Sunday, July 31, 2011

Netherlands, July 30th 2011

I need more parsnip in my life.  It looks like a pale carrot and it tastes like... uh... a parsnip really.  When I lived in England I used to eat it occasionally but I don't recall ever having it since moving to Atlanta.  So when one of the recipes for my dinner featuring Dutch food was calling for parsnip I jumped at the occasion to eat it again and I was glad I did.  It was delicious. 

There is a wealth of information about Dutch cuisine over the web and despite a ton of recipes really being Indonesian (on account of this being an ex-colony of the Netherlands - and frankly, if you can choose between sausages and potatoes and beef rendang, which one would you go for?) I wanted to go for something more traditional in the hope to be able to scrape a good and original dinner.  Does this sound like an oxymoron, wanting to cook something traditional and original?  Not if you live 5000+ miles away from where the tradition was started.... Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

In theory, I have had quite a bit of time to plan this dinner, given that my last one was a couple of months ago so I should have been able to do a lot of research, pick some recipes, scrap a few others, change my mind a few times, get Eric's opinion, change my mind again, and the finalize the menu, make sure I had time to get ingredients, cook and put a scrumptious meal on the table for my friends.  Well, I think I've met my final objective but I didn't really make a good use of all the time I had.  But being that I am a procrastinator, I've mastered the art of last minute and improvisation so it all looked like it took lots of careful study! 

Actually, I think this time I was lucky: all the recipes were fairly straightforward and I've only had one situation where the 1 cup of milk that was listed in the ingredients didn't appear anywhere in the preparation.  When these kinds of situation occur, it is best to follow your instinct.  My instinct was telling me that the recipe could do with an additional 1/4 cup of milk so I poured it in and saved the rest for a cappuccino... 

The Netherlands, Amsterdam in particular, is also famous for its cafes where one can have a joint with tea without the risk to spend a night in jail.  A friend of mine suggested that I found some pot to serve up to my guests either to break the ice at the start (not that that's ever needed) or to end it but frankly, while I suppose I am sure I could have found some in L5P, I honestly have no idea how you actually get any of this stuff... I mean, do you walk up to a dodgy looking fella and ask if he's got some?  Karen - on my guests last night - mentioned that what I needed to do is get myself on the neighborhood mailing list and I'll get crime reports weekly and that will tell me who sells what where, which is the best corner to get a hooker, and other assorted felonies...  Never thought of that.... Maybe next time. 

It's still very very hot in Atlanta so I wanted to start the evening with a nice cool aperitif.  Someone at work said that I could mix Cascal Fresh Tropical (buy it at WFM) with vodka for a very tasty cocktail and I decided to try it out on my friends.  I actually mixed it with apricot juice as well and then added some very small cubes of fresh mango and served it in champagne flutes.  It was nice.  It wasn't strong at all so I am thinking that if I was having it for happy hour instead of as an aperitive, I would put more vodka in it. 

My guests for dinner were Karen, as mentioned, Jeff, who brought some produced from his garden - the peppers smell devine -, Kako & Chris, a colleague of Eric.  While I was putting on the last touch to the dishes and lighting up the floaters in the centerpiece (beautiful orange gerberas), everyone was bonding and chatting and it felt like they all were old friends when in reality some had only just met.  See, that's how food brings people together!

Anyway, the candles were lit, the baguette sliced and the first course ready in its serving dishes so it was time to get to the table.  The first course was middeleeuwse salad van pastinake which means medieval parsnip and lettuce salad.  I am making a wild guess here, but I'd say it was medieval because after potatoes arrived in the Low Countries (obviously sometimes after the Renaissance), parsnip took a secondary place at the table.  But I really don't know where the name came from but I liked this explanation (this is a disclaimer for students using this blog for university assignments - quite the norm these days :)  This salad was very simple, field greens dressed with balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and toasted crushed coriander seeds topped with fried parsnip slices, but it was a hit with everyone.  Karen in particular loved the dressing (note to self: get bottle of balsamic vinegar for Karen's birthday)

With the salad I also served what I would describe as the most adventurous dish of the night: kippenlevertjes met abrikozen (chicken livers with apricots).  Most fascinating about this dish, was not only the ingredients (aside from the 2 mentioned in the name, there was also bacon, onions, prunes, spices and orange and apricot juice) but also the fact that it was cooked entirely in the microwave.  As I put it on the table and my friends realized what it was, I saw a few raised eyebrows and there were a couple of "I don't really eat livers" and for a moment I thought that I should have made more of the vegetarian version.  Oh yeah, almost forgot to mention: Chris is a vegetarian and so this time I had fun experimenting with fake meat!  For example, I substituted chicken livers for cubed savory tofu and the bacon for smart bacon.  I also added a little olive oil given that the fake meats don't really have any fat and I was afraid it would have been a bit bland.  Overall it was well received.  Both versions, really.  The livers went really well spread on the baguette and despite the fact that Kako commented it was a bit livery and would have been better if I had washed the livers in milk before cooking, I think most everyone was surprised that they could actually like this dish. 

The second course was prei-kerrysoep met worst (leek soup with salami).  I intended to replace the salami with some other fake meat I bought but I believe that I forgot... and didn't actually realize it until after I served it to Chris.  Oh dear.  The reviews on this soup were mixed but everyone liked the bite added by the spicy paprika.  It probably would have been better if I had run it through the blender, it was a bit too stringy but if I had, the chorizo and the wild rice would have been blended also.  Perhaps I should have blended it before adding the chorizo.  Personally, I liked it.  I love leeks and I think they mix well with soup if there's butter in the base.  A bit Frenchy really. 

As a main course I served lamb in buttermilk (no vegetarian substitute) and this was a bit of a disappointment.  The recipe required the lamb to be marinated in buttermilk and spices for 2 days and then bake in the oven for 2 hours.  I had expected really tender meat with no more than a hint of the strong flavor of lamb but surprisingly the lamb flavor was very powerful still.  But aside from the lamby flavor, it didn't really have much other flavor.  So overall it was a bit bland.  I think that if I made it again, I would cook the lamb sans the milk and then make a separate sauce with the milk (maybe add some more spices, some mint and some mushrooms).  Also, the buttermilk breaks when cooked at high temperatures and so the sauce was very runny and looked more like a broth.  Perhaps I could have added some corn starch to thicken it a little.

With the lamb, I served edammer bloemkook (cauliflower and Edam cheese).  I really liked this.  The recipe called for aged Edam cheese but I could not find any so I substituted with smoked Gouda and it was really good.  I particularly like cauliflower cheese but this was different from my usual weight watchers version (skimmed milk, low fat cheese).  This had eggs and sweetened condensed milk as well as cheese.  It was baked in the oven and had a nice golden crust.  It was a favorite with almost everyone.  Unfortunately, I set it at the opposite end of the table where Eric was with his camera (and by then he had quite a few glasses of wine to notice anyway) so I don't have a picture of this. 

I know that this was already quite a bit of food but there was another recipe that I really liked (and I needed something that I could make a vegetarian version of) so I also decided to make mansaka.  This is really a Dutch version of shepherd's pie (substitute minced soy for the ground beef) with canned mushrooms and it was - in Eric's words - the star of the evening. I had made it on Friday so the flavors had 24 hours to blend and the spices to bring out even more flavor.  I think this is one of those dishes that tastes even better the day after (or 2 days after... we just ate the leftovers for dinner).  It had sugar and cinnamon amongst other spices and the beef sauce was layered with potatoes and Swiss cheese and then browned in the oven.  The vegetarian version was equally yummy... most of us had to try that also and I had made enough that Chris would not have gone hungry if we all had a bite!

Dessert was boterkoek (Dutch butter cake).  It was only when I've got ready to cook it that I realized the recipe called for 2 cake pans.... it never really said that it was to make 2 cakes so I improvised: I made a custard with birds custard powder, sweeten cocoa powder and milk and basically made a cake with chocolate filling.  I think the most delicious part of this, was actually the almond taste; the recipe called for a tablespoon of almond essence and this gave the cake the flavor of marzipan without the plastic consistence that allows the fabulous shapes that can be made with marzipan.  This was also a very popular dish amongst my friends (as it's typical of my husband, Eric didn't want to try it... well, more for me... unfortunately for my waistline). 

By now we were all really pleasantly full (well, I was absolutely stuffed. I even had to go lie down on my bed for a few minutes and - I have to admit it - I had to undo the top button of my jeans to give room to my belly to extend on account of that second slice of cake) and also a bit tipsy since we were on our 5th bottle of wine.... but the evening carried on merrily with talks of the various countries we had visited, fun and horror stories of airline standby travel, disgruntled reports and commiserations of our dysfunctional government and it was midnight before I remembered that I hadn't pulled out the goody bags!  There were so many things I could filled them with but in the interest of budgeting I eventually settled for 4 things:  a can of Heineken beer, Stroopwafel (Eric bought those in Amsterdam but you can find them at World Market), smoked Gouda and homemade Olienbollen (Dutch donuts) which unfortunately I think I cooked a little too long so I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't get eaten...  The first batch was actually quite decent (Eric and I split the first one out of the pan and when warm they are really yummy) but I think the oil got a bit too hot and the rest ended up a bit burned.  Oh well, not all my attempts are successful!

Despite being tired by the time everyone left with promises to get together again soon (well, I know I'll see Karen and Eric will see Chris since we/they work together) and really wanting to go to bed, I convinced Eric to stay up a few more minutes to load up the dishwasher and put the leftovers in the refrigerator and this gave me the chance to think about how lucky we really are to have the means to cook these dinners and share them with good friends willing to be guinea pigs for one evening of fun and I went to bed really full, more than a bit drunk but overall happy. 

Here is the full menu with the scores and links to the recipes:

Middeleeuwse salade van pastinaken (Medieval parsnip and lettuce salad) 7.6
Kippenlevertjes met abrikozen (chicken livers with apricots) 7.4
Prei-kerrysoep met worst (leek soup with salami) 6.8
Lamb in buttermilk 7
Edammer bloemkool (cauliflower and edam cheese) 8.2
Mansaka 8.4
Boterkoek (Dutch Butter Cake) 8.8

Overall dinner 8.1

After N comes O but there is only one country that starts with O and I've done that a long time ago (Oman) so instead we come closer to home:  Panama.

Stay tuned.



Dee said...

Well Done Rossana, that's a HUGE effort, and doubly-dissapointing therefore, about the lamb not being as good as you had hoped.
Starters sound great, and I agree that people who 'dont eat liver' would eat chicken livers and not feel like it's "livery"
Sounds brilliant, well done !
Okay so no more 'O' countries, but you could substitute with continents if you would consider 'Oceania' as a continent

Anonymous said...

After reading this, I again feel sorry to miss your wonderful dinner and fun time with friends.

I wish I could have tried every dish. Especially the liver, mansaka, and the Dutch cake sounds yum. :)

As always, I'm really impressed by all the efforts you make for your alphabetical dinner.


Karen said...

Lucky indeed...not just to have the means, but the friends. That was a super fun evening- I had a blast. Thanks again! Karen P.S. I'll forward those neighborhood newsletters.