Thursday, March 31, 2011

Following the leader

Conventional wisdom goes that Americans are more likely to binge drink because Americans don't have a culture of drink, so when they get to college and alcohol is suddenly everywhere, they have no idea how to handle it. Like so many other pieces of conventional wisdom, it's wrong, maybe: the question is how frequently the subject drinks more than 5 drinks in a row. I'm not entirely sure if a few glasses of wine with dinner, followed by a couple beers with friends as you gripe over the local soccer team, necessarily counts as downing five in a row in the same way that American students tend to think about it. Healthy? Unquestionably not. But it's definitely not the same as doing vodka shots on an empty stomach.

The report has its shares of flaws (bonus points to people who pick them out) but it does make you wonder how important behavioral modeling is, in terms of adopting bad (or good) habits. I mean, Karel's parents are both heavy smokers--graciously abstaining or going to another room when young kids are around--but you'd never see him within ten feet of a cigarette. My mom always had a healthy (and ample) dinner on the table at 6 pm, but I really can't be arsed to cook when we've got a freezer full of leftovers. Okay, I do make a fresh hot dinner for Karel when he's home, but that's only about half the time, and half of that time, he's not hungry.

The question is increasingly relevant when it comes to the issue of childhood obesity. As of two years ago, although obesity issues had stabilized in adults, it continued to increase amongst kids, the latest numbers showing that a (relatively modest) 15% of boys and 18% of girls are too big for their britches. Dieting shows in the Netherlands are therefore a bit less ego-centric than their counterparts in the US--the emphasis is on the whole family and being healthy, rather than straight-up losing weight. The most outrageously-titled show "Help, Ons Kind is te Dik" (Help, Our Kid is too Fat--Dutch openness at its best, eh?) has dieticians, doctors, and cooks prescribing their cures for an unpleasantly-plump child, and counselors to formulate productive reactions to temper tantrums and incorporate physical activities into their daily routine, and on top of all that, support groups for the parents.

The show itself is quite dull, and the most interesting aspect of it is that the parents are often not the paragon of active, healthy adults themselves. Moms have a hard time incorporating vegetables into the dinner, and parents also have to fight the malaise of biking to work in the rain. While some parents are indeed the fit-and-healthy kind, most of them look fit to burst an aneurysm. And yet the kids do well by the program, losing anywhere from 3 to 12 kg (modest first steps).

It works, I think, because the show leaves no stone unturned when it comes to tackling childhood obesity. All the angles are attacked, and the result is that kids are the better for it. Could such things work in the US? Possibly, though I'm doubtful of it. There's no question that everything we know about what makes children fat can be addressed. It's a big, and open question, as to whether we have the drive to fix it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Hell of Small Cats

Our cats, despite being spoiled rotten, are actually not terribly-behaved. They shred the couch and our bedframe, but have left the antique-y furnishings alone. They will not go up on the dining room table, save to explore new things left there. And they will eat just about everything, from raw meat to the most exquisite canned food. Their favorite is raw beef--God help us if Shadow ever tastes lobster.

There is, in fact, only one thing they do that we absolutely cannot abide: skittering through the apartment at 5 in the morning. Every. Morning.

We theorize that Noodle, who sleeps in the living room, gets hungry at around 5 (which is expected), and thus goes to the bedroom to whinge at his humans to feed him. Alas for him, the bedroom is deep girl-country, the domain of Shadow (under the bed, windowsill) and the Tweeb (top of the bed), so she chases him out, to the living room, which is his part of the apartment (having staked out some kind of presence on all of the sleeping surfaces there). Then he chases her back, and we have kitty-ping-pong, at five in the morning. Usually this is resolved when I close the living room door.

For the most part, the Tweeb is left out of this civil strife. She has staked her own claim on her humans, and barks commands for food, attention, and turning on the heater independently of the other two. However, this morning, she decided to be somewhat more imperious than usual, and took to jumping on the bed and yelling at us.

So I banished her from the bedroom.

Banished from the bedroom, barred from the other kitties, locked in purgatory between an empty kitchen and the empty bedroom--the cat who can make stones weep blood when she cries for me when I leave to get groceries. Hell can be many things, but for the Tweeb, I would imagine that this might just come close to hers.

Never fear, though: the Tweeb exacts her vengeance in many ways--some of them stinky. At the bottom of our pantry this morning, next to the potato sack, a tidy lump of Tweeb-turd.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Poof: March is almost over, and so is my month of not taking myself or anything else too seriously. I'm pretty happy with what I've managed to get done--renewing my baking skills, some financial planning-ahead, flexing the writing muscles, rediscovering how to draw. Time certainly flew by, and now it's time once again to buckle down and get sh*t done.

Poof: 'Tis the season, sadly, for posters of missing cats. I love cats (obviously) and while I completely sympathize with someone who's lost theirs, I also tend to think that they got what's coming. For Chrissakes, you let a small, furry, oft-dark-colored animal run around next to a busy street; it gets into other people's gardens--people who have no compunction about using pesticides and herbicides and God-only-knows what to get beautiful plants; where people regularly walk their dogs without a leash...seriously, it'd be more of a miracle if they didn't disappear.

Poof: An hour of my day has vanished. Usually I'm pretty aware of the start of Daylight Savings, but this year it caught me by surprise. Fortunately my boyfriend had the wherewithal to adjust our alarm clock, but it's been a little discombobulating all day.

Poof: Changes to the area around Millingerward mean that there were no signs of the released beavers this time around. Was I just not looking hard enough? Or have they gone, migrating to less industrialized places along the Waal? Hard to say; I'm planning to do another epic ride (+20 km) in a couple weeks to find out for sure, and maybe shoot some snails in the bargain. I am definitely looking forward to the start of baby season, when the konikpaarden start foaling. It's amazing to watch a baby basically fall out of its mother and then get up 15 minutes later--from a safe distance, of course. The wild horses of the Ooijpolder aren't really all that wild--you can walk through a herd and they can get quite close while snuffling for foliage (unlike most horses, they eat leaves as well as grass)--but going near a momma and her baby is just asking for trouble.

Poof: While I've always liked tea, these past few weeks I've become convinced that nothing magicks away problems like a nice hot mug of good, loose-leaf tea. We have two tins of it from a gift basket that I'd constructed by never managed to give, and recently I've started making some every day. I may not believe in God, but heaven is a cup of good tea.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Going greener

baby carrot

We're not really "green" so much as we're broke. We don't recycle because we're good people--we recycle because the statiegeld saves us a euro here and there on our groceries. So eating organic regularly is out of the question. About the only thing I do get with any degree of regularity is organic herbs, and that's because they are, surprisingly enough, cheaper than the supermarkets' pathetic excuse for plant matter.

Right before I left Philadelphia, I had toyed with the idea of joining a CSA group. Community supported agriculture was big a couple years ago--basically you pay a few hundred dollars in May and get a big box o' food every week for the next six months. Subscription plans vary in the details, but the basic gist of CSA is that you get organic produce fresh from the farmer, and cheaper than from Whole Paycheck Foods.

I'd wondered if such things existed in the Netherlands. I mean, I assumed there was such a thing, given how ecologically sensitive the country is (individuals, not so much). But if it did, I certainly wasn't hearing about it. Thus, dinner with the Bekkers was enlightening, not only because we learned how to make a quick 'n dirty Hollandaise sauce, but also because P. Jonas told us about his groete abonnement: every week he gets a bag of organic greens and fruit (his apparently included fruit; some of the ones that I've seen also offer organic meat) that included such things as salsify and winter purslane, which were both incorporated into the delectable meal.

So of course, one of the first things I did upon getting back was google "groente abonnement". It took a little searching, since the first thing that pops up is the website of the Netherlands' Green Party, but eventually I turned up the website for sustainable living and with it, the link to how to get what is essentially a CSA subscription. Except they're broken, so what you really do is do a search for the pickup points and go from there. For the life of me, though, I'm not entirely sure what to make of a website that thinks I'll go to Amsterdam to pick up a bag of vegetables.

It's not a CSA the way most of the Americans I know would think of it, not exactly. Rather than paying for six months' worth of food at once, you pay for a weeks' worth--okay, three meals' worth--of fruits and greens at a time. And while the cost is actually pretty low, it does concern me a bit, because Karel sucks at being Dutch, and no Dutch bag of veggies would be complete without a pillar of leek, which is the one thing we do not eat on a regular basis.

All the same, the idea of just dropping by Brakkenstein on a Saturday morning, rather than pedaling all the way to the market, is very appealing. And fresh purslane--well, that's worth whatever it costs.


I must apologize for the nearly-week-long absence. I had a post all ready to go on Wednesday but just as I was putting up the final touches, it was time to leave for Groningen. Just last week Karel had decided to visit his sister and a few friends who live up in that direction, and so for most of Wednesday and all of Thursday we were inundated with one very cute baby, lots of good food, and promises for pizza (Karel had promised Mini-Bekker a homemade pizza several years ago, and true to his form, MB has not forgotten). It was a good trip, but then again I suspect I would say that about any trip where I get to hold a 6-day-old baby.

I finally had an excuse to try out my Lensbaby this weekend, as of course any new baby warrants a ton of pictures. My brother bought it for me for Christmas, and my initial test with it was quite rushed, as I had neither the time nor the inclination to experiment much when it arrived (some time after Christmas, when I was in the middle of a major Angst moment). I actually used my macro to shoot the baby--why fix what ain't broke, stick with what you know, and all them clichés--but I was able to put the Lensbaby through its paces later that day and figure out exactly what it could and couldn't do.

I take a not-insubstantial amount of pride in knowing what all of the buttons on my camera do but it was still a lot of fun to actually make those adjustments, as for the most part the D90 is smarter than I am when it comes to shooting awesome. However, with a Lensbaby, because you're on full-manual, it becomes a matter of trial and error as you point, adjust, click, look, and adjust any one of the gazillion settings available to turn your picture into something not-eyeball-gouging-ugly.

My conclusion about the Lensbaby is that it's a fun piece of kit to have, but probably not something that I'd use on a regular basis. My 50 mm macro can get those awesome narrow-range-of-focus pics with much less trouble, but it doesn't do that awesome blur. But then again, I don't necessarily want a lot of blur. Furthermore, because it's not an actual lens, you need to adjust your focal length by actually moving the camera. It is unquestionably a ton of fun to play with, though, and you do make awesome pictures.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Virtue, explained

The quick 'n dirty translation of the Dutch word zuinig is "frugal". As with many Dutch words, though, the quick 'n dirty version is incomplete. There is, in addition to the "maximizing value" component of zuinigheid, an element of virtuousness that the word "frugality" doesn't quite cover. In the US, you can still get slammed for being frugal, as it has the connotation of being cheap. In the Netherlands, you will only get nods of approval for being zuinig.

This extra dimension explains, I think, the popularity of the Saturday markt (in all cities except, I am told, Maastricht). There are market days throughout the week--in Nijmegen, for instance, you have the fabric and produce markt on Mondays, and the secondhand markt on Wednesdays. But the Saturday markt is where all of the action is--it's when all of the vendors and their kramen line the main shopping streets, when the booksellers set up shop outside the library, when anybody with any bit of Dutch in their blood crowds onto the 10 a.m. bus or busts out their fietskar in the hopes of landing good deals.

Anybody can be thrifty by reading the flyers at the supermarket and shopping accordingly, but it takes serious dedication and price-matching to find the best deals at the Saturday markt. Not to mention that many places are cash-only, so you can't say, "What the hell," and let yourself overdraw. There are some things you can help yourself with, and others that you can't--generally speaking the rule is "arm's length", but the Dutch have very long arms. During the busiest times, you might have to wait up to 15-20 minutes before you can pay, and then only after you've shoved a little old lady out of the way. You don't have carts you can load up, unless you have a shopper (which nobody under the age of 85 uses, lest they seem old), so you have to carry an increasingly heavy bag with you. Price-wise, it helps to know what other sales are going on, because while there are a few great items, others only seem that way until you do the math.

There is, as far as I can tell, only one major benefit for going produce-hunting at the markt, and that is the eco-stands. Fresh herbs that are genuinely fresh, and amazing mushrooms and cheeses--will still cost you an arm and a leg, but the scent of fresh basil following you around for the rest of the day is obnoxiously decadent, screaming, "Hey, I'm food snob!"

By the time you make it home from the markt, in other words, you'll feel like you've done something--that goes double if you've managed to hold a few brief conversations in Dutch with the vendors. Yeah, the euro you might have saved probably doesn't cover the cost of parking. But it's the thought that counts.

Culture Shock redux

I'd hazard a guess that most people get over their culture shock within, well, a time period shorter than four years. You either do, or you don't, and if you don't, then you don't stay here for very long. But every now and then, something comes along that shocks you back into your "I just got off the plane" state.

We're in the market for a fietskar, the better to haul Noodle to the vet with. The Kitty Tower of Terror was patently unsafe and precarious--not to mention that it meant walking to the vet's, and while it's not a too-bad walk, it gets a lot worse when you're hauling three yowling kitties along for the ride. Especially when a bus comes careening down the road.

It's not just cats, though. We're stuck, for instance, paying for kitty litter six liters (one box) at a time, in a large part because the sacks of litter are simply too precarious to move by bike. We'd also like to start up again with the plants in the apartment--mostly garden herbs, because they're not only delicious and smell good, but also because the cats can eat them with impunity. And that takes potting soil, and lots of it.

There were two aspects of the hunt for a fietskar that made me feel like a newbie. The first is that they are surprisingly difficult to find. I visited three bike shops in town before I was able to extract directions to a little store called "Hans Janssens" which carried them. The second is, when I got there and saw the prices, HO-LY F*CK but the buggers are expensive. I'm used to seeing four-digit bike prices, but €300 for a box with wheels? Makes me think I might just make my own. Or, at the very least, demand installation.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tally Ho!

These last few days, we were in Naarden/Bussum, visiting Karel's dad. The reason for the slash in the name is that Bussum has grown over the last few-hundred years, incorporating Naarden into it. Naarden, on the other hand, has not grown at all--not for a lack of trying, but because it's an island ringed by a fortress, a moat, and an extra wall. The locals take an inordinate amount of glee pointing out the old church, which still has cannonballs from some battle back-in-the-day stuck in its walls.

The purpose for the visit, as Karel explained it, was to help his dad make a venison paté, and to attend a bugling practice session in the hopes of placing better than dead last in the Dutch-German bugling contest to be held later this year. Yes, he said that with a straight face. And I have the photographic evidence that such things are anticipated by people other than Karel, as well.

It always seems to surprise people to know that there are hunters in the Netherlands, given the "eco-green" ethos that pervades the country--I mean, the recycling stations in Maastricht have spots for paper, plastic, glass, and cans, while in Nijmegen one must learn the art of parsing trash. In addition, the paperwork required to own a gun is famously tedious, and serves as a deterrent for all but the most dedicated gun buffs.

But the fact is, hunters are an essential part of wildlife management. If you divide the parts of the Netherlands that are not farmed into developed versus wildlife preserves, then it's about a 50:50 (at most 60:40) split. These little islands of wildlife are home to an astonishing array of edible animals, including deer (seen), pheasant (seen), hare (seen), and wild boar (not-seen, and thank God, because I'm not sure I'd be alive to tell the tale if I had seen one). What this means is that, in order to maintain a healthy balance of animals-versus-plants, that something must regularly cull the cute-n-fuzzies. It used to be that wolves did this, but the last wolf disappeared from the Netherlands 150 years ago, so hunters had to take their place. Not that people like Karel and his father are complaining--Karel's particular area of expertise is, surprisingly (given his job), guns and how to shoot them. And perhaps more importantly, how to prepare the things that are on the wrong end of the bullet.

So the venison paté that Karel made with his dad came entirely from animals that his father had shot himself (Karel, for all that he can shoot like a sniper, long ago lost his appetite--never very strong to begin with--for hunting). It's an interesting, if stinky*, connection to one's food that most people can't appreciate.

*I'm not at all squicked out by the sight, smell, or feel of dead animals--but the scent of the cooking pate was vaguely reminscent of dog food.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pudding proof

Karel has a relatively small collection of relatively expensive liquors. Unlike most Dutch people of his and his father's generation, see, he doesn't like genever (and, having tasted it, I can't blame him) except as something to "warm" him up on a cold day's hunt. Nor does he like beer. Instead, he goes for wine and, when the occasion calls, really nice Scotch. Preferably single malts, and preferably Islay.

So the Oban that sits in our liquor cabinet is a bit of an anomaly. Karel serves it to guests, mostly, since he a) drinks whiskey once in a blue moon, and b) prefers the Laphroaig. I'd bought it for him because I thought he should try something that was not his usual thing. He liked it well enough, but not so much that I had any reserves about using it to make the butterscotch pudding this weekend, much to the surprise, dismay, and delight of my friends, for whom I'd made it. Dan and Amanda had helped me move the last few bits of my things back to Nijmegen, and in return they got kitties and dinner. And this utterly decadent butterscotch pudding.

I don't cook mise en place very often. I'm more of a "throw it together and see how it goes" kind of person when it comes to cooking and baking, but for making pudding, I've found it goes a lot easier when you've got everything meausred out ahead of time. Making pudding is like going sky diving: you can't stop halfway through. Plus, once the milk mixture starts boiling, it goes really quickly.

Ingredients are: 1/2 cup of light brown sugar, 3 Tbsp water, 1 3/4 cups whole milk, 1/2 cup cream, 3 egg yolks, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/4 cup cornstarch, 1/4 tsp salt, 3 Tbsp butter, 1 tsp vanilla, and 2 Tbsp Scotch whiskey. Preferably a strong single malt--if you can bear to part with yours. Interesting Dutch factoid: most of the Dutch pudding recipes you'll find are flour-based, and consequently cornstarch is not found in the supermarkets, but in the "toko" shops.

Mix the brown sugar and the water and set it on a medium heat until it boils. Once that starts, add the cream and 1 1/2 cups of milk to the pot and wait until that boils.

While you're waiting, set up the food processor and whir together the egg yolks, the last bit of milk, the sugar, the salt, and the cornstarch. You could also use a hand mixer and a large bowl, but it will get a little tricky when it comes time to add the milk (see below). However, it's not impossible and I've done it when making creme anglaise, but it does require an extra level of coordination that prohibits operating a camera at the same time.

When the milk starts a-boiling, start the food processor a-whirring and add the milk in a thin stream. If your depth perception isn't blown to bits by using the camera, don't miss the food processor. The goal is to temper the egg yolks, not to cook them.

Once it's all mixed together, return the pudding to the pan and let it cook until thickened, stirring constantly. This is actually a lot of fun, as the thickening is rather sudden and palpable. You want it to get to the point where a few bubbles start coming up, but no further. pour it BACK into the food processor, and let it whir while you add the butter, the vanilla, and the Scotch. Let it all blend evenly, and then pour it into your pudding conveyance containers. Press some waxed paper/plastic wrap to the top if you're not fond of pudding skins, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

All in all, it is delicious--very buttery, very Scotch-y, and definitely not to be served to small children. It was an...interesting experience, having had this after a small glass of port. Let's just say I slept very well that night.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Greener Pastures

A funny thing happened online the other day. Someone posted this article about how wonderful life is on Mauritius, and everybody and their grandmother started dog-piling on about how Joseph Stiglitz had to be an unpatriotic socialist who wouldn't know freedom if it bit him in the ass. Never mind that most of them wouldn't know where Mauritius is in the world, or that the people get better health care than most of the US--apparently the article's cardinal sin is to suggest that life might actually be better in a country that's not the US of A.

This sort of reflexive "GOD BLESS AMERICA" is a complete turn off for any sensible discourse on a) whether life is actually any better in Mauritius, and b) what the US could start doing to make life better for its citizens. My own comment was razed, in part because I advocate teaching evolution over creationism (I know: Face, meet Palm). Part of the problem is that you've got a very vocal minority--the ones who have the luxury of time to armchair quarterback running the country--while the majority (the ones working two or three jobs and still having to choose which bills to pay) are silent. Another part of the problem is that there seems to be a persistent delusion that more freedom and more choices are better, and that living in a socialist country means that you don't get any say in how you live your life.

The latter, as any expat will attest to, depends entirely on which country you end up in. Some (the Netherlands) offer more freedoms than others (China), just as some democracies (Canada) function better than others (Afghanistan). So that's moot. If you have the luxury of choice to pick which country you live in, then it would behoove you to pick a country that meshes with your expectations of the government.

But the question of whether more freedom and choices automatically lead to a better and happier life is a bit more difficult to answer. I certainly have a lot more freedom than I would as a woman in, say, Saudi Arabia. But do I have less freedom than I did the US? I can't buy a firearm, true, but is it not a little disturbing that my then-18-year-old sister, who'd never held a gun before in her life, could walk into a store, buy a gun, spend all of an hour learning how to load and shoot--and then walk out, a gun-owner? Just to be absolutely clear: I'm all for the second-amendment right to bear arms, but surely you'd want to know that the person you're selling to is a responsible gun owner?

The deeper question is whether I feel that my quality of life has gone downhill since I moved to a country where the right to bear arms is not guaranteed. Frankly, the answer is "no". I'd actually argue that I have more rights in the Netherlands than I did in the US: if I were a lesbian, I could get married, white dress and benefits (not that there are that many benefits to being a married couple), both. Thanks to Wisconsin's anti-union bill going forward, I still have collective bargaining rights (my two jobs were technically government positions). None of which is meant to imply that life here is some kind of utopian paradise. But these are superficial considerations to the biggest question of all: is freedom based on money really freedom?

What I mean is this: in the US, your freedom to live your life as you choose is largely based on whether your income is greater than your expenses, and by how much. If you have more money, then more choices are available. If you have less money, then you either have to settle for fewer choices, or make more money. It's fair, but is it right?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Coming soon

The widgeons have moved north, the storks have moved south, and the geese can't seem to make up their minds: "Do I stay or do I go"? In other words, the changing of the seasons is upon us. The days are getting longer, and, this past weekend, some incredibly blue skies and beautiful (if f*cking cold--I was out there for three hours, so I think my use of the f-word is appropriate) weather gave rise to the opportunity to watch some birds for the first time in over a year.

It's the best time of year, actually, to don a pair of binoculars. The foliage hasn't come in yet, but the shift in the passerines is occuring, as relentless as the tides. Songbirds are easy to identify amongst the bare branches, a strangely gratifying experience, as they are in theory easy to delineate, but in practice they all become lumped together into the "little brown birds that go 'twit'" category.

I ended up following the Hollandse-Deutsch kanaal for a short distance on my way back, and was rewarded with the sight of a pair of shelducks and a little grebe--it was so little that I thought it was a duckling at first, and only stopped because it was too early in the year for ducklings. I wish I had a better lens--I've learned that you can rent tele-lenses for €25/day, but then that begs the question of whether I really want to carry something that costs more than a month's salary around on my bike.

New things are going on, exciting things are happening. It's spring, in more ways than one. I think the Romans had the right idea, having the new year begin with the start of spring. Makes more sense than having it start in the depth of winter, anyway, before things start waking up.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Dairy Aisle

I've finally been able to restart a little every-eight-to-ten-day ritual that I haven't been able to do for the past year: making my own yogurt. The process is pretty simple: heat milk to almost-boiling, let it cool to slightly-hot, add some pre-made culture (i.e., yogurt at the bottom of the tub you've just finished eating), and let it sit under a blanket for 4-8 hours. You can strain it afterwards if a thicker yogurt is your cup of tea. The directions given here are pretty good and specify exact amounts and temperatures, if you want to try it. The key is to start with a yogurt you already like--I'm partial to the Albert Heijn's plain organic yogurt, but the Greek and/or Turkish yogurts are also pretty good.

The best part about making your own yogurt is that all you need is a liter of milk every now and then. This makes going to the supermarket much less confusing, given how many different kinds of dairy products inhabit the average Dutch supermarket. You have milk, butter, cream, creme fraiche, sour cream, yogurt, vla, karnemelk, and kwark--and the magere versions of the last two.

There are several different kinds of yogurt to be had in the Netherlands, and none of them are the same as kwark, which is actually a kind of cheese, although it doesn't always contain rennet. You have your Yakult, which is supposedly good for the digestive system, although exactly how it's supposed to be better for you than normal yogurt is beyond me. Then there are the yogurts that are sold in milk cartons as yogurt drinks. These are slightly more watery than the yogurt you'd eat for breakfast, which is sold in tubs. Everything is made from whole milk (4% fat) unless otherwise specified--Greek yogurt, in addition to being made from whole milk, is also strained so that it's thicker. Turkish yogurt is not only made with whole milk and strained, it also has added cream.

Then you have karnemelk, which is actually buttermilk. Traditionally, buttermilk is the fermented leftovers from making butter, but most of the buttermilk you'll find in stores are made with an innoculation of bacteria, same as with yogurt. I use this to make muffins, buttermilk biscuits, and pancakes--you don't really taste the sourness, but the acid reacts with baking powder to make an incredibly fluffy and light baked good.

Vla is a thin custard/thick pudding, served as a dessert. In the words of our friend Allard, who first explained vla to me, "It gets into all of the little empty nooks and crannies in your stomach and fills it up." It is the perpetual butt of all the flessenlikker jokes, as it was once sold in bottles and had to be scraped out. It's not bad...which is the best thing I can say for it. One of these days I'll put up a recipe for pudding, which is infinitely better...

Creme fraiche is interchangeable with sour cream in most recipes, but it's pretty special in its own right, as it has much more fat, doesn't curdle when heated, and can be whipped. I don't have a lot of experience with it, but it does give a nice finish to creamy soups.

All of which adds to the confusion for expats who are used to yogurt being yogurt, and milk being milk. You have to be somewhat adventurous to be an expat, and that goes for your tastebuds as well as the rest of you. I always like trying new things.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Not all wine and roses

To most people, the Netherlands is a quaint little country full of little houses and canals and windmills, and lots of pot. It's charmingly bucolic in nature, with fat and happy cows next to rows and rows of tulips. They think those things because they haven't been to the ass-end of Nijmegen: If Costco and Sams and Walmart were aliens that tried to take over the world, then the ass-end of Nijmegen is where they've begun--klik after klik of warehouse-type offices/stores/warehouses, each one getting steadily uglier and uglier, until you end up at the power plant. And the dump, next to it.

I'm in the process of cleaning out our storage unit, and much of what is currently within our spot in the basement are old electronics. The Dutch are a bit more anal-retentive about trash than, say, Philadelphia: you must set out your trash on the designated day, in special bags. "Green waste", or food waste, should be separate from the normal waste--the company provides a green bin for that, but they stopped doing it for apartments. Recyclable plastics are set out in a special bag. Oude papier is set out once a month. Bottles that once contained dangerous chemicals, as well as batteries, are to be taken to the "chemokar", a special truck that parks in different locations in the city every day of the week for a few hours. For old furniture, you must contact a kringloopwinkel (secondhand shop) to have it taken away. You must take everything else to the dump yourself.

I call it "the dump" out of laziness, and not to imply that the Dutch would actually allow people to just randomly pile unwanted things in a designated spot. Most people drive there in their cars. They pull up next to a checkpoint, where someone asks them what they have, and if needed they pay a fee. Things like wood waste from home remodeling projects cost a certain amount per cubic meter. Things like small electronics are free.

Fee assessed, you are then allowed to go to the area where the dumpsters abound. The dumpsters are labled, so that your carpentry waste gets tossed into one dumpster, your small electronics into another, huge hanks of broken glass into yet another. God help you if you get mixed up. There's even a special dumpster for things suitable for kringloopwinkels. Yes, there is a market for trash.

I was on a bike--and plus I came in through the back way--so I popped up behind the checkpoint. I only had one speaker, though, so the guy just waved me to dumpster 1. Speaker dumped, I went home.

The trip served one main purpose, and it was not to get rid of an old speaker: it was to assess how far away the dump is from our apartment, and how difficult the trip would be if I had several additional broken electronics. I discovered a long time ago that roads in the Netherlands don't always mesh with what Google Maps thinks--plus trips planned with a driver in mind don't always consider the fate of a cyclist. It also gave me an excuse to finally--after four years--get a fietstas (panniers)--as I realized that no, I wasn't going to get old electronics onto my bike any other way.