Sunday, April 29, 2012

Oranjebitter

One more day, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands will explode into a big, orange frenzy. The whole country turns into one huge party: live concerts, yardsales and food, food, food everywhere. What's the joyous occasion? The thirtieth of April is Queen's Day!

First observed as a national holiday in 1885, the celebration started as Princess Day, to honor then princess Wilhelmina's fifth birthday, on August 31st. When she became queen in 1890, at the very young age of 10, it was renamed Queen's Day, a title it has held since. When her daughter Juliana became queen, in 1948, Queen's Day moved from August 31st to April 30th, Juliana's birthday.

The logical step would have been to move the national holiday to January, the current's queen Beatrix's birthday, when she succeeded her mother Juliana in 1980. But by then, the traditional outdoor activities around Queen's Day had taken such root that moving to January would have quite possibly rendered all activities impossible to maintain. Queen's Day is, per definition, a festivity celebrated with others: outside, in parks, on the street, on the canals. It's the one day a year where, in a country that does not know weekly yard or garage sales, everybody displays all their sellable wares for others to buy.

It's also the one day a year, except for some national soccer events, that food will be colored orange: orange tompoezen, orange potato chips, orange cakes and, let's not forget that old traditional Dutch drink, the oranjebitter. Few like it, and even less people will order it outside of Queen's Day, but one cannot imagine this national holiday without a shot of bitter, orange-flavored booze.

Bitters are alcoholic beverages that are flavored with herbs, fruit and/or spices. Oranjelikeur, similar to a bitter but with the addition of sugar, was first heard of in 1620, but gained national appreciation after a member of the house of Orange, Willem I, became the nation's king in 1814. The drink was reintroduced, now as a nationalistic and patriotic beverage, and has remained as such ever since.

For a long time, bitters were very popular, but we like our beverages sweet nowadays, so slowly but surely the bitter manufacturers have been adding sugar back into the drink. Still nowhere as sweet as a liqueur, this oranjebitter does have some sugar to sweeten the flavor.

If you don't care for it as a beverage, try it sweetened over ice cream or in hot tea.

Oranjebitter
1 teaspoon aniseed
6 cardamom pods
1 large orange
1 large lemon
2 cups vodka
3 tablespoons sugar
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick

For the syrup
1 cup water
1 cup sugar

Scrub the orange and lemon, and peel thinly, without much pith. Juice the fruit and save the seeds. Dry the fruit peels and the seeds in a warmed oven or on a hot airvent, until crisp.

In a mortar, bruise the dried peel, the dried seeds, the aniseed, cardamom pods and the three tablespoons of sugar with a couple of good stomps from the pestle. Scrape everything into a clean, large mason jar. Pour two cups of vodka on top and two cups of water, and the orange and lemon juice. Add the star anise and the cinnamon stick, give everything a good swirl and screw the lid on the jar.

Place the jar in a dark, room temperature area, such as your kitchen cabinet or in the broom closet by the water heater. Give it a careful shake every two or three days.

After three weeks, taste-test and see if you like the strength of the flavors. If yes, good. If not, screw the lid back on and let the jar sit for another week.

Now carefully line a strainer with a paper coffee filter on top of a clean jar, and pour the liquid into the strainer. Clear, golden orange liquid should now filter into the vessel below.

In the meantime, bring a cup of water and a cup of sugar carefully to a boil, stir it until the sugar has dissolved and let it cool. Add enough to the oranjebitter to bring it up to the level of sweetness you like. Multiple tastings will be in order. Whatever is left, serve cold over ice or straight.

Happy Queen's Day!!!


You can "enhance" the oranjebitter with a drop of red and yellow food coloring, to give it a more commercial orange look, or add a drop of orange essence to increase the orange flavor.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rabarbermoes

As soon as we come out of the cold winter months, the first signs of spring (and of good eating) are on their way. Peultjes, or peas, are carefully poking their head out of the soil, and regardless of whether the IJsheiligen (the ice saints, more about these frosty figures later!) decide to freeze these first garden treasures or not, some vegetables are hardy enough to enjoy the cooler temperatures.

Rhubarb is one of those old-fashioned, ubiquitous vegetables that grows abundantly in fields, near homes and in gardens all over the country. It's a hardy plant that appeared on the Dutch gardening panorama in the early 1900s, and consequently showed up in the kitchen, although in a very limited variety: mainly as a side dish, jam, a compote or as a moes, or sauce.

Although rhubarb is an acquired taste, many do like the tangy, slightly astringent flavor. As a side dish, the stalks (either green or red, depending on the variety) are simmered down into a stringy, tangy supersour vegetable moes and served either cold or warm with potatoes and meat. Not everybody's favorite choice of vegetable, I am sure, but rhubarb is supposedly very healthy, so there you go.

Sugar or other sweeteners like strawberries or pineapple are added during the preparation of jam, compote or sauce to add some additional flavor, although some will eat the stalk straight off the plant, often with a dash of salt. The leaves are poisonous, only the stalk is edible.

Rhubarb sauce can be made by itself or with the sweet combination of strawberries, like in today's moes. Try pouring the sauce warm or cold over hangop, yoghurt, or make into a fruit vlaai. A thicker sauce can be achieved by slowly simmering away some of the moisture, and can make a great rhubarb jam for beschuit or a slice of bread !

Rabarbermoes
2 lbs rhubarb stalks
2 cups strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt

Wash and cut the rhubarb stalks into one inch pieces. Wash the strawberries, hull and slice them. Add the rhubarb and the strawberries to a Dutch oven or thick bottomed pan, add the sugar and salt, and toss. Pour half a cup of water in the pan, and slowly bring to a simmer. Cover the pot, and let the mixture simmer for twenty minutes, making sure the sauce doesn't burn.

When the rhubarb breaks up into stringy pieces, the sauce is done. Taste. Adjust the sweetness if necessary.

If you want jam, thicken the sauce with pectine according to the instructions on the package.



Sunday, April 15, 2012

Gerookte Paling

"They'll be in next week", the fishmonger said when I called to see what happened to my order. "We're flying them in from Atlanta, so they'll still be alive when they get here. You don't mind killing them yourself, do you?". And he excused himself and hung up.

I sat there for a minute, wondering. I love food, and I love to eat. But I'm not very good at killing things. I mean, I don't mind squishing the odd ant that has found a way into my kitchen, or making a mosquito shaped splash on my bedroom wall, but anything bigger than that.....not so much.

So I talked to Frankwin, a Dutch friend who grew up in the province of Zeeland and had experience with these things. And to our sous-chef who was going to go into this eel adventure with me. And I looked online to see what the most humane way to have an eel go from icky slimey to yummie smokey was, and it seemed that there was no easy way.

All week I read about eels. How they start as little glass eels and swim their way around the ocean before finding a place to grow and get fat and tasty. How they have two skins, the outer one a slimy, icky one and a thinner black one, and that you have to strip the slimy one before you can do anything with the eel. And that there are very few eels left and so the price is high and the availability scarce. And how there's a better availability in other areas of the United States but somehow Idaho was not on the eel-map. Chris, a kind and encouraging reader of the blog, would even send me pictures of how to smoke eel (something he does frequently, and well!) and give me tips and suggestions for when the precious cargo would arrive.

Try to get the biggest pieces
But I did not get eel. Somehow the order was messed up, or they lost them on the plane, or something happened somewhere, but no eel for me. Which, quite honestly, was a bit of a relief, because I had not yet decided how I was going to tackle this whole eel-killing business. Phew!!

Nevertheless, the desire for smoked eel kept making waves in the back of my head, figuratively speaking. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the Asian market in Boise, shopping for completely unrelated items, and my eye spotted the word "eel" on a package in the freezer. Yes!!! Yellow eel steak from Vietnam, neatly cut into four inch pieces, peeled off its squishy coat, and best of all, frozen stiff. Deader than dead, and ready for cooking.

Smoked eel is a Dutch delicacy. The eel is long, fat and meaty, and one eel will easily feed two people. Gerookte paling, or smoked eel, is available at the visboer (fishmonger) or at one of the many local herring shacks around town. It's one of the many types of fish that people buy as a snack, much like the smoked mackerel or herring. Yellow eel is a younger, therefore thinner eel, but will do to get a taste of gerookte paling.

Gerookte Paling
Swimming in brine
2 packages (14oz each) frozen yellow eel
2 cups water
1 heaping tablespoon salt
Hickory chips

Thaw the eel, rinse it and place it in a container. Dissolve 1 tablespoon of salt in two cups of water and pour over the eel, making sure they're covered. Brine the eel in the fridge for at least three hours but not much more.

Pour off the brine, rinse the eel, pat it dry with some paper towels and allow it to air dry on a cookie rack or grill rack, something that will allow for air circulation. Smoke will adhere best to dry matter, so make sure the eel has a chance to dry on all sides. A small fan placed on the fish will speed things up. Don't spend more than thirty minutes.

Start the smoker and place hickory chips on your tray. Place the eel on the racks, close and smoke on low temperature for approximately 30 minutes. The skin will be golden and slightly wrinkly. Don't smoke the eel too hot, because the fat will cook out of it, and you'll be left with fish sticks, and not the right kind!

To eat the eel, especially the thinner yellow eel, it's easier to insert both thumbs into the rib cavity and gently pull the sides apart. Peel the meat off the skin (or the other way around, whatever comes easiest) and snack away! Bones and skin are not edible.

Eet Smakelijk!


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Paasbrood

Previously published in the magazine Dutch, issue March/April 2012

The gathering of family and friends around the breakfast, lunch or dinner table is always a feast on First Easter Day.  It was, especially for the Roman Catholic areas in the country, the first celebration after Lent and the one that broke the 40 day fast. For those that didn’t fast during that time, it was a Spring time event that warranted celebrating just for the sheer joy of better times ahead. The stark diet, whether for religious reasons or because winter rations were running out, was replaced by a day of abundance and good cheer. Children had saved their candy during Lent and were now allowed to dig into their sweet savings, and adults splurged on meat, eggs and fresh spring vegetables.

Eggs were, by definition, a sign of new life and a great source of protein to strengthen and gather energy after a cold, dark winter. Breads were enhanced with sugar, dried fruits and almond paste, and meat-filled soups were part of the tradition: all to celebrate with abundance the arrival of Spring, of new life and of warmer weather.
 
During these Easter days generally all stores are closed. Children are out of school during this time, and will dress in their "Paasbest" (Easter Best) with new clothes and shoes. Eggs are colored, hidden and if lucky, all found. Many remember missing at least one or two eggs: leave them be for several weeks and they’ll be hard to miss!

First Easter Day is usually celebrated with an extensive brunch. The table is set with the best china and some Spring flowers, and the spread will consist of luxury rolls and ofcourse paasbrood,  a cinnamon flavored rich bread, studded with golden and dark raisins, currants and citron and orange candied peels. The table would not be complete without various cold cuts, sweet bread toppings, a boterlammetje (butter in the shape of a small lamb), a couple of warm egg dishes and often a soup or something else savory such as a pasteitje (puff pastry shell) with egg or chicken ragout (gravy), and large amounts of coffee or tea.

Paasbrood can be served as a loaf or, as shown in the picture, as rolls. Divide the dough into six equal parts, roll them into balls, cover and let them rise until puffy, about thirty minutes at room temperature. Make an incision in the top with some scissors and press an unboiled egg in the dough, making little nests, or shape the bread like paashaasjes, as can be seen here. 

 
Paasbrood
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dark raisins
1/3 cup currants
4 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp yeast
1/4 c sugar
zest 1 lemon
1 egg
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 1/4 cup milk, warm
1 stick butter, melted
1 heaping tablespoon citron peel
1 heaping tablespoon candied orange peel

Place the raisins and the currants in a small saucepan, add a cup of water and bring to a simmer on the stove. Let it simmer for a good ten minutes, then turn off the heat and let the fruits sit. Proof the yeast in half a cup of the warm milk. Mix the flour, the sugar and the cinnamon, and slowly pour in the proofed yeast and the rest of the warm milk. Keep mixing and while the dough comes together, add in the egg, the melted butter and the salt, then mix and knead the dough until it comes together in a soft, pillowy dough. If the dough is too sticky, add a tablespoon of flour.

Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turn it over so that both sides of the dough are greasy, cover the bowl and let it rise, away from cold drafts, for an hour or until doubled in size.

Drain the fruit and pat them dry with a towel. Toss the fruit with the candied peels and the lemon zest. Punch down the dough and carefully knead the fruit mix into the dough, until the mixture is well distributed.

Now divide the dough in half, shape them into loaves, grease two 9x5 bread pans and place the bread, seam down, into the pans. Cover and let rise for about 30 minutes or until the dough fills the pans.

In the meantime, heat the oven to 350F. Place the bread pans on the middle rack and bake golden in about 40 minutes. If the bread browns too quickly, tent the pans with a sheet of aluminum foil. Brush the tops with water when the bread is done and place them back on the rack for a minute, then take them out.

Let the breads cool on a rack before you slice them. Serve with some good butter. Zalig Paasfeest!