Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meetups and Whatnots

Now that we're in the last stages of baby preparations, and my work has slowed down a bit, I've been trying to find an expat group in Nijmegen--to meet new people, and to have a social life of some kind post-It.  Although I'm not a naturally sociable person, the amount of isolation I'd been experiencing as of late has been alarming, even for me.  At first, I still had my Dutch classes, and there were trips to Leiden and Maastricht, and then the NT2, and of course I'm still seeing the midwife and meeting up with sellers from Marktplaats.  But now that the diapers have been made and everything we need to buy has been bought, there's been a definite drop-off in the amount of person-to-person contact I've been having.  It's not quite as terribly isolating as it was before I started working, but it's been a bit distressing.

I found the Arnhem expats group on MeetUp, and the first, ah, meetup was quite fun.  It's a nice break to be social without struggling to put things into Dutch, or being expected to put things into Dutch and then making your listener impatient and then you both start speaking in English anyway.  But I will say that placing orders with the wait staff is always a bit confusing, because I'm in the habit of placing requests in Dutch, but when everybody else is placing orders in English, it leaves me in the lurch--do as others do, or as Romans?  And, besides, the "hot chocolate" drink isn't really hot chocolate as it is warme chocomel, which is strictly a Dutch thing.

Along those lines, I received a curious phone call from a government survey center, which rated the effectiveness of the inburgeringscursus that I didn't take--when I explained that I took a language course as opposed to a how-to-be-Dutch course, the woman on the other end said something along the lines of, "Oh that's fine, I'll just use the other survey."  The B1-B2 course at the Radboud was, in my opinion, great--hell, I passed the NT2 with my first shot, so it couldn't have been too bad.  But one of the questions was, "How often do you use Dutch in your everyday life?"  Snarky me wanted to say "never", but I would never have been able to negotiate stuff on Marktplaats or get my taxes* cleared up if that were really the case, since the Belastingdienst isn't allowed to provide answers in English.

And lastly but not leastly, we've finally found a piece of Dutch TV that we both...I'm not sure if "like" is the right word.  But it's definitely one of those don't-wanna-stare-but-can't-look-away type of shows.  Achter Gesloten Deuren takes people who have been living with a secret, sometimes for a very long time, and shows what happens when they finally tell the truth.  As far as voyeuristic kicks, it ticks all the boxes.  But something I've never understood about Dutch homes in general was confirmed in the show:  how do they keep their kitchens so pristine?  I mean, a lot of them don't even have a coffee machine on the counter (and you can't tell me that none of the featured families drink coffee).  There's no saltshaker by the stove, no herbs growing in a pot on the counter.  If you've ever caught an episode of Jeroen Meus's Dagelijks Kost (15-minute cooking show showcasing a quick, easy, everyday meal you can make--it's Belgian, so the accent is a bit funny), his tidy kitchen looks like a positive train wreck next to some of the Dutch kitchens I've seen.  I can only surmise that the Dutch don't cook, which is a bit sad, but also quite puzzling:  Why buy something so expensive if you never get a chance to play with it?  

*A small snafu in paying sales taxes in July led to a €4000 fine, which I was, after 5 phone calls and a total payment of €100, able to get removed.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

I Love New York

New York City recently passed a soda size ban, much to the annoyance of fast food establishments and movie theaters and anybody else who makes a living selling drinks larger than 16 oz to people (that's about 500 mL--your average soda bottle in the US is 20 oz).  It's part of the mayor's idea of getting people to live better.  Whether it'll work...well, let me put it this way:  you can still buy 2 L bottles of your favorite fizzy sin in the grocery store, and you can still buy six-packs.  What you can't do is ask McDonald's to supersize your soda when you order a Big Mac, but you can go to a 7-11 and get a massive 64 oz Big Gulp.  That's about 2 L of soda, FYI--bigger than most family-bottles (1.5 L) here.

Yeah, I'm not seeing how it makes sense, either.

But regardless of the actual effects of the soda size ban, I found it highly amusing that it would be so hotly contested.  Because, you see, in the Netherlands, if you sit down at a restaurant and order a soda, you get the dinkiest serving of soda--one 8 oz bottle, and that costs €2--and most of the time, you don't even get any ice.  I'm pretty sure that you can get larger servings at McDonald's, but as we haven't been to McDonald's for forever, and I can't remember how big the sodas were there (if anybody wants to fill me in, please do).  I seem to recall that 500 mL (or maybe it was 375) was either the only size available, or the largest.  Either way, since they don't do free refills, you're still not drinking as much soda as you'd be drinking in the US (at least, in the New York that I visited a few years ago).

The strange thing, though, is that in the Netherlands, while you can't get a Big Gulp to save your life, you can buy an enormous puntzak of frites and nobody will think any less of you for doing so.  Even small puntzakken contain about as much as a large order of fries, and if you go to some of the smaller, "pricier" establishments (in quotes because it's rarely more than €3), they use lard to fry up their frites.  And on top of all that, the Dutch smother them with mayonnaise (except it's saus, so if you want ketchup or anything else, you have to specify which sauce).   Happily, you can usually order a smaller bakje, which contains about 1/2 as much as a  puntzak, but the whole thing does make you wonder who orders the large ones.

We, personally, are not big junk food eaters--soda is mostly absent from our pantry or fridge (there is a not-unrealistic probability that the Little It will not know what soda is until he starts school) and frites are a rare event, bordering on geological time scales.  It's not out of health concerns, oddly. It's because there's so much other tasty goodness to be had, why settle for something as boring as a giant soda and bucket of fries?  And that's what else puzzles me about the ire against the soda size ban: You literally cannot escape delicious food when you're in New York.  Why would anybody want a giant bucket of sugar water instead?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Real Crusty Bread

Although I'm a decent home baker, I've always had one particular problem in making bread:  the crust.  To me, that's the essence of fantastic bread--that crispy, chewy, heavenly crust hiding a tender, soft, hole-y interior.  I'd gotten the interior down, more or less, and mastered the art of salting bread properly.  But I could never manage to get the crust right. I've tried high temps, low temps, starting high and going low, starting low and going high, misting the bread at the last 10 minutes, misting the bread in the beginning--no dice.

I'm not ashamed to say that I picked up the trick of making a crusty bread from watching MasterChef:  ice cubes in the bottom of a very hot oven (well, on a baking sheet--don't want to break the oven, after all).  But baking is a fickle science--oven temperatures are rarely exact, and the conditions in your little home oven, unless you happen to have a professional oven, can hardly hope to duplicate those in a professional oven.  White flour in the US is different from that in Europe--in the US, it's mostly hard wheat, while European flours are a mix of soft and hard.  This affects the gluten development, and you have to pay attention to the texture of the dough to make sure it's not overkneaded.

Kneading is another thing that I've re-learned:  it's not a constant working of the dough for 5-10 minutes at the beginning, it's stretching the dough five or six times, and then letting it rest for about 20 minutes before punching it down and stretching it again.  Done 3 or 4 times over the course of an hour, and it yields a soft, malleable dough.  The second proofing involves no punching down, but instead a gentle shaping of the loaf and then setting it down on the baking sheet.  .

One thing I haven't procured yet is a baking stone--a pizza stone will do, although I've aso learned that a terra cotta saucer, something you put under a terra cotta flower pot, will do the trick just as well (in the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child recommends a red tile).  This needs to sit in a hot oven (250° C, 450° F) for at least an hour to heat thoroughly.  The proofed bread goes onto the hot tile, giving you that lovely bottom crust (which I haven't quite achieved yet).

You can find the basic directions that I used in the recipe here.  I made this loaf with white flour--it was an accompaniment to a soup, so I didn't want too many flavors duking it out.  And yes, it was every bit as glorious as it looks.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I haven't been blackberry hunting in a few years--time or less-than-optimal summer weather has been against me in my endeavors to get tasty fruit for free.  Furthermore, the plants themselves only produce a decent harvest a few years at a time, so the places that would have yielded a good picking have probably changed by now.

But it is elderberry season, and these are somewhat less-dependent on the weather, and in fact a cool wet summer is ideal for fat, juicy elderberries.  Vlierbessen grow almost everywhere in the nearby Heumen Bos, and the one year we went after them, we picked so many we had to (much to my regret) toss about half of them, simply because they couldn't be used--and this was even with leaving what I called a "bird tithe", as we'd only pick about half of the berries on a bunch.  Karel made a delicious syrup that year--whether it actually cured colds is a matter of debate, but a hot drink made with that syrup and a bit of ginger tastes like spring on a cold day in winter and I'd imagine that the syrup would taste great as a summer drink with a bit of soda water (and rum).  Unfortunately, we only had one bottle that could be used to store it, and after another year in the fridge, we couldn't trust it to be good anymore.

However, this year, I've been saving up the smaller koffiemelk bottles; Karel had wanted to make ketchup, but the gods had decreed that the tomatoes would only go on sale when he didn't have the time to make it.  But it's okay, because this year we've gone out and gotten ourselves yet another harvest of elderberries for yet another syrup.

In Dutch cooking, vlierbessen are often mixed with fruits like apples to make something similar to apple butter, added to jenever or vodka, or made into jellies.  I haven't come upon any recipes for elderberry wine in Dutch--most of the recipes and how-to's I've seen come from England.  Elderberry wine is pretty simple in terms of processing, but it does take a bit of time and being around on certain days.  While you could probably make a decent "trail wine" (a mash of berries and water, fermented with natural yeasts for an afternoon in your water bottle) with them, the good stuff, as several sites have assured me, will have aged for at least 1 year, and preferably from 3-5.

I'm not going to include step-by-step directions for Karel's syrup, since there is no perfect way to preserve (other than "sterile").  Karel likes to infuse his preserves with little special somethings--cinammon, brandy, kirsch, herbs, you get the point.  There are a lot of good directions on the Internet for making preserves, but by and large the most critical factor is to keep everything hot.  I should add that I'm not a fan of dishwasher sterilization, personally; unless your dishwasher has an "sterilize" function (ours does not) and bakes your glass at a temperature well above boiling (250° F, 121° C), merely running your glassware through a dishwasher won't be enough, as Clostridium botulinum spores can easily survive a boiling.  Karel covers his glassware with aluminum foil and then bakes it for about an hour--covering stuff with foil is a tried-and-true method of keeping glassware sterile, as labs everywhere use it to keep their tissue culture stuff sterile. Caveat emptor, and to each his own.

A word of warning to those who may be tempted to go a-foraging:  the elder plant and unripened berries are poisonous--and this includes the stems, so be careful when you're gathering your fruit.  The ripe berries themselves are perfectly edible, though they taste a lot better after they've been cooked.  And happily, it's easy enough to tell when the berries are ripe:  they'll be a monochromatic black, with no traces of green or red.  

Sunday, September 9, 2012

More Baby Stuff

One part of the grab-bag of toys purchased off Marktplaats
I don't mean to go on a bender about baby things, but that's a lot of what's preoccupying me these days.  The baby is due in November, so while I've still got a lot of time to get stuff, I don't have a lot of money to get the stuff with.  This is especially problematic if you live in a country with no big box stores for uber-cheap diapers (and even with uber-cheap diapers, they'd probably still cost more than cloth), no coupons (well, rare coupons) for anything, relatively expensive stuff, and one reliable income.

Despite that, we've managed to keep our spending on baby things to less than €1000 so far, which is no small thing when a stroller can easily run to €800 (and that, believe it or not, isn't even a "top of the line" model) and a single baby jacket costs more than what I spend on my own clothes in a year. I don't think parents shop at those stores--I think those stores mostly cater to people whose friends/family are having children and they want to get something nice for the new arrival.  I've gone there myself, to buy "new arrival" presents for friends--it's always nice to get nice things for friends, but when you realize you're going to need several different outfits a day in case the poop is not contained, you start looking for cheap things, fast.  My main tactic for getting stuff on the cheap involves hitting the thrift stores and scouring Marktplaats.

Marktplaats has been especially interesting.  It's less sketchy than the Amsterdam craiglist, and while some bids and some emails go ignored, most of the time you get what you want, at a good price. You can do searches by price range, condition of the stuff you want to buy, distance from where you live, and other categories as well.  Ad views give you some idea of how popular some items are, and how quickly you should move to snap up a good deal.  Most sellers include pictures of their stuff.  You can place bids for things if the item is open for bidding; I usually offer a bit more than the requested price anyway, because we don't have a car, to compensate for shipping or driving the item to our place.  I've had a few emails go ignored, but by and large most sellers are eager to move stuff out and can't wait to get rid of it.

Why am I willing to buy so much stuff secondhand?  See, the way I figure it, most of us don't remember half of the stuff we had as kids.  There might be a special toy we remember, or a particularly cute (or hideous) outfit, but by and large we don't remember the stuff.  We remember what we did, the games we played, the time spent at the zoo, "helping" to make dinner, getting a new kitten, stuff like that.  I very much doubt that the Little It is going to know or care that his clothes are secondhand.  No, he's going to be too disoriented about being evicted, and it'll be much later before he'll know the difference.

There's a lot of advertising, even in the Netherlands, for baby stuff--most of which I'm thankfully immune to, since I just don't process Dutch the way I do English.  We've been getting a flyer for the Babypark for a while--and I gotta admit, I am curious to see the store (but then again, I've always been a fan of IKEA and similar stores).  We're inundated with all these messages that if we don't have the right stuff or do everything the right way, our kids are going to turn out scarred for life, permanently-damaged tragic figures that go on to become drunks or serial killers. I just don't buy it.  The iPhone only seems like it's been around forever.  

Friday, September 7, 2012


My future-mother-in-law took us on a little shopping spree for Little It things (she insisted), and we ended up raiding the Prenatal store, one of the premier baby-stuff stores in the city.  We ended up getting lots of socks, a mobiel, Rupsje nooitgenoeg, and a few other little things that, strictly speaking, we didn't need, but could be useful in a pinch (pacifiers, holy cow do we have pacifiers).  All in all, it was a fun day, mostly because our first concern could be how cute something was and not how much it would cost. (The total, in case you're thinking that we're total mooches, was still way less than the cost of a modern carseat.)  One thing we did not get, much to my relief, was a towel-y toy:

We've received 5 of them already.  It'd be cute if they weren't so...baffling.  I mean, they're not exactly stuffed animals--just a dislocated head on a towel.  Presumably they're easier to clean than stuffed animals?  But the state of some of the towel-y toys I've seen suggests that they've been fused to the child through years of loving and hugging (and some drool as mortar), which sort of defeats the purpose to their being washable.  I'll grant you that they are rather cute, even if you don't know what to do with them, but still:  when you have 5 and the kid's not even born yet you have to start wondering which Dutch cultural meme you missed.

Karel's nieces have one (or had one--I haven't seen it the last few times I went visiting, so maybe it got grungy enough to warrant a trip over the rainbow bridge for towel-y toys), so while the concept isn't new, I hadn't quite realized that this is, apparently, the Toy in the Netherlands.  We even got one from a couple who live in Scotland--they'd gone to a store in London, presumably a very chic and very white store, to find one.  Sophie the Giraffe may be de rigeur in the US, but in the Netherlands, the towel-y toy remains king, apparently.