Friday, 24 October 2014

Belgian customer service

We all experienced it, I’m sure. Belgian customer service is well known for being awful, particularly in bars and shops. I was told in one clothes shop that they “had nothing that would fit” me. I was a size 14-16 at the time. Not huge by any manner or means. I’ve also been ridiculed over a mis-pronunciation (in front of a queue of people), despite the fact that I speak very good French, and a bit of Dutch. For a city that has such a high number of ex-pats and visitors, people should be given a large benefit of the doubt, particularly when they are making an effort to speak the local language.

The biscuit was taken yesterday. I went into a small café on Pl Flagey and asked for a “simple espresso”. I just needed to kill a bit of time before I had to be somewhere else. The lady asked for €1.80 and handed me a small paper cup with my coffee. I asked if it was possible to have a cup as I wanted to sit down. She told me that I should have told her that I didn’t want the coffee to go, and that sitting in would cost me another €0.40 (she also explained that this was to cover the cost of the cups, and the chairs, and the electricity, and the service). I stupidly began getting the change.She then informed me that if she transferred my coffee from the paper cup into a real cup, I’d lose the mousse from on top of the coffee. Her colleague, who seemed to have a bit of common sense, told her to just make me a new coffee. I was now wondering if I was going to be charged for this coffee too. I wasn’t but it was the most awkward coffee I’ve ever had. I sat down and swallowed the coffee, and stood up again. I think I paid about one cent for every second my bum graced their seats. Also needless to say, I’m never going to go back to that café ever again.

There are also the lovely shop assistants, particularly the lady in Casa Merode, years ago, who managed to hold it together when I asked her if she had any more toes (orteil) when I meant to ask for pillows (oreiller). And the lovely people who bear with me when I don’t know the precise word and then descend into a long description of what I’m looking for, and details of what I’m not looking for. We usually get there. Another special mention should go to the garden centre worker who patiently helped me work out the plant I wanted to order, based on “it’s red/orange, and it’s long, and its leaves are like this”.

So, do you have any experiences to share, good or bad? Is this a Belgian thing, or does it happen everywhere? 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

365things on tour – Utrecht

I love the Netherlands. The place is so nice, the cities are small, manageable and user-friendly, the people are so nice, the shopping is great. And the food… mmmm. I had the chance to go to Utrecht last week for a fleeting visit with a friend. We got there just after lunchtime, so once we’d parked the car, we headed off to get something to eat. We happened upon Stan & co on Ganzenmarkt and decided to give it a go.

The cheese plate
The place is actually pretty trendy and a lot of the staff have adopted the hipster look. I loooooove hipsters. So I was in heaven. The restaurant was large and spacious, with ‘atmospheric’ lighting. The staff all spoke English and they even had a menu in English. The kitchen is on view at the back of the restaurant. I’d say the place is very popular with students, particularly at night although when we were there (mid week, lunchtime), there were a good mixture of ages and walks of life.
The chicken wings
We were in more of a picky mood rather than looking for actual dishes, so we ordered a selection of the sharing dishes – chicken wings, bitterballen, the bread selection, dried ham and cheese, and a selection of cheeses. And, of course, a couple of beers (Vedette. You can take the girl out of Belgium). The dishes all came with dips and spreads such as tapenade, apple jam and mustard. The service was very good and the food was really excellent. I highly recommend the bitterballen! 

The bread came in a brown paper bag
Stan & Co.
Ganzenmarkt 16A
3512 GD Utrecht
Telefoon: 030 – 233 45 35

Monday, 20 October 2014

Back on the wagon again!

Good afternoon everyone! Yay! Winter hit!!!!! Did you ever see anything like the change yesterday afternoon? One minute we were sitting outside commenting on how warm it was and removing layers; one minute later the clouds covered and we were shivering! Amazing!

But that is not the only thing that happened this weekend. As y’all know, I am now three months off sugar. You can read about my decision here and the three-week-in report here.

Everything has been going great – no cravings, life hasn’t changed too much, I haven’t died of starvation. I have cut down on the amount of nuts I’m eating, I’m off the dried fruit and I have changed the fruit I am eating (fewer bananas and grapes and more berries and kiwis, which are lower in sugar).

Nonetheless, this weekend I decided to bake the amazing Konditor & Cook's Curly Whirly cake (it is my go-to chocolate cake. It is in all honesty, amazing. I came it via my friend Rose – she of the Nuetnigenough restaurant review. She recommended increasing the recipe by one third; I doubled it and used this chocolate buttercream icing for the centre, and smothered the whole cake in the K&C cream cheese icing).

I baked the cake on Friday, and served myself up a medium slice after dinner. Now, I have had the odd sugary snack over the past three months with few noticeable side effects. Maybe it’s because we were on the sofa, in the peace of our home, but my stomach began speaking in Morse code to us for the rest of the night. I didn’t sleep particularly well on Friday night – I don’t know if there is a link between the two. The noisy tummy wasn’t the only side effect, but that is all I’m prepared to say on that subject right now!

So, what did I learn from all this? I’m going to stay off sugar for the time being. I haven’t noticed that I have more energy being off it, but I felt pretty 'bleugh' on Friday evening, and I definitely felt a bit 'heavy' over the weekend. Also, not eating cakes and the like, means that I can indulge on things I actually prefer, like cheese, with less of a conscience.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Kitchen grievances

Does anything wreak your head when you’re cooking for yourself or others? What’s your least-preferred job? tidying up? peeling garlic? waiting for your goodies to cook? cleaning the piping nozzle after icing? Or is it the armchair chef that leaves you raging?
For me, there are several things that make me go aaRRRaaagghh:

3. People who do not cook, commenting on what I make.
"oh, I’d have cooked the pasta for another 30 seconds". "mmmm. This is delicious, but it needs a little … something". Or "I’d have added a little more chilli".
Yes, the food critic whose idea of cooking is pouring a jar of sauce through pasta but feels fully entitled to pass judgement on the meal you’ve probably spent all afternoon cooking from scratch. These are often the same people who criticise professional chefs in restaurants. Constructive criticism is fine but preferably from people who know how to boil an egg. Yes, I am a snob. 

2. The dishwasher
I love this labour saving device. If I didn’t have one, I would definitely cook a lot less and I’d probably use paper plates and plastic cutlery. I use it to wash plates, cutlery, pots, but not frying pans or my good kitchen knives. But, OMG, emptying it. Emptying. The. Dishwasher. It just brings out the teenager-y angst in me, and I come over all Kevin and Perry. And I don’t know why! Washing up by hand is definitively more unpleasant, and emptying the dishwasher takes all of two minutes! 

1. Getting the biggest “mmmmm’s” for something that is not really cooking.
I recently cooked for some friends: three curries and naan bread (all from scratch), ‘special’ rice as well as the soup starter. I decided to take the easy route for dessert, and whizzed some biscuits in the food processor, used melted butter to hold them together, chilled it, topped it with whipped cream and fresh berries. This dessert is not exactly ‘cooking’ for me. It’s more construction. Now, the curries were great, and elicited lots of “mmm’s” and “oooh’s” from my guests. But the dessert got the most “mmm’s”! And it's not even cooking!!!!

@BelgianBun tweeted me that “Husband's tea making activities during cooking time!! Oh and splashes on cookbooks” are her bugbears, and I agree particularly about other people being in the kitchen when I’m cooking. Ok, people in the kitchen are fine, and especially fine as long as they’re not directing what I’m doing (my kitchen, my cooking, my way). An aside is that on the occasions when my husband cooks, he gives out that ‘my’ kitchen is not arranged how he would use it. And that it’s not logical to put this there, and why do I put that knife (that I never use) in that out of the way drawer. And when he does cook, I may as well be in the kitchen with him as he’s all:
H (from the kitchen): where’s the grated cheese?
M (from the sitting room): in the fridge.
H: I can’t find it.
M: it’s on the middle shelf
H: it’s not there
M: middle shelf, on the left
H: no
M: middle shelf, on the left, at the back
H: it’s not here
M: middle shelf, on the left, at the back, in the red packet, next to the yogurt and the tomatoes
H: Are you sure we have some?
M: (getting out of the sofa and going to the kitchen): yes. (look in the fridge, middle shelf, left, at the back; hand him the red packet of grated cheese, from next to the yogurt and tomatoes). There you go. (turn back to the sofa).

My mum used to always say to us “if it were a dog it’d bite you”. I now know what this means.

And why does he have to use the biggest knife we have. It’s huge – the blade is the length of my lower arm – and it’s used to slice the top and bottom off a single clove of garlic!

So, over to you… anything drive you mad in the kitchen?

Monday, 29 September 2014

Ox cheek casserole

Winter is setting in – slowly – which is just about the same way this delicious casserole cooks. Talk to your local, friendly butcher and s/he will get a couple of ox cheeks for you. I pay just under €18 per kilo (this year; last year they were cheap as chips). You’ll need about half a cheek per person, so about 300g each. This recipe feeds about 6 people.

A good knob of butter
3 ox cheeks, trimmed of gristle and chopped into chunks
2 tablespoons of plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
one packet of lardons
a stock cube or two
1 net of small onions, whole but skinned
3 carrots, chopped into chunky chunks
3 bay leaves
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
one small tin of tomato puree
1 bottle of good red wine

mashed potatoes

Yummy, melty ox cheek casserole
Preheat your oven to 150°C. In a heavy casserole dish (one that has a lid that fits), melt the butter. Dip the meat in the seasoned flour, knock off the excess and then brown it in the melted butter. Depending on the size of your pot, you may need to do this in batches. If you do need to do it in batches, keep the browned meat in a bowl next to you.

A whole, raw ox cheek. This one was particularly large.
Once you have all the meat browned, cook the lardons, onions and carrots for a few minutes. Stir in the puree. Return the meat to the casserole and give it a good stir to get it all well combined. Once it’s all happily mixed, pour in the red wine and sprinkle over the stock cube(s) and put the bay leaves on top. Bring all of this to a murmur of a simmer, cover with the lid and pop it in the oven and cook this for about five (5!) hours. You should take it out a couple of times and stir it during this time. The casserole is cooked when the meat falls apart when gently prodded with a table knife.
I serve this with plain potato mash – no celeriac or parsnips – just pure and I make the mash with masses of (Irish) butter. I bought myself a potato ricer a few months ago, and I love the mash it makes. I still love my traditional ‘lumpy’ mash, this just isn’t the time nor place for it.

And of course I serve this with a glass of tannin-rich red wine.

This casserole is very good the next day, and it freezes well too.

Update: I read a Nigel Slater recipe where he used star anise and prunes in a very similar recipe, which I then duly tried. The star anise works a treat! Try it! For the prunes, and probably in future with the vegetables that I add to this casserole, I would try adding them about 2-3 hours into the cooking, as the prunes and the onions tend to disappear into the (delicious) sauce, whereas I'd rather be able to identify them on my plate.

Update part 2: My lovely, friendly, local butcher regularly stocks pork cheeks, which Nigel Slater also has a delicious-sounding recipe for, and I'm going to try soon. Keep tuned!