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

Advertisements

Parsnip soup (or any cold weather vegetable, for that matter)

One of my favorite things to cook and eat is soup. In cold months, it’s hot soups made of root vegetables, in the warmer months it’s cold soups with ingredients like tomatoes or peas. A lunch of soup and crusty bread is just about one of the most satisfying meals ever. And I’ve found that the soup actually improves after a day or two in the refrigerator.

Parsnip soup garnished with crispy red onions

Parsnip soup garnished with crispy red onions

Most Saturdays particularly in the fall or winter, after a morning visit to the local farmer’s market, I put a pot on for the day’s lunch. Whether it’s winter squash, sweet potato, or carrot, this basic recipe suits them all and is rife with possibilities for variation and experimentation. Vary the main ingredient with any root vegetable or squash. Vary the herb selection. Thyme is always a good choice, but so aren’t sage and rosemary (but use either sparingly) or bay or chives or parsley. Add heartier herbs at the beginning; softer herbs at the end. The recipe below doesn’t have much in the way of spices, but you can use all sorts of spices from cayenne or paprika to ginger or cinnamon depending on what you want in the end. How about Spicy Sweet Potato with cayenne and cinnamon and coriander?

Use stock. Use water. Or, as I did here, use a combination. Lastly, consider an interesting garnish. Some crunchy contrast to the smooth, blended soup is always nice. Crackers, croutons, or crispy, sauteed vegetables like your main ingredient, or mushrooms, or shallots all provide some contrast in texture.

This time out there were some good looking parsnips at the market, so it seemed like an obvious choice, as it is one of my favorites. My not-so-secret (and completely optional) ingredient here is some serrano ham (courtesy of Cheesetique, by way of a 99¢ “serrano butt”.) You can use bacon or some other smoked pork product in its place, or just leave it out entirely.

Note there’s no cream or dairy in this recipe. That doesn’t mean it isn’t creamy. The potatoes are the key. Their starch helps thicken and smooth out the soup. But, by all means, leave them out and add some cream or milk or yogurt at the end instead.

As with all of my recipes, seasoning throughout the process with salt and pepper is implied.

'Snips and onions sautéing away

'Snips and onions sautéing away

Parsnip soup

  • 1 1/2 # parsnip, diced
  • 2 c. onion, diced
  • 1/2 # potatoes, diced
  • 4-5 sprigs of thyme
  • 2 tbsp. chives, chopped
  • 3 sprigs of tarragon
  • 1/2 tbsp. butter
  • 2-3 c. chicken stock
  • 2-3 c. water
  • 2-3 tbsp. serrano ham, sliced thinly (optional)
  1. Heat a large pot over medium-low heat and add the ham, butter, and onions and cook for a couple of minutes. Then add the diced parsnips, and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are soft.
  2. Add the water, stock, thyme, and potatoes, and turn the heat to high to bring just to a boil. The liquid should cover all of the vegetables by about 1/4″ – 1/2″ depending on the size of your pot.
  3. Once the soup has reached a boil, turn the heat down to low or medium-low until it is barely simmering.
  4. Simmer the soup for at least an hour, maybe even two. I use a piece of parchment paper cut to the size of the pot to cover, but you can achieve the same effect by partially covering the pot to allow some evaporation, slowly.
  5. After your soup has simmmered for a while, add the chives and tarragon, and blend with a hand-blender.
The parchment lid

The parchment lid

with applesauce

Allow me to paraphrase slightly — when life gives you apple “seconds”, make applesauce. Such was the case at my neighborhood farmer’s market, the Saturday morning Del Ray market. Toigo Orchards — a favorite producer for their bloody mary mix and fruit — had a crate of “second” apples priced to move. In most cases, these apples just had a couple soft spots each, but were otherwise just fine. I picked a number of larger ones, assuming the soft-spot-to-not-soft-spot ratio would be in my favor the larger I chose and ended up with about 5 pounds. (I also picked up a few pounds of “perfect” pears and apples.)

5 lbs. of spotted honey crisps

5 lbs. of spotted honey crisps

As soon as I saw those cheap apples, I knew exactly what to do with them. Applesauce. If you’ve never taken the time to make your own applesauce, do it. It’s probably just about the easiest recipe you’ll ever see on here. Two ingredients and one of them is water. (You could add cinnamon or clove at the end if you wanted.) And there’s barely any prep work either. If you’ve got a food mill, just cut the apples in half and throw them in a pot. No need to peel or core them; the food mill will handle this for you later. If you don’t have a food mill, you at least need to core the apples, and you’ll probably want to peel them, too, before putting them in the pot.

halved apples in a pot

halved apples in a pot

Put the covered pot over medium heat with just a little bit of water, maybe 1/2 cup at most, just to help the simmering process. Simmer away for 30-40 minutes until all of the apples are soft. You may need to stir this around a couple of times to make sure they all soften evenly. If it’s a little wet still, you can remove the lid and simmer for a couple of minutes more to let some of the water evaporate. When you’ve got a good looking mush, run it through your food mill, if you’ve got one. And you’re done.

through the food mill

through the food mill

The results are going to be superior to just about any jarred version you’re going to buy at the store. They’ve probably at least added sugar, but trust me, you won’t need it. And yours will undoubtedly be fresher. And probably a lot cheaper, too. And a heck of a lot more satisfying.

the end result

the end result