Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Food from home: Diego's ñoquis de papa (potato gnocchi)

Gnocci 024
potato gnocchi with a leek and tarragon cream sauce. © 2011 Diego Bianchi.
(puedes leer esta receta en español en Contacto con lo Divino

Getting used to new kinds food was one of the aspects of my new life as an expat in the Netherlands that proved to be one of the hardest things I had to cope with. Nine years after moving out here from Argentina, I still miss my food from home. I guess that even when you adapt to your new country and assimilate and embrace the new culture, food is still something that you never quite let go. The food from home is like your own family, your people - no matter how far from home you are, you still carry them close to your heart.

Diego is a porteño, a native of the capital city of Argentina, Buenos Aires. Food and photography are two of his passions and he always brings these two together when he posts his recipes on his blog, Contacto con lo Divino. Every time I see the fantastic photos of his food I feel a sudden and strong nostalgia for home, because he usually cooks dishes that are familiar to me, to my Argentinean soul and palate.

Here is one of his pasta recipes that caught my attention. I often crave for ñoquis (as we call gnocchi in Spanish) at home and I am trying Diego's recipe tomorrow for ñoquis del 29 (Gnocchi Day every 29th of the month) ... an Argentinean tradition I will tell you all about when I post my take on this recipe soon.

DIEGO'S RECIPE(serves 4-5 people)

Ingredients for the ñoquis:

1kg potatoes - 500g flour, and some extra for kneading - 1 egg - 1tbspoon salt - nutmeg, to taste.

Ingredients for the sauce:

100g smoked pancetta or streaky bacon - 400g single cream - 1 1/2 tbspoon dehydrated leeks with tarragon mix or if you can't find this mix, use 1 tbspoon dried tarragon and 1 chopped stalk of leek (the white stalks, it tends to be overpowering, so if you don't like your sauce too oniony, just use half a stalk) - 2 cloves of garlic - 1 red pepper - 100ml white wine - 2 teaspoon flour - a bit of chopped parsley.


Making the ñoquis:
  • Choose potatoes that are roughly of the same size so that they cook evenly. Wash them well and put them in a pan with cold water and some salt to boil. You don't need to peel the potatoes, for the skin will prevent them from absorbing too much liquid. If this happens, you will need to add more flour and this will definitely ruin the taste of the ñoquis
Gnocchi 2 007
© 2011 Diego Bianchi
  •  Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the potatoes - roughly about 25 minutes. To check if they are ready, insert a skewer in the potatoes and it should go in easily without any resistance. Try not to overcook them or again, they will absorbe too much water. 
  • Drain the water and peel them right away. Cooks normally have asbestos fingers but if they're too hot use a fork and a knife or better even, a ricer if you have one; push the potatoes through it and the skin will stay in the ricer.
  • Start mashing the potatoes while they're still hot; if they are already getting cold they will be too hard to mash and you'll get lumps. 
Gnocchi 2 013
@ 2011 Diego Bianchi
  • Add a tablespoon of salt, an egg and season with nutmeg. Mix all the ingredients well with the potato masher. 
  • When everything is properly mixed, it's the time to place the dough on a floured surface. Knead it adding the flour little by little until you have a dough that is smooth and doesn't stick to your hands. 
Gnocchi 2 031
© 2011 Diego Bianchi
  • Leave the dough to rest until it has cooled down completely. 
Gnocchi 2 037
 © 2011 Diego Bianchi
  • Take a portion of dough and roll it with your hands to form a long thin sausage, dusting the surface and the dough with a bit of extra flour. 
Gnocchi 2 049
© 2011 Diego Bianchi
  • Cut the dough into small portions of 1,5/2cm approximately. Do the same with the rest of the dough.
Gnocchi 2 045
© 2011 Diego Bianchi
  • Take the little portions of dough one by one, pressing them gently and sliding them down a fork or a ñoqui board. Once shaped, place the ñoquis on a floured surface.
Gnocchi 2 050
© 2011 Diego Bianchi
  • In a pan put a generous amount of water to boil with some cooking salt. Lift the ñoquis with a spatula or flat tool and drop them (gently!) into the boiling water. Put the lid on the pan and let the water boil again. The ñoquis will start coming up to the surface in just a few minutes. They are ready when they are just "al dente" (firm, but not hard).
Gnocchi 007
© 2011 Diego Bianchi

Making the sauce:

  •  Bake the pancetta slices in a pan without adding any oil or fat. Once they are golden, remove them and chop them roughly.  
Tocino 2
© 2011 Diego Bianchi
  • Now chop the red pepper finely and bake in some olive oil together with the chopped garlic cloves. Once done, add the pancetta, the cream and mix.
Crema 2 081
© 2011 Diego Bianchi
  • Then add the mix of dehydrated leeks with tarragon if you have it, or the fresh leeks with the dried tarragon. If you are using the fresh leeks, then let them soften a bit. Add the white wine and let the sauce reduce over a low gas. Don't let the sauce boil.
© 2011 Diego Bianchi
  • To thicken the sauce you can add the two teaspoons of flour and let it cook just for a few more minutes. It is now ready to serve.
  • Serve the ñoquis on the plates with a generous amount of sauce and sprinkle some very finely chopped parsley over the top. 
Buen apetito!
Gnocchi 008
© 2011 Diego Bianchi

Thanks a lot, Diego, for letting me post your recipe and your fantastic photos!

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Preserving the cultural heritage: a visit to the Zuiderzeemuseum

A sea that was no longer a sea. Water that became land.

It happened in 1932. With the inauguration of the barrier dam or Afsluitdijk that year, the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea, in Dutch) was finally cut off from the North Sea and as of that moment, it ceased to be a zee (sea, in Dutch) and became a meer (lake, in Dutch); the Ijsselmeer was born.

The Ijsselmeer, former Zuiderzee, seen from Enkhuizen.
Arriving at the outdoor part of the Zuiderzee Museum by boat.
When the Zuiderzee became the Ijsselmeer, many people were afraid that the culture and lifestyle of the region would be changed and lost forever. For this reason, immediately after the barrier dam was finished, plans were drawn for the creation of a living museum village that would preserve the cultural heritage of the Zuiderzee area.
After a lot of planning and hard work, the Zuiderzee museum became a reality in 1948.

In the beginning, only the indoor section of the museum was open to the public. The outdoor section -an ambitious project to recreate a typical Zuiderzze community with a fishing village, a city canal with its typical houses, shops and important buildings; a polder, and a harbour- took many years to complete and it finally opened in 1983.

First, water had to become land, and a peninsula was created in the Ijsselmeer by piling up sand on the seabed. Then the village had to be designed and built, and the people of the Zuiderzeemuseum had to search high and low to find the appropriate houses and buildings that would recreate not only the geographical and architectural, but also the social environment typical of the region.

The ferry boat that takes visitors from the jetty to the peninsula where the museum is located. In the background, the chimneys of the lime kilns (ovens) of the museum.
 Many of the houses and buildings that we see today in the museum were donated by  municipalities located around the former Zuiderzee.  Houses that were due to be demolished, were instead preserved and transported to their new location in the living museum village, taking into account not only their style and architecture, but also preserving the original function for which they had served the past.

The process of recreating the lifestyle and culture of the former Zuiderzee region took much more than just transporting old houses from cities like Kampen or Harderwijk for example, and reassembling them at the museum site.
Old plans of towns and villages around the Zuiderzee were used to recreate as accurately as possible, a typical community at the turn of the 20th century. Ditches and canals were digged, streets were paved, neighbourhoods were built and important historical buildings that could not be taken apart in their original location -like the school from Kollum or the boathouse, for example- were replicated. Every section of the new living village was carefully planned and even a polder was created between the town canal and the fishing village. 

Today the Zuiderzeemuseum consists of two sections: the buiten- (outdoor) and the binnenmuseum (indoor museum).
Very young "cheese-makers" were having trouble loading the cheese to be transported.
With my dad at the cooper's, trying some barrels on. I chose an oversized one and my dad a very small one - it was so snug that I was afraid he'd not be able to get out of it!

In the outdoor section of the Zuiderzeemuseum you can stroll down the streets of a typical town with its characteristic buildings, like the church, the school, the post office or the farmers' bank; there are craftsmen's warehouses such as the sail maker's, the blacksmith's and the barrel maker's.
A number of typical turn of the century shops were replicated too; there is a photography shop where you can have your photo taken in the typical attire; there are also a sweet shop, a barber's and a chemist's.
Visitors can go into the different buildings or houses and admire period furniture and see old machinery at work. Volunteers from the museum often do demonstrations of the different crafts that were traditional in the region, to give an idea of what life was like in a typical Zuiderzee community.

One of the relocated houses in the museum. Real families lived there for generations.

A typical dining-room set for lunch at the boat-maker's.
Fish curing was a traditional occupation in the Zuiderzee region.
In its indoor section, the museum houses several exhibitions that make the visitor acquainted with the rich history and cultural heritage of the Zuiderzee region through art, photography and design. The calendar of activities, events and exhibitions for children, for schools and for adults is displayed in the official website of the Zuiderzeemuseum. All the practical information that is needed to plan a visit at any time of the year, including times, prices, a map of the whole complex and a route description, can be found in their website, too.

The greenhouse of one of the relocated farm houses in the outdoor museum.
A vegetable garden of a typical Zuiderzee farm.
An ideal visit to the Zuiderzeemuseum should take at least half a day, so keep this in mind while planning your trip.
There is a fast-food restaurant -the Amsterdam House- and a pub, -café Hindelopen- where you can have a drink or have a quick lunch if you get hungry. 
Take into account that the outdoor section of the museum is not open during the winter period. This year (2012), it will be open from 31 March to 28 October.
The indoor part of the museum, on the other hand,  is open all the year round, from 10:00 to 17:00. You can buy the tickets online from their website if you want; the entrance ticket includes the ferry boat trip from the harbour in Enkhuizen to the outdoor museum.

A classroom in the style of the early 20th century.

The hallway of the school with the children's wooden shoes lined up outside the classroom.
No matter what your interests are or whether you are young or old, you are always bound to find something to do or that will attract your attention in this very special museum in the Netherlands.

There had to be a windmill in the outdoor museum, of course.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Ice-skating Fever in the Netherlands

Ice-skaters on the Thornbecke canal in Zwolle last Saturday during the First Zwolse Grachtentocht.

The period of true winter weather we had during the last couple of weeks seems now to be over and with it, the ice-skating fever seems to have subsided, too.

I have lived in the Netherlands for almost 9 years now and I have seen hard-ish winters (nothing really too extreme) and mild winters; gentle snowfall and a blizzard or two with lots of snow falling in a very short time. I've also seen the Dutch landscape getting totally covered in white and nature going very still under the ice, as if every single creature out there in the open was going to sleep, waiting for the spring to come back alive.

Ice skaters in the main canal around the historic city centre in Zwolle.
 But in the Netherlands it doesn't take too long for that stillness to be broken. The birds may be gone, the wind may blow wild and the ground may be covered in white, but that is exactly when this sort of buzz starts slowly to build up, like a bug getting hold of everyone until it becomes like a fever and soon enough half the nation is out there, balancing on their skates, criss-crossing waterways and city canals over the ice.

Only a few days ago we were all holding our breath in front of the tv every time the word Elfstedentocht was mentioned by the newsreaders. A couple of posts ago I explained how excited everyone was about the possibility of finally seeing a new edition of this Eleven Cities Marathon after 15 years of Elfstedentocht withdrawal, for the race has not been held since 1997 due to the lack of good quality ice to make the event possible.
Unfortunately, by the end of last week the committee in charge of inspecting the ice conditions up in Friesland had decided that it would not be possible to host the marathon this year and everyone was really very disappointed.

Another shot taken during the Zwolse Grachtentocht last Saturday.

But it seems that despite the general disappointment, people across the Netherlands, Dutch and non-Dutch, were determined not to let all that beautiful ice go to waste.Whole families were out there riding on sleds or skating on the frozen canals. Despite the cold, young people were hanging out and having fun on the ice and little kids wrapped up in warm clothes were there too, learning how to stand upright on their brand new skates. Experienced skaters were seen showing off and also first-timers, safely leaning on the back of a chair to keep their balance, carefully taking their first turns on the icy tracks.

Over the weekend there were many tochten (marathons) across the country. Amsterdam had its Keizersgracht tocht; up north in Friesland people were skating on the waterways along the Elfstedentocht route in the places where the ice was in perfect condition. In the beautiful town of Giethoorn the 14th Hollands Venetiëtocht was held; the first edition of this marathon in this century.

A young girl learning to skate on ice with the help of a chair.
It was probably this dad's turn to look after the baby but he could not stay away from all that lovely ice.

In Zwolle, we had the Eerste Zwolsegrachten tocht (first marathon of the canals in Zwolle) last Saturday. In just a couple of days, a number of entrepreneurs from the catering sector came up with the idea of organising our own tocht along the Zwolse canals. The idea was received with great enthusiasm by thousands of Zwollenaren (people of Zwolle)  and 1500 participated in the marathon, making it a big success and of course, heel erg gezellig! (a lot of fun)

A view over the city canal in Zwolle during the Zwolse grachtentocht
 Hopefully, we won't have to wait for too many years to see a new edition of the Zwolse grachtentocht; and to be sure, we continue to wait and pray for der Tocht van Tochten (the marathon of all marathons) to finally take place for the first time in this century - the 16th edition of the Elfstedentocht.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

First edition of the Zwolse grachtentocht (ice skating tour of the canals of Zwolle)

The logo of the event - their website is going up today with all the information: Zwolse Grachtentocht
While we continue to wait for a decision from the rayonhoofden (I just love that word, which in Dutch means "district chiefs") up north in the province of Friesland to see if we will finally have an Elfstedentocht this year, their Zwolse counterparts* have come up with an ice-skating tocht ("race" in this case) of their own along the stadsgrachten (city canals) in Zwolle.
One of the canals in Zwolle in the winter

 The event will take place next Saturday 11 February as of 12:00. The route will start at the Rodetorenplein following the Thorbeckegracht to the end of the canal and back to the Rodetorenplein. There will be refreshment stalls along the track and the bars and restaurants along the canal will also set up their terrasjes (outdoor cafés) on the ice. The organisers are looking for music bands and entertainers to make sure that there is a festive atmosphere all around. It should be fun! 
As of 11:00 there will be two caravans at the Rodetorenplein for those who want to participate to collect their stamp cards for free. If you want to be a part of it and join in the ice skating fun, you can ask for more information or register via this email address: zwolsegrachtentocht@live.nl  The committee organising the event has also just launched their own website where you will find the programme, the route and a form to sign up if you want to enter the marathon. 

Should the rayonhoofden from Friesland decide that the Elfstedentocht is a Go, the Zwolse grachtentocht will then be postponed so that we all can finally give our full attention to this huge national event - the first Elfstedentocht of the 21st century!

This is me on a bridge across the Thorbeckegracht where the Zwolse grachtentocht will take place.

*The Zwolse grachtentocht is actually being organised by a group of entrepreneurs of the catering industry in Zwolle.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Elfstedentocht ja, Elfstedentocht nee

It's cold out here in the east of the Netherlands. View of some farms in the outskirts of Zwolle.
  Ever since winter decided to come back to the Netherlands last week, I have noticed a remarkable increase in the number of hits on my Elfstedentocht posts here in the blog. No surprise there, actually - every year, whenever the country goes into a period of subzero temperatures, the expectations around this national event begin to rise high. The koorts (fever) sets in nationwide: Elfstedentocht ja (yes) or Elfstedentocht nee (no) this year? 

Let me refresh your memory if you have visited this blog before: the Elfstedentocht is a 200 km long ice-skating race that connects eleven cities in the northern province of Friesland. Unfortunately, the race cannot be held every winter for there are a number of conditions that need to be met in order to make it possible and safe for the people involved. 
During the Elfstedentocht the participants in the race skate from city to city over frozen lakes, canals and ditches across the province of Friesland. The race starts and finishes in the capital, Leeuwarden and it connects this city with ten others: Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindelopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker and Dokkum.The temperatures have to stay below the 0°C mark for several days to allow the waterways to freeze evenly and form a layer of ice thick enough to support the huge weight load of thousands of professional and amateur skaters. The quality of the ice along the 200 km is the key issue for this big event to take place.
Obviously winters have been quite mild for the last 15 years in the Netherlands, for there hasn't been an Elfstedentocht since 1997. European IceSkating Cup on natural ice, yes, Race of the Eleven Cities, nope.

That is why every winter, every time the thermometer goes below 0°C for a couple of days, you can feel the excitement building up across the country. Will there be an Elfstedentocht this year or not?  Hardly a news bulletin goes by without a mention of this event. Yesterday the whole nation's expectations reached a high point when it was announced that the rayonhoofden (district heads or chiefs) would convene in Friesland for an overleg (consultation) and study the possibility of finally running the race. Hotels in Leuwarden and other cities along the race route  were flooded with calls from people making reservations, in case the hoofden (heads/chiefs) today decided it was going to be Elfstedentocht ja

Maar helaas (but unfortunately) this morning during a press conference it became clear that the Elfstedenkoorts (fever) was probably a bit premature. The experts informed that the conditions of the ice are not the required, especially in the south and southeast of Friesland; in Stavoren and Luts the ice is even considered to be still "too bad" to hold the race. They are looking for a steady thickness of minimum 15 centimetres of ice and it hasn't reached that point just yet. The members of the Vereniging De Friesche Elf Steden -the Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities- have informed that they will be working "with might and main" at the weak points and probably find an alternative route, for in the rest of the circuit in the north of Friesland the quality of the ice is the desired for the race to take place.

Since coming to live in the Netherlands I have seen long-ish periods of very cold winter weather, which I really like. I have also  joined in the general excitement out there on the ice, watching people ice skating or having fun in the snow. But I have never ever yet seen a Race of the Eleven Cities take place, except for short video clips on tv or online.

So I am really  hoping that it will be an Elfstedentocht já this year! For the time being, this is the closest I'll get to witnessing an ice skating race:

Friday, 3 February 2012

Winter food: pastel de polenta y carne (beef and polenta pie)

 The temperatures have  dropped considerably during the last couple of days here in the Netherlands and out there it finally feels like a real winter.

So, when the cold winter blows, the thermometre drops several lines below the 0°C mark, and you get home chilled to the bone from the street, you certainly want nourishment that is hearty, filling and tasty; comfort food for body and soul.

If there is a dish that shouts out winter to me, that is the pastel de polenta y carne - beef and polenta pie, a dish that we used to prepare quite often back home in Argentina.

Polenta (a word borrowed from the Italian that refers to cooked ground cornmeal) is a staple that is used in many dishes across Argentina and Uruguay. Though the corn that it's made from hails originally from the Americas, it was actually the Italian inmigrants that introduced polenta into the Río de la Plata during the big immigration wave of the 19th and 20th centuries.

To prepare this dish you can use regular white or yellow polenta. In Argentina we can get instant polenta that is ready in about 1 minute; quite handy if you are pressed for time. However, I haven't yet been able to find 1-minute polenta here in the Netherlands, so I normally use the regular kind that takes about 20/30 minutes to cook.

You can also replace the polenta for a potato mash. I usually add either milk and butter, or cream to the mash to make it creamier and tastier.

As for the beef, you can use minced meat if you want, it'll make the whole process a lot easier. If I were in Argentina I would go to my butcher's, ask him for a nice cut and ask him to mince it for me right there and then. This is not possible where I live now and I don't trust the minced meat I see in the supermarkets, so I normally buy a piece I think looks ok and I cut it finely myself. But hey, that's crazy me! 

Here is what you have to do to prepare the pastel.

(this recipe will serve 4 people)

For the base or filling you will need:

1 tablespoon of olive oil
400g of beef, diced
1 onion, chopped
1 tomato, diced
1 teaspoon of parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of paprika powder
1 tablesppon of raisins (no seeds)
2 tablespoons of pitted olives, sliced
salt and pepper

This is what you want to make the polenta:

300g of yellow or white polenta (regular, or if you can get it, instant)
enough water to boil the polenta - you can also use milk, about 1l.
100g of Parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon of nutmeg
optional: a knob of butter to make the polenta creamier.

For the topping:

3 hard-boiled eggs, sliced or chopped  (optional, I don't normally add them)
400g mozzarella cheese or similar (a cheese that melts and is gooey), cut in cubes or stripes
1 red pepper, cut in strips to decorate
a tea spoon of chopped parsley


You can start by making the filling. For that, heat up the olive oil in a pan and soften the chopped onion. This might take around 5 minutes. Then, add the beef and cook it until light brown.

Now you can add the diced tomato, the chopped parsley and the paprika powder; cook for about 5 more minutes. At the end of the process add the raisins and olives, season to taste and set aside while you make the polenta.

The polenta:
Making polenta is not difficult but it demands your full attention. Use a pan with a lid so that you can cover it when it starts to boil, for it will blip and spatter as if there was no tomorrow and you might get burnt.

First, bring a pan of salted water to the boil and slowly whisk in the polenta with a wooden spoon. This is where it gets a bit dangerous, so put the lid on and leave it a bit ajar. Once the polenta thickens, it sets and no longer blips so hard. Now you can add a bit of milk if you want and give it a stir every few minutes getting right into the sides of the pan to avoid it from sticking.
Once it's done, take away from the gas and add the Parmesan cheese, and if you feel like it, a knob of butter to get a creamier texture. Mix well with the wooden spoon. Season to taste with some salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Making the pie:
Preheat the oven to 180°/190°C.
In an oven dish spread half of the polenta covering the entire base.On top of this layer of polenta, pour your beef filling and spread well. Here you can add the sliced or chopped eggs if you want them.Then cover again with a layer of polenta and add the toppings: your bits of mozzarella cheese, the red pepper strips and the chopped parsley.
Take the polenta pie to the oven and cook for about 40/45 minutes. Check from time to time that the top doesn't get too brown too soon and if it does, turn the temperature down. When you take it out of the oven it should be golden brown and bubbling.
Let it rest for a few minutes before serving to allow the juices to set.

You can accompany the polenta pie with a nice glass of Argentine malbec wine.

Buen provecho y salud!

Also recommended for winter weather, check out this carbonada criolla recipe by my friend Elena.