Tulips and Windmills

By Margo Miller

Once again, my memories are better in focus than my point-and-shoot photos, and I write now, back in Boston, to summon up what made my trip so special on Viking’s Ullur on the “Tulips and Windmills” trip 4-13 April 2019. For one thing, I was travelling with a Viking “godmother,” Anne Willan, who years ago had christened your Hermod. And as comparison, I had a previous Viking trip, along with Rhône with her and her late husband Mark Cherniavsky on Heimdal in July 2016. (Full disclosure: I have known them since October 1972 when I worked for Anne as an editorial assistant on her early cookbooks.)

These are beautifully-run boats. On the Rhône trip, I remember a concierge who got us tickets and transportation to the Lyon Opera. On Ullur, your Reception staffer Sandra got Anne and me tickets to an almost-sold out concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (as well as hair appointments in Antwerp). I mention this kind of service as invaluable for those of us who like to “leave the cruise” for private shore excursions. I’m full of praise too for the dining and bar staff and their old-school training. It is wonderful to be waited on better than (often) at home in America. And as someone who has written (for The Boston Globe) on design, I was fascinated by the particular rationale for the layout of your boats. All logical, and right, so easy to understand and to use. Ullur’s interior decor mates well with the nautical; I got the giggles from the fancy “bordello” lobby of one of your competitors.

So much of tourism is public and historic. Ullur was full of behind-the-scenes “moments.” Constraints of space make for challenging times for your bar staff. I watched an Ullur barman work his way up a narrow stair carrying a full tray of wine glasses. So they did not tumble, he placed another tray on top, and all was safe. Waiters popping dozens of bubbly for the Captain’s Toast party then placed the corks on a huge white napkin, which was then gathered by the corners to make a carry-all. While the wines on the Rhône trip were properly French, Ullur gave us the chance to sample German vineyards.  Ullur chef Roland Waasdorp was more than the usual captain-of-kitchen: he has travelled widely and speaks well. His menus were more than ample, the lunch buffets inventive and the formal dinners satisfying.

An accident to my left foot in Boston meant I went on few of the walking trips. A consolation was the variety of the water views from the boat. We think of Holland as looking like the Dutch paintings of old, here the gleam of canal, there a belling windmill, all under cloudy but serene skies. I was amused at the sheer volume of graffiti in Amsterdam: in-your-face lettering on every quai and every bridge (but never/seldom in Belgium). The revelation to this American was how Holland manages to integrate functions on its waters into a scenic whole.  I recall many a stretch that offered maritime and suburban housing and commercial as equals, the continuum being the river shore and grass, and the occasional sheep in the meadows.

    I was glad also of the chance to see in what ways the the Dutch are ahead of America in addressing climate change. Wind power is becoming popular with us. I had not realized till the views from Ullur that wind turbines were often in three sizes on the same plat. Or their different uses: not just for energy but also to lift water. And of course Holland’s constant battle with water has lessons for sea-level Boston. Where I live in the Back Bay, a neighborhood of 850 acres of land reclaimed from tidal marsh in the mid 19th century, one catastrophic storm would make us a Venice, and the Dutch are now advising the city on ways to deal with the higher seas expected as glaciers melt from global warming.

In New England, the old farms are closing. We were never much of an agricultural economy, in part because of the short growing season. The vogue is for boutique farms that raise fare to be trucked to farmers’s markets in the cities. Good that Holland can also make the case for commercial agriculture massed in small spaces, such shown on your tour of the glass houses that grow sweet peppers for the world. Those sky-reaching stalks had the aura of fairy tale. But how utterly practical the use of heat from a Microsoft Cloud installation across the road to warm them, and then the final disposition of the stalks as cattle fodder.  This tour, and the lesson on oysters at a yacht-club, were my two favorites. Bliss that one tour was paired with a ride on the adorable stream railway. As we arrived, a volunteer was blackening wooden spokes on the wheels. Not to belabor the point that tourism has often a manufactured air to it, but the train had the appeal that all hobbyists know and relish: doing something for its own worth.  I will bet that a good percentage of your older American male passengers has a home workshop, even a model railroad layout.

Early April in Holland brought another unexpected delight, and that was the role of trees in landscape. Again I speak from the prospect of my native New England where there are few flat surfaces. We are hills and valleys, and these tend to mass tree shapes, though they make our carpets of vivid autumn colors rightly famous. Flat Holland parades its trees in profile. That they were mostly not in leaf in early April only turned bare shapes into sculpture. I loved the pointy spires of the poplars, and, as evidence of the constant winds, the bent trunks of hedgerows. Giant tulip fields surely have their place in your spring trips. I found a special peace in the natural landscape on the water ways.

All Pictures from Viking River Cruises

This evocation of my recent lovely trip on a Viking Cruise along the canals and rivers of Holland comes from my longtime friend, Bostonian writer Margo Miller, who has a special gift for recreating time and place. She is the ideal holiday companion!

FOOD AND FLOWERS: A RICH MARKET HERITAGE

By Anne Willan

 

A food market always makes me smile

Brilliant painted flowers form the background to the foods of the covered market in Rotterdam, an ancient port city in the Netherlands where the soaring arch of the modern roof is decorated with stylized blooms in tulip colors, purple, crimson, scarlet, acid yellow, backed with brilliant green leaves. But the stalls soon catch your eye with their exotic fruits, Eastern spices, and alleys of hams and sausages dangling overhead.

I’m in the company of an expert, the Dutch chef of the Ullur, a Viking Line Cruise river boat, currently at anchor in the harbor, and Ronald Waasdorp knows every market stand, and many of the vendors. He gives the dark-haired lady at the Indonesian spice counter a cheerful smile and buys a tub of golden mixed spices for the evening’s rijstafel (an Asian rice dish served with a multitude of vegetables and sour, sweet and crunchy accompaniments). I count the freestanding mounds of spice, there must be dozens including cumin, coriander, ginger, turmeric, clove, cinnamon, four kinds of pepper, and many, many more including the customized mixes, all glowing with color and heady fragrance. Saffron, the stamen of the autumn crocus, brilliant yellow in little cellophane packages, is the most valuable of all, gram for gram it is more costly than gold.

We move on to the great cheese stand, manned by a stout fellow who shifts the huge 16-kg/35-lb wheels with ease. For practical household use he sells cheerful 250-gram miniature cheeses, many flavored with herbs or spices and enrobed in bright plastic wrapping. But I am going for the gold, a wedge of the half dozen versions of Gouda, the national treasure that is less salty than Parmesan, firmer than Cheddar, and way, way more complex. One of the Goudas on display is relatively young, perhaps 4 months old, (belegen, as the Dutch say), the rind yielding slightly to the touch, pleasant and forgettable, but the others are seriously aged at least a year, possibly much longer, giving time for the dense texture and full nutty flavor to develop. Gouda cheese, has a rich history, dating back to the Middle Ages, Dutch cities could obtain certain feudal rights, which gave them a total control of certain goods. Gouda acquired the rights for the cheese, and has the sole right to sell it in their famous market place. There are variations which bear names such as Gouda Rotterdamische and Gouda Komijn and a couple are dotted with seeds of cumin and my favorite caraway.

When in the downtown covered market in Rotterdam, Holland. Say Cheese!

 

I am gradually learning about Dutch cheeses, but Chef Ronald knows it already and he steers me towards the butcher, where we nibble free samples of dried sausages. Further stands are piled with sacks of dried beans, dried peas, and the first baby potatoes, all staples of the Dutch table. As the cruise progresses, we will be taking a look at local specialties such as Soup with Meatballs (Groentesop met Gehaktballetjes) and Poached Pears in Red Wine (Stoofperen). Dutch cookbooks are full of potato recipes: potato salad with mayonnaise, yogurt and chopped parsley, or Huzarensalade of potatoes with slivers of cooked beef, pickles, and mustard.  Potatoes come mashed with kale and sliced sausage, or perhaps with apples, onion and bacon.

Back at the ship, Roland disappears at once, dinner will start soon. What a pleasure it was to travel and explore on the waterways of Holland, the preferred mode of transport for the Dutch.

During the season, which lasts nine or ten months a year, he is on duty, then can escape for a couple of months while

Roaming the market with Chef Ronald Waasdrop of the Viking Cruise lines river boat

the Ullure ship is laid up for maintenance. Roland is like all the multi-national, multi-lingual staff, he loves to travel while the ship is laid up for maintenance. At one stage in his life, he was cooking for an Antarctic station where supplies had to be ordered three months in advance. “Couldn’t forget anything!” he grins. Even when based on his home port of Amsterdam, all the ordering is done months in advance. On the Ullur he heads a staff of 12, including a pastry chef and the garde manger guy, specializing in cold dishes and salads. All tastes are indulged. At one lunch when a visitor requested a hamburger despite the lavish buffet display of cold meats and salads, the server departed to ask the chef. “It will take just a few minutes sir”, was the reply, and five minutes proved enough. Chef Ronald keeps a close eye on the Viking Ullur’s menu and he tastes everything. “If I don’t like it, I don’t serve it!” he says.

As we wind our leisurely way along the waterways of Holland, we pass every size of ship from little row boats to supertankers on their way to and from the giant port of Rotterdam, the busiest in Europe. The landscape is flat, so flat that windmills or a large tree stands stark against the skyline a kilometer away. Hectare after hectare of greenhouses shelter much of the greens and vegetables that supply the rest of Europe and we visit a vast installation that grows almost all the yellow bell peppers for the EU. The interior climate is constant thanks to excess energy supplied by Microsoft just the other side of the highway.  So crucial are the immense dykes that hold back the North Sea, our river boat is four meters below sea level. At another stop we taste oysters, hollow, briny Belons and craggy Portugaises, gathered that morning from the waterway visible outside. When I baste the freshly shucked oyster with a squeeze of lemon juice, it seems to give a twitch, or is that my imagination?

DUTCH MUSHROOM SOUP

(Champignonsoep)

Creamy mushroom soup made with fresh button mushrooms is a Dutch favorite.

Serves 6-8

11/4 lb/600 g fresh mushrooms

6 tablespoons/90 g butter

Salt and pepper

1 onion, chopped

1 stalk celery, thinly sliced

4 tablespoons flour

6 cups/1.5 liters vegetable stock

2 sprigs thyme, chopped

3-4 sprigs parsley, chopped

1 cup/250 ml crème fraȋche

 

  1. Trim the mushroom stems and thinly slice the caps. Melt a tablespoon of the butter in a large saucepan, add a handful of the mushrooms slices, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook over low heat until tender, then set them aside for garnish. Meanwhile finely chop the remaining mushrooms.
  2. Melt the remaining butter in the saucepan, add the onion and celery cook until tender. Stir in the chopped mushrooms and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the mushrooms are translucent and the liquid has evaporated, 5-7 minutes.
  3. Whisk in the flour, then the stock and thyme. Bring the soup to a boil, whisking until it thickens, then simmer 5 minutes. Take from the heat and stir in the crème fraȋche. Taste and adjust the seasoning. The soup can be made ahead and stored a couple of days in the refrigerator up to this point.
  4. To finish, reheat the soup and garnish if necessary. Spoon the soup into bowls. Stir the parsley into the warmed sliced mushrooms, sprinkle on the soup and serve.

Lucy’s Crispy Chocolate Delights

This is a delightfully dish to create with your grandchild or child. Lucy, Leo and I had great fun making this dish for a school project on chocolate!

Chopping up the Mars Bars

Rice crispies drizzled with white and dark chocolate, heaven! In the US, Mars bars are known as Milky Ways.

Makes 16 delights
3 cups/90 g/3 oz rice crispies
4 Mars bars (40 g/1 1/4 oz each)
1/2 cup/125 g butter, diced, more for the baking sheet

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Put the rice crispies in a large bowl. Cut the Mars bars in chunks and put them in a saucepan with the butter. Warm over low heat, stirring often with a wooden spo

on, until the mixture is melted and bubbling, 3-5 minutes.

Melting the Mars Bars with the butter

2. Pour the mixture into the rice crispies, stirring with a large spoon. While still warm, spread this on the baking sheet as an 8-inch/18-cm square about ¾ inch/2 cm thick, flattening the top with the spoon and straightening the edges. Leave to set, 8-10 minutes.

3. For decoration: heat a small saucepan of water until almost boiling. Break one of the chocolate bars into squares, put them in a bowl and set it over the steaming water. Heat until the chocolate is melted, stirring occasionally, 5-7 minutes. With a fork, drizzle the melted chocolate over the crispie mixture in fine trails and leave to set, 8-10 minutes. Repeat with the other chocolate bar. You will have some chocolate left over. Chill the decorated slab of delights until firmly set, at least 30 minutes.

The flattened mixture

Leo and I

4. Trim the edges of the mixture with a large heavy knife. Cut it in 2-inch/5-cm squares. Store the delights in an airtight container, layered with parchment paper or plastic wrap. They will keep for up to a week.

Gingerbread Men

Leo, Lucy and I covered the flour

Gingerbread men are the ideal Christmas recipe to occupy a wet afternoon. They can be cut small to hang from ribbons on the tree, or pack in gift bags for the neighbors.. When larger they form a protective army around the Christmas cake. At Simon’s Mas in the Roussillon near Perpignan where we all spend the holidays, the five grandchildren — four girls and boy — join around the big kitchen table. We take one very English ingredient with us  — the essential golden syrup which makes the dough easy to knead and roll as well as the characteristic sweetness that is so different from brown sugar.

Makes three dozen 5-inch/12-cm gingerbread men

1 cup/400 g golden syrup

10 tablespoons/150 g butter, more for the baking sheet

A lovely photo of Lucy, Leo, Maxine (the wonderful Nanny) and Myself in my kitchen.

4 cups/500 g flour, more for rolling

2 tablespoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground allspice

Pinch of baking soda

For decoration

Prepared icing pens

2-3 tablespoons currants

 

5-inch/12-cm gingerbread man cookie cutter

  1. To make the dough: Heat the golden syrup and butter in a pan until melted, stir to mix them, and set aside to cool. Lift the flour, ginger, allspice and baking soda into a bowl and make a well in the center. add the cooled golden syrup and stir with your hand to make a smooth dough — it will be quite soft but if it is sticky, work in a little more flour and press it into a ball. Cover the dough with a cloth an

    Lucy decorating the gingerbread men

    d chill until firm about 30 minutes.

  2. Heat the oven to 400ºF/200ºC and set a shelf near the center. Butter two baking sheets. Turn the dough into a floured work surface and cut it in half. Roll one half to about 1/8 inch/3 mm thickness. Stamp out gingerbread men with the cookie cutter and set them on the baking sheet. Decorate them with the icing pens, marking faces, hands and boots, with currants for buttons. Chill in the freezer until firm, 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile press the dough trimmings into the remaining dough, roll, shape more men, set them on the second baking sheet and chill.
  3. Bake the gingerbread men in the oven until golden brown around the edges 7-8 minutes. Transfer them too a rack to cool. Gingerbread men do well in an airtight container for up to a week.

How to Identify a Perfect Croissant

Now I’ve moved to the UK, I’ve been hunting for croissants and I’ve noticed how hard it is to find a prefect example. I’m talking of the plain, butter croissant for breakfast, none of the fancy varieties stuffed with ham.  Here is what I look out for:

  • You can see here the differences in size and colour.

    Look in the window of the shop, usually one that specialises in pastry rather than bread. The smaller the size of the croissants, the better.  Less is definitely more!

  • Price: I usually pay is £2/$ 4.60 for a croissant, i.e. the middle market where croissants range from 95p to £3.
  • Appearance: first impressions are very important, as follows:
  • Colour: Is it tempting and golden? If pallid it will be soggy, if too dark and over baked it will be dry.
  • Layering: can you see how the croissant has been constructed, a glimpse of the tale-tale layers which make up the structure of croissant is always reassuring.
  • Shape: it is lop-sided in the structure/in the bake. Note that in France a straight rather than a crescent shape indicates the use of margarine (and a lower price).
  • A good rise: if a croissant looks deflated, it has not been proved (i.e. left to rise) enough, or it has been over proved – the latter problem is common in hot weather.
  • Is the point well sealed and tucked under the rolled croissant before it is shaped as a crescent on the baking sheet? If not, the dough will unravel as it rises in the oven and the croissant will collapse.
  • A sketch to show how the point is sealed.

    Texture: this is that moment when you tear your croissant apart:

    • Lightness: if sticky, the croissant is under baked.
    • Aroma: when you break open the croissant can you smell the butter and heady, yeasty dough?
    • Holes: big holes indicate dough that has risen too long before baking.
    • Chewiness: a good baked croissant is chewy without being tough.
    • Fluffiness: not a good sign, the dough was poorly kneaded.
    • Flavor: should be buttery with only a whiff of yeast. Having the right, generous amount of butter is key. A true French croissant has a delicious taste which is hard to match outside France. The flour is different and so, above all, is the butter.

I hope this description has aids you all in this challenging search. All that is missing is a steaming café crème.

Bon Appétit

Oxford Symposium

This July I returned to the annual Oxford Symposium on Food & Wine at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.  The conference is academic in nature and the theme for 2018 was on “Seeds” I am neither gardener nor farmer and the topic was not my forte.  So naturally, my interest turned to the food!  The Symposium is well-known for its intellectual meals served banquet-style in the dining hall of St. Catz, as it’s called.  The whole college complex is a modernist historic landmark designed by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen.

Menus were dedicated to the Seeds theme, quite a challenge but met with great skill and imagination.  One lunch was flat breads, beautifully cooked by St Catz’s Head Chef Tim Kelsey, the menu Caravanserai Flatbread Lunch. The second dinner was devised by The Eucalyptus Tree Chef Moshe Bassoon who had travelled from Jersualem to present the meal, the menu Biblical Banquet Seeds of Peace,

Cavanserai Flatbread Lunch devised by Naomi Duguid, cooked by Tim Kelsey & St. Catz Staf

At the last lunch, there was a fantastic array of specialty breads: rye, spelt, corn, barley, einkorn, all sustainably sourced from the local bakeries, the menu Borough Market, The Sustainable Food Story Soup-er seeded. The desserts were inventive: spiced poached rhubarb, sheep’s milk custard, sorrel meringues, toasted buckwheat crumbs, and coconut milk rice pudding with berries.  Salads presented the diversity of the chicory family, demonstrated by its many fantastically named varieties: blue dairy, blue dandelion, blue sailors, blue weed, bunk, coffee weed, cornflower, hendibeh, horseweed, ragged sailors, succory, wild bachelor’s buttons, and wild endive.  Pick your favorite.

The Symposium was full to the brim, showing its continued popularity more than three decades on.  Lectures I attended focused on grains, primarily the origins and manipulations of historic versions of modern wheat, whether it be how Mexico and Pakistan use the same wheat seed or tracing the origins of wild emmer wheat in Israel/Palestine in a captivating lecture by Dr Assaf Distelfeld of Tel Aviv University.

Elizabeth Hoover & Sean Sherman’s lecture on the movement to re-establish Native American indigenous food culture. She’s a Brown University professor and he’s the Sioux Chef.

Other fascinating lectures included Myriam Melchoir’s talk on the history of maize in Brazil and David Sutton’s talk on Amaranth, the bushy purple plant that popped up all over my mother’s garden, in the wilds of Yorkshire, thanks to her love of exotic plants.   Anny Gaul gave a fascinating lecture on the seed fenugreek, most commonly used as a spice in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking.  I’d only known it in curry mixes but her talk was how prosperity led Moroccan middle-class home cooks to shun fenugreek’s pungent aroma to the extent that it disappeared from all but rural home cooking and is now being re-discovered as an authentic flavor of North Africa.

I’ve already marked next year on my calendar where the subject sounds a challenge: “Food and Power”, we all learn that in the nursery.  Many, many thanks to all who were involved with the organization of this event, and I thoroughly look forward to next year.  For more information about the Symposium click here.

Cooking with My Grandchildren

After school on Friday’s my 11 year old grandson Leo and I have time together.  This past week we prepared for his father’s birthday celebration, which naturally meant making an abundance of Leo’s favorite cheese balls!

Cheese balls come from my Aunt Louie, who with piled white hair and a brave bosom, who would drive down the village street bowing right and left to her friends in the manner of the Queen Mother. Aunt Louie was lucky. Her tombola tickets invariably won a prize, and once earned her a valuable diamond brooch in the shape of a bow as pioneered by Cartier. I have it to this day.

I once asked Aunt Louie where her recipe came from and she looked nostalgic. “We went on our honeymoon to Monte Carlo, and I made rather a lot of money in the Casino. Your uncle would get very tired of waiting for me and always said that the only compensation were the cheese balls in the bar. So I tried them at home and they became a family tradition.”

We have Aunt Louie’s cheese ball at nearly every family occasion and now I’m passing along the tradition to the next generation.

AUNT LOUIE’S CHEESE BALLS

Makes about 20 1-inch balls

1 1/4 cups flour, more if needed

1 1/4 cups grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon each of salt, pepper and dry mustard

1/2 cup melted butter, more if needed

  1. Put the flour, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and mustard in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse briefly to mix. With the blades running, pour in the melted butter, and continue working to form crumbs, about 20 seconds. Press a few crumbs together with your fingers: if dry, add a little more butter, or if sticky add 2-3 tablespoons more flour. (see Leo on the right)
  1. Butter a baking sheet. Turn the crumbs into a bowl, press them into balls the size of small walnuts and set them on the baking sheet. Chill for 30 minutes and heat the oven to 375˚F/190˚C. Bake the cheese balls until lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes. They keep well in an airtight container, or they can be frozen.

A delicious bite for dinner parties and a great way to entertain my Leo.

Bon Appétit

 

 

UK Guild of Food Writers Recognition

This June I was very honored to be awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the UK Guild of Food Writers. I’m grateful to be invited to join such a rarefied group of food writers who have already received this award.  If you’d like to watch my acceptance speech at the Guild of Food Writers Awards at Opera Holland Park, London, click here.

Now that I’m settled in London I’ve joined the London Les Dames d’Escoffier chapter and I’m deep into working on a new culinary history book, which traces the evolution of the American cookbook through key works all written by women authors, and I’m enjoying being closer to my family, teaching my grandchildren in the kitchen weekly.

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