Witlof, or Belgian endive, is a common vegetable in the Dutch kitchen. Although more favored by the older generation than the younger one, possibly because of its slightly bitter taste at times, the Dutch still purchase about 3 to 4 kilos per person a year of the chicory-related vegetable.  It ranks in the top ten of most consumed vegetables in the country and really became popular during the mid-1900s. It's often served as an oven casserole, with ham and cheese, like we're making today, or braised by itself and served in a bechamel sauce with a pinch of nutmeg. Blue cheese and witlof also make a great combination, either served raw in a salad or as a savory witlof-pie. It's a very versatile vegetable, low in fat and tender in flavor to where it compliments stronger tasting fellow ingredients.
Witlof, meaning "white leaf", is originally a Belgian discovery from right around 1850. Chicory roots were grown because it provided an affordable substitute for coffee. Left on their own device, in the dark, the roots grew white leaves that, upon discovery by farmer Jan Lammers, turned out to be edible and a welcome addition to the winter table. Farmers started selling some of it on the local markets and history was made. France is now the top producer of this white vegetable, with Belgium and the Netherlands following close.
Another story relates that it was François Béziers, the head of the Botanical Gardens in Brussels who discovered that several stored chicory roots had produced white leaves. He sent some to Paris where they were eagerly purchased. And for good reasons too: witlof as well as chicory root is beneficial to the liver and the gallbladder, and contains large amounts of potassium and vitamins B and C. Nowadays, full grown witlof is produced in less than twenty days by forcing one year old roots in an area with a controlled temperature of about 50F. The harvest consisted of crops of white, creamy, slightly bitter tasting witlof. A perfect winter vegetable to chase away the winter blues!
Witlof can be served raw or cooked. As a salad vegetable it barely needs much more than a splash of vinaigrette and maybe some citrus, as in a witlofsalade. Cooked, its tender nature benefits from robuster flavors.
Belgian endive will hold well, provided it is kept in a cool and dark location. Purchase smaller ones for eating whole. Larger endive will need to be cut in half and have the core removed as it tends to be rather hard and bitter.
4 Belgian endives
4 slices of ham
4 slices of cheese
1/2 cup shredded cheese
6 large potatoes
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup milk
2 teaspoons coarse ground mustard
Remove the outer leaves if damaged, remove the stem end. Cut in half and core the endive if it's fairly large. Bring a small pot of water to a boil and quickly blanch the vegetables, then let them drain. Set aside.
Peel and quarter the potatoes and bring them to a boil. Cook until done. Pour off the remaining water, and mash the potatoes with the butter and the milk. Fold in the mustard. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper if needed.
Butter an oven dish and spread the mashed potatoes on the bottom. Wrap each endive with a slice of cheese, then a slice of ham. Tuck in the ends. Place the witlof on top of the mashed potatoes and cover with the shredded cheese.
Place in a 350F oven for twenty to thirty minutes, until the cheese is melted and the vegetables are cooked.

Friese Dumkes

If you're in The Netherlands during the wintertime, and the temperature holds below zero for several nights in a row, you'll notice people starting to get a little nervous. Their eyes will dart from the sky back to the water (virtually impossible to be anywhere in the country and not be near a canal, a lake, a river, a stream or any other body of water) and then back up again. They'll consult newspapers, listen endlessly to the weather updates (even more than usual) and, while wringing their hands, whisper conspiratorially to each other: "Giet it oan?". (Frisian for "Is it going to happen?")

I'm probably exaggerating a little bit, but as soon as the temperature drops, the nation prepares itself for a possible exhilarating event: the Elfstedentocht. The Eleven Cities Tour is a physically challenging skating tour through the province of Friesland: it's 200km (124 miles) of skating on frozen canals, channels and lakes through eleven Frisian cities, starting and ending in the city of Leeuwarden, the province's capital.

The route takes the skater through Sneek, Ulst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindelopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker en Dokkum. Although the cities are always the same, the route will depend on the quality and the thickness of the ice. As a maximum of 15,000 skaters are allowed to participate (and unfortunately, many miss out on the opportunity to join), the thickness of the ice has to be guaranteed all along the route. Often, a last minute break in the ice or a warm night will suspend the whole event until further notice. And that notice can sometimes be ten years later.....Only fifteen tours have been ridden in total. The first one was in 1909, and the last one in 1997.

The toughest of all tours was the one in 1963. On January 18th, fifty years ago today, the thermometer registered  -18C (-1F) with strong winds. From the 15,000 skaters that started that morning only 69 made it to the finishing line, many in deplorable conditions with broken bones and suffering from snow blindess and hypothermia. The tour was won by Reinier Paping, presumably on the nourishment of a bowl of  Brinta he ate for breakfast. The tour became so legendary that a movie was made, called "The Hell of 63".

This year, whispers of "Giet it oan?" are starting to surface again. We'll keep our fingers crossed!!

In the meantime, we're baking a Frisian cookie to get in the spirit. Fryske Dúmkes (Frisian Thumbs) are made with hazelnuts, aniseed, ginger and cinnamon, and receive their name either because their size is initially the size of a children's thumb or because the baker pushes his thumb print into the cookie when it comes out of the oven and is still soft. I chose to bake a slightly larger cookie instead and omitted the thumb print part: those cookies are very hot when they come out of the oven!

Fryske Dúmkes
1 stick butter, room temperature
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger, ground
1 teaspoon aniseed, ground
1 heaping tablespoon whole aniseed
1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts*, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon milk
1 cup and 2 heaping tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 egg, beaten

Cream the butter with the sugar. Add in the spices, the nuts, the salt, the baking powder and the milk, and lastly the flour. Knead into a pliable dough (use a little bit more milk if too dry, add a tiny bit of flour if too wet), wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate. The longer it sits, the better the flavors meld together, but no longer than 4 hours.

Heat the oven to 325F. Roll the dough out and cut into 1 x 2 inch rectangles (or use an oblong cookie cutter, if you wish). Brush with the beaten egg and bake, on a parchment lined baking sheet, lightbrown in 20 to 25 minutes. Let the cookies rest on the baking sheet for a moment (if you want to press your thumb print in the hot cookie, this is a good time as any), then move them with the help of a spatula to a cooling rack.

Makes 20 as in the picture, 40 to 50 if you stay with 1 x 2 rectangles.

* If you can only find whole hazelnuts with skin, do the following: bring 2 cups of water and 1 tablespoon of baking soda to a boil. Add 1 cup of whole hazelnuts and bring back up to a boil. Simmer for three minutes. Pour off the water, and rub the skin off the nuts with a paper towel. Carefully roast the nuts in a dry skillet on the stove, then chop into small pieces.



Vlaai, vlaai. Sókker oppe vlaai, Ik wool det ik der ein stökske van had, En al waas det stökske nog zoo klein Dao mot waal sókker op zeen.

(Vlaai, vlaai. Sugar on the vlaai. I wish I had a little piece of it. And even if that piece was very small, it does have to have sugar on top.)

Ofcourse it rhymes in Limburgs, but you get the gist. It is an old traditional children's song from the region, and it showcases how much they like their vlaai (and quite honestly, what a sweet tooth they have!). Vlaaien are century old delicacies, created or at least first recorded by the Germanic tribes that roamed the area. They used to bake flatbreads with an elevated rim and top those breads with fruits, honey or fruit juices: I guess all that Germanic tribe-ing they did all day made them hungry!

The fruit vlaaien that are baked nowadays in Limburg still follow pretty much the same format: a yeast or bread dough is used to line a shallow baking pan, fruit purée or chopped up fruit is packed in between the sides and the vlaai is either baked with a lattice top, streusel or no top at all.

During the winter times, fresh fruit was not available. Fortunately, the thrifty Limburg housewife had plenty of canned fruits in her food pantry so the production and availability of vlaaien never stopped. Which was just as well, because vlaaien are, or used to be, a mainstay in the Limburg household. Sunday coffee dates, birthdays, funerals, weddings, county fairs.....you name it, any reason was good enough to bring out the large pie plates (there was often more than one vlaai to choose from) and share a piece, or two. Even better, nowadays you can purchase single serving vlaaien: a whole small vlaai all to yourself!!

The kersenvlaai was a pie that would often appear during winter times: it is a fruit that benefits from being canned and stored for a little while so it can release all its beautiful sweetness and juices. The cherries used here are canned, dark, sweet cherries. Use an 11 inch/28 cm tart pan for a large pie, or four 4 inch /10 cm small ones.

1/3 cup milk and 2 Tbsp (100 ml), lukewarm
1 1/2 teaspoons (5 grams) active dry yeast
1 3/4 cup (250 gr) all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons (30 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon (4 grams) salt
1 egg
1/2 stick butter (55 gr), soft at room temperature
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs or panko

For the filling:
2 cans dark sweet cherries (16 oz/453 grams each)
1 heaping tablespoon (10 grams) cornstarch
1 tablespoon (15 grams) sugar
3 tablespoons panko or breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons coarse sugar for decorating

Knead the flour, yeast, milk, butter, sugar, salt and half of the beaten egg into a soft dough. Grease a bowl, add the dough, cover and let it rise in a warm area for about 45 minutes.

In the meantime, drain the cherries and roughly chop them once or twice. Make sure you look for possible cherry pits that may have sneaked their way into the can! Add the juice (you should have about a cup and a half) and the sugar to a saucepan, remove two tablespoons, and bring it up to a simmer. Stir the two tablespoons of juice with the cornstarch into a slurry and add that to the juice. Bring to a boil while stirring: when the sauce thickens and changes color, fold in the cherries. Let cool.

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Divide the dough into six pieces (or leave it in one piece if you want to make one big pie). Roll the dough out, line each buttered form with the dough. Roll the other two pieces to cut strips of dough. Cover and let rise for about 15-20 minutes until the dough is puffy. Prick holes in the dough with the tines of a fork. Sprinkle a little bit of breadcrumbs in each form, and divide the cherries over them. Cover with the lattice. Brush the rim and the lattice with the remaining egg and sprinkle some coarse sugar over the top. Bake for about 18 - 20 minutes for small pies, or 25 - 30 minutes for a large one. Keep an eye on the lattice: if it starts to brown prematurely, cover it with some aluminum foil.

Cool on a rack. 


With a new year, come new opportunities. Ever year, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers (well...maybe not these last ones) sign up to participate in the many professional competitions that the country is rich. Best sausage, best roll, best anything-you-can-think of....throughout the year we do our fair share of tasting, eating, testing and some more taste-testing. Hey, we love good food!

The Netherlands loves to showcase the amazing skills their artisan food makers possess, and is proud of its many producers. Today's recipe is based on an award-winning dish from Butcher Gerard Koekman of Nieuwegein, who won the competition for best oven casserole several years ago. It pairs ground beef with bacon, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and Dutch cranberries. Now, wait a minute! Dutch cranberries? Yup. Read on.

A looooong time ago, around 1845, vats of cranberries reached the shores of the island of Terschelling, presumably all the way from America. Excited, the beach combers ran out to gather the wooden barrels, thinking it contained wine. Imagine their disappointment when they found only hard, sour red berries in the barrel. Disgusted, they threw the berries in the sand dunes and went on with their day. At least, so the story goes.

Several of those berries caught on and soon the island of Terschelling, on the northern Dutch coast, was growing cranberries. The tart fruit never made it much further than jam, sauce or beverage material, but nevertheless it's something to be proud of.

Fast forward to right around now. Butcher Koekman found an old recipe from the Cranberry barn on Terschelling, adjusted it to his liking and hey presto! won the national casserole competition and eternal fame. The dish is called "siepeltjespot" and is presumably an old-fashioned dish from the Terschelling island. It's quick to make, and is a very comforting dish: the smokyness of the bacon, the sauerkraut and the sweetness of the cranberry compote go beautifully with the creamy mashed potatoes. We did a bit of adjusting of our own, and it's a winner alright!!

5 slices smoky bacon
1 lb (450 grams) ground beef
1 small onion, chopped
10 oz (275 grams) sauerkraut
1 cup (280 grams) cranberry compote*
6 medium (1 kg) potatoes
4 tablespoons (60 grams) butter, divided
1/2 cup (125 ml) milk
Pinch of salt

Dice the bacon and slowly render it in a skillet. Remove but one tablespoon of fat. Add the ground beef and the small onion to the bacon in the skillet and brown the beef. Season to your liking. In the meantime, peel, quarter and boil the potatoes. When done, pour off the water, and mash the taters with two tablespoons of butter and the milk. Add a pinch of salt. Adjust the amount of milk if needed.

Add a thin layer of mashed potatoes to the bottom of a casserole dish. Put the ground beef on top (drain any fat previously!). Squeeze any juice from the sauerkraut and distribute it evenly on top. Spread the cranberry compote over the sauerkraut and top with the rest of the mashed potatoes.

Bake the casserole in a 350F/175C oven for thirty minutes. After twenty minutes, dot the potatoes with little flecks of the remaining butter and bake the casserole until the top is golden brown. You may broil it for some extra golden goodness!

Serve warm.

* This is a great opportunity to use up your leftover cranberry sauce from Thanksgiving or Christmas. If you are caught without, boil three cups of cranberries in a cup of water, three tablespoons of sugar, a sprig of rosemary, two garlic cloves, a bay leaf and a splash of balsamic vinegar, until the berries pop. Purée, taste and adjust the flavors. A can of cranberry sauce will do in a bind, but don't use cranberry jam or preserves: they are too sweet.

Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!!

Wishing you a very happy 2013! May you have much love, good friends and great food!

Thank you for making this a great year!