Some foods don't sound very appetizing. Take for instance today's ingredient, zuurkool. Sour or soured cabbage just doesn't quite do it for the ol' appetite now, does it?

Nevertheless, the fermented white cabbage is a staple in the Dutch kitchen. Especially during colder winter days this vegetable can really brighten your day in a zuurkoolschotel with mashed potatoes and a smoked rope sausage, or in an island dish called siepeltjespot, made with potatoes, ground beef, sauerkraut and cranberries. And not just in the winter: sauerkraut lends a crisp, slightly tangy side to summery salads, or a surprising flavor to soups.

Zuurkool is said to have originated with the Tartars, a roaming group of Mongols, who formed part of Genghis Khan's army in the early 13th century. Whole cabbages don't travel well in saddle bags for obvious reasons, so they would cut them up in strips and transport them that way. The salt of the horse's perspiration would soak through the bags and trigger the cabbage to start fermenting and hey presto! zuurkool was invented. These culinary conquistadors are also presumably responsible for the invention of the steak tartare.

From China, where pickled cabbage became a big hit, it traveled to the Romans and Greek cultures, who fermented the zuurkool in wooden barrels, and on to the rest of the European cultures. Zuurkool, because of its high amount of vitamin C, would also travel well on ships and seafaring expeditions and help avoid scurvy.

The Netherlands produces on average about 45 million pounds of the sour cabbage: it's a very popular item! In the old days, many Dutch households would have a stone crock in the basement and make their own zuurkool, nowadays it's bought fresh from the produce market or in the grocery store. Here is a quick video from 1948 where you can see how it was made in factories back then. But we're spread out all over the world, and sometimes zuurkool is hard to come by, so we're going to make our own!

It is an easy item to make, although it does require patience and some light monitoring.  And you'll be pleased to know that no sweaty horses are needed! Some cuisines add juniper berries, herbs or white wine, but the Dutch prefer theirs just made plain, with only salt, but you are welcome to experiment!

5 lbs white cabbage (about 2 large heads)
10 teaspoons pickling salt, kosher or sea salt*

Remove a few outer leaves on each head. Cut the cabbages in half, remove the core and slice the cabbage very thin. You can do this on a mandolin (be careful!!) or with a chef's knife.

Take a clean container: I use a pickle jar as you can see in the picture, but a stone crock or any other jar will work just fine. Wash and rinse it so that it's clean and dry. Place one or two whole leaves on the bottom of the jar. Weigh out 8 ounces of sliced cabbage and add it to the jar. Use a sauerkraut tamper or a potato masher or other blunt instrument to push down the cabbage. Sprinkle a teaspoon of salt on top. Layer with another 8 ounces of sliced cabbage, push down well, sprinkle salt. Repeat until the jar is packed, and finish with another two or three whole leaves. 

The salt will start pulling liquid from the bruised cabbage and soon (although this could take up to 24 hours), the cabbage will be sitting in its own, salty, juice. Perfect!

Push the cabbage down as it will be wanting to float. Use a clean, inverted dish with a rock on top like they did in the old days or join the 21st century. I use a large foodsafe zipped bag that I fill with water. It weighs down the cabbage, flexible enough to cover every nook and cranny but is light enough to let any gases escape. The key is to have the cabbage submerged!

If there is not enough water to cover all the cabbage after 24 hours, carefully salt a cup of water with 2 teaspoons pickling or kosher salt, stir it until it's dissolved and add to the pot.

Let the crock sit on the counter for two days. Then move it out to a cooler part of the house, maybe the basement or the pantry. Make sure no pests, dirt or debris can get into the pot. As you're fermenting cabbage, gases will appear and create a slightly sour smell: that's a good sign!

After about three to four weeks, the zuurkool should be done. We'll make a traditional Terschelling dish with it!

 * Do not use iodized or table salt as it is usually laced with other ingredients: use only sea, kosher or pickling salt.

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These are busy times. Sint Maarten hasn't even left the building, figuratively speaking, and the next Saint is already eager to step forward and take his place. Set aside the wafels of Sint Maarten, because now it's time for Sint Nicolaas kruidnoten, speculaas and borstplaat!

But all that sweetness sometimes leaves you wanting for something else. Not a full meal, not a sit-down affair, but a quick pick-me-up. A hot, savory something to gulp down, before you get back on your bike and rush out to get some more Sinterklaas gifts, ingredients to make gevulde speculaas or some of those horrible-but-can't-stop-eating-them "kikkers en muizen", sugar-filled chocolatey candy in the shape of frogs and mice, wrapped in aluminum foil overalls. (Yes, you read that right, they are wearing bright-colored overalls. Why? I have no clue, but I'll try and find out!)

How about a savoury, steaming cup of mushroom soup instead?

The fact that mushroom soup is one of Holland's traditional soups is hardly surprising. Since the start of the first mushroom production in 1825, the country has become the third largest mushroom grower in the world. The fields of northern Limburg, Noord-Brabant and Gelderland proved to contain the perfect growing conditions and these provinces produce almost 94% of its national total. Nowadays, mushrooms are grown in very controlled and covered environments.

Creamy mushroom soup is therefore, next to tomato soup and split pea soup, one of the favorite choices for a cold, winter day!

1 lb mushrooms
5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
½ cup onion, diced
1/3 cup celery, sliced
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
4 parsley sprigs, stems and leaves separated
Pinch of freshly chopped thyme
2 cloves
1 bay leaf
½ cup heavy cream

Wash and slice the mushrooms, keeping one mushroom whole. Melt the butter in a pan, and slowly sweat the onions and the celery in the fat, until the vegetables are soft. Add the mushrooms and the thyme, stir several times while they slowly release their juices and gain flavor.

When the mushrooms are soft, remove about half a cup for garnish and set this aside. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables in the pan and stir several times, so that they’re coated and slowly add in the stock. Keep stirring to make sure all the flour is dissolved. Bring to a boil, then turn to a slow simmer.  Take the whole mushroom and stick the bay leaf to it with the help of the two cloves. Add it to the soup, as well as the parsley stems. Simmer for twenty minutes.

Take out the whole mushroom, remove the bay leaf and the cloves and chop the mushroom in pieces, and return it to the soup. Use a stick blender to purée the soup to a fine consistency. Taste. Stir in the heavy cream and warm the soup, but do no longer boil. Taste again. Adjust seasonings to your liking. If you have it, a drop of sherry will do this soup good.  Add in the remaining mushroom slices, garnish with some chopped parsley leaves and serve hot.


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Sint Maarten Wafels

November 11th is an important date in Holland. For children, it marks St. Maarten's day, the day kids venture out in the evening carrying small candles in paper lanterns to sing songs at neighbors' doors and get candy or fruit in return. For the grownups, "the eleventh of the eleventh" at 11:11am initiates the beginning of the famous Carnaval season. It is the day that the new Prince Carnaval is elected, who in turn announces his "adjudant" or helper, and the "Raad van Elf", the eleven organizers who will be tasked with setting up parties, parades and ofcourse, determine the theme of this year's carnaval. The number 11 has, since old times, been the number for fools and simpletons.

But back to St. Maarten, one of the most recognizable saints in Catholicism. For him November 11 wasn't such a good day, as that is the day he was buried. On his way to somewhere, St Maarten saw a poor beggar by the side of the road who needed protection from the cold. St. Maarten cut his coat in two and gave the man one half. That night, in his dreams, he had a vision of Jesus wearing half of his cape. The next day, the cape was miraculously restored.

The beginnings of this ritual were originally pagan (carrying lit candles or "holy" fire around the neighborhood at dark was part of a fertility ritual that was a widespread custom in Western Europe at the time) or traditionally religious in nature (on November 11, the reading of the Bible is verse 11:33 of the book of Luke, ""No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead he puts it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light.").

Either way, it was a begging fest, much needed during the lacking winter months, and definitely a festivity for the poor, as one song indicates:

Hier woont een rijk man,
Here lives a rich man
Die ons wat geven kan.
Give us something sure he can
Geef een appel of een peer:
Give an apple or a pear
We komen ’t hele jaar niet meer.
We won't come around for another year

As with many things, these festivities usually find place in the southern, mostly Catholic, region of the country. The kids in the northern regions, however, have caught on to this free candy thing and now, too, stroll the dark nights. After having collected enough candy the kids gather with their parents at the town square where a huge bonfire is lit to celebrate the end of the evening. Most paper lanterns end up in the bonfire, and children are handed hot chocolate and waffles to warm up.

Whether you're out and about this evening, or staying home, these yeast waffles are tasty and, because of the egg whites, surprisingly light.

St Maarten Wafels
2 cups flour
2 cups milk, warm
2 teaspoon dry yeast
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1/2 stick (60 gr.) butter
2 teaspoons brandy (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or 1 sachet vanilla sugar)

Mix the flour and the milk into a batter, and fold in the yeast. (Alternatively, you can also sprinkle the yeast on the milk and let it proof, then mix it in with the flour). Let proof for ten minutes, then stir the batter once or twice, and add the sugar and salt. Stir again. Split the two eggs. Beat the egg yolks and stir them into the batter. Cover and let the batter sit for thirty minutes in a warm spot. In the meantime, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, and melt the butter. Let the butter cool, but do not let it solidify.

When the batter is showing signs of yeast activity (the batter will show bubbles, like in the picture above), carefully stir in the melted butter, holding one tablespoon back for the waffle iron. Add the vanilla extract and the brandy to the batter. Fold in the egg whites carefully, to lighten and thin the batter. You are now ready to bake!

Heat the waffle iron, lightly grease it if necessary and bake waffles golden. Sprinkle with some powdered sugar and serve warm. Makes about 12 waffles.

Happy St. Maarten!

St. Hubertusbroodjes

I love old traditions, especially ones that involve food. As luck has it, the month of November leads into a whole Saint-related food fest, with Saint Nicholas as a culmination in early December.

Today, November 3rd, is St. Hubertus day. St. Hubertus was born in and around the early 650s and was an avid hunter. On Good Friday, when he chose to go hunting instead of attending church, he came across a huge deer in the woods. The animal displayed a burning cross between its antlers and the voice of God spoke: "Hubert, turn your life around or else!" Or something to that extent.

Long story short, Hubert listened, moved to Maastricht, eventually was elected bishop and became the patron saint of archers, huntsmen, mathematician and a myriad of others. He's probably most famous for being invoked to combat rabies, as he presumedly once healed a dog from rabies by performing the sign of the cross over the animal's head.

It also inspired the tradition of applying a heated key called St. Hubertus key to the animal's forehead, after which it had to stay in confinement for nine days and only be fed dry bread. This is presumably where the St. Hubertus rolls tradition started: a soft, white roll, sometimes with raisins or anise, but most often plain, with a cross cut in the top was baked by hundreds of bakers during this time, blessed by the church on November 3rd and consumed by both dog and owner.

Bakeries in a variety of locations in the Brabant province will sell thousands of St. Hubertus rolls (also known as hupkes, huipkes or hubkes) today, rolls that earlier that morning have been blessed by the local Catholic clergy. People of all ages will enjoy a huupke today, and are sure to give a piece to their dogs as well. Better a roll in the mouth than a key on the forehead, I say!

If you don't have dogs or don't believe in tradition, this recipe is also good for just a plain, soft white roll. Increase the weight on the roll to 2 1/2 oz.

St. Hubertusbroodjes
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
2  1/2 cups milk, warm
4 oz butter
1 egg

Proof the yeast in the warm milk. Mix the flour with the salt, add the milk and knead together, adding in the butter and the egg as you go. Knead it all together into a soft dough, let it rise to double its size,  punch it down and cut into 1.5 oz portions.

Roll each piece of dough into a tight ball, place them side by side in a buttered baking pan. Cover and let rise. Preheat an oven to 400F.

Right before baking the rolls, cut the top of the dough from left to right, and top to bottom. Bake for 10-15 minutes until done, then brush with some butter when the rolls come hot out of the oven.

Optional: some Hubertusbroodjes have raisins or currants in them, which you can add after having kneaded the butter and the egg into the dough. Others have a slight anise flavor: add two tablespoons of gestampte muisjes to the flour before you mix in the rest.