting of anise, I wouldn't like it. It must have been fate convincing me otherwise then, when I sent Todd out Thursday evening to grab an onion for the couscous and vegetable salad I was making for dinner. Instead of an onion, he came back with a bulb of fennel (I actually had to look it up on the Internet to figure out what it was). I wasn't going to use it, but then decided, what the heck! I cut into it and tasted a little bit raw. Slightly anise-like, true, but not too bad. I chucked in the frying pan where I already had some peppers and zucchini going and hoped for the best*.

*A brief side note: I am very, very new to cooking. While I love to eat and to bake, cooking dinner is still a somewhat terrifying experience for me and every time I do it I am a little bit shocked when I manage to produce something edible. Not that that isn't often, mind you; in fact almost time I attempt a meal it comes out at least decent, if not downright good, it's just I am still quite clumsy and slow and I don't really know how to season things correctly. This summer I'll be at my parents' house for almost a month before Todd returns from Maastricht, and I intend to spend a lot of that time in the kitchen absorbing knowledge from my mom, who is an excellent cook. In hindsight, I probably should have been doing that all the time I actually lived at home! OK, back to the regularly scheduled program.

This couscous salad was a classic Katie preparation, meaning I looked in the pantry (the people who rented this apartment before us were kind enough to leave a whole mess of things in the kitchen, though the majority of it is labeled in Dutch and so requires some deciphering and a good deal of sniffing and guesswork to identify) found some couscous and spices and a can of chickpeas, looked up a recipe online I could use as a basic outline, and then modified it to my tastes. This usually means throwing in a lot more vegetables than the recipe calls for, since Todd is a vegetarian and so I don't cook meat (thank goodness for that, too; the couple times I tried to make chicken breasts for previous beaus pretty much made me scared of cooking meat for life). So that's what I did with this recipe, throwing the sauteed veg, the chickpeas, some feta and some olives for good measure in with the cooked couscous along with some freshly ground pepper and white balsamic vinager. 

Boy was this good! Everything went really well together, and it made enough for dinner the next night too. I was most happy with the accidental fennel. When you saute it, it loses its licorice-like bite and becomes sweet and wonderful, soft and brown in places but still retaining some crunch. I actually wish I had two bulbs of the stuff. So thank you to Todd for not knowing the difference between onions and fennel, and thank you to fennel for not disappointing. My food horizons have officially expanded.

P.S. I will be going back into some of the older, picture-less posts and adding photos, so keep checking back.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

UK Flashback: Cider and a Pub Quiz

You know you’re really getting settled into a new place when you start to develop routines: my daily routine involves a walk around the city in the morning, with stops for coffee at the places with the best free treats (see previous post) and in various shops and grocery stores to pick up supplies for dinner (I tend to shop the European way, i.e. small amounts of groceries almost every day rather than one big weekly trip. Grocery shopping is a fun activity to me so I don’t mind doing it often). This is followed by a few hours reading blogs, working on my own, maybe doing a little cleaning, and running in the afternoon. Some routines Todd and I develop together; hopefully one of those was begun this past Tuesday night. Just across the river is an Irish pub called John Mullins that does a quiz night every Tuesday.

I experienced the phenomenon of the pub quiz in London: basically you go with a bunch of your friends, try to fit everyone in at a table and claim as many chairs as you can, order drinks and sometimes food, and then everyone chips in a little cash (usually about a pound; 2.50 euros at John Mullins) and in return receives a blank answer sheet, on which you are encouraged to print a ridiculous team name to identify yourselves. The coordinator (often someone who works at the pub) reads out questions that you answer as a team, usually with several rounds, and the team, sometimes the top two, with the most points at the end wins a prize. In London the grand prize was often the pot of cash contributed by all the players, which, depending on how many people were playing and how many people you had to divide it by on your team, could be a significant amount. At John Mullins the top prize is kind of a rip-off: apparently the winners have to drink an entire bottle of whiskey right then and there (it’s free, but come on, what kind of prize is that? Whiskey’s disgusting.)

Luckily our team (which included a colleague of Todd’s, his girlfriend, and a few of their friends) sucked pretty badly: I think we were 11th out of 20 or so teams. These pub quizzes actually tend to be pretty tough. The questions are all over the board, from pop culture, to music, to current events, to world history. I have been absolutely awful at every pub quiz I've ever participated in, and the John Mullins quiz was no exception,* making it a nice trip down memory lane for me, as I miss living in London ALOT. 

*Though one of the rounds this time was a card with a bunch of pictures of fruit we had to identify, and I got more than half of them, thank you very much! Including gooseberries, which I was especially proud of as they're a somewhat unusual fruit, at least in the States.

All in all a good time was had by all and I am looking forward to the next one, though if you go be prepared to be there a while: there were eight rounds, the questions were read in both English and Dutch, and there were long pauses between rounds, so the whole thing took a LOOOOONG time, like three hours. Todd and I ordered dinner, the only ones on our team to do so as everyone else had already eaten and just ordered drinks. That turned out to be smart, as the food, though pretty good, was also a bit pricey, as is true in almost every eatery in Maastricht except for fast food takeaway type places. Todd had fish and chips (he’s pescatarian) which was well cooked, and I went with a tapas platter that had a nice, though somewhat incongruous variety of British/Italian small bites: two kinds of pate, tomato tapenade, porter cheese & onion chutney, herb butter & “plum-nut bread” (walnuts and figs, actually, I believe), and cherry tomatoes, mozzarella & olives w/ balsamic. Todd’s dish also came with some absolutely wonderful brown bread. So yeah, a lot of food, and tasty, but too expensive to get every week, and we intend to return that often if possible.

I do hope we never win, though, because I absolutely refuse to drink any whiskey at all, much less help polish off a whole bottle. I am not a fan of alcohol generally. Not that I’m a teetotaler or anything, but I was always the abstainer (and therefore invaluable designated driver) at parties in college. The British are a bunch of raging alcoholics (sorry, but it’s true) and I witness the consumption of enormous amounts of beer during my stays in London, but as I was on a tight budget and really don’t like most beers, I usually abstained.

I do, however, enjoy hard cider, which I was turned onto in London by my good friend Kate, my roommate throughout my years at Binghamton was also studying abroad the same time as me (though through a different program). They don’t seem to have apple cider the way we think of it in the States, as in the opaque brownish liquid often served spiced and heated during the wintertime. They have apple juice, but that’s clearly not the same thing; in the UK and Europe, if you ask for cider, you’re going to get a sweet, alcoholic, slightly carbonated beverage. It’s not apple cider the way we American may know it, but it’s still a mighty fine drink. You can find it in the States, though it’s not nearly as popular (I know supermarkets sell Strongbow brand, specifically, though there may be others available too). It also comes in a pear variety which tends to be pricier but is worth the occasional splurge, in my opinion.

Hard cider is pretty common here in the Netherlands too, and I had a half pint at John Mullins, which was nice because often here it only comes in bottles, not on tap. I am a fan of sweet, fruity things that disguise the strong taste of alcohol (I tend to prefer white wine/rose over red for this reason), so I will always go for cider over beer (though I have been tasting Todd’s when he orders them and I don’t mind some of the lighter ones. Who knows, maybe beer’s growing on me, though I’m sorry to any fans, but Guinness, which Todd had at the pub, is still disgusting to me.) I am, however, a big fan of fruit beers, not surprising since they taste less like beer and more like fruit punch. I first had one at a pub in London, also introduced to me by Kate, called Fruli, which is a strawberry-flavored beer from Belgium that they had on tap*. I think it’s delicious, though my dad scoffs at me for drinking it and refused to even try it when I took my family to that pub last year.

I have yet to see strawberry beer in Maastricht, but there is a cherry-flavored beer called Kriek that is quite popular and very tasty, and also very pretty as it is a deep red, almost like red wine. Many bars also sell Framboise, a raspberry beer I have yet to try. This one is next on my list, since I loooove raspberries, and I’ll report back as soon as I do.

*This was my favorite pub in London. I forget what it was called, but it was on a corner near the Brunswick Center, about halfway between my flat and UCL where I took classes. It had good atmosphere and great food (a big deal for a British pub, sorry to say), including an awesome spinach and lentil veggie burger and fries (chips in British-speak) Of course the strawberry beer spoke in its favor, this was the only place in the city I knew of that served it, and they were also the only place I came across that had pear cider on tap rather than just in bottles.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Coffee Break

I’d like to take this opportunity to give a big shout-out to my sister Stephanie, who has very generously sent me an early birthday present all the way from Binghamton, New York. Being the excellent little sister that she is, she remembered my frequent complaints about the unavailability of certain products outside of the United States, and so her package included Wheat Thins crackers*, as well as a bag of Reeses Pieces (though peanut butter is available in Europe, it is not nearly as ubiquitous as in America, I think because Europeans haven’t yet stumbled upon the glorious combination that is peanut butter and chocolate). She also sent me a Binghamton University (from which I also graduated) mug (ah, memories!) and a little moleskine notebook to take notes for my blog. Isn’t she thoughtful? Her birthday’s in May, so now I gotta come up with something equally excellent to reciprocate.

*At the publishing company I interned with back in 2008, the other American interns and I tried to introduce these into Great Britain through our office coworkers, but unsuccessfully apparently, as last year when I was getting my master’s there Wheat Thins were still unavailable. Everyone did rave about the ones one of the girls generously shared from her care package, which contained seven (!) boxes! I’m not the only American abroad who craves them apparently. Oh, and graham crackers are unheard of here, too. How am I supposed to make s’mores in the microwave without graham crackers, I ask you?

Anyway, Steph’s gift of peanut butter delicacies make a nice segue into what I want to talk about today (this entry will mark the first in a series I’m calling “Weird/Intriguing/Charming Things About the Netherlands). Since European peanut butter leaves something to be desired, I have fallen back on the old standby from my London days, Nutella*, the chocolate-hazelnut spread consumed enthusiastically around the world (even in the States, though it’s not as popular and doesn’t taste as good for some reason. Maybe I should start a peanut butter/Nutella culinary exchange program for the benefit of both sides of the Atlantic?).

*Actually if you want to get technical about it, we’re eating Jumbo store brand “Hazelnoot pasta,” or hazelnut paste, which is the same thing only cheaper.

Chocolatey spreads are pretty popular in Maastricht, with most supermarkets stocking a variety besides Nutella, including plain milk chocolate (without nuts), dark chocolate, white chocolate, and various combinations thereof.

That's  alotta Nutella! I also discovered one kind which I haven’t sampled yet but would like to: Speculoos (or Speculaas) paste, named for the flavorings found in the cookie of the same name.

According to Wikipedia, these thin, crispy spice cookies are traditionally a Dutch and Belgian Christmas treat, but have become available year-round and the flavor combination - typically cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and white pepper - has ben adapted to other confections as well (I had a speculoos-flavored truffle in Brussels last weekend). I have had a speculoos cookie almost every morning since my arrival in Maastricht at, of all places, McDonalds, where they give you one when you order coffee. A pretty sturdy little cookie (what the British would call a biscuit), they’re great for dunking.

This brings me to what certainly falls under the “charming” category of Dutch life: in this part of the world (and that includes the surrounding countries, not just the Netherlands), when you order coffee anywhere, you almost always get a little treat thrown in for free. This is true in restaurants, cafes, bars, even, yes, fast food joints like McDonalds, and is often in the form of a cookie or biscuit of some kind, though I have received chocolates and candies as well.* There’s an ice cream store here called Australian that also makes artisanal chocolates, and when you order coffee there you get a homemade chocolate truffle! It is now my mission to try and get coffee in as many different places as possible to experience the full range of coffee go-withs on offer. I may start choosing my regular coffee places solely based on what comes with the drink.

*At the bar/café across the street, coffee comes with a chocolate truffle and a mini shot of lemon liqueur (I think, not entirely sure, but it was definitely something alcoholic) with whipped cream on top! Weird, but as I am a sucker for lots of little things on a plate, this made me happy, like a little composed dessert for the price of a cup of coffee. Definite points for this place (and because when you order drinks you get a basket of peanuts and are encouraged to chuck the shells on the floor. Apparently it’s good for the wood. Who knew?)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Day (and a Night) in Bruxelles

Hope you all had a nice weekend. I know I did! After a somewhat accidental three-hour run/bike to Belgium and back with Todd on Saturday (he biked/navigated, I ran) and a lovely dinner of tapas and gelato afterward, on Sunday we took a train to Brussels for a day of sightseeing, culminating in a concert that night by a band Todd is a fan of and has turned me on to as well (more on them later. And on a side note: is Sunday a weird night for a concert, or is that just my inexperience with these types of things showing?)

The day began auspiciously when we (possibly illegally) managed to catch the high-speed, fancy Thallys train instead of the regular one at our change in Liege. The Thallys showed up at the same platform but 10 minutes earlier than our train and was going to Brussels also, so we figured we’d just take a chance and see if we could pay a supplement onboard. Lucky us, no one even checked our tickets, so we ended up at the Brussels-Midi station about half an hour earlier than expected. Upon leaving the station we found ourselves practically smack in the middle of a large street market selling all kinds of goods: clothes, shoes, appliances, you name it, as well as a few stalls selling food and produce.

Not a great pic, but you can get a sense of the crowds. Todd and I shared a warm Belgian waffle for breakfast, my first since arriving here. Waffle-sharing tip: though the middle is delicious, warm and fluffy, the part you want to hoard for yourself is the crispy-soft, caramelized edges.

After shoving our way through the browsers, we made our way to our hotel, located conveniently a few hundred meters from the concert venue and just steps from the Grand Place, where the gorgeous spire of the town hall towers over the city (and makes a convenient landmark for finding your way around, as it is visible from pretty much everywhere). Our hotel was called Hotel Mozart, located on a little medieval street packed with colorful ethnic restaurants catering to a mix of tourists and locals. Walking into the hotel was a bit of a shock, to say the least. An appropriate descriptor I think would be “ostentatious.”

 Almost every inch of wall space is covered in Arabic-style plaster carvings and patterns and tiles, painted in bright blues and reds and greens - like the Alhambra in Grenada, if you’ve ever seen it, only in color. The floors are carpeted in red, chandeliers dangle everywhere, and besides the Arabic decorations, the walls are populated by paintings that seem to have been picked to try and correspond with the hotel’s name, even though they have nothing to do with the wall decorations and clash completely. I don’t know who decorated the place, but I will never allow them near my home, ever. Also, our room had a tiny TV mounted on the wall, but when you laid on the bed to watch it, the little chandelier hanging from the ceiling blocked your view of it. That was ok, though, because we were eager to drop our stuff and explore the city.

The first order of the day was chocolate. This being Belgium, the old city, which is where we were staying and where the tourists all flock, is packed with chocolate shops. I bought a small bag of various truffles, chocolate-covered nuts and fruit, etc, which was gone by the end of the day. Very expensive and not exactly artisanal since it’s mass-produced, but still excellent in my opinion (not that I’m a chocolate connoisseur - I’ve just started to like dark chocolate in the past couple years and I am a die-hard Hershey’s fan - but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognized and appreciate the good European stuff).

After the required chocolate buying, we marched off to take a look around. We saw a gorgeous cathedral modeled after Notre Dame in Paris, where the Sunday mass was just wrapping up and we were treated to some ominous and beautiful organ music. Then we hiked across the city to the Gare du Nord train station on a quest for a three-cheese panini Todd has been obsessed with for a while now. The place is closed on Sundays, unfortunately, so we had to find lunch elsewhere. We went back toward the old city and, since we (read: me) were starving, we just picked the first place we happened upon, which was very tourist-friendly. This made me a bit worried we would pay an exorbitant price for sub-par food, and indeed Todd’s vegetarian spaghetti was lackluster, but my meal was excellent (and that’s what counts, right?). I had moules frites, a Belgian specialty – a big bowl of steamed mussels with a side of fries, very fresh and cooked very well, washed down with Belgian beer.

An aside: Todd and I agreed it was refreshing to be in a place where the principal language you here on the street is French. Belgium, as you may know, is divided between Flemish-speaking Flanders (almost identical to Dutch) in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south, but Brussels is the capital and so all signs are written in both languages. We heard a lot of French around us though, and let me tell you French is ten times more attractive to listen to than Dutch. Dutch is actually quite close in some ways to English, in pronunciation and even grammar, but French is definitely prettier. So in the feud between Flanders and Wallonia (the two sides apparently can't stand each other), Todd and I know where we stand. Sorry, Flanders.

After a brief nap at the hotel, we set off again since the concert wasn’t til 8 and we had several hours to kill. We wandered through a large park, where the first buds and leaves of spring were starting to appear. The park was designed very much in the French style, all manicured lawns and sandy paths, with trees strategically planted to provide just the right amount of shade in summer. Along the paths the trees and been manicured and manipulated in such a way that their branches grew together in a kind of netted pattern. I'm not describing it very well and forgot to ask Todd to take a picture, so sorry if it's hard to visualize. The trees looked kind of alien and strange with the branches bare, though I’m sure it’s very pretty when the leaves are out, creating a wall of green along the avenues. I’m personally partial to the more “wild” style of park maintenance, like New York’s Central Park, which is my favorite in the world, but this was lovely all the same. We cut through the park and made our way to the European Quarter, where the EU Parliament buildings are, with another waffle stop on the way, this time from a cart that both made waffles and sold ice cream, and had Smurfs painted on the side:

The Belgians and Dutch are both fans of the Smurfs: the gelato place near our apartment in Maastricht has a flavor that is blue and white swirled and decorated with candy Smurfs. I can only hope that isn’t what it is flavored with.

The part of Brussels where we found the Smurf truck and where the EU is located is a more sleek, modern section of the city, which some people might find unattractive. Quite a few people I’ve talked to about Brussels have called it ugly and industrial, but the parts Todd and I saw weren’t industrial at all, just newer, like an American city, and we agreed it was still quite beautiful, just in a different way. It was also much less crowded in this part of the city as it was a weekend and the tourists don’t tend to flock there as much, so we chose to sit down for a coffee (me) and Fanta (Todd) there rather than closer to the hotel.

Finally, we ended our day with the performance by Bell & Sebastien, an indie pop band from Glasgow (though they had several guest performers from all over the UK playing with them that night), in a venue right near the hotel. The place was packed, and I normally don’t enjoy situations with a lot of people drinking and loud music combined, but this was a lot of fun: it was very low-key because of the indie status of the band, the music was loud but easy to listen to and different in a nice way, and the band members interacted well with the audience, at one point calling several people up on stage to dance with them. They also made use of some unusual instruments – violins, flutes, tambourines, a harmonica – which I am a big fan of in pop and rock music. And since it was just minutes from our hotel we had time to grab some falafel from a little Middle Eastern takeaway place while the opening acts were going and slipped in just after Bell & Sebastien started, so were only standing there for about an hour and a half rather than two or three hours.

The one downside to the day was that we figured out why our hotel was such a good deal. The building is quite old and labyrinthine, with creaky, winding corridors and staircases. The sounds of people tramping up and down the halls late into the night (probably trying to find their rooms; it took us a while when we first got there) carried easily, all the garish carpeting and decorations doing nothing to muffle them. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well. But breakfast the next morning was generous (croissant, multi-grain baguette, cheese, jam, butter, coffee/tea and juice all included) and we got a pretty leisurely start off and still made it home by noon (I love train travel in Europe!). All in all, a good time was had, and I’m looking forward to the next trip. Maybe I’ll try not to eat all my chocolate at once next time so I have some to take home and share. Probably not though.