13 March 2008

Dispatch From a Newbie in Holland


Hello to all of Carrie and Erin's fans! I am an old (and I do mean old) friend of Carrie's from Junior High. I have been asked to share my embarrassing bumbles in my tiny hobbit-hole of a kitchen in Holland where I am attempting to become a great chef. And now...the turmeric fiasco...

All of you who are accomplished cooks will probably gasp when I mention a problem with Turmeric. For those of you not in the know: BEWARE! If you use it improperly, or have an accident with this spice, it will be with you FOREVER!

It began this week, as I had a sudden spark that lifted me out of the self-pitying, culture shocked, homesick puddle that I had been in for a while. I bought “My Life in France” online as an audiobook. This is an autobiography by Julia Child of her time in France, adjusting to living abroad with her husband after WWII. This is the time period where she learned how to cook. She describes not only the French cuisine that I am learning about with Max’s parents, but she describes the process of learning about food selection, preparation, and eating. I decided to try it. Cooking. I never really enjoyed it. I love food and eating, but I was terrified of making mistakes, ruining a dish, wasting food, disappointing those eating it, and my techniques in slicing, dicing, sautéing, were all lacking. What a wimp!

I started researching recipes in my few cookbooks here (thank you Kay and Claire), and recipes online. I set up a menu for the week, and made everything each day with things bought from the grocery store here. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the Dutch do not celebrate their bilingualism on their labels. I was disappointed to find out that I had bought celery leaves instead of cilantro…sigh. There is also not a wide selection of products here that are commonly used in US recipes. I can’t find brown sugar for the life of me.

The other challenge is that our kitchen is tiny and while Max’s family set us up with lots of utensils, there are things we don’t have, such as 4 burners (we have only two), measuring cups, small bowls for ingredients, and a real lack of space. Our counter-top small oven holds a pan that seems to be about 6x8. I can’t stop thinking back to something my brother talked about years ago when he was in college. Please excuse me if I don’t get it exactly right, as I was only 5 or 6, but I seem to remember he lived on macaroni and cheese stirred with a shoehorn. That always makes me giggle. I also always hope that the shoehorn was only used for the meal…

The advantage of cooking under such circumstances is that I am learning to do what really good cooks do—improvise. I haven’t been able to measure anything. I eyeball everything, using coffee mugs as measuring cups, my palms as measuring spoons, and the washing machine as a staging area. I keep an orange juice container (glass) that is .5 liters for measuring liquid in metric amounts. But it all worked out well. I served Curry Carrot-Leek Soup with a side of Wine-Braised Fennel with Parmesan (I know—fancy, right?) Besides the satisfaction of overcoming my fear, I imagined how in 20 years I might be able to cook as well as my friend Kristin in Lexington. She is a great cook---she took cooking lessons in Vietnam and Laos!

Last night, the inevitable happened. The mistakes that I always worried about came fast and furious. I had planned on a green lentil soup, but had bought dried peas instead of lentils (they look so similar). I started on a backup recipe in my cookbook, but was not properly prepared. I was trying to make a red lentil soup that had many steps, and required an interesting dance of three pans on a two-burner “stove.” I managed to substitute Coriander for the cilantro, but the onions burned, I overcooked the spinach while dealing with the overflowing pot of soup. The…soup…with…turmeric!!!!! Even though I moved quickly, I managed to permanently dye our little white stove florescent yellow. Not completely so it would seem original, but streaky and obviously an accident. And it is not ours. It belongs to Max’s family. I also dyed a Tupperware lid where I set the spoon used to stir the soup, part of our cutting board where I set the pot, and my fingernails are still yellow. There should be a warning on the little jars of Turmeric. There probably is, but it is in Dutch…

So, I will not let this set me back. I am planning on another great meal tonight, and no matter how good I become at cooking, I will have my little daily reminder of last night’s turmeric situation. Most importantly, I have pulled myself out of a rut by smelling fresh-cut leeks, shallots, and garlic. I highly recommend for anyone feeling blue to try this version of aromatherapy.

Here is the infamous stove top (the before photo). I can't bring myself to document the awful after photo just yet. This picture along with the first shows the pitiful space in which I am working on masterpieces. In the first picture you will see the oven on the counter top. Yep. And that is my dorm-sized fridge next to the washing machine. We had it so good back in the US.....

5 comments:

Carrie said...

So teeny!!

Erin said...

You are true culinary hero for cooking successful dishes with a tiny two-burner! I'm impressed!

angelique said...

Where in Holland are you? I found you through Carrie's blog. My parents are from holland and I can sympathize, in reverse, of sorts. When my mom first moved to Memphis, she couldn't speak english and had a heck of a time finding cornstarch at the grocery store because she didn't know the english words...
If you haven't had them already, eat a nasi and bami ball for me. and a frikandel. You can't get anything close here, even if you try to make it yourself!!!!

-Angelique

Melinda said...

Angelique,

I will certainly search for a frikandel! We live in Utrecht, and are very much looking forward to summer!! Where are your parents from? We have traveled quite a bit throughout Holland already.
Thanks for reading our blog!

angelique said...

Melinda,
My family is from two towns. Mom is from Bemmel and dad is from Doornenburg. They are teeny towns across the river from Nijmegen. Utrecht is a great town! We spent a couple of days there a couple summers ago. It was a great time..had dinner on a canal, which I didn't know they had in Utrecht! It was a great surprise. I almost moved there after college and still am hoping to live abroad at some point in my life. Of course, it helps to speak the language. I have a friend who took a dutch course at the american university in Amsterdam when she moved there and that seemed to help alot. :-) I am envious!!!!