Gerookte Makreel

Mackerel and I don't have the best of relationships. My first encounter with this fatty finned food was while fishing one day on the North Sea, many years ago. It was cold, it was windy and trying to get those slippery fish off the hook while they void their vent on you is a hassle and a half. Not my idea of a fun afternoon, mind you, and I venture to say not the mackerel's either.

Last week, many years after our first date, we met again, mackerel and I. Not anywhere near the North Sea, but in the freezer department of a local grocery store. There it was, immediately recognizable by its distinct silver and dark blue pattern, but slightly less agitated than last time. Well, quite a bit less agitated actually, because it was frozen stiff.

The Dutch traditionally don't smoke many of their foods for preservation or flavor: rookworst (smoked kielbasa), rookvlees (thinly sliced smoked sandwich meat, made from either beef or horse), rookkaas (smoked cheese) are just about it. But visit any fish monger worth his weight and you will find smoked mackerel, smoked eel and smoked herring (bokking) as part of the assortment. Whether as a sandwich filling or as a fatty snack by itself, both mackerel and eel are Dutch favorites when it comes to fish.

Fatty fish are great sources for Omega-3 fatty acids and two portions a week are said to do you much good. Both eel and mackerel are fatty fish and a little bit goes a long way. A one pound mackerel will probably serve three to four easily. Do serve it with either a bread and butter pickle or a pickle spear, to cut through the fat.

*Caution: fatty fish are much more prone to spoilage. As soon as the fish has thawed, gut it and put in in a salt bath, per recipe's instructions. The salt will flavor the meat but also kill any possible pathogens. Brine it for at least three hours, or even better if you can leave it soaking overnight in the fridge.

For this dish you need a smokehouse or smoker. I purchased a Little Chief smoker and used apple chips to smoke the fish. Keep the temperature at an even 150F for the duration of the process: mackerel should be ready in about an hour and a half.

Gerookte Makreel
2 mackerel
Salt
Water
4 handfuls of apple chips

Thaw the fish in the refrigerator, or in the sink under running water. In the meantime, prepare a salt water solution (1 cup of table salt on sixteen cups of water) with enough water to cover both fish.

Lay the fish on its side, and cut open the belly with a short sharp knife from the vent to the gills. Carefully reach inside and pull out all the organs and the digestive tract. Cut out the gills. Rinse out the cavity and the head, and lay the fish in the salt water brine.

Keep the fish submerged in the brine for at least three hours, but if you can brine them overnight in the fridge, even better. The next day, rinse the fish and pat them dry. Insert a sausage hook (I used the metal hooks from a bungee cord) into the back of the head of the fish. 

Fire up your smoker. In the meantime, hang the fish somewhere where they are covered, out of the elements but with some kind of airflow. A small fan might just do the trick. Smoke does not penetrate into wet meats, so the drier the fish, the better the smoke flavor.

Hang the mackerel in your smoker, put the lid back on and get smoking! Mackerel has a distinct flavor of its own and apple will give a tender, non-dominant smoke flavor to the fish, but you are welcome to experiment with any other flavors, or stick to your favorite.

Remove the mackerel when they're golden and done, roll them separately in aluminum foil, and let them rest for an hour. If you want to eat them warm (and who doesn't!!), cut off the head and the tail, and carefully break open the fish by inserting your thumbs into the belly cavity. Remove the spines and the skin, and break the remaining meat into large chunks.

Serve as such, on a buttered roll with a pickle, or cold on some crackers as a snack or appetizer.



Beschuit met muisjes

I'm in such a happy mood! It's Spring, which is always a good reason to celebrate: new life, new births, new everything. I love seeing how the first flowers pop up in the garden, how the first leaves are carefully unfolding as if to check and see if winter is really over. It's a great time to celebrate life.

In Holland, the birth of a child is celebrated with beschuit, a twice-baked white roll that is as brittle and fragile as a new-born baby. Depending on the outcome, these rusks are buttered and sprinkled with pink muisjes if it's a girl, and blue muisjes if it's a boy. As it's usually either one or the other, only those two color variations exist for the sugar coated aniseed muisjes, or "mice". That is, unless you're royalty. In that case, the beschuit will be covered with orange muisjes, to represent the Dutch royal house, the Oranges.

Beschuit has been around since the early 1400s: the then bishop of Utrecht is said to already have enjoyed the twice-baked bread. During the 1600s, the city of Wormer made a name for itself with its beschuit, a finer table bread, and more delicate than its sturdier sister, the scheepsbeschuit or hardtack, that was produced for the seafaring population of that area. The popularity of both had, at one point, over 150 grain mills delivering the flour needed to produce all those beschuiten.

Nowadays, beschuit is still a favorite breakfast bread: it requires skill to butter the rusk without it breaking in three or four pieces and plenty of tourists have wondered why on earth the Dutch bother with something so dry and brittle if there are so many other breads to choose from.

But beschuit is one of those foods that triggers memories: softened with warm milk and sugar it becomes one of grandma's versions of lammetjespap (lambs porridge), crushed to fine crumbs it holds together that lovely schoenlapperstaart (cobbler's pie) or those famous Dutch meatballs, and if you were sick as a child, a cup of weak tea and a dry beschuit would sometimes be the only food you were allowed to eat.

Unfortunately beschuit is no longer baked by artesan bakers such as the ones in Wormer or Jisk, but large companies such as Verkade or Bolletje have included beschuit into their assortment of baked goods. Verkade started baking beschuit during the last part of the 19th century. Baking was considered a man's job but the beschuit was so brittle that Verkade started employing (unmarried) women to pack the rusks, as their hands were more slender and their packing skills more gentle than the burly beschuit bakers.

Making beschuit at home takes some time, but it's worth to do. You can vary with whole wheat flour, add sesame seeds or sprinkle cinnamon sugar on top for a sweet version. For the baking, use straight-edged ramekins that are five inches (approx. 12 cm) across and 1.5 inches (approx. 4 cm) high.

Beschuit
4 tablespoons (60 grams) butter, room temperature
4 tablespoons (50 grams) sugar
1 cup (250 ml) of milk
2 eggs
3 3/4 cups (450 grams) all-purpose flour
1 scant tablespoon (15 grams) baking powder
1 scant tablespoon (10 grams) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon of salt

Cream the butter and sugar. Mix the flour, baking powder, yeast, and salt in a bowl and add to the creamed butter. Add the milk and the eggs and knead everything into a pliable dough, for about five minutes.
Let it rest in an oiled bowl, covered for fifteen minutes, then divide into 3.5 ounces (100 grams) pieces. Roll and rest under a towel while you prepare the ramekins.

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Spray each ramekin with cooking spray. Place the dough balls on a baking sheet, cover each one with a ramekin and let the dough rise for about 30 minutes. Place the sheet on the middle rack and bake for twenty minutes, leaving the ramekins in place. Retrieve the baking sheet, remove the ramekins, turn the beschuit over and bake for another ten minutes.

Now, cool the beschuit until cold to the touch and slice the bread lengthwise in two. Place cut side up on the baking sheet and return the rusks to the oven, lowered to 325F/165C to dry and lightly brown.

This will take another ten to fifteen minutes, but keep an eye on the bread.

When they're golden and dry, remove, cool, and enjoy!! Makes approx. 7 beschuiten.



Tomatensoep


The Netherlands is currently the world's largest exporter of tomatoes worldwide, ahead of Mexico and Spain. We have quite a history with tomatoes: at first deemed only a decorative fruit, the tomato was considered poisonous until they figured out that the tin plates on which they served them caused the toxins. It quickly moved from show-apple to love-apple, celebrating the presumed aphrodisiacal powers this fruit of the nightshade family might have, and has since 1900 featured in our diets in various formats, one of which is today's tomato soup. 

Unfortunately, our tomato soup has become one of those industrialized, run-of-the-mill soups that are available anywhere and everywhere. Tomato soup is standard on menus, is available from automated soup dispensers and is sold in large family-sized cans, but it's often not more than a gloopy, starchy red mass. No tomato proud of its heritage would want to end up in a can like that....so we're going to make our own!

Wintertime is a great time to put a bowl of steaming hot tomato soup on the table: the color and the flavor will bring back memories of summers past. But fresh tomatoes are hard to come by this time of year, or at least tomatoes that have great flavor, so my go-to are canned diced tomatoes. They have more lycopene than fresh tomatoes, and the flavor is hard to beat since the tomatoes are processed when they are at their ripest, and in such a fast fashion that vitamins and minerals are often preserved. 

If it's summertime when you're reading this, it's a fantastic time to revive tomato soup from its sordid industrialized image. Gardens are flooded with large, juicy, ripe, sun-kissed tomatoes all over, just plain begging to be used up for a homemade, honest, honorable tomato soup. In Holland, tomato soup is traditionally served with soepballetjes, mini meatballs, and a splash of heavy cream. The recipe below makes about four generous servings of soup, and about 20 soepballetjes.

This is a quick soup. For a more elaborate soup, look for Oma's Tomatensoep in the near future.

Dutch Tomato Soup
2 lbs/1 kg ripe tomatoes (use a variety for more complex flavor) or a 28 oz (794 grms) can of diced tomatoes*
1 beef or vegetable bouillon cube
4 cups/1 liter hot water for fresh tomatoes (2 cups/0.5 liter for canned)
1 small onion or shallot
1 tablespoon butter
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
8 oz (250 grams) ground beef
Salt
Pepper

Peel and chop the onion or shallot and sauté it in the butter. Cut the tomatoes up into small pieces, remove the seeds and, after the onions have become translucent and released their fragrance, add the (canned) tomatoes and simmer for the next ten minutes. Pour the hot water over the top, add the bouillon cube, the bay leaves, and the fresh thyme, bring it up to a boil, then cover and turn down the flame to simmer for the next twenty minutes. In the meantime, season the ground beef with salt and pepper and knead it together for a minute or two, then roll into small marble-sized balls (0.3 oz/8 grams) and let them simmer in the soup. 

Remove the bay leaves and the stem sprigs, pull out the meatballs, and blend the soup smooth. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper if needed, then add the meatballs back in. After serving, pour a tablespoon of evaporated milk, milk, or sour cream into each and stir.




* I love the diced tomatoes with Italian herbs: perfect for a cold winter day!

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Amsterdamse Koggetjes

Amsterdam koggetje cookies have quite the history. In 1935, a competition was held to come up with a luxury cookie for the city of Amsterdam. Both the secular Dutch Pastry Baker's Association and the Roman Catholic Baker's Association participated. 

The winner, whose name is not known with certainty but it's thought that it might have been a Mr. Van Dorssen, entered the Amsterdamse Koggetje, named after the medieval merchandise ships called Kogge (koggetje is a diminutive of kog, cog ship) that also appear on the oldest arms of the city of Amsterdam.


Courtesy of Pieter Bak
http://home.versatel.nl/bak014/
 Mr. Van Dorssen was a member of the Dutch Pastry Baker's Assocation, which excluded the Roman Catholic bakers from producing and selling the Koggetjes in their establishments. In order to ensure this, the cookies were sold in special made koggetjes cookie tins. Not too impressed with this move, the RC bakers came up with an enamel plaque to fasten next to the bakery's entrance, announding that "From Amsterdam, you bring Koggetjes home!" and baked the cookie regardless.

Nowadays, anybody is free to produce koggetjes at will. Even the HEMA, a much beloved Dutch department store, has them as a standard cookie in their assortment. Another name for koggetje is nougatine, referring to the caramel it contains.

Koggetjes
7 tablespoons of butter
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/3 cup and 1 tablespoon of sugar
1 tablespoon of milk
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1 cup flour, sifted

For the caramel
1/3 cup of sugar
2 tablespoons of water

Start with the caramel: heat the sugar and the water up, bring it to a boil and while stirring let it caramelize. Pour the hot caramel on a silicone baking mat or a piece of parchment paper and let it cool. Once cooled, break it into small pieces with the help of a rolling pin.

Cream the butter with the sugar, the salt, the milk and the vanilla. Stir in the flour until well blended, then fold in the caramel pieces. Add the dough to a pastry bag and pipe dollops on a well greased baking sheet or a silicone baking mat. Heat the oven to 320F and bake golden in 15 minutes. The dough will spread so make sure you leave enough space between the dollops.

When the cookies are golden and have a slight browned edge, carefully remove them from the oven and the baking sheet, and let them cool on a rack.  Makes approximately 24 cookies.

Prûmebôle

Hieronymus van Alphen, the famous Dutch poet who lived from 1746-1803, was especially known for his poetry for children. Even though he only managed to write less than 70 poems for this particular audience, his work ended up translated in French, German, English, Frisian and Malaysian, which for that time was quite a feat.

One of his most celebrated works is a poem called The Plum Tree (De Pruimeboom), about obedience and its rewards. It goes as follows;


Johnny saw some fine plums hanging,
Oh! like eggs, so very large;
Johnny seemed about to pluck them,
Though against his father's charge.
Here is not, said he, my father,
Nor the gard'ner near the tree,
From those boughs so richly laden,
Five or six plums - who can see ?
But I wish to be obedient,
I'll not pluck them; off I go.
Should I for a trifling handful
Disobedient be? Oh no.
Off went Johnny; but his father,
Who had overheard his talk,
Just then forward stepped to meet him,
In the garden middle-walk.
Come, my Johnny, said his father,
Come, my little darling boy,
Now for you some plums I'll gather,
Now you are your father's joy.
Then Pa gave the tree a shaking;
Johnny stooped with laughing face,
Johnny filled his hat quite brimful,
Off then galloped in a race.

For however lovely the poem is, its moral lesson went straight over my head. Only last week I saw gorgeous plums hanging in the neighbor's tree and reached to pick and eat one. Just as I sank my teeth into the sweet flesh, the neighbor walked out the door, grinning. Busted!!!

What could I do? I had a half-eaten fruit in my left hand, purple plum juice dripping down my chin and my right hand was still holding on to the branch of her tree. So I gave her a cheesy grin and shrugged my shoulders. Hey, what can I say? I'm not Johnny :-)

But this week I'm doing penance. Instead of scolding me, the neighbor lady picked two full bags of plums and left them on the porch for me to find. Nice! So I've been in plum heaven this week: I canned plum jam, dehydrated several trays of plum slices and made some yummie plum brandy. 

I also wanted to try an old recipe that I found in a Frisian cookbook from 1772, De Welkokende Vriesche Keukenmeid, one of the few recipes that lists plums. For some reason or other plums are not big in the Dutch kitchen and research only gave me two recipes: this one and a traditional Limburgse vlaai made from dark plums.

This recipe for a good old sturdy plum bread pudding, was traditionally a dish made with dried plums (i.e. prunes) and given to new mothers. Apart from the luxury of eggs, milk and sugar that surely did a new mother good, the prunes provided much needed relief from eh...well whatever prunes offer relief from. You know.

But since I didn't need the laxative benefits of a prune pudding (although some people may suggest otherwise) and I found myself with a copious amount of pre-prunes, I decided to make this dish with fresh plums instead. It lends itself to a gorgeously rich, fruity, sweet and slightly tart bread pudding that is wonderful eaten warm out of the oven, with or without a scoop of ice cream.....

Prûmebôle
10 fresh plums
12 slices of old bread
2 eggs
2 cups of milk
1/3 cup of sugar
3 tablespoons of brandy
1 tablespoon of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of orange zest
2 teaspoons of brown sugar
1/2 stick of butter, room temperature
Pinch of salt
Pinch of nutmeg

Butter an 8x8 baking pan. Cut the crust off the slices of bread and spread butter on both sides of the slice. Put four slices of bread on the bottom of the pan.

Slice the plums and distribute half of the slices over the buttered bread pieces in the pan. Sprinkle one third of the cinnamon over the fruit, and half of the orange zest. Place another four slices of bread on top, and divide the rest of the fruit over the bread. Sprinkle another third of cinnamon over the top, add the rest of the orange zest and cover with the last four slices of bread. Sprinkle the rest of the cinnamon on top, and the two teaspoons of sugar.

Beat the milk, the eggs, salt, nutmeg and three tablespoons of brandy into a foamy liquid, on medium high for about four minutes. Pour the milk mixture over the bread in the pan, cover and rest either overnight, or at least for two hours in the fridge. Remove from the fridge while you heat up the oven to 350F.

Place the pan on a baking sheet to catch any juices and bake the bread pudding for at least 45 minutes or until the top is golden. Best eaten warm.