Monday, April 30, 2012


One of the highlights of Dutch food--and by highlights, I mean something almost everybody can enjoy, even if they are food snobs--is Dutch strawberries.  These wonderful pink-ish delights are to be found in May and June, last for exactly 2 days in the fridge, are one of the most expensive fruits on the market, and are worth every last euro-cent.   Somehow, they always contrive to be perfect, unbruised and deliciously red while at the (super)market, and somehow, by the time you get them home, half of them will be bruised and their delicious scent will be fading, and in two days, the first traces of white fuzz will be upon them. 

And yet I keep buying them.  There is something unique to Dutch strawberries--the fruit is very tender, and I think they're just a tad bit sweeter than other strawberries.   And they are smaller and more strawberry-shaped than the Californian monstrosities I grew up with, with a pinkish hue.  The best ones, Karel assures me (as he used to pick strawberries for extra money), never make it beyond the picker's hands.  The second best ones are exported--probably to France, where they make a what-seems-divine strawberry tart. I have to phrase it like that because a) I don't like making tart crusts, and b) the strawberries I buy never last long enough to make it into a baked good.  If you have more willpower than I do, you could give it a go. It says a lot, then, about the Dutch strawberry when the worst of the lot is still fought over tooth and claw by hordes of strawberry-crazed Dutch people.  

OK, so maybe they aren't exactly fighting at the markt.  But that doesn't mean getting a good strawberry is necessarily a civil process.  Strawberries are a much-sought commodity in the markt, and if you have a leisurely breakfast and get there later than noon, you'll find nothing but the dregs of the day sitting sadly in their blue boxes.  If you do go to the markt for your strawberries, you'll need to blend in with the Dutch and do as they do--which is to say, "assert" yourself to the grocer (i.e., play at roller derby, sans skates).  At most stalls, strawberries are not a "help yourself" commodity, and you'll need to fight for the overwhelmed produce-picker's attention, and make sure s/he picks a good box of strawberries for you.  Things are slightly more civil in the supermarkets, but the strawberries, for some reason, don't seem to be quite so good. 

Or it could be that Dutch strawberries really aren't that good, it's just that the rest of Dutch food is so bland (and, in a worst-case scenario, terrible) that anything that tickles the palate is to be celebrated.  I don't think it really matters.  These little delightful strawberries are only available for two months (they continue to be available throughout the summer, but the quality drops off after June and they are noticeably sadder after July), and it'd be a shame not to eat them while they last.  

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Typisch Nederlands

In every Dutch language class you take, no matter if it's A1 ("Hi, my name is...") or C2 (how to translate Shakespeare), there will be a chapter in the book titled "Typisch Nederlands".  This chapter will cover things "typically Dutch", such as zuinigheid and the use of a flessenlikker, and will invariably discuss re-using tea bags and spaarzegels.

I'm not sure what it is about these things that make them so "typically Dutch", but they seem to make it into every textbook explaining Dutch culture to expats, even though I've yet to see a real flessenlikker and don't know anybody who re-uses their tea bag (I do know people who dunk a teabag into a whole liter of water, but that's not the same thing).  What's more typically Dutch for me is angling for a good point-of-entry when taking the train or bus, so that you can get a seat; it's buying 3 kg of potatoes because they're €1 even if I'm not entirely sure I can use them all in time; it's always asking the price of something at the markt before expressing any interest in buying it.

Don't get me wrong--spaarzegels, those little stamps you can buy along with your groceries in return for a discount later, are unique to the Netherlands, as far as I can tell, and definitely fall under the category of "Very Dutch Things".  And zegels in general--be they the points you can clip from the Douwe Egberts coffee packs, or collecting UPC labels from Pringles cans, or getting the requistite 5 stickers for a toy--are quite popular.  But they've always puzzled me--I mean, I can understand, say, collecting a few stickers and getting a free puppet--if you would have spent the money anyway, why not get something back?  But having to pay for my own discount in the future is something that I've never been able to understand:  you pay €0.10 for every zegeltje, and once you've collected 520 of them, you get €52 of "free money" at the store.  Apparently some people see a value in this, as every other person answers "Ja" when asked if they want zegeltjes.  But the numbers work out in direct opposition to that other typically Dutch trait, zuinigheid.

If this were the US, I could understand--after all, Americans, in general, are susceptible to hype, and marketers are ruthless at generating it.  But this is the Netherlands, where cutthroat business practices go head-to-head with equally cutthroat consumer practices.  You'd think that more people would realize that it doesn't matter if you pay €0.10 now or €0.10 later for your items--you're still out €0.10.  And this isn't the only thing that doesn't make sense from an accounting perpsective:  things that are "on sale" one week (turban towels for drying your hair, €2) are later relegated to the "regular" racks...for the same price.  Buy-2-get-1 typically works out to a unit price that's almost the same as what you'd normally pay, especially if you get something more expensive than what you'd typically get (these sorts of deals are especially popular with shampoos and the like).

There are two potential explanations for this:  1) the Dutch are horrible at math and have no memory of what things cost last week, or 2) the word "sale" (korting, sale, opruimen, etc.) automatically switches off the typisch Nederlands skepticism and need to press for a good price.  Either way, it just goes to show that humans, in general, are not a rational species.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Not Buying It

It's easy to get sucked into the parenting world, to feel as if you should be doing yoga every waking minute and that everything you eat should be brimming with vitamins and nutrients. To feel as if you need to get rid of all the toxin-containing plastics and use only organic shampoos, to question the safety of everything from riding the bus to having a sip of wine.  Not that I've had any wine--my alcohol tolerance being what it is means that the baby would get much more alcohol than expected.

And while I'm all for being informed and making well-considered decisions, a lot of this seems like overkill. I mean, mankind has, for 50,000 years at least, managed to make babies and pop them out with a lot less knowledge and a lot more superstition than we have these days.  In Mongolia, where diets are something like 98% meat-and-animal based, children are born with eyes, ears, ten fingers and ten toes, much like everywhere else in the world.  And in the Amazon, babies are born and raised and become healthy adults in spite of the slew of unmentionable parasites and diseases that one can get in a tropical rain forest.  I'm not suggesting that new mothers-to-be adopt any of these, or that you should just eat potato chips for the next nine months (a bad idea, even if you're a guy).  Only that, if healthy babies can be born under these conditions, there probably isn't anything to worry about for someone like me:  where the water is safe to drink and all the comforts of civilization await my whims.  So, while I will not dye my hair or take other unnecessary and obvious risks, nor will I worry overly much about things like touching plastic or walking next to a busy road.

A lot of the worry and fears comes out of a need to stamp and seal the future, I think.  God knows, Karel and I have both fantasized about life with a Little It.  There's a need for certainty, or at least gaming the biology towards the most optimal outcomes.  Buying organic-slaughtered-by-your-best-friend-beef and using baking soda in lieu of shampoo allows us to feel that we are doing something about a process that, frankly, we can do quite literally diddly-shit about.  We can't "enhance" the development of the little brain (whatever that means), much as though we'd like.  We can't confer genes for athleticism that we don't have, nor can we guarantee that piping music into its womb will make it a muscial genius.  We do what we can--eat healthy, exercise, keep calm and carry on--and leave the rest up to that mysterious thing we call "Life".  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Mama Mia!"

Pizza in the US and Italy is something special: thin, crispy-but-chewy crust, zingy tomato sauce, and dripping with cheese fat (and sausage grease, if that's your cup of tea). Like most foods, pizza is a total experience, and a proper pizza is only a proper pizza if it hits all of the marks at once. There's no in between--if the sauce is off but the crust is not, if the crust is off but the cheese is not, then it's just not a good pizza. It may still be an edible pizza, and I suppose if you never go to Italy or New York in your life, you might even learn to like it. But having been spoiled by a youth full of sinful, cheesy, chewy goodness, what passes for pizza in the Netherlands just doesn't cut it.

There are a multiple of pizza sins committed by Dutch pizzas: the crust is usually too thick, too spongy. The sauce is too sweet, not zingy. There is NEVER enough cheese (and I say this as someone who is, on the best days, indifferent to the stuff), and the toppings can just get plain weird: tuna? Admittedly, I've not tried it, but tuna just doesn't seem like the kind of stuff that would go well with any sort of cheese. I suppose there are Italian restaurants where you can get a proper pizza, but considering what pizza is--a way to use up leftovers--is it really worth the exorbitant price?

So what's a pizza lover to do? Make her own, of course.  It's easier than you might think:  yeast doughs are not mysterious, slightly-dangerous things, and are more forgiving than many people imagine them to be.  And because it's pizza and not bread, you only need one rising.  The one thing you do need is time and patience:  the entire recipe takes up most of an afternoon if you're doing it in one sitting, but there are some good stopping points for both the crust and the sauce.

Right off the bat, we need to make clear that it's not possible to get a crispy-yet-chewy crust in a home oven, unless you're privy to an industry-standard hot box. The temperatures required to get that crispy-chewy crust are between 600-800°F (320-425° C), well-beyond the range of most home ovens. It might be possible to grill a pizza on the barbecue (and indeed, there are several sites that show you how), but I haven't tried that.  But it is possible to get a thin and crispily-crusted pizza, which is half the battle.

A stand mixer is not required, but it does minimize the amount of work you have to do--kneading is hard work, and if your boyfriend is an anal-retentive control freak gets flour everywhere.  Activate your yeast--I use about 2/3 C of warm water, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and one packet of yeast, stir until everything is dissolved, and let it sit for about 5 minutes.  Use the down time to set up the rest of the dough:

2 C flour
1-2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Optional:  herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme)
stand mixer with dough hook

Give this a quick whir with the stand mixer to blend everything, and then, still stirring, add the yeasty water.  Let it stir for a minute or two--if the dough is still "shaggy", add more water; if it's too wet, add more flour.  After another minute, it should come together to form a smooth, kneadable dough.  Keep it in the machine for about 10 minutes.  

Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, covered with a sheet of plastic wrap, and let it sit for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.  I tuck it the bowl inside a throw blanket--our apartment isn't exactly warm.  To be completely honest, I've never watched the time too closely at this step.  I usually clean the kitchen, hang up a load of laundry, do the vaccuuming, watch an episode of Scrubs, make the sauce, etc.  At some point, I'll remember that it's there, and by the time I do, it will have doubled in size.  

At this point, you can freeze the dough (this is what I've heard, though I've never done this; if you've got any experience freezing yeast doughs, feel free to comment), or refrigerate it overnight (this works well).  What I usually do, though, is parbake the crusts:  preheat the oven to 200° C.  Roll out the crust--either one massive sheet-pizza, or several smaller ones--as thin as it will go.  Slide it into the hot oven for 5-7 minutes, depending on how big it is.  What you're looking for is the lightness and fluffiness of bread, without any of the color.  Let it cool.  At this point, the crust can be frozen, wrapped in an airtight container.  

As you can see, a relatively small amount of dough translates into a relatively large pizza.  This is the size of a pizza for one person--it seems pretty big, but you have to remember how thin it is.  The amount of dough is about the size I'd use to shape 1 1/2 rolls, which is hardly excessive for a single person.  

As for the sauce:  I cheat.  I admit it--I use canned tomatoes.  If you wanted to, you could boil a pot of water, skin the tomatoes, press out the seeds, chop the tomatoes, and then cook them for forever.  But if even the Italians use canned tomatoes, it's good enough for me.  I mean, it's a LOT of tomatoes, and a LOT of work, and fresh tomatoes are tricky to season well and it's just not worth the hassle unless you're working in a Michelin-rated restaurant.  

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small dried chili pepper (1 cm, optional)
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon dried sage (optional)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper (optional)
2 X 400g cans of tomatoes (blokjes)
1 bouillon cube (Maggi's Tuinkruiden)
1-2 teaspoons of light brown sugar (optional)
Dried or fresh oregano, parsely, basil (optional)

As you can see, a lot of the ingredients are optional.  These are what I use to make the tomato sauce that we both love for our spaghetti as well as for the pizza (I reduce it more for pizza sauce); your tastes may differ.  The only thing you need to be aware of is that herbs such as oregano, basil, and parsely are very delicate and should not be added until the last 10 minutes of cooking.  I make no claim to authenticity--only that this sauce is "zingy" and flavorful and not too sweet.  

Heat the olive oil in a pan, and add the minced garlic.  Crush the chili pepper into the hot oil.  Give it a quick stir--be careful not to let anything burn--and then add the onion. Stir regularly until almost translucent, then add the sage and black pepper if you're using them.  Stir continuously until the onions are translucent, and then add the tomatoes and bouillon cube.  If you're opposed to using bouillon for some reason, you can toss in a few anchovies.  They'll dissolve in the sauce and salt it up nicely; about 1/2 a small tin will do.  

Let it come to a boil, and then simmer, stirring occasionally, until it begins to approach the consistency you need.  The exact amount of time depends on the consistency you want and the shape of the pan you use--if you use a frying pan, it will thicken to "pizza sauce consistency" in about an hour.  Adjust the seasoning. I don't always add sugar to the sauce--it depends on the flavor of the day, as it were, and in any event, I don't add as much as you'd find in commercial pasta sauces.  It's less to sweeten the sauce and more to take off that tangy edge that it can sometimes have.  The sauce can be portioned and frozen at this point. 

Assemble the pizza.  If you're doing this all in one day, just leave the oven on when you finish parbaking the crust.  If you're not, then thaw the crusts and preheat the oven to 200° C (400° F).  Put whatever dastardly toppings you want on it.  Artichoke hearts, sliced mushrooms, fresh basil, four cheeses, six cheeses, yesterday's chicken, etc.  Slide it into the oven for 10-12 minutes.  Take it out, and enjoy!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Plodding Along

Slate recently ran a series on walking in the US. Illuminating and excellent as I find Tom Vanderbilt's writings and musing on people moving from one place to another, though, I can't say I was terribly surprised by anything in the series: basically, in 98% of the US, you can't walk anywhere, the result of a colossal failure on the behalf of city planners for the last 50 years.

The reason why Americans don't walk, basically, is that there's nowhere they can get to. It's not safe, or else things are too spread out. Everything in the suburbs is a 10-minute drive away; or else it's surrounded by acres of blacktop. Sidewalks end at freeways. And bus stops are placed in ridiculous places--on the side of the road, where there is no sidewalk, no crosswalk, and nothing in sight.

All of which makes the issues being tackled by Vanderbilt seem like one of those problems that rich people have: you're hungry, but your butler has a day off. Studying the movements of people is a fascinating subject--fluid dynamics in crowd format--as is examining the pattern of air flow around tall buildings, to better understand how not to create wind tunnels. But they don't address the main problem, which is that people only walk when they feel like they can get somewhere without becoming road kill. And where the one is possible, usually the second is not.

Ironically, the Netherlands seem to have imported the pedestrian issues from the US, in the form of housing complexes featuring cookie-cutter houses with nowhere to go, and where you need a car or a bus to take you to the nearest city. They're being built with gusto around Utrecht, but also around Nijmegen and Zwolle. Now, undoubtedly, this being the Netherlands, they'll probably have a small supermarket and a modest collection of stores scattered around a central point, so it'll still be possible to run most of your errands on foot. But I can't but think it deeply ironic, though, that the life I enjoy so much here--being able to bike and walk everywhere--is somehow becoming old-fashioned, even as the US tries desperately to emulate it.

Friday, April 13, 2012


I've been a vegetarian ever since I moved out after college. My parents did not approve, but once I was cooking and living on my own, there was precious little they could do to keep me from not-buying meat products. I've never enjoyed eating meat--it was really just that simple--and once I was free not to do so, not eating meat seemed as natural as breathing. That being said, I did and still do include fish in my diet--mostly for the sake of other people who are cooking for me (those of you who are appalled at Dutch cooking should just imagine it being done with tofu).

It was a mild craving at first, one that could be sated with a bit of peanut butter or an egg or a quesadilla (technically half a quesadilla). Indeed, a look back at the weeks have shown a steady progression in my food-of-the-moment, starting with peanut butter and evolving into last week's escapade involving lots of cheese. (This, in and of itself, is rather remarkable, since I'm not ordinarily a fan of cheese.) But starting this weekend, not even cheese, with its high protein and fat content, could satisfy that little voice in my head (or stomach). No, that little voice was after blood.

I'd been ignoring the voice for the better part of a week: habit was stronger, and my habits were peanut butter sandwiches and not buying doner kebabs with shoarma (or whatever it is you can order at those places). But when you wake up from a nap with the insatiable urge to find a cow and kill it and rip the flesh from its lowing skeleton...yeah, that's a little harder to ignore.

After a day of being grumpy and cranky as all hell, I finally caved. No, I didn't kill a cow. I bought a chicken salad. And I ate it. And I was happy. And surprisingly--I was full. For someone who's usually managed to be in control of her appetites, it's a bit disconcerting for my appetites to be in control of me.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Tangled Webs

One of the things we'd like to do before the Little It pops out is get married, mostly so that Karel doesn't have to go to the Hague to declare himself the dad (I'm not actually sure he has to do that, but it wouldn't surprise me) and so that the baby can have dual citizenship. So a few weeks ago, we made an appointment for a consultation with the gemeente, to make sure that all of our ducks were in a row, and to start the necessary process of getting the paperwork.

Two things immediately became clear: I might need to pay (yet another) visit to the US Embassy in Amsterdam, to get a "I was never married" paper signed and stamped. I can't remember if I'd sent the original to the IND, but in any case, that's not too difficult to do and that can be readily arranged.

Item the second is that I need my original birth certificate. And this is a bit of a pickle, because, well...I haven't got one.

In Taiwan, recordkeeping is somewhat...looser than it is in, say, the anal-retentive Netherlands. I was able to get around this problem the first time I needed proof of having been born (beyond existing) by providing a document that one of my aunts had to dredge up: a paper saying that I lived with my mom and dad. As far as an actual document saying that "Jules was born on Day/Month/Year at Hour:Minute", though? I get the feeling, after speaking with my mother, that such things were optional. But in any event, the paper stating that I was a resident of such-and-such an address was enough for them, although I get the feeling that they would've accepted any document with a smattering of Chinese on it.

What kind of irritated me about this appointment, though, was that the woman kept referring to China's system of public record keeping. China is not Taiwan--well, it is for official purposes (i.e., my passport says that I was born in China), but Taiwan has it's own (lax) government and different rules and such. While technically not wrong, it's sort of like suggesting that Maastricht is Dutch.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

How to Bake (bread and pastry)

Karel often says that I'm the baker and he's the cook--even though I do most of the "everyday" cooking. You know, the simple soups and pastas you can throw together using nothing but random leftovers in the fridge and a can of beans. It took a surprisingly long time to get to that point, actually--and poor Karel had to eat a lot of crow before I got there. Crow, or badly-cooked chicken...I'm not sure which.

But baking, for whatever reason, has never struck me as being particularly difficult. I liken it to running PCR: you mix everything together, flick the tube (DO NOT VORTEX), put it in the machine, and two hours later, you have data. Something like that, anyway. It's the mixing together part--the "vortex briefly" or "flick the tube" or "mix with inversion"--that gets people, I think. And to that end, there are two key factors to determining the success of your baking adventure.

The first is getting a good recipe, and by a "good recipe" I mean a recipe from someone who was or still is a pastry chef. I've made no secret of my adoration for Dorie Greenspan; her book Baking: From My Home to Yours is quite visibly a well-used treasure in our cookbook collection. In following her recipes, things have rarely gone wrong--if they have, it was solely because I didn't read the recipe carefully and "Oops, I thought it only needed a half stick of butter". A good recipe will give you meaningful direction on making your confection well--how to tell when you've cut butter into a pie dough properly, when to stop mixing a muffin batter, etc. Karel, for one, has even made a delicious rugelach using her recipe.

The second is understanding flour. Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking contains a most enlightening discussion on the molecular properties of flour. I'd quote from my version, but it's almost as old as I am, and later versions are probably more up-to-date in culinary geekery. But basically, knowing what's going on when you mix flour can really open your eyes as to why you shouldn't stir pancake batter until smooth, or how to judge when bread is kneaded properly.

These days I don't really use a recipe for anything any more--I check my proportions sometimes, but generally I go by feel when I'm making bread and pie crusts. They say that baking is a science and cooking is an art, but really, it all comes down to how well you know your food.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Old Wives' Cat Tales

Spring here means, amongst many other things, lots of "lost cat" posters on the telephone poles, taped to the inside of the bus stops, slapped on the bulletin boards at the supermarkets, etc. I see one and I think, "Road pizza". I just don't understand how people can let their cats run free and not expect them to meet up with, say, an angry dog, a sociopathic serial-killer-to-be (they're here, too), spilled antifreeze, etc. This being the spring, too, narcissus flowers and other deadly-to-cats plants are in full bloom.

We are in the minority because our three kitties coexist almost entirely in a small two-bedroom apartment (two bedrooms and a living room and a kitchen, actually), and while they have free access to our balcony on sunny days, they seem to prefer the greenhouse effect of our picture windows in the morning. They are healthy, and while two of them are technically in renal failure, you wouldn't know it by looking at them. Well, maybe you could guess with the Tweeb. But at any rate, our litter boxes don't stink, and except for the two weeks last year when the Tweeb got hauled to the vet and began peeing on our bed at the injustice of being the only cat subjected to such indignities, they haven't got any behavioral issues, either. There is occasional growling and hissing, but by and large the three have reached amicable terms of coexistence.

I say this to refute the old wives' tale that cats need to go outside to be happy and healthy. Noodle, who was previously allowed outside, has shown no desire to so much as be on our balcony (though his curiosity is finally starting to get the better of him--after 3 years). But now that we're in verwachting, there's another old wives' tale that we've been getting from both sides: that cats and babies can't get along, and that we'll have to send our kitties away.

First of all, not bloody likely. The cats were here first. And...well, honestly, who else could be suckered into adopting the Tweeb? Besides, there are enough videos floating around that clearly refute the so-called "fact" that cats are dangerous for babies. If anything, I could probably use the help:

But it's strange how persistent these myths are, despite the higher literacy levels in Europe, and the greater appreciation for animal welfare (especially in the Netherlands). I guess there are some things that not even science or rational thought can trump.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Twists and turns

Benny, over at "Fluent in 3 months", writes that the most important thing you can do to learn a new language is to just plunge in and do it. Start speaking right away, don't worry too much about grammar, just start talking and reading and writing and after about 3 months, you should just "get it".

It works to a certain point, for Dutch. I find that, for most of my daily life's needs, my fledgling Dutch--by which I mean most things are in the right order most of the time, and that I can understand most of what most people say to me in return--is enough. I have, after all, made dentist appointments and changed insurance policies and started a business with nary a word of English. But what they say of the NT2, which I will be taking later this year (unless I don't have to, by dint of Karel and I getting married), is downright terrifying. It is terrifying for two reasons: first, it is a four-hour test spread out over two days, with separate reading, writing, listening, and speaking sections (one hour each). They really do test your comprehension: they'll write something one way in the reading section, and put the answer in another way. Ditto for listening. Secondly, they are real sticklers for grammar. This means, all your "er" need to go in the right places with the correct prepositions (actually, picking out the correct prepositions is harder than figuring out where to put "er"), verbs must be conjugated in the correct tense, with clear pronunciation of the "e" at the end of the imperfect, etc. Happily, they do not penalize for "de" and "het" mix-ups.

Like most languages spoken by a limited number of people, Dutch is a highly contextual one, where everybody knows that "bakken" means "to fry" unless it means "to bake". and "weer" means "again" until it means "the weather". The rules in Dutch are many, the exceptions are even greater. But the main reason I tend to disagree with most of what Benny has to say about taking lessons (for Dutch, at least) is that at more advanced levels, you can't really suss out the rules on your own. They aren't self-explanatory, and they certainly aren't obvious. And the sheer number of "Dutch-isms" are enough to boggle even the most dedicated immersion-type learner.

But that being said, Dutch is like any other language, in the sense that, if you worry too much about the grammar, you won't get anywhere. At some point, you just have to turn off your self-consciousness and your inner grammar marm and just start blurting things out, and trust that you'll be able to make yourself understood.