Monday, January 20, 2014

Wait, what?

According to Oxfam, the Netherlands is the country where it's the easiest to eat a healthy diet.  And this is where you cock your head and tell me that the study has got to be messed up.  The Netherlands--where the potato is king and fried fish a staple?  Where frites come in packages bigger than my head and the produce in the supermarket regularly looks like it died six months ago?

Actually, yes:  now, the Dutch might not be the healthiest people (though they probably rank up there)--just because you have access to all kinds of healthy food doesn't necessarily mean you'll eat it.  But in terms of accessability and affordability, it is really easy and cheap to eat good fresh food.  You just have to know where to find it, and to be savvy enough to know what's a good deal and what isn't.

Because what the expat guides never tell you is that the best place to find the best food isn't the supermarkets.  Don't get me wrong--supermarkets are great, and they have everything you need and you can just pick your stuff and go, and the fresh produce is typically underripe and more uniform.  But if it's good food for cheap you're looking for, then you have to hit the markten, where a whole different set of etiquette applies.

And this, I think, is what turns off a lot of  more affluent expats: You have to talk to the kramen people.  You have to tell them what you want, and trust them to get you something that's not bruised or ruined.  You have to trust that they're weighing stuff correctly, and adding the numbers right.  There are no screens, no way to check their math, no receipts.  You have to pray that they bag the stuff properly (they do, though strawberries are always tricky).  And despite the free-for-all, there is a certain order to how you are helped, and there are things you can pick yourself and things you can't, and if you're new it can be quite daunting to figure out.

There's also the smaller neighborhood tokos, where things might not be arranged in any logical order and where the produce labels are usually in at least two other languages, and none of them in English.  Our butcher, for instance, carries halloumi, but if I didn't already know what it looked like, I'd have never known.

But it's all fresh food, and most of it is pretty cheap, and while none of it would hold a candle to the produce section of your average Whole Food's, it is easily accessible and affordable.  Whether you actually want to eat it, on the other hand...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Decadence Is

When you think of "decadence" in the context of food, it almost always comes with an exhorbitant price tag.  A meal at Kaatje aan de Sluis, for instance, is certainly costly, but it wouldn't be properly decadent without something deliciously terrible for your health.  Food has been conflated with virtue ever since Pythagoras decided one was what one ate--and these days, with nutrition being so advanced, the web between virtue and nutrition and food grows ever more tangled.  

Therefore:  do not make this if you are trying to be virtuous, whether that means dieting or going to church.  It will certainly ruin your diet, and although brie is a mild cheese, baking it probably releases some especially pungent compounds that will win you no friends at church.  The dish is a wonderful blend of sweet and savory, topped off with a decadent creaminess from the melted, gooey brie and the buttery praline sauce.  I ate it off of baguette slices, and was never happier for it. 

The recipe can be found at Something Swanky, and although it is an American recipe it's not too hard to convert it to metric units.  Butter is 1/4 of a 250-gram package--see what I meant about "decadent"?--while brown sugar can be eye-balled, as long as it's lots.  The exact quantity of brown sugar isn't too important--use less and you'll have less sauce, use more and you'll get more--since the recipe doesn't call for caramelizing the mixture.  1/2 cup of cream is about 120 mL.  1/4 tsp of baking soda equals "one generous pinch".  

You'll notice that my brie is an oval, rather than a proper wheel.  This is because for some reason, the Kaufland only had brie cheese in an oval.  You can, of course, find it in a circular wheel in the Albert Heijn, although you'll probably pay more than €1 for it.  The pecans were also gotten from the Kaufland, which is worth mentioning only because for some reason whole, unshelled nuts were being sold there.  In the Netherlands, you can find walnuts in the shell, and chestnuts in the shell, but every other kind of nut is sold pre-shelled...and is pretty pricey, at around €2 for a half-cup of nuts.  On the upside--you don't have to realize you don't have a nutcracker and then spend 20 minutes painstakingly tapping the nuts with a hammer, hoping that they don't break.  

The other upside is that it costs less than a pint of Ben & Jerry's here, makes you feel like a million bucks, and because it's cheese (albeit slathered in praline sauce) and nuts (albeit slathered in praline sauce) you can tell yourself it's healthy for you.  Even if you do end up eating the entire thing.  Not that I would tell you if I did, or anything....

Monday, December 16, 2013

Stocking a kitchen: The equipment (Part 1 of 4)

Let's begin at the beginning--something I imagine a hobbit would say.  One of the things that you have to get used to in the Netherlands is how small the kitchen is, and the number of appliances that must fit in into it.  In my husband's old apartment, he had to cram a washer, an oven-hob combination, the requisite coffee machine, and a trash can into a space smaller than some desks, and still have a space to put a cutting board.  You might not drink coffee and therefore assume that the coffee machine is optional, but it's really not, unless you have no intention of ever making any Dutch friends.

The good news, though, is that stocking a functional kitchen doesn't require that much space.  Nor, indeed, does it even require that much equipment.  I'd say about 90% of my cooking is done with what's shown below:

The caveat, of course, is that we have a lot of other things in our kitchen.  We have several other pots in addition to what you see here, four cutting boards, a small armory of knives, and a bevy of gadgets that are, at the best of times, only semi-useful.  But if, at the end of the day, your goal is to put together decent meals for yourself with a bare-bones budget, the equipment shown above is all that you really need.  I didn't have much more than this when I lived in Maastricht (I also didn't cook very much, either).  The only other kitchen gadget that is a "must" is some method of sharpening your knives--a sharp knife really makes the difference between self-amputation and actually cutting food--whether you go the old-skool way of using a sharpening stone or steel, or get one of those new-fangled things with ceramic discs.  But either way, if you're going to enjoy cooking, a sharp knife is a must.  

A note on the quality of the items:  You don't need to get high-quality cookware, if you're aware of the limitations of cheap cookware. Our pots are staineless steel with a heavy bottom, the cheap-but-not-too-cheap things you can easily get from the Blokker, but I've made do with thin aluminum things before (obviously, tomato sauce was a no-no), and I frequently make stews with enameled pots that cost less than €5 at the thrift store.  If you're cooking with thin pans, you need to realize that they don't distribute heat evenly, so what you'll end up with is a scorched circle surrounded by quasi-cooked food if you ignore it for too long.  That being said, it's not hard to cook with enameled pots/pans, you just have to get used to it.  What kind of cookware you get depends entirely on how good a cook you are, and where your own limits of exasperation and money lie.  

A few things which are handy to have around, but not strictly necessary, are shown on the right:  A seive, a vegetable peeler, a spatula for the initial stages of mixing bread dough.  The most important things for me are actually the bowls, on which I've written "Mise en place" so that my husband doesn't put them out of reach, and the little glass one, which I use to store chopped garlic.  They don't need to be expensive bowls--indeed, mine were a whopping €1 (and I'm missing one) and the little glass thing came from a crème brûlée dessert that I once bought towards the end of my pregnancy.  But they are immensely helpful to have, especially if you're busy and only have 15-minute patches of time to spare.  A typical afternoon is me frantically chopping stuff while Rijntje naps, and then putting everything in to simmer while he's playing.  Cooking mise en place isn't strictly necessary, but it does make things much easier and much more pleasant--two key areas that a lot of people who are just starting out cooking on their own often fail to consider.  

The last thing, which is purely optional, but something I would consider essential for eating good food on a budget, is a method of storing food.  Most recipes make enough for a family; most food comes in quantities that a single person can't handle.  And even if you have a family, there's no guarantee that they'll eat it all.  Now, just because you need to store food doesn't mean you have to spend a lot of money to do it:  we use glass peanut butter jars, mostly, because they're handy and you never have to worry about them melting in the microwave.  If you don't fill them all the way, they're even safe to freeze, and they go directly from the freezer to the microwave without a problem.  But I've seen people use old ice cream containers.  Creamy salads, which are popular here, come in perfectly-sized containers for storing single meals.  If it's got a lid, you can re-use it.  There's no need to buy Tupperware. 

So, am I missing anything?  What would you consider necessary for a well-stocked kitchen?  

Friday, December 13, 2013

Faking It

We love sushi.  Alas, raw fish of the grade that can be eaten in sushi is hard to find this far inland (and we're only about 70 miles from the coast); sushi rice is easily 3 or 4 times the cost of regular rice;  Nori is hard to find.  And the one sushi bar in town that's affordable...let's just say that it shows--oh, it's perfectly safe, but everything is stale.

I'm not a sushi snob:  I cannot discern, as some Japanese claim to be able to, the difference between rice grown in the US and "proper" (i.e., Japanese) rice.  For me, sushi is an aspiration rather than an experience--because it's so expensive, merely having it is a subversive gesture, a middle finger to the constraints of my budget.  Still, I don't believe in going broke to give myself a treat, so while I would like to imagine myself at Jiro's, for my run-of-the-mill sushi cravings, I usually have to stick with the Albert Heijn offerings.

Or at least I would, if they were filled with things other than salmon and tuna and shrimp.  I don't know about you, but part of the thrill of sushi is the "exotic" raw fishes--in quotes because really, I'm talking about stuff like yellowtail and octopus--stuff that's not so exotic that it's hard to find, but more fancy than salmon-which-might-not-be salmon.   But my main quibble with Albert Heijn sushi is that it's been sitting in a box for two days--and you can taste every minute.  Paying almost €7 for something that tastes stale is a terrible waste of money, in my opinion.

But recently I uncovered a technique for faking sushi rice, using ordinary short-grained white rice, that didn't require a rice cooker.  That's something Europeans don't understand about Asians:  most of us don't know how to cook rice.  We grew up putting it into a rice cooker, and magic happened, and rice came out--sticky, of course, because proper rice should be a bit sticky (for eating with chopsticks, of course).  When I moved here, I never made rice because I literally didn't know how to.  It took a while to work out the proportion of water to rice, and the cooking times.  Happily, faking sushi rice is pretty simple.

  1. Wash the rice:  you'll want the water to be mostly clear--clear enough so that, when there's about an inch of water over the rice, you can see the kernels easily.  Keep in mind that rice varieties differ, so what I'm saying might be overkill or not enough for you.
  2. Drain the rice--leave it in a seive for about 30 minutes.
  3. Soak the rice--put it in a pot and add an equal volume of water (1 cup rice, 1 cup water).  Cover and let it sit for 30 minutes
  4. Cook the rice:  Bring the rice to a boil.  As soon as it boils, turn the heat down to low.  Keep the pot covered and let it simmer for 20 minutes.  Turn off the heat.  Leave it alone for 15 minutes.  
Do not screw around with these times.  You can make 1 cup of rice, or 3 cups of rice--it may take longer to come to a boil, but once it does, it will still simmer for 20 minutes, and sit covered for 15 minutes.  Do not remove the lid while it is simmering or "finishing"--you need to keep the moisture in.

Mirin, if you can get it, is good stuff.  If you can't, a bit of plain vinegar and white sugar will do.  The ratio I use is about 1 part sugar to 3 parts vinegar (by volume)--heat it up (microwave works fine for this, though be careful with a hot acid) and make sure the sugar is entirely dissolved.  At the end of the fifteen minutes, sprinkle the vinegar mix over the rice, and do your best to mix everything together thoroughly.  

A note about manhandling this sticky mess into submission:  Use a plastic utensil.  Not a silicone one, which will be too floppy, a plastic one.  I used my kidlet's plastic toddler spoon.  For a hard-core sushi experience, I suppose you can always find bamboo utensils, but basically this will not stick to plastic but it will stick like hell to metal.  It's still hard to handle, but less impossibly so.  

Good luck.