Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Butternut squash mac 'n' cheese

Following a request for the recipe, as copied from Food Network, here it is.

Peel, chop, and steam one small butternut squash until tender. Mash till smooth. Rachael Ray just bought an 8 ounce packet of frozen butternut squash puree from Trader Joe's and defrosted it, so I guess you could also do that. We don't have Trader Joe's (or indeed any decent supermarkets) over here. I've also used sweet potatoes in place of squash, and they work really well -- very earthy.

Finely grate one small onion (or half a large one). I use my Microplane grater, which gives a lovely onion slush. Add the slush to 3 tablespoons of oil or butter with a sprinkle of dried thyme and cook for a couple of minutes. Add 3 tablespoons of flour to make a roux, and stir over the heat for a couple more minutes. Gradually add 2 cups of vegetable stock (I used the water from steaming the squash and some stock powder), stirring constantly to form a smooth, thick sauce.

Stir in the mashed squash, a cup of grated cheese (cheddar, Jack, something flavorful and melty), salt and pepper to taste, a splash of milk, and a pinch of grated nutmeg. Stir well.

Add cooked pasta -- about 12-16 ounces for 4 people (or however much you normally use for 4 people). Mix well. Pour into a baking dish, sprinkle with more grated cheese, and heat through in an oven or under a grill/broiler until the top is golden brown and slightly crispy.

You can of course add things like chopped mushrooms and pepper or (ugh!) ham to the mix. Serve with a salad or green veggies.

Eet smaakelijk!

Don't get me wrong, I love train travel!

To borrow a phrase from the wonderful Stephen Colbert, I'm putting British trains on notice. We've just booked tickets for two journeys in the next 10 days and both have left me incredulous.

Journey 1: London Liverpool Street to Norwich. When booking these tickets online, we discovered that we can book and pay without any problems, but actually getting the tickets is a little more tricky. There are three delivery options: 1) Use a Fast Ticket machine at stations (no cost); 2) Mail in 3-5 days (5 pounds); or 3) overnight delivery (10 pounds). Being somewhat reluctant to fork out additional cash on top of the ticket price and credit card fee, I opted for the Fast Ticket machine -- only to discover that there isn't one at London's Liverpool Street Station. So, if you're travelling from there, you have to pay a minimum of 5 pounds to get your tickets in advance. When Anglia Railways had the franchise, you could pick tickets up at a dedicated Anglia service point on Platform 10 -- fantastic. Now, the irritatingly named "One" organization (which somehow managed to be awarded the service) have removed that -- and indeed any levels of service -- from Liverpool Street. Bastards.

Journey 2: Cardiff to Carmarthen. Now, my problem here is not the cost (fairly typical for the generally extortionate British trains), but the time the journey will take. The distance is but 60 miles. The journey time? A staggering 2 hours and 10 minutes. Direct! That's less than 30 miles an hour! I presume our train will look something like this:

Either that, or it's going via Aberystwyth.

Monday, August 28, 2006


After discussion about the "good, but not that good" Purple Hibiscus petered out at book club last week, we turned to the topic of memory. One attendee asserted that people were getting lazier about what they remembered. As proof, she cited the memory palaces that medieval monks used to construct to remember information -- a memory-based act of will that allowed the transmission of culture through the ages. I don't really see this as evidence that we aren't trying hard enough to remember things; medieval monks just didn't have to contend with TV or the Internet and had a simple filter on what they learnt and thus remembered. We don't. We're constantly bombarded with information, most of it unwanted. If monks had had to contend with pictures of cats in sinks and the the various conspiracy theories about Tom Cruise, their memory palaces would have filled up in days, not years.

My belief is that our brains are designed to hold only a certain amount of information. Once you've reached that limit, some stuff drops out -- and you have very little control over what stays and what goes. For example, I cannot remember the mobile phone number I've had for the past four years, but I can, unfortunately, recall the theme tune to Terry and June. I can't remember the names of people I've lived with in the past, but do know the results and key incidents of the first football match I went to see.* OK, so the latter does have special meaning for me, but the theme tune to Terry & June has no emotional resonance -- I hope.

I don't think anyone really wants to admit that there's a limit on what you can know. And there's always the argument that there are a lot of people -- usually academics -- who know an awful lot more than other people. But I don't think that's true. They normally know a lot about a subject that you know very little about, which is why you hold their knowledge in high regard, but you'll know equally much about topics that they like to disdain -- such as the plot lines of Friends or who shot JR.** Different topics, but not different amounts.

I don't think my fellow attendee was convinced by my argument, but I'm pretty sure I dropped in her estimation. Having the past 15 years of celebrity gossip at my fingertips does not, apparently, equate to knowing some stuff about medieval history. Shame.

* Norwich vs Tottenham, December 27, 1980. It was a 2:2 draw, a keeper was stretchered off, a black dog ran onto the pitch, and Fashanu (Justin) scored from a penalty.

** Sue-Ellen's sister, Kristin.

Baggy, and a bit loose at the seams

This has been the most bizarre summer, weather-wise. July's heatwave made way for August's torrential downpours and chilly temperatures, necessitating the unearthing of jumpers, cold remedies, and fluffy bed socks. Today, we watched incredulously as wave after wave of rain swept across Amsterdam, obliterating nearby buildings from our sight. Apparently, we've had about 10 inches of rain this month; today's downpours must have nearly doubled that.

Please note: I'm not complaining (for once). I much prefer this weather to July's enervating heat; I avoided the rain on the way home and did a couple of extra sets of weights at the gym this morning, rather than venturing into the deluge outside; and I'm making butternut squash mac 'n' cheese for dinner tonight -- perfect food for a rainy day.

And I'll follow that with a double episode of My Name Is Earl, the final of America's Next Top Model -- yes, I gave in and continued to watch it, despite knowing who wins -- and then turn in for a mug of cocoa with my Nintendogs and this charming fellow, my Bagpuss hot-water bottle:

The most important,
The most beautiful,
The most magical,
Saggy old cloth cat in the whole wide world.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Sunday afternoon film club

The past few weekends have been spent at home. As PJ grinds his way through another berry-collecting adventure, offing various samurai lords on his way to restoring peace to his village, I watch movies. Black and white movies. And not my usual Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn romantic comedies. Oh no. These are art-house classics, albeit art-house lite. British kitchen sink and Ozu, rather than Fellini and Fassbinder. "Darling", a grim look at what it was like to be beautiful in 60s London. "The L-Shaped Room", a grim look at what it was like to be beautiful and pregnant in 60s London. And today, "Late Spring", a grim look at what it was like to be the beautiful, devoted, unmarried daughter of a widowed father in post-war Japan. The latter was beautifully shot, hugely restrained in terms of dialogue and plot -- it played for 5 minutes before I could ascertain whether I'd turned the subtitles on properly -- and very touching. (It also inspired me to cook Japanese food this evening.) Mind you, I did have to pretend to PJ (when he appeared shortly before the end of the movie) that he'd just missed the battle with the giant, time-traveling robots that are essential to his enjoyment of any movie, and particularly Japanese ones.

The film club will be suspended for the next two Sundays, due to trips to Norwich and Cardiff. Showings will resume with "Early Summer", a grim look at one woman's resistance to familial pressure to get married in post-war Japan. I can't wait!

One question though: Why are these films so bloody expensive? I can get the latest blockbuster, complete with several hours of special features and commentaries, for less than a tenner, but a 90-minute, 60-year-old art-house classic with nothing in the way of interviews or documentaries costs 20 quid. It makes no sense!

Black goo

There are some English foodstuffs that simply don't translate to Continental Europe: HP sauce, decent teabags, and malt loaf. I love squidgy Soreen malt loaf, coated in a thick layer of butter, but rarely get to eat it now. So, it was time to turn to Delia and her recipe for sticky malt loaf.

First step: Buy some treacle and malt extract. The health food shops here in Amsterdam are fantastic, a veritable treasure trove of weird ingredients, like the afore-mentioned malt extract and treacle.

Step two: Whip up an odd, dark brown yeasted dough. The only sweetness comes from the treacle and some sultanas. Definitely odd. Then leave to rise for several hours.

Bake, then glaze with honey.

The end result? Pretty damn good. It's an almost savory fruit cake, which sounds unpleasant, but is actually rather addictive. And, as I discovered this morning, it gets squidgier the longer you leave it (if that's possible).

Gourmet cuisine

Fish sticks au gratin, courtesy of Minnesota. Surprisingly good, especially when teamed with roast broccoli -- the best way of eating broccoli. 3 potatoes, some milk and cheese, and a pack of fish fingers never tasted so good.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Norwich 5: Barnsley 1

That's more like it, boys! We're now second in the table, leap-frogging ahead of Crystal Palace (sorry, Jo!) but just behind Cardiff. Ipswich, amusingly, are down at the bottom, a grim 21st. A few more results like that before Christmas and we'll avoid relegation for sure. Of course, we'll probably also lose Earnshaw to a better-paying club, but let's not worry about that just yet.


Amazing grace

Due to a lapse in concentration, I managed to break one of my contact lenses while on holiday, necessitating a trip to the opticians. I've been using one particular firm for my five years in the Netherlands, and they've been pretty good. However, they still demonstrate the same customer service idiosyncracies of other Dutch companies. I ordered my lens on Monday, got the phone call on Thursday to say it was in, and headed in to pick it up. 99 euros for one lens. Ouch. I dutifully swiped my PIN card, ruefully surveyed the damage, and cursed my stupidity. I then asked if, by any chance, they had any kind of insurance scheme. The chap behind the counter looked at me as if I were mildly retarded, paused to consider my question, and then said "Well, you could pay 32 euros per year and get 50% off your lenses."

I've been their contact lens customer for five years and they've never mentioned this to me before. I could have saved hundreds of euros by now if I'd known about this. When I got my lenses in the UK, the first thing my optician did was practically force me to take out their insurance. But here? No. You have to ask. And you have to ask the right questions: Firms will never volunteer the information that you might need, but will make you keep guessing until you come up with the right question.

It's lucky that I'm such a sweet-natured, patient person; a lesser individual might become extremely riled by this.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

You shan't have a fishie on a little dishie

Or rather, in this case, in a bag of frozen food from your Albert delivery van.

I'd placed our usual monthly order with the supermarket delivery service, and included a large amount of frozen fish: cod fillets (the interestingly named kabeljauw), king prawns, and best of all, frozen scallops (notwithstanding the last time we ate scallops and PJ got sick). I had plenty of recipes planned and was looking forward to having a full freezer. But it wasn't to be. I got home to find PJ mournfully clutching a bag of frozen food for a Mevrouw Huizinga -- full of Indonesian-style "meat" products and no shellfish. He'd phoned Albert and they'd promised the delivery man would return. At 8.30, we were still waiting. At 10.30, we gave up on our scallops and turned in.

With a sense of dread, I called Albert's customer service number -- and to my surprise, talked to a darling rep, Joost. In excellent English, he listened to my plight, apologized several times, and then credited the value of the fish against our next order. Charmed, I hung up -- and then realized I should have asked, nay, demanded!, that they deliver the damn fish on Saturday morning without a delivery charge. Did I phone back? Reader, I did not. I got lucky once with a Dutch customer service rep; there's no point in pushing it twice.

So, anybody want any frozen meat products?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

PB&J shortbread, part deux

After much cursing and swearing, I can now proudly present my fabulous shortbread. Or, at least, a photo I took of it on Saturday; every last crumb has been eaten.

And the reason I couldn't post this before? I had an ampersand in the file name. We've only just figured that out -- and we both work for a technology publishing company. A case of "Do as I say, not as I do" I fear.

Latvian potato cakes

Here it is: the first trial from the new cookbook. And it was pretty damn good, if I do say so. Soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside -- a bit like armadilloes (for those of you who remember Harry Enfield's Dime Bar ads). And, best of all, Blogger's photo service is working again!

Give me a (prison) break

We've started watching RTL 5's new season of American imports: My Name Is Earl, CSI: Miami (with David Caruso and his Sunglasses of Justice), and Bones. All good stuff, nicely timed for our 8.30 dinner time through the week. However, the commercial breaks last 7 minutes and every single one contains a loooooong trailer for Prison Break. It's very, very tedious.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Oooh, he's a very nice man!

That would be Michael Palin, obviously. One of the Dutch channels at the gym has, delightfully, chosen to show his six-parter on his journey through the Himalayas, which meant I stayed on the treadmill for considerably longer than planned. But he was on a train journey to Simla and he was chatting to a historian about colonial rule and getting puris with potato curry from a lovely civil servant on the train and it was all so terribly nice and English that I had to keep watching. Bless. If I had to choose two exemplars of what it means to be a thoroughly decent English chap, I'd pick Palin and Sir David Attenborough. Very nice men.

I also watched the last 10 minutes of one of those programmes about evil children, incompetent parents and the child psychologist who makes it all better. There's nothing like having your prejudices reinforced to put a spring in your step.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Artery-blocking PB&J shortbread

I never understood the American fondness for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A staple feature of the books and movies I consumed as a child, its appeal eluded me. Like Hershey's chocolate, grape juice, and Twinkies, it just seemed wrong. Until that fateful day at work when we'd run out of butter and I needed something to put under the jam on my toast. Delicious! I was hooked! PB&J on toast, PB&J tarts, and, best of all, PB&J shortbread.

This recipe was the serendipitous result of our holiday in St Lucia, a bringing together of a jam-filled shortbread recipe from Paula Deen's Food Network show and a peanut butter shortbread recipe in Bread on Arrival, a culinary mystery by Lou Jane Temple. Magpie-like, I also incorporated a peanut butter cookie recommendation for using ground peanuts in the dough to add more peanuttiness, an idea from my copy of The Best Recipe. The first time I tried this, I used the 16 tablespoons of butter in Lou Jane Temple's recipe -- and could feel my arteries seizing up as I just loooked at it. You could see butter oozing from every crevice of the finished product. Subsequently, therefore, I've reduced that by a quarter, with fine results.

As a result of all these American influences, the recipe uses American cups rather than weights for measurement, other than for the butter. If you're a Brit who loves baking, get yourself a set of cups; US cookies and cakes are fabulous, and the cups make life a lot easier!

1 1/2 cups of plain flour (US all-purpose)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup corn flour (US corn starch)
1 tsp vanilla essence
1/2 tsp salt
160 grammes butter (US 12 tablespoons), left out at room temperature to soften
1/2 cup peanut butter, creamy or crunchy
1/2 cup ground peanuts (salted but not roasted)
Raspberry jam (the cheap stuff is fine, not Bonne Maman!)
Chocolate drops, if you really hate your heart and hips. Nestle's peanut butter/chocolate swirls are particularly good here.

Set oven to 325F/170C. Grease and line a 9"x9" cake tin.
Blend the first 9 ingredients together in a food processor till you get a smoothish dough. It probably won't come together in a single ball, but that's fine.
Press half of the dough into the tin and spread with about 3 large tablespoons of raspberry jam. Drop the remaining dough in lumps over the jam to cover. Sprinkle over peanut butter-chocolate drops if you want.
Bake for 35 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. Leave to cool for as long as you can before eating: hot jam can be painful.

I've been trying to post a picture of the batch I made yesterday -- in vain! What is up with Blogger's photo service at the moment?

The Norwegian rain joke

"An American visits Oslo on business. After two weeks, he stops a small boy in the streets and asks: 'Hey sonny, does it ever stop raining here?' The boy looks at him and replies, 'I don't know, sir. I'm only 11.'"

That's pretty much how I feel in Amsterdam today.

Stuffed pig's head

Feeling rested and refreshed, we moved on to Riga. Normally, we'd have taken a cab, but we were feeling adventurous (and cheap), so took a train instead, 25 km for the bargain price of 51 Latvian santimes. (I have to question why anyone would set a fare at 51 santimes, though. 50, yes; 55, possibly; 60, fine. But 51? It makes no sense! We had to scrabble through our pockets to find 2 santimes to add to the 20 lati note that was the smallest we had.) Again, the preponderance of stone-washed denim and batwing jumpers made me feel like we'd stepped back into the 1980s. We then traipsed for what seemed like ages through various parks and streets to get to our hotel, necessitating a little nap before heading out to explore.

It must be said that PJ and I aren't the most dedicated of sight-seeers. We like museums if they have a good shop and/or cafe; we enjoy looking at architecture; and we're quite happy to sit in a bar and watch people, but we don't usually feel a tremendous need to check a bunch of sights off a list. I only had two things that I wanted from the afternoon: a visit to the house with cats on it and a Latvian cookbook. Not only did we see the cat house (shades of Danielle Dax, pop-pickers), but the rather nice restaurant below also had a real cat in it and some excellent wild mushrooms on toast.

The cookbook was in the first souvenir shop we went into, and is a gem: lots of recipes involving pickled herring or dry cottage cheese and a recipe for something called "head cheese", which involves taking a whole pig's head, removing the brains, boiling the head with vegetables, removing the skin and fat, and dicing the head, ears and tongue, before boiling again in a bag and then pressing it for 8 hours. While you must admit that it sounds delicious, I don't think that's going to be on my must-try list anytime soon. (One other problem is that many [truly tempting] recipes involve something called manna-croup, defined as the husked grains of manna grass, used for making porridge. I didn't see any supermarkets while in Latvia, so I wasn't able to get any. It sounds like a thickener, so maybe corn starch or polenta would work as a substitute -- any opinions, oh Peace Corps workers?)

We continued to wander the streets, took photos of the key buildings, and then attempted to locate a recommended restaurant for dinner, only to find the block it was on had been demolished. Damn! Feeling lazy, we opted for the deep-fried plate in our hotel's 11th floor skybar, which was jolly nice and had a fabulous bar as well as great views over the city. Sometimes, laziness really is the best policy.

Life in a Baltic spa town

Never having been to a proper spa hotel before, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would it be fabulous luxury, with aging, wealthy, overly made-up ladies who lunch decked out in diamonds and leopard-print swimsuits or more like a Soviet sanatorium, with people wandering around in plastic-soled white shoes being denied dessert? Well, a little of column A and a little of column B. The hotel (pictured below) had recently been renovated tastefully -- well, apart from the Casino on the ground floor, which had young ladies wearing stripper-style stacked platform shoes and very short skirts serving drinks. Our room was a good size, the bathroom was excellent (although lacking the usual array of shampoos and body lotions that you get in Western hotels), and we had a balcony with a great view of the fairground below -- and, thankfully, great double-glazing. The breakfasts and lunches that were part of the deal were fine: lots of pickled fish and sour-cream-drenched salads at both, all accompanied by "Hank Marvin plays popular 80s hits on his twangy guitar" music or bossanova classics. The swimming pool changing rooms smelled disturbingly of feet, but the sauna and pool facilities were great -- 5 different saunas and steam rooms, including one where you rubbed yourself down with great handfuls of salt before running through a series of increasingly cold jets. The spa treatments were excellent and highly efficiently organized, if a little more spartan than the day spas I've been to in the UK and US.

And the guests were, well, ordinary. Men with large, taut bellies; women with not-so-taut bellies in skimpy bikinis; small children being annoying as only small children can be; Russians, Latvians, and Finns. Lots of stonewash denim and other 80s fashions. Old people, young people, families, teenage couples, people in wheelchairs, irritatingly attractive 16 year olds. A man in the most appalling floral G-string posing pouch -- thank God I'd broken a contact lens by that point and was wearing my lower-strength glasses. But in general, just ordinary.

The notion of going to a spa resort for a holiday is fairly foreign to the Brits, preferring, as we do, to go somewhere sunny and get drunk for 2 weeks instead. Being pummelled, scrubbed, and sprayed with icy water doesn't sound like much fun, but it was extraordinarily relaxing. We didn't watch TV for a week, although the free Wi-Fi meant that we stayed in touch with any important developments in the world of celebrity gossip. (Kate Hudson and Owen Wilson! Posh's new haircut!). We took long walks (and one run) along the beach, read and played PSP games, had afternoon naps, and generally chilled out. Highly recommended if you just want to get away from it all for a few days.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Architecture in a Baltic spa town

We were staying in the small seaside resort of Majori, the most urbanized part of the region known as Jurmala ("seaside"). It had the feel of an out-of-season British seaside town, complete with disconsolate candy-floss and ice-cream vendors, a small fairground, an amusement arcade amusingly named "Bumerangs", and a burnt-out nightclub -- although there were far more people selling pickling cucumbers than you get in Blackpool. However, it did provide a wonderful variety of architectural styles:

From late 19th century clapboard houses tucked away among the pine trees:

to miniature castles:

to lavish, yet sadly deserted, beach-side venues:

and to hulking, Soviet-style brutalist hotels. Mmmm, brutalist hotels!

A tremendous amount of building work was taking place, presumably installing modern plumbing into many of the Victorian-era houses -- originally, their owners would bathe in the sea each morning, rather than using any of that new-fangled hot water. I daydreamed idly about selling the apartment in Amsterdam and buying a doer-upper in Jurmala, conjuring up my own little spa haven just behind the beach. Unfortunately, my clapboard castles in the air were rudely destroyed by the realty magazine that was the only reading material in the waiting area for the pearl baths: Jurmala is home to some of the most expensive real estate in Latvia, with properties going for upwards of 1 million euros. How many pickling cucumbers and candy floss would I have to sell to raise that kind of cash? No Latvian spa for Dumpling this year!

Friday, August 18, 2006

The obligatory movie tie-in blog post

"Get those muthaf*****' snakes off my muthaf*****' Art Nouveau house!"

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

And ... relax

Regular readers will know that I'm not overly prudish: I've overcome my English inhibitions and can now use the changing room at the gym with relative impunity; I have massages on a semi-regular basis; and I've even been washed by a diminutive woman at the Kabuki Springs & Spa in San Francisco. However, I've never been given a massage by a man that I wasn't actually dating. Until yesterday. PJ had been singing the praises of his masseuse, so I was looking forward to the 80 minute aromatherapy massage I had booked for yesterday afternoon. Until I got to the designated room and discovered it was a bloke. Very nice and friendly, but still. A bloke. I took a deep breath, lay down (naked) and tried to think of anything but the fact that a strange Latvian man was massaging my buttocks. Luckily, he played the soundtrack to Swan Lake as my "relaxation" music; it had commentary by a posh English bloke, so I'm now au fait with the different parts of the ballet.

Reader, I survived -- although I did shoot out of the room like a scalded cat after he left, rather than relaxing further. I'm hoping my dark chocolate facial this afternoon is rather more traditional.

Why stag parties come to Latvia

This little lot -- half a litre of beer, a double vodka and fresh orange juice, and the thick, black, gloopy local speciality balzam -- cost a grand total of just under 5 quid. I don't think you could even get the fresh juice for that much in London.

Apparently, the black balzam was not as bad as it looks. Given that it looked (and smelt) like industrial waste, that's probably a good thing. However, PJ did need to follow each sip with a large gulp of beer. Check out that grimace!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Jurmala days and nights

We've made it. Despite driving rain when we left Amsterdam and when we arrived at Riga, the clouds have cleared, the skies are blue, and the sun is shining. AND I've already had 3 spa treatments: a mountain wax warm-up, an hour in a salt mine -- well, this was very popular with the Ruskies -- and a pearl bath. I'm ready for bed. However, the hotel bar up on the 11th floor not only has fabulous views out to sea and over the surrounding countryside, but also has free Wi-Fi. I can see where we're going to be spending our evenings.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


I'm skipping yoga this morning. I can't remember the last time I didn't go to a Saturday morning class when I was actually in Amsterdam. And that's partly why I'm not going. I tend to get into routines and then feel incredibly guilty about breaking them: If I don't do 4 exercise sessions a week, I hate myself. If I don't go to yoga on a Saturday morning, I'm lazy. That kind of thing. So I'm trying to convince myself that it's good NOT to go.

The other reason for not going is that I'm feeling pretty stressed at the moment and when I'm stressed I don't eat. Not for me the joys of scarfing down pints of Ben & Jerry's or tubs of Pringles. I just. Stop. Eating. Case in point: in the past two days, I've had two tiny bowls of cereal, half a cheese sandwich, a boiled egg, 2 squares of chocolate, and a bowl of Thai take-out. And I'm not particularly hungry. But it does mean I feel a little shaky and that going to yoga would probably not be a good thing. Particularly given my apparent inability to balance while lying down at the best of times.

I need a holiday. Actually, what I really want is a six-month sabbatical to try to figure out what I really want to do. In the past eight years, I've only had one break of more than 2 weeks, and it's starting to get to me. But, there are bills to be paid, so I guess that won't happen any time soon.

OK. Time to stop sharing so much and actually do something constructive. But not yoga. Not this morning.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Ebi gyoza

I love kitchen gadgets. I have cupboards full of ice-cream machines, square omelette pans, piping bags, and vegetable peelers. A few months ago, I indulged at the Japanese food store near the Nieuwmarkt and treated myself to several packs of gyoza wrappers and a handy (yet cheap!) device for sealing and crimping the edges -- no more sticky fingers and haphazardly folded gyoza for me. However, as is my wont, the plastic sealer went straight into a kitchen drawer and languished there ... until this evening. Tonight was gyoza night. Down came the Wagamama cookbook, out came the frozen prawns and can of water chestnuts, and off was dusted the gadget.

Promising. Very promising.

Would you look at the crimping on that! Perfection - well worth 3 euros.

Not quite papal steam, but intriguing nonetheless. First you fry the gyoza, then you add water and let them steam through.

Chewy AND crispy, with a delicately flavored filling. Lekker! It's just as well PJ's traveling (again) tonight; I wouldn't want to have to share these.

On the ball, City!

The past five years in Amsterdam have seen a gradual decline in my following of English football. Sure, I've always kept an eye on what the Canaries were up to -- usually being relegated or failing miserably to be promoted -- but I've not had my finger on the pulse of Premiership and wider Championship action. However, two things have reawakened my interest: 1) The World Cup. It will be worth following Premiership action just to see Christiano "Winker" Ronaldo get booed at every match; 2) Having friends who support Crystal Palace and West Brom, thus sparking my competitive instincts.

I thought my new-found interest was doing pretty well; I now subscribe to a couple of excellent footballing blogs (Who Ate All The Pies and Who Ate All The Bratwurst), which were keeping me informed of transfers and bickering. But, I failed to realize that the Championship actually kicked off last weekend -- and that Norwich set the standard for the season by losing 1-0 to Leeds, despite being, my father assures me, the better team. Mild redemption came last night in the form of a 2-0 victory over Preston, but Crystal Palace are already heading the table, with West Brom in 4th. Curses! I need Norwich to repeat their usual streak of winning lots of matches before Christmas, and thus avoiding relegation, but then avoid their usual habit of falling apart woefully in the New Year -- resulting in mid-table obscurity.

Fasten your seatbelts, folks: it's going to be a bumpy season!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

... to the ridiculous

Don't hate me, dear reader, but after my encounter with culture in the form of subtitled German films about the horrors of war, I needed something a little lighter. Frothy, effervescent, even. I ended up watching America's Next Top Model (season 5 -- we're a long way behind here). While Tyra Banks was utterly terrifying -- or should I say "fierce"? -- the contestants were foul. Self-absorbed, petty, bitching little cry-babies, spouting therapy speak at every opportunity and completely lacking any perspective on their situation: I'd forgotten how appalling teenage girls can be. They were rivalled only in the vapidity by the nitwits who appear on "My Super-Sweet Sixteen" -- prime candidates all for being first up against the wall when the revolution comes. But, it was absorbing, I was sucked in, and I was disappointed when "edgy" Kim didn't get the boot. Luckily, I've been able to find out who won the contest and won't have to watch the remainder of the show.

From the sublime ...

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the English love an underdog. Just watch Wimbledon: the 345th ranked Bulgarian outsider will garner far more cheers and support in a match against the No. 1 seed, despite crumbling faster than a very crumbly thing in the fourth set. There can be few England fans who weren't secretly delighted by San Marino's seven-second stunner against England in 1993, a classic case of the underdog striking out bravely. And it's why Tony Blair's continued support for the US provokes so much head-scratching among his subjects: Good god, man, supporting the schoolyard bully? It's just not done!

Please keep this in mind, then, when I tell you how much I enjoyed -- and was moved by -- Downfall, a German film that tells the story of the final few days in Hitler's Berlin bunker in April 1945. It's not that I would change the result, but it certainly plays on the old heartstrings given the inevitable doom of all involved. Told largely through the eyes of one of Hitler's secretaries, a professor/doctor, and the remnants of the Berlin population holding out against the Russians, it features a mesmerizing performance by Bruno Ganz as Hitler. With his delusional, shaking, vegetarian, and animal-loving portrayal, Ganz gives Hitler back -- perhaps unjustly -- his humanity. It's understandable that this caused some controversy on release; it could be seen as sympathetic to the Nazis, but I think that's why so much of Hitler's dialogue focuses on his utter disregard for the people of Germany -- if they lose, it's because they're weak and deserve to lose. It's not a pleasant 149 minutes: multiple graphic suicides and deaths, bloody scenes in the military hospital bunker, limbs everywhere. And I cried, I have to admit, at the part when they put Hitler's dog down with a cyanide tablet. (I can't deal with even fictional animal injury/death: Dead Calm was extremely traumatic in that respect.) But it's hugely impressive and well worth seeing.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Everybody loves parfait

Shrek is not just a great movie for keeping kids quiet at parties, it can also serve as culinary inspiration. I discovered that I had a tub of marscapone in the fridge left over from last week's strawberry tart; however, I had no biscuits in the house -- with good reason -- and could therefore not repeat that particular dessert. What to do? Then it struck me: Parfait! Everybody loves parfait, as Donkey so wisely noted. The return of sunshine to Amsterdam also prompted Proustian memories of childhood summers and the joy of cheap raspberry ripple ice-cream -- resulting in this confection.

Vanilla-laced marscapone cream, marbled with crushed raspberries, and layered with home-made granola. Crunchy and creamy and, best of all, there's enough for breakfast tomorrow morning -- something to look forward, and how often can you say that about Monday mornings?

Some of my best friends ...

It turns out that I was right (as always): Pride was more subdued this year. I had a lovely mid-morning coffee and brioche at a delightful new bakery that's just opened in the Westerpark with a colleague and his husband today, and they were telling me that Pride changed organizer this year. Until about a month ago, people weren't sure if it was going to go ahead, and given that many of the float-boats take up to six months to plan, the number of entries had dropped from 100 to 50. However, the party at the homomonument was still going strong at midnight, with lip-synching drag queens keeping the party spirit alive. Brava!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

We're here, we're queer etc

As I cycled home from yoga, I was puzzled to hear the thump thump thump of disco music emanating from boats and to see people sitting on deckchairs on the bridges, prime viewing spots over the canal. Then "RESPECT" blasted out and I remembered: It's Pride Weekend. Float-style barges, ABBA and Aretha, and general fabuolousity would dominate the Jordaan. We had some crucial shopping to do -- bath mat, ADSL modem, sports bra -- but I took my camera out, hoping to get some pictures of 6'7" drag queens or obscenely decorated boats. But, to no avail. Pride seemed somewhat muted by the time we reached the Westerkerk at 4, and we passed only a couple of aging leather queens and I didn't really feel like asking them to pose: You can be too old for assless chaps, in my opinion.

So, here's a picture of the rather excellent goat cheese croquettes we had at Odeon; they proved extremely reviving after the usual tedious slog round de Bijenkorf -- Amsterdam's only (and overpriced) department store.* While waiting for these to arrive, we looked through a copy of New European Architecture, which fell open at an article on a new gymnasium in Jurmala, of all places. We shall keep an eye out for it when we head there in 10 days' time.

*Although, we did manage to get frozen strawberry daiquari and margarita mixes, so it wasn't all bad.


Apparently, I'm one of the few people who is able to fall over doing the tree posture in yoga ... while lying on the floor. You'd think you wouldn't be able to overbalance, but I can.

What can I say? It's an gift.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Welcome to the Netherlands, how may I help you?

While the old joke that the book about Dutch customer service is the shortest book ever still holds true, there are exceptions. On Monday, PJ placed an online order for a new computer to replace the iMac. As he was at home and I was at work (and the company didn't accept credit cards for orders over a certain amount -- I know!), PJ struggled somewhat with the online accept giro process. However, 20 minutes after placing the order, a nice chap phoned him up, pointed out the error, helped resolve it, and offered to send the invoice in English. Said computer was then delivered on Wednesday, less than 48 hours after the initial order was placed. Well played, Central Point, well played!

However, on telling a (Dutch) colleague this little story, he snarkily suggested that the company must have outsourced its call center to India or China; such service was too unDutch to be true. It is dreadful when old traditions die out, isn't it?

Drunk for one pence, dead drunk for two pence

I've finally started reading again, although I've taken up non-fiction. First up was Craze by Jessica Warner, a look at the Gin Acts of the 18th century and their impact on London society. As expected, alcohol has always been something of a weakness for the Brits -- in fact, I view us very much as a nation of functional alcoholics. Drinking for the purpose of getting drunk was as much a facet of the gin craze as it is of market towns today.

"In hot Tempers, it lets loose the Tongue to all the Indecencies and Rudeness of the most provoking Language, as wall as the most hellish Oaths and Curses, and is frequently followed by Quarrels and Fighting, and sometimes has been the Cause of Murder."

That was Sir John Gonson, supporter of the Society for the Reformation of Manners and the Socity for Promoting Christian Knowledge, but it might as well be -- minus the somewhat Germanic capitalization of nouns -- the Daily Mail today. And while the art and literature surrounding gin's popularity in the 18th century are entertaining to read, the author goes on to draw a far more interesting connection with the way that drugs and drug users (particularly women) are demonized today.

"Together, mothers and infants made the perfect poster children: one invited censure, and the other invited pity. Each, in its own way, horrified polite socity. It was a motif that would be repeated to great effect. In Victorian England, mothers who worked in factories were criticized for using opium to sedate thir infants, while more recently, images of "crack babies" have served to galvanize public opinion against crack cocaine."

This is of particular interest when you live in a country where (soft) drug use is not demonized, but decriminalized. While I must confess that I've never actually been inside a coffee shop here -- I don't smoke and they're full of stoned American frat boys -- they do have great advantages (apart from keeping all the frat boys in one place). If you remove the rebellious nature of the drug, it makes it less appealing to bolshie teenagers. Drug-related crime is less, with opportunistic bike theft and car break-ins the most common problems. And, best of all in the trading-mad Amsterdammers eyes, local businesses make a lot of money from drug tourism. Hard drugs, though, are a different story. The junkies here are far more visible than they are in other countries: I've seen them wandering the streets round here and being arrested for shop-lifting in the local supermarket. Their sunken, skull-revealing visages and air of utter misery serve as a pretty good warning for those who might be tempted to go beyond space cakes and joints. They might as well be wearing a sign marked "Just say no!'

Nancy Reagen: eat your heart out!

Rain, rain, go away . . . NOT!

The past few days have been an exercise in rain-dodging. Every half hour brings a new torrential downpour, the type of heavy rain that obliterates our view of houses across the canal or the sight of the Westertoren from my 7th floor office. Luckily, it seems to let up between 8.30 and 9 in the morning, and 5 and 6 in the evening, allowing us to get home damp with sweat -- you pedal faster when there are black clouds behind you -- but not soaked with rainwater. I've been additionally fortunate in that I've had 3 work-related meals out this week, have witnessed heavy showers while inside at each of them, but have made it home dry -- usually 5 minutes before the heavens open again. After five years here, I've clearly developed an excellent "rain" sense.

Please don't think I'm complaining: I'm thoroughly enjoying this weather! I can't quite get over what a difference a week makes: Last Friday, we were still in the muggy, sticky, fan-needing phase; today, it's curry for dinner, long woolen cardigan, and my lovely, lovely duvet. It's as if all my Amsterdam autumns have come at once!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Two cookbooks, two very different cultures

As mentioned in previous posts, PJ spends a lot of his time on the road, spreading pearls of wisdom about video-gaming around the corporate world. When he's away on longer trips, I generally ask for a cookbook from the place he's visiting; combined with my holiday cookbooks, I'm building up a pretty good collection. Last week's trip to the US's Mid-West resulted in two gems at polar opposites of the culinary scale:

Tru, by Rick Tramonto. This cookbook from one of Chicago's most celebrated (and expensive) restaurants is classic food porn. Stunning pictures of caviar staircases intersperse recipes with complicated and over-capitalized titles: Langoustine Ravioli with Buttered Leeks, Foie Gras Sauce, and Blood Orange Reduction; Mosiac of Seafood with Saffron Foam; Deconstructed Insalata Caprese with Olive Oil Sorbet. However, the actual recipes are fairly straightforward, even if they do involve multiple steps to serve the dish as suggested. The many gorgeous amuse-bouches are manageable, especially if you're happy spending 5 hours making something that will be wolfed down in 5 seconds -- which I am. Not sure about the items that require a gas canister, but who knows? I'm up for a challenge.

Less challenging -- but probably more useful on a day-to-day basis -- is The Great Minnesota Hot Dish by Theresa Millang, courtesy of the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Hot dishes are, apparently, casseroles. There are no pictures of the finished dishes -- only a cute picture of what is presumably the state bird -- and these recipes have titles like: Chicken Reuben Hot Dish; Tuna Noodle Hot Dish; and Quick Taco Hot Dish. There's no chocolate-bergamot paint with a gold leaf drizzle, but instead, canned condensed mushroom soup, beef rice mix, and tortilla chips take center stage. I've quickly identified PJ's new potential fave: Fish Sticks Au Gratin. Now that's a quality side!

Of course, should I track down an Amsterdam supplier of edible gold leaf and N2O chargers, I'll attempt some of Rick's easier dishes -- and you, dear readers, will be the first to see the pics.