Thursday, October 24, 2013

Foodie tour Amsterdam

Amsterdam is famous for a lot of good or bad things, but I was not very much aware of the diversity of the street food. In a way, it makes a lot of sense: with so many tourists daily, offering food on the run is a very smart idea. Another good thing is that most of the foodie corners are open till late in the evening, so no worries that you may be left hungry after you finish your tour around the channels. 

Famous in France, the delicate macarons are highly appreciated in Amsterdam too. The three ladies from the picture - vanilla, pistachio and lemon - can be savoured on a wooden bench on a sunny day, with a big mug of coffee. A refreshing energizer for a very intense schedule.
As I kid I grew up in complete ignorance about the Dutch cheese, being sure that only the French cheese really matters. Many years ago, when I was backpacking in Bulgaria, I met 2 Dutch girls and they mentioned me for the first time the cheese as a national food. It was the wake up call, but took me time till I entered the real secret world of Dutch cheese. In Amsterdam, you have testing counters of cheese every 3-4 shops. And you can have exactly everything you ever dreamed about: hard and mild cheese, simple or with pepper, to be served with chutney and sour sweet spicy mustard. 
The choice of the wines matching such an impressive selection of tastes is a big challenge, but I cannot see the cheese served otherwise but with a healthy glass of white wine. 
The wisely patched pastry from the picture has in the middle the Old Amsterdam cheese, made according to a unique ripening process recipe. It received many award at various cheese competitions. Those interested to find out more about the long history of cheese in the Netherlands should take their time to have a tour of the Cheese Museum.
Not anyone may be extremely interested in cheese and other hard core foods, but in a country with so many bikes and people that care about the environment, a lot of vegan and vegetarian bars and restaurants are available, as well as bio markets and shops, some of them open till late. 
After an exhausting afternoon and evening trying to discover as much as possible from the city, I ended up the day with a mango smoothie with a lot - but really a lot - of ice whose only problem was that it was prepared at an impressive length. Waiting for around 10 minutes was not what I expected after so much walking. But the ambiance was pleasant and, as in many other small food counters or bars in Amsterdam, the wifi is a compliment from the house.

Early in the morning it is a big challenge to decide where to spend your breakfast. Let's say Rene's Croissanterie this time, a very small place full of temptations. I did not want to hear about croissants that were underrepresented anyway , but rather have a look at this beautiful cappuccino, and the big waffle - a Belgian speciality that can be prepared with high-class art in the Netherlands as well.
The bonus were the two little small chocolate cupcakes: one with lemon and caramel and the other one with orange juice. Till late in the evening when I was already in Antwerp, I did not crave for anything else. The chocolate simply melted with the coffee and brought a little corner of sweet paradise into my busy world. Happiness can be achieved so easily sometimes. 
The prices at the Croissanterie are relatively acceptable, the service is very fast and I saw other English speaking foreigners spending their morning here. English speaking is part of the service too.
On the walls, old ads from equally tasty times with even sweeter recommendations. Wish I had more time to explore all those beautiful food choices.
If not too much time in sight for a proper lunch, trying one slice of pizza is the option of many of the tourists, especially those traveling with families. Cheap, without too much waiting time or the worries that it will take some time till finding a table, being asked about the order and other time-consuming activities that the busy traveler want to avoid as much as possible during a very short trip. 
Beers are another important products made in the Netherlands, not necessarily associated with the country (the fate of being caught between Germany and Belgium, probably). In some cases, the production was encouraged by the low quality of the local waters. You better have a 'white' one than die, isn't it? The white beers are the speciality of the three big companies located in this country - Heineken (producing the traditional Amstel), Grolsch and Bavaria. The tourists are regularly offered beer tours, including at some of the famous factories located in Amsterdam.

The evening before, I wanted to see (as usual) the products sold at a regular supermarket in Amsterdam, and spent some time researching the Food Plaza, close to the Dam Square. The products are moderately priced, with many fruits and vegetables, but nothing spectacular, and many products from Belgium and France. The main supermarkets are Dirk, Aldi, Lidl, Jumbo and Albert Heijn. Pour les connaisseurs, the special Marks and Spencer is also present here.
A new stop at a cheese paradise that looks like a Vuitton shop. Precious products inside: Koekaas that can be tasted with truffle (quite heavy combination), cheese with herbs and mustard, or with cumin for the more sophisticated tastes, Baby Gouda simple or with cumin, or with some cranberry sauce. Or maybe some Polder cheese with green pesto, or Gerste kaas with fenugreek. A lot of things can go on in your stomach and your foodie mind when you visit such a shop. We were guaranteed that the production is made according to the highest standards and no trace of nuts can be found in the factory.
Those curious about the secret of cheese can visit the farms where Henri Willig Cheese is produced.
Whatever the temptations of the places of adoption, there is always a feeling of longing for your home-made food. If you are one of those British/American expats, Eichholtz place is for you!

It did not appeal too much too me till I stopped in the front of this colourful pile of cornflake boxes that reminded me of a home when I used to have dozen of them in the kitchen. 

I am happy to see that the fashion of Frozen Yoghurts is conquering the old Europe too. The one I saw in Amsterdam looked pretty and inviting, but not very busy with custoemrs though. The usual combination of flavors on the menu. Maybe the next time I will dedicate more time to their freshness.

Life can be so tasty in Amsterdam!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A week in recipes: Flavors, by Donna Hay

As promised, the last week I tried daily a new recipe from Flavors, by Donna Hay. The recipes were very easy to prepare, healthy (even good for a detox kind of diet I had in mind for various reasons) not too expensive. In most cases I added more flavors and spices the initial recipe being used mostly as a guidance. The preparation time was within 30 minutes and the results delicious. I did not try any cake, but I still have the book and already spotted some tempting recipes.

The first try: the basil roasted tomatoes (p. 146). This recipe can be prepared so easily that I tried three times in a row. The most difficult part is to half the tomatoes on a baking tray. I roasted as the recipe said in a preheated 200C oven for around 20 minutes. The initial recipe recommends to sprinkle with basil leaves, olive oil and pepper. I did something more: added my latest spice addiction za'atar, coriander, plus walnut oil. The next day, I also added some special chilli salt. One day after, I diversified with sunflower seeds, a touch of lemon and za'atar again. I preferred to add the basil leaves at the end because I love their fresh smell and taste. It can be eaten very as an individual meal, or with potatoes and a fresh salad. It is very delicious and flavored. 

The next recipe is included too at the section dedicated to basil, but did not get very easy from the beginning. It is called 'Basil and Parmesan wafers' (p. 147). The first time, I followed the recipe that includes: 2 tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese, with a bunch of basil leaves (again, I opted for the fresh ones, instead of the initial recommendation of shredded basil). I placed it on a baking tray and spread the mixture as a flat disk, baking it in a preheated oven (200C) for 5 minutes. Unfortunately, the first try was extremely unpleasant, and ended up with a kind of cheesy pasta. My first mistake was that I apparently let the mixture to warm for more than 5 minutes - more than 10, I think.

The next day, I tried my luck again, but this time not only I respected the initial recipes, but placed the parmesan mixture (to whom I added za'atar, sunflower seeds, a drop of walnut oil) on small matzo waffles. Mission accomplished: the recipe succeeded and combined with the basil tomatoes, brought on my dinner table a lot of pleasant smells and tastes.

I also wanted to try something sweet, but together with some of the sweet spices I have in my secret box. The best recipe that suited my wishes was 'Vanilla and Saffron Pears'. I did not have any kosher vanilla at home so switched to a lot of saffron. As I was cooking only for myself, I peeled only 3 pears instead of 8 as recommended in the book (p.20). I placed them in a pot with 4 cups of water, 1/2 cup of white sugar (brown can be a good choice as well) instead of 1 1/2, 1/2 teaspoon of ginger powder - as did not have solid one, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, a little pinch of my precious saffron. Out of my creative mind I added: 1 pinch of mixture of Oriental coffee salt, 3 pieces of cardamom, and one pinch of cinnamon. It's impossible to imagine the beautiful smell in my kitchen during the 20 minutes of boiling. From time to time I turned the pears from one part to another till they went smooth entirely. It is the perfect treat for an autumn afternoon. With a mint tea or an spicy coffee, you may not want to go out of the house. 

For the next dish (coming soon, in the next picture), I needed something fresh and full of vitamins so I had a look in my veggie closet and found out exactly what I needed for something really good: one avocado sliced in various 3D shapes, around 15 fresh small tomatoes, a healthy bunch of basil leaves and a big pinch of Cayenne pepper, an ingredient that recently returned into my kitchen after a long absence. 

The following recipe (p.133) requested a little bit of research, as I needed some very small new potatoes. Their best time is in spring, but nowadays you can easily find them in autumn so it was not such a challenging research. I sprinkled as much salt that my stomach can take on both sides of the small potatoes, plus - from my mind: date vinegar, one drop of walnut oil for each potato, a sprinkle of za'atar, a sprinkle of Cayenne pepper and finely sliced garlic on taste. I put the pan in a preheated oven (200C) and roasted for 20 minutes. Every 10 minutes I turned the potatoes from a part to another. The result, delicious, very delicious. 

My plan was to have a semi-diet week - without the pasta - but when I saw a recipe in the book including one of my favourite dishes, I considered it is my duty to try it. Another pasta I wanted to try - the very simple pepper pasta (p. 132 - simple side dish of hot pasta tossed with butter, freshly cracked black pepper and sea salt) left for another day, maybe tomorrow. I wanted to try corn spaghetti for a long time and I matched it with basil and lemon. (p. 38) After the pasta are boiled, I added 3 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, 3 tablespoon veggie margarine, 1/2 tablespoon Cayenne, 1 pinch of kosher salt, 2 tablespoon walnut oil. The tomatoes and avocado were added for colours. It is quite heavy, but with a fresh apple juice the digestion is easier.

The last recipe I prepared for Shabbat and was a success. I am not sure how to deal with beans, but I've found enough recipes for finding a successful formula. And the result was very delicious. It included: 250 gr. white beans from the can, soaked for 5 minutes. In a pan I added garlic on taste, 250 gr. brown champignons, 1 tablespoon of walnut oil, 1 tablespoon za'atar, 250 small tomatoes sliced. After frying for around 15 minutes. I added a fresh bunch of basil leaves and sprayed with figs vinegar. It matched my flavoured salmon but also a very fresh snack in the morning.

I am still trying to find out what will be this week cooking challenge. Will probably continue with some recipes from Donna Hay and some low carb/low fat alternatives.
Bon Appetit!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

On diets and discipline

I gave up my daily strict diet for a long time. Not because of laziness or because I had some sudden health problems, but because I wanted to have the pleasure of tasting those foods that I forbade myself to eat for more than a decade. After all, I wanted to improve my cooking skills and one of my biggest challenges was to discover how to match different food and tastes. With a very limited list of foods on the daily menu, I was unable to do it so I put my diet on hold for a while. At the same time, I continued with exercise, the interdictio
n of eating after 7pm and so on. But I will approach those aspects on a different post. For now, I want to recall my memories of the diet years.

Teenager temptations

As many teenagers, I started to carefully watch my weight when I was 16. Most probably, today girls start around 14 (hope not earlier). I was not fat or overweight according to the general standards, but I was allergic and without a clear daily eating plan. The life was hectic; we, the kids were mostly left on our own, with busy parents working hard for allowing us the best education they were not able to have for themselves. 
Once the week we had the family meal with some diversity of foods on the table, but for the rest of the week, our dining times were rarely matching. I was enjoying a lot of freedom to wander in the city or to read till late in the night but the food was never important enough to make me think more than in terms of nourishment. I was eating when hungry and when hungry, needed to see what is available in the fridge. And the choices were usually limited, but we had a healthy bunch of milk, eggs, veggies and fruits. 

My diet plans

My diet plans were an attempt to avoid the frequent allergies that were turning very dangerous sometimes, plus to keep myself fit as a good looking girl. I did not have at the time too many resources in order to organize my eating habits (no Internet or glossy magazines lecturing about it or even products mentioning the level of fat). But I knew that too much oil is not healthy, and chocolate is bad, and wheat can create weight problems. I ended up eating a lot of tomatoes, a glass of milk, and a lot of black bread per day. Apples were my favourite sweets, with some melon or peaches or apricots. Sweets and pastry in general were forbidden. My 'luck' was that my diet plans were never took too seriously in the family and rather considered a typical outburst of the age. 10 years after, I was still eating maximum twice the day, with a generous breakfast limited to: black bread, eggs, tomatoes and maybe some very low fat cheese. 
I remember that it was not very easy at the beginning, but I succeeded to plan everything carefully with a discipline that helped me later to have a good time management and an almost perfect career organization and a very successful writing time. I added to the diet a very clear set of exercises in the morning, that I still practise from time to time, plus a walking of minimum 60 minutes. I never did a strict control of my weight, but I knew that I was close to the very skinny ideal. Nothing worried me and the fact that I eliminated the allergies from my life for a long time - later on I discovered that mostly, there are associated with immunity problems so food is not always their main cause. 

Lessons learned

Any mother coping with her girls' new sudden diet plans will hate me maybe for saying this, but honestly, I don't know where I would have been without my diet. Once I realized that I can discipline my stomach, I knew that I can achieve everything I realistically planned. I know now that it was not 100% normal, but for a while, eating was not my priority, unless for having enough strength to work, read and write. 
The same discipline helped me to keep my metabolism after little by little I extended the list of foods and meals I wanted to have back into my life. I still stop eating after 7pm during the week, and I eat when I am hungry. I am mostly interested in healthy recipes and salads and the sweet pastry is the experiment I try only once the week. 
As in the case of many things in life, I feel more free now than when I was a rebellious teenager. Plus, I have a nice blog where I can share recipes and food tips. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Understanding Michelin star system

As foodie tours and tastings are part of my daily life and thoughts, it happened to find very often mentioned a reference to the Michelin stars. Either as an accomplishment or as a wish, the inclusion on the Michelin stars of fame is a big achievement of any restaurant. Curious to know how it does work, I did some little documentation in the last days.

A historical introduction

The tyre companies Michelin started to produce the annual guides at the beginning of 1900. At the beginning, they were dedicated to the French motorists encouraging them to travel more and with style. The number of car owners at the time was of around 5,000 but it was issued in around 35,000 copies. In 1904, the guides were expanded their interests to Belgium. The 'Red Guide' is the oldest European reference for hotels and restaurants and also one of the most wanted list to be for any respectable food creative places. During the World War I, the publication was suspended.
The system of stars was introduced in 1926. At the beginning, it was only a single star used to evaluate the restaurants, but since 1931, the 1, 2 and 2 stars were introduced. The criteria behind the classification were released in 1936: one star is for 'A very good restaurant in its category'; the 2 stars for 'Excellent cuisine, worth a detour'; the 3 stars for 'Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey'. In the same year, the traditional red cover was abandoned for blue. 
As in the case of the first world conflagration, during the WWII hostilities, the guide publication was suspended. With one exception: in 1934, the guide for France was reprinted at the request of the Allies for military use.
After the war, the evaluations were limited for a long time only to two stars.
The guide expanded to other spaces as well, with the issue of the guide for Italy in 1956 and for Great Britain in 1974. The first American Michelin guide was launched in 2005, featuring New York City. San Francisco and Chicago were added later, while Los Angeles and Las Vegas were discontinuously covered. The collection of extra-European spaces was completed with Tokyo (2007), Hong Kong and Macao (2008). A special issue covers 'Main cities of Europe'. 

The secret reviewers

The reviewers are completely anonymous. Their meals are paid only by the company and it is supposed that no one - even the closest relatives - are aware of the secret line of work. The evaluation takes into consideration the quality and creative recipe as well as the individual taste of the meal. The stars reflect exclusively what one can have on the plate.
Aspects such as the quality of the customer service or the interior design are not that important at that stage, but can be introduced on the description introduced in the guide of the location. Such a presentation includes qualification of the wine specialities, ambiance. For a hotel, there are 1 to 5 pavilions, and value of a restaurants is counted by 1 to 5 forks and spoons. In this category one may include the quality of the table top, the ambiance, the decor etc. 
The mission of the inspector is to melt with the ambiance while going unnoticed. The perfect person qualified for such a job should be passionate and knowledgeable of the food, with a fine eye for detail and a good gourmet memory. Very often, he or she has a professional background and education in the domain of food or hospitality. 

Are you looking for a guidance for your next year foodie adventures? Here is the UK Michelin evaluation for 2014. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Cooking challenge of the week: Donna Hay, Flavors

I went very frustrated recently when I discovered how many beautiful good cooking books I have at home and instead of trying at least once the week to use the recipes, when in need of some good last minutes ideas, I always prefer Google instead of my library.
After I pre-ordered on Friday Jamie Geller's Joy of Kosher and got yesterday the good looking Flavors by Donna Hay, I decided that I should change the previous narrative. As long as I don't travel and there are no special holidays around, I will take one cookbook per week and try as much as possible to cook out of it daily. 
As I am trying also to keep my diet at a very natural level those days, I would prefer for the next weeks those recipes with healthy ideas and especially those including many fruits and veggies. 
The cooking tour begins this week with Donna Hay's flavors. While on the road yesterday, I had a look at some of the suggestions and I already have a couple of combinations in my mind that I hopefully will share in the next days. Most recipes are simple, with genuine tastes and feasible within one hour or less. Plus, it has a lot of stories about flavors and spices, a topic that I am more than interested lately. In other words, the perfect choice for both my stomach, my limited time and hunger for new things.

Bon Appetit! I am busy building new recipes!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Throwing sweet Snowballs from Heidelberg

As a passionate and addicted traveler, I love to come back home each time with at least one travel story. Food is part of the history and culture of a place, as well as a honest cultural ambassador and getting more in touch with the local tastes is a lesson in tolerance opening the doors to a better understanding. 
During my last trip to Heidelberg, Germany, I noticed some big tasty looking balls in the windows of many 'Konditorei' in the central area, and even more tourists tasting them on the street so, after taking some pictures and having a look at some recipes, I knew what are all about.
The Snowballs (or, in German, Schneebaelle) are an original recipes more than 300 years old from Rothenburg am Taube, but popular in the whole Franconia-Bavarian region. At the beginning, they were prepared for special occasions - such as celebrations and weddings -, but the fast industrial revolution brought them on the daily tables of everyone that love their taste.
I was not lucky enough to be part of a live preparation experiment, but I did watch and read some recipes clarifying the main steps for preparing the snowballs. At the first and second sight, it is not difficult, but once ready you need to have teeth strong enough to bite them. 
The main ingredients are: eggs, butter (or butter cream), sugar, flour and - beware if you want to offer them to your children - plum schnapps. The dough is rolled out a couple of times and cut into little strips with a dough cutter. The strips are knitted several times in the shape of a ball. 
Traditionally, the balls were only dusted with powder sugar - hence the 'snow' associated with the balls, but it is hard nowadays to resist the temptations of different flavours and combinations, among which: Amaretto, Chocolate, Marzipan, coconut, nuts and almonds. 
In the relatively cold areas of Germany, it is said it can resist around 8 weeks without refrigeration, but probably such a calculation does not take into consideration the real temperatures of hot summers. 
My next challenge will be not only to write about them or to admire their round perfection in pictures, but to start preparing at least one snowball in my own kitchen.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

My night cream: Age control night nourishment, by Ahava

I am a very serious followers of Ahava products and I am trying to test as many of them as possible. For the last week, I regularly started to use the Age control night nourishment. First as a test for my regular blog reviews, but ended up realizing that I may need to use it on a regular basis in the next days and weeks. 
Finding the right night cream is not easy, regardless of the age. My mother of blessed memory used to say that a proper face care should be considered once you are 20. I tried to followed her advice more or less, but even though I was able to identify the right day creams, the night care was often limited to the regular face cleansing and make-up removal. On a side note, I cannot go to sleep with the face unclean, hence my difficulties of using make-up over Shabbos. 
I am very sensitive about smells of creams and I rather prefer to avoid those creams with any trace of perfume. This cream has its own smell, a bit heavy and oily, but after a while I got used with it. I also got used with the minty effect that occurs seconds after applying on skin. The first time I watched the effects of the first 15 minutes and some smooth relaxing waves were slowly going on and out around my cheeks. I could assume that the citrus ingredients play a big part in this. The skin is getting smoother and looking more relaxed, even after a couple of days without too much sleep. To be honest, it is the first time when I notice effects produced by the night creams. Dunaliella Algae, specific to the Death Sea, and Vitamin E work hard and with good results for refreshing the skin during the regular night sleep. 
It might be that I finally discovered exactly the cream that suits my needs right now. As I am a very conservative person in terms of cosmetics, especially creams and shampoos. For instance, I've used Nivea since end of my teenage years till recently, without any worries to change the menu. 
Now, I am on the run for finding serious and quality products for a face that needs more care than 10 years ago. Till recently, I relied on good genetics and a relatively healthier life style, but somehow, there is a need for improvement and serious treatments and higher quality products. For the time being, the age control night nourishment offers me a fresh morning look and a serious care.  
More Ahava products in my closet will be tested and reviewed soon!