notables and edibles from Amsterdam and Brussels

Earlier this month, I spent a delightful week over in Europe – 3 full days in Amsterdam, 3 in Brussels. While I’ll have fond memories of all of the sights we took in, as always, it’s what I stuffed my face with that I’ll likely remember most. So, here’s the rundown of much of the sustenance we enjoyed throughout the week.

After a red-eye flight, a short train ride, an even shorter tram ride, and a little bit of walk (not to mention about 36 sleepless hours), we found ourselves at Noordermarkt – an open-air market featuring endless produce, baked items, cheese, charcuterie, and flea market-type vendors. Despite being all sorts of discombobulated with the time shift and sleeplessness, we soldiered forth to round up a great little breakfast of a couple of different breads (that served as breakfast for the next couple of days, too.)

Bread with ham, cheese, and zucchine

Bread with ham, cheese, and zucchini

One thing worth noting. Make reservations for dinner in Amsterdam. At least on Saturday. We walked seemingly endlessly looking for a place that could accomodate. After being nixed from all of our top choices, we found solace in a cozy little Italian place that I enjoyed quite a bit, while my companion’s lasagne could’ve been a lot warmer.

Sunday night had us tucking into a gluttonous Indonesian feast that is actually more Dutch in tradition than Indonesian. Rijsttafel is a gigantic meal of various small servings of many Indonesian dishes. We settled on one that had about 12 different plates from Kantjil & de Tijger. The highlights were most of the vegetable dishes, especially a cold salad of cucumber and mango.

Moments before digging into our rijsttafel

Moments before digging into our rijsttafel

Some 45 minutes later

Some 45 minutes later

de Kas at night

de Kas at night

For our last night in Amsterdam, we had thankfully planned ahead and made reservations at de Kas – a restaurant embracing locavore culture. In addition to the produce they grow in the greenhouse in which the dining room is housed, they’ve got their own farm about an hour outside of the city, as well as relationships with many producers of produce and livestock and seafood in the area. Before we were even handed menus, we were presented with a small round rustic bread loaf, basil oil for dipping, marinated giant green olives, bright and fresh tasting pickled zucchini, and glasses of champagne with edible flowers in them. Next up was a round of three different starters served family-style. The best dish of the night was the heavily smoked salmon served with beets – both cooked and shaved raw – and hazelnuts and dressed with a lemon dressing. This course also had an eggs benedict-type of preparation and a grilled skirt steak with mushrooms. The most underwhelming course was the entree that followed – a tuna steak with mashed potatoes. The tuna was not cooked quite properly resulting in some dry spots. But the atmosphere and the rest of the meal more than made up for the lapse. For dessert, we split a cheese plate of various French and Dutch cheeses and a vanilla panna cotta with a violet sorbet. Delicious and beautifully presented.

smoked salmon and beets at de Kas

smoked salmon and beets at de Kas

Panna cotta at de Kas

Panna cotta at de Kas

From the crowded busy streets and restaurants of Amsterdam, we headed off to quieter, more tame Brussels. It’s worth noting our indulgence on the train ride between the two cities. Biscuit cookies with chocolate hazelnut spread, though the cookies were overshadowed by the power combo of Sweet Chili Bugles paired with Schweppes Bitter Lemon soda.

on the train from Amsterdam to Brussels

on the train from Amsterdam to Brussels

While Amsterdam for us was all about grandeur, our meals in Brussels were far more relaxed and spontaneous, quite possibly due to the copious amounts of Belgian beer that accompanied most meals.

Lambic pitcher

Lambic pitcher

For our first night, we found a great little hard-to-find place in an alleyway called A La Becasse that specializes in Gueuze (and other) lambics served in clay pitchers – a wildly fermented drink that is more like a cider than a beer. The menu offered basic open-faced sandwiches or tartines (we got a ham one and gouda one, and in true foreigner style, combined them to make a single sandwich.)  And besides basic plates of cheese, salami, and wursts, they also offer lasagne, spaghetti bolognese, and spaghetti with ham and gouda. We would see similar menus in other pubs we visited.

Ham and cheese tartines

Ham and cheese tartines

We visited another pub, the Poechenellekelder, where I ordered lambic faro by the half liter and dined on French and Belgian cheeses and pate campagne and more pickles and cocktail onions.

Cheese plate at Poechenellekelder

Cheese plate at Poechenellekelder

At another place, we had the obligatory serving of mussels, that were just, frankly ok. Though the broth was wickedly good.

Can't believe I ate the whole pot

Can't believe I ate the whole pot

Throughout the city you’ll find Liege waffles on just about every corner and even the occasional little waffle-iron equipped truck. These are like super-Belgian waffles. They’re denser and chewier and crusted in crystallized sugar. And served piping hot and fresh. They offer all sorts of toppings, but, really, they can’t be beat just straight up. Our favorite was a truck we found just outside the Atomium.

Anticipating those Liege waffles

Anticipating those Liege waffles

And while the waffles were hard to beat, easily the best meal we had was a lunch near Ste Catherine’s at Noordzee (Mer du Nord.) A stall out on the street that sells fresh fish, but also will cook it up right in front of you. The menu changes everyday, based solely on what’s fresh and on hand. It was late in the afternoon, so there were a few things that had come and gone through their makeshift kitchen, but we were more than satisfied with the fried shrimp, seared scallops, and unbelievably plump and juicy mussels.

seafood lunch al fresco at Noordzee

seafood lunch al fresco at Noordzee

Oh, and how could I forget the Belgian chocolates? We staged our own tasting crawl, and while we didn’t find anything that was bad, we did find some that were substantially better than others.  By far our favorite was Elisabeth whose truffles, mint chocolates (with the taste of fresh mint), and candy that was made of their handmade nougat, something crunchy, and covered in chocolate that was so good we took home a whole bunch.

Belgian chocolates

Belgian chocolates

… with ice creamy ice cream

Chocolate and Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Chocolate & Salted Caramel Ice Creams

If you know me, you know there are few things I like more than ice cream. I have a saying that, “there’s always room for ice cream.” And it’s pretty much true. Over the last 10 years of so, I’ve owned a couple of different ice cream makers — an old school wooden bucket model with a motor on top, requiring constant supervision and rock salt and ice that could make a gallon; and a newer, simpler Krups cannister model that requires only a little bit of planning and makes a generous quart. Since getting the new fangled machine (and reluctantly donating the old one to Goodwill on a recent move,) I’ve been honing my recipes. The past few years have almost exclusively been dedicated to chocolate with a few variations.

I opt to go with the simplest and fewest ingredients as necessary. My habit had been to buy a quart of half and half, and end up using only 3 c. of it, and then figure out what to do with the extra cup. Recently, I had the revelation that I could just buy another pint for not much more and make 2 batches, resulting in a freezer that is almost constantly stocked with homemade ice cream. I tend to make a chocolate, and then go with some sort of wild card. In summer, when herbs, particularly mint, are abundant, I like to make a vanilla and fresh mint that would change the way you think about vanilla. This time around, though, my wild card was revisiting a Gourmet magazine recipe for Salted Caramel Ice Cream, one I made last summer that was real good. And this time around, it’s easily one of the best non-chocolate ice creams I’ve made.

I have found the trick to getting a great ice cream is attaining a smooth, creamy texture. And the trick to that is achieving the shortest freezing time possible. My method involves stashing your mixture in the freezer for 1-3 hours until it’s real good and cold, and then freezing in the ice maker, trying to target the 15-25 minute range for freezing time in the ice cream maker. For those that have never made ice cream in an ice cream maker, the machine should tell you when your ice cream is frozen. The motor will whir to a halt, go in reverse, or turn off completely when the texture has reached the optimal level. It’ll be obvious. Just read your manual.

Another technique I’ve been working on in regards to texture is to approximate something closer to gelato. A little lighter, a little less fat, but still creamy and delicious. In addition, in keeping with my simplicity tenet, I’m trying to keep the number of ingredients down. So, I’ve mostly eliminated eggs or egg yolks from my recipes. Likewise, I’ve eliminated the need to combine milk and cream in varying amounts. I just buy half-and-half and call it done. But how can I still get a great creamy texture? The secret ingredient is corn starch. I typically use 1-2 tablespoons, though have used more when appropriate (like when using something like fruit puree that might make the mixture thinner.) When mixing this into your boiling milk, the result is pudding-like, that is to say, smooth, thick and creamy.

A few more secrets —

  • When making chocolate ice cream, use some good high-end eating bars. They’re cheaper than baking bars, and already have sugar in them. You can experiment with different ones to find the ones you like best (my favorites are Dagoba New Moon, Green and Blacks 70%, and Endangered Species.) And stick with dark, high cacao content bars, usually around 70-75%. And use your microwave to melt it. Much easier and quicker than a double boiler.
  • For subtly flavored ice creams or sorbets (i.e. not chocolate or coffee) use vanilla sugar. If you’ve used a vanilla bean for ice cream or anything else, wash it off, let it dry, and then just stick it in a container or bag of granulated sugar. The result is an aromatic delight. Just keep feeding this container more vanilla beans and sugar, and you have a never-ending supply.
  • Alcohol can keep your ice cream from freezing solid. I often have an issue with my ice cream freezing pretty solidly. Alcohol doesn’t freeze, so it should keep your ice cream from freezing solid. Add it to your mixture before freezing. Around a couple of tablespoons should do the trick, but I’m still trying to hone in on the right amount, myself. Obviously use something that compliments your ice cream. Rum, Amaretto, or Kahlua are good choices. I’ve lately been using cherry-infused vodka I made over the summer.

Without much further ado, I give you my tried-and-true chocolate recipe and the salted caramel recipe. I’ve been working on the chocolate one for a couple of years and think this is just about as good as I can get. There is plenty of room for variations like when choosing chocolate bars, pick some flavored ones; add some other extracts like mint; or better still infuse your milk with fresh mint or other herbs; puree some fruit and strain out the seeds; add some instant coffee or espresso powder.

Chocolate Ice Cream

Ice Creamy Chocolate Ice Cream

Ice Creamy Chocolate Ice Cream

  • 6-7 oz. of good quality chocolate bars (I suggest Dagoba or Green & Black’s)
  • 3 c. half and half
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. corn starch
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1-2 tbsp. complimentary- or neutral-flavored alcohol
  • pinch of salt
  1. Break apart your chocolate bars into a microwaveable bowl and melt in the microwave. Work in 30 second intervals. You don’t have to melt it completely, as the residual heat from the bowl, chocolate, and the half-and-half you’ll pour over it will melt it the rest of the way. Set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the corn starch and 1/4 c. of the half-and- half and stir still smooth. Set aside.
  3. Heat half of the half-and-half with the sugar on the stove slowly, stirring often, to the boiling point.
  4. When the half-and-half has reached the boiling point, stir in the corn starch mixture and gently boil for another 2 minutes or so, while stirring. The mixture has to boil in order for the corn starch to thicken effectively.
  5. Pour the heated half-and-half over the melted chocolate and stir until thoroughly combined. (* If you want some chips in your ice cream, don’t stir until thoroughly combined. Stir until it’s mostly combined, but leave some stray streaks of unincorporated chocolate.)
  6. Stir in the rest of the half-and-half, the vanilla extract, alcohol, and pinch of salt.
  7. Let the mixture cool on the counter and place in refrigerator overnight. Place in freezer for 1-3 hours.
  8. Freeze mixture according to your ice maker’s instructions.
Chocolate ice cream mixture ready for a chill

Chocolate ice cream mixture ready for a chill

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

  • 1 1/4 c. sugar
  • 3 c. half and half
  • 1/2 tsp. Maldon flaky sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp. corn starch
Caramel

Caramel

  1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 cup of the sugar while stirring fairly constantly
  2. Once the sugar is melted, stop stirring, and cook until it becomes amber in color
  3. Add about 1 1/4 cups of half and half to the pot and stir until the caramel is dissolved.
  4. Pour the caramel and half-and-half mixture into a bowl and add the vanilla and sea salt
  5. In a small bowl, combine the corn starch and 1/4 c. of the half-and- half and stir still smooth. Set aside.
  6. In the same pot, bring about another 1 1/4 cups of the half and half and the rest of the sugar to a boil. When the half-and-half has reached the boiling point, stir in the corn starch mixture and gently boil for another 2 minutes or so, while stirring. The mixture has to boil in order for the corn starch to thicken effectively.
  7. Salted Caramel ice cream mixture ready for overnight chill

    Salted Caramel ice cream mixture ready for overnight chill

  8. Pour the half-and-half and corn starch mixture into the bowl with the caramel mixture.
  9. Pour in the remaining half-and-half and stir to combine.
  10. Let the mixture cool on the counter and place in refrigerator overnight. Place in freezer for 1-3 hours.
  11. Freeze mixture according to your ice maker’s instructions.