Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Belgian-African Dinner

Belgian cuisine typically evokes images of frites and mussels, waffles and chocolate. Less commonly does the visitor think of the international suggestions on a potential Belgian menu, suggestions that come from far further than France or Germany.

I enjoy the friendship of a Belgian who grew up in the Congo. As with each of us, she holds deep nostalgic hunger for the foods of her childhood. Fortunate for me, this takes the form of a Congolese meal of moambe,  broiled bananas, sauteed manioc leaves and rice. The main dish consists of chicken stewed with onions in a spiced palm oil. (Click here for a recipe.) My friend adds a bay leaf and thyme for an authentically Belgian touch. The manioc are leaves of what Americans may be more familiar with as the yuca plant. (Click here for a recipe.) The trick: these greens are poisonous. A hearty dose of boiling eliminates the toxins, and a handy prepared can of the vegetable alleviates the need (and evidently foul odor) of having to do that yourself.

The resulting meal may not plate pretty, but the indescribably luscious and new flavors even re-imagined now trigger stomach growls of desire.


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Even the Roman ruins we stroll by in the endless chambers of Vatican art remind us that half the reason we love Italy is the food we eat. The mosaics display a banquet of roast boar with mushrooms, crisp vegetables, ripe fruit, plentiful seafood and other succulent morsels that taunt a grumbling belly four hours into my insistence that I will get my 14 euros worth of this gargantuan museum.

The sad truth is that many visitors to Italy do not take advantage of the great culinary honors of the country. Most decent eateries are not near the tourist magnets, and if you insist on eating at 6 p.m., you will find no self-respecting Italian restaurant serving. Although we had our share of mediocre sandwiches and passable ice cream cones — when hunger strikes and trekking out to the foodies’ favorite district was not in the cards — we also delighted in the delectable without extreme measures nor an outsized budget. Have others in Italy eaten better? Sure. But we were quite content with our taste bud travels inextricably linked as they were to a hardcore cliche visit to the big three: Rome, Florence and Venice.

To start off with the big stuff, the best meal we discovered, indeed, off the beaten track. But not too far off. The small town of Fiesole sits in the Tuscan hills above Florence. Even the hop-on-hop-off bus reaches the main square, off of which the tiny Vinandro offered us melting carpaccio, succulent rabbit, rich truffle cream sauced pasta and a 7-euro liter of fine red wine.

Not all our meals were so refined. We set up a picnic of meat-and-cheese-stuffed rice balls (arancini) and a zucchini flower fritter amongst the ruins of an ancient Roman town. We returned again and again to gelatto counters in different cities: caramel, coffee, chocolate mousse, melon and — my favorite — pink grapefruit.  There were sweet rolls packed with sweeter cream from a pastry shop, a pizza lavished with buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil leaves and another topped with grated spring artichoke, uncooked and tossed in lemon juice. We were even pleasantly surprised in Venice to be served a lovely little Parma ham and cheese sandwich scattered with crisp arugula.

But I could not limit myself just to what was served. An unexpected food market of regional specialties set up in front of Santa Croce presented the opportunity to take home truly sun-dried tomatoes, a gnarly salami made with red wine and salty firm ricotta. Even the smallest grocery store overwhelmed: perfect purple artichokes, giant juice pears and alien-fingers of spring fava beans, all products of Italy. Ah, and my first real, sweet tomatoes since last summer.

And for anyone who fears she may not discover such marvels on their own, I have all the confidence of ten days experience to declare: at the very least you shall find a fair cappuccino.

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Wish us luck on our culinary treasure hunt. See you back here in ten days with tales to tell.

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It was a great pleasure to travel beside a fellow voracious eater armed with an admirable sweet tooth. And to top it off she could even out pace me getting around town (and out of town) on foot in search of something to eat.

Not that my expectations for food were set high:

The Netherlands does not have a distinct culinary culture because . . . the absence of a strong culinary tradition at the court due to an emphasis on Calvinist soberness. Food is seen as a necessary part of life, with no need for luxury.

the best quiche ever

Clearly this was not looking good. Still, the basic staples of Dutch food described in travel guides appealed: cheese and pancakes. Plus, it is spring, which means seasonal smoked eel on the menu, supposedly.

But before we arrived at the more daring culinary tries, my friend and I surfed the menus of Amsterdam to great satisfaction:
  • a pancake with baked-in cheese covered in preserved ginger;
  • the most perfect slices of quiche ever — light and airy in a crispy thin crust scattered with salty ham or luscious goat cheese;


  • a late-supper Rijsttafel — a personal smorgasbord of Indonesian delights in graduated spiciness (note: spicy in Holland does not equal spicy in NY);
  • perfect yogurt dip and baba ganoush inside a hip restored church in de Pijp district;
  • roombrodje which caught our eye in a tiny bakery and turned out to be as good as “cream bread” sounds like it should be;
  • a three-course meal of delectable tomato soup, hutspot with “bal/wurst” and vla dessert, all for 9,50 euros; and
  • a final evening of canal-side bitterballen — deep-fried meaty croquettes — cheesy fondue at a brown bar at the coolest square in town and poffertjes — miniature yeast-based pancakes — at the carnival.

room broodje


And then there is the matter of the 10 km eel.

The trouble with an adventuresome traveling partner is that she is game for anything. That includes ideas like: Let’s take the train to this stop in the middle of nowhere, where my bike route map of Holland indicates there may be a combination of different shaded little lines that lead to a tiny town where, I read in my 20-plus-year-old Michelin Green Guide, they serve smoked eel.

When we disembarked at Spaarnwoude (which a train conductor made me practice pronouncing three or four times) before the mighty blue mass of IKEA, I was skeptical myself. But a few steps away, under the highway overpass and over a small hill, we found a park-like setting and a legitimate route. Bridges linked us over the water where needed. We even passed two windmills.

But then the distances posted became grew and by the time we were in the town of Spaarndam itself we had covered about 5 kilometers and still had to make it back.

Spaarndam Eel

In desperate need of a bathroom as well as hungry for lunch, I directed us straight past the first cafe in order to examine every possible option in this one-lane-and-a-canal town. An hour later, we settled into the Tourist Cafe, which was not only a charming 100-year-old building and served exactly what I was looking for — paling or eel — but was the first and only place we had come upon. Most importantly, they had a bathroom.

Without that, I fear my friend may have abandoned me for a very solitary 5 kilometer stroll back to the Spaarnwoude train stop.

She forgave my oddness, again. The eel was worth every step.

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Asparagus Season

In The Belgian Cookbook Nika Hazelton provides great insight into the Belgian love of asparagus:

A Belgian’s relationship with his vegetables is different from that of an American. Vegetables are a delicacy, to be appreciated in their own right, rather than the fodder that gives us our daily vitamins. The tender, pale asparagus from Malines [Mechelen], juicy from ivory stem to pale jade tip — with what reverence a waiter will announce its presence on the menu! Time and again, people I dined with asked if the asparagus on the menu was Belgian, and when told — sometimes without their asking — that it was imported, they turned it down with the waiter’s full approval.

Asparagus is in season. At the market, lines of blue plastic bins contain size gradations of the long white stalks. The thickest, and the most desired, can cost up to $7 a pound. We went for the mid-level, Flanders-grown, an appealing bouquet wrapped in colored wax paper and tied with white cotton kitchen twine.

The preparation of the vegetable is key: peel the outer skin to remove the stringiness and snap off the woody ends. From there, traditional methods of cooking depend on the region. In the Ardennes, local ham is wrapped around each stalk. In a Flanders recipe, shrimp are used in the sauce and as a garnish. Or, chopped asparagus is used to create an asparagus soup. Flemish Asparagus is perhaps the most common and well known recipe, found in restaurants around the country this time of year. From The Belgian Cookbook:

pearly, milky asparagus peels

2 pounds asparagus, trimmed, peeled, and cooked
4 hard-cooked eggs
1 cup butter, melted
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 Tbs fresh lemon juice or 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
2 Tbs minced parsley

Crush the eggs in a small bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients. Serve in a sauceboat with the asparagus. Or, family style, let each diner help himself to 1 hard-cooked egg and mash it on his own plate. Combine the butter, salt, pepper and lemon juice in a sauceboat and pass around, for each diner to sprinkle on his masked egg and asparagus.

(I suppose we are supposed to infer the parsley is for garnish.)

With a non-egg-eater on my hands, I had to come up with an alternative: a white cheese sauce on which to lay the steamed stalks. The star, however unlikely in the presence of a cheese sauce, was the asparagus itself. The flavor is quite unlike green asparagus: sweeter, with a more creamy texture. And as instructed by a local authority on these matters, each stalk was eaten at once in its entirety, held on one end by our fingers and directed into the mouth with our forks at the other.

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Leftover Chocolate

The last of the Easter dark chocolate eggs put to good use on in-season strawberries from Spain and soft banana slices. Mmmm.

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Or should I say chicken? Or duck? These other animals seem as prevalent in the theme of Easter treats around town as the bunny is in the United States. Evidently the rabbit has (or had) not so much to do with the delivery of eggs for small children as the “bells of Rome,” which manage to drop candy for the kids and yet always remain unseen.This seems to have opened the door to a fuller menagerie of animal-shaped candies.

I serve as the bell-tolling bunny here, and my lack of resistance is evident in the overstocked Easter basket of chocolates and sweets. It was the available variety that intrigued me. Our traditional chocolate bunny was a mere spectator to the endless variety of chickens (not chicks), ducks and, especially, chocolate eggs. These came in all sizes; hallow or solid or filled; white, dark or milk. I even managed to come by a Dutch version of the peep, but these marshmallow candies are in the shapes of full-grown, roosting chickens.

As I proceeded to collect a chocolate egg from here and a chocolate egg from there, I hatched an idea to conduct an Easter morning taste test. Does the more expensive chocolate really taste best? Is local better than corporate?

Our specimens included solid and filled eggs from Hema (a Dutch store), the local bakery, the candy lady at the market, Galler (available at grocery stores) and Neuhaus and Leonidas (two famous luxury chocolate brands). With hot tea to cleanse our palette between eggs and slices of aged gouda to prevent instantaneous tooth decay, we went to work. (The cheese, by the way, has been a scientifically proven fact, not just my family tradition of a brick of cheddar in your basket. The internet told me so.)

The results were not that shocking. Or, at least not as shocking as biting into one of the candy lady’s eggs to discover . . . What is this filling? Let me taste. Eww. That’s banana. Why?!

Leonidas and Neuhaus both ranked at the top, as is fitting their price. In the middle range there was less distinction between a few more euros or a few less. Galler, whereas not as pure and smooth as the fancy brands was better than the local-made bakery and definitely the market lady’s eggs. (We are hesitant to try the rest of hers, fearful of what else she may have thought tasted good in a chocolate egg.) At the bottom were the Hema eggs. They were the least expensive, but after our taste test, I would suggest that for the same price it would be worth it to simply get fewer, better chocolates from Galler, or far fewer from Neuhaus or Leonidas.

Notably, all of the chocolate, save perhaps the banana episode, was far superior to the standard fare most kids are subjected to in the U.S.

Better educated, if a little nauseous, we can securely set a chocolate strategy for the next Easter in Belgium. It might just take us that long to get through the rest of this basket.

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