Horsing Around in Amsterdam

May 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Imagine walking around a bustling shopping and commuting thoroughfare just outside Amsterdam’s ring of canals. You pass Dutch bakeries, Shoarma houses, Surinamese restaurants. Ah, the sweet, sweet scents of an international city.

Suddenly, your nostrils pick up something not so … sweet. Or, shall I say, sweet in another way. Is that … manure? You look down quickly to make sure you didn’t step in anything. Nothing there. No carriages passing by, either. What is that?

Following your nose, you turn down a side street. It’s a quiet street, and just beyond there’s greenery—a park, possibly. Ah, that must be the source. You continue walking down the cobblestone walkway, admiring the old and exclusive row of homes. Nice, very nice. One of the facades, though, doesn’t look like the others. It’s more of an arch with large wooden doors. Hmm. Interesting. And … there’s that “sweet” scent again.

The Hollandsche Manege

You have stumbled upon the home of the Hollandsche Manege, Amsterdam’s oldest riding school, established in the 1770s. This building dates from the 1880s is, luckily, open to the public—as long as they are quiet, of course.

I admit, I did not stumble upon the manege. My Amsterdamster friend brought me by knowing I’d love this hidden nugget. Open the doors and there’s a long low-ceiling, cobbled entry leading to a large, vaulted arena. Peer over a 4- to 5-foot tall wall any time of day, and you’re likely to find a riding class going on, or also the “adult swim” version of riding.

But wait, there’s more. Walk through a door to the right and walk up an elegant staircase. Yes, it’s elegant. Really.

On the staircase you get a sense of not only the history of the place, but of the generations that have come here to ride: Each rise is heavily worn. The destination? A small cafe with a patio overlooking the ring.

The afternoon riding class.

And look at this: You can even enjoy a coffee, beer or aperitif while waiting for your daughter to finish her riding lesson. How civilized.

How civilized.

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De Kas Restaurant: A Hot Table in Amsterdam

May 24, 2011 § 3 Comments

More than a week after lunching at De Kas Restaurant in Amsterdam, I’m still dreaming of the meal. It’s one of the hottest tables in Amsterdam, and no wonder, given its fresh, bright flavors, dedication to locally grown foods and airy environment. And I mean airy environment: The restaurant is under glass in a state-of-the-art greenhouse.

Restaurant De Kas

De Kas is certainly in unique surroundings. The history of the property goes something like this: Back in the 1920s, the parcel of land was home to Amsterdam’s municipal nurseries. All of the plants and flowers used for Amsterdam’s municipal plantings were grown on these grounds and in greenhouses. Over the decades, the nurseries were shut down and the buildings and greenhouses became dilapidated—such a shame! About 10 years ago the greenhouses were scheduled for demolition, but a Michelin-rated chef, Gert Jan Hageman, came up with the idea of converting one of the greenhouses into a restaurant and growing area. The dining room was designed by renowned designer Piet Boon and is lovely. The kitchen is open, and there’s even a chef’s table, where guests can enjoy their meal just steps from the hot grill (honestly, not something on the top of my list to do). And the bar area, while open and visible, is tucked away and is just shady enough for any self-respecting bar fly.

The Piet Boon-designed dining room, with the just-shady-enough bar in the background.

As I mentioned, they believe in fresh, local food. And it can’t get more local than the greenhouse adjacent to the kitchen and the gardens that surround the restaurant. The team also has a farm that produced a great deal of their produce. What they don’t grow and raise themselves is sourced from nearby farms and the North Sea.

The veggie gardens outside De Kas.

The growing area inside De Kas's greenhouse, adjacent to the kitchen.

Enough about that, let’s move on to the food. The three-course menu is fixed; i.e. you are served what they are preparing that day (they do ask if the chef should take into account for any dietary restrictions). And they do offer a wine pairing, which I eagerly agreed to. Can’t recall the first wine, but the second was an unoaked chardonnay from Spain. Tasty!

The meal was fabulous, that’s a given. And beautiful – not something every restaurant gets right. Instead of attempting to describe the meal, I’ll just leave you to enjoy the photos.

First of two first-course salads: Roasted beets and steamed rhubarb over baby beet (?) greens with a pea puree and nasturium flowers.

Second of two first-course salads: White asparagus, turnip and a boiled quail's egg over young lettuce greens with a sauce of some kind (sorry, whatever it was, it was delicious) and sweetpea blossoms.

Second course: Lobster with a bechamel sauce topped with a light frisee salad.

Third course: Pollack over roasted eggplant and cauliflower with a North Sea-shrimp and caper brown butter sauce. (Oh man, was this good.)

First dessert: Pistachio meringue with salt-touched white chocolate ice cream and pansy petals.

Second dessert: Platter of three cheeses with fruit and nut brown bread and a dot of apple-pear stroop (syrup) to the right and a candied cherry (?). Translation of cheese on right is "cheese that sticks to your knife."

While  the municipal nurseries are long gone, the remainder of the property has retained its “municipalness”—it’s now a public park enjoyed by people and wildlife alike.

Children's play area below, and a stork nest with baby on top of the smoke stack.

Floating in Amsterdam

May 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

And I don’t mean on a canal. Waaay better than that. Of all the typical things you can do on a visit to Amsterdam—drink beer, eat cheese, visit the Red Light District, take a canal ride, drink beer—here’s something that’s incredibly special and absolutely amazing: floating on a salty pool of water at Koan Float, a lovely spa right on the canal of Herengracht, in the old city.

So, picture this: A small room with a shower and a big plastic pod, shaped kinda like an egg positioned on its side. There’s a hatch that opens up on the small end to reveal that the pod is filled to the hatch rim with water. Step in (that’s after you shower and are completely naked as a baby) and try to sit like it’s a bathtub— you can’t sit. Your body just doesn’t sink. You bob up like a discarded soda bottle on the Charles. Close the hatch and stretch out. Your body naturally floats high up in the very very salty water. Aaaaahhhhh….relaxing.

I can’t stand getting water in my ears – not even in the shower – so they provide ear plugs. And there’s a floaty pillow like the kind you use on a plane – helps a lot. They also give you the option of listening to that celestial new-agey music. Sounds hokey, but do it! And turn the lights out completely in the pod. And just float there. And float. And suddenly you’re just back in the womb, suspended, mind as blank as that Taoist uncarved block. Truly. Amazing.

After 45 minutes, they’ll come on the intercom and have the lights come up and down a bit, letting you know time has expired. I totally missed all of that because I fell asleep. Floating on water! Exactly what your mother warned you about! I did suddenly spring to consciousness, more refreshed—body and soul—than I have ever experienced in my life. I would do this once a week if I could. Hello, some spa in Boston? Get these pods!

Don’t take my word for it, watch this video from Koan Float. And book an appointment for right after your overnight flight. It’ll totally help you relieve the stress and enjoy the rest of your day.

A Lovely Day in Amsterdam: Part 1

May 16, 2011 § 2 Comments

It may be raining and a bit chilly here today, but I love every minute I spend in Amsterdam. And I love everything about it—the cheese, the beer, the bikes, the people, the canals. The cheese. Did I mention how wonderful Dutch cheese is? You get my point. Oh yeah, and cheese.

This is my third visit to the city – all for business, lucky me – and each time I’ve tacked on at least a day to spend on my own. Each time I’ve tried to add on to my experiences. Even though I’ve just finished an absolutely lovely second day in the city – which I will tell you about in another post – I have a few thoughts about Day 1:
As a rule, the Dutch people are tall and beautiful. I don’t know why or how, but we should be so lucky. I’ll try to provide visual evidence to this affect later this week.

A guy pedaling along with a box full of kids like it's nothing.

I don’t recommend being like your average New Yorker and just walk along the cobblestone streets with your head down and your headphones on. If you do, you will suffer injuries. Someone will hit you with a bike or moped or tram. Pay attention! And I will now put a positive spin on this: It’s terrific that there’s so much green transportation in this town. But seriously, transporting yourself on two wheels – whether motorized or person-powered – is the fastest and smartest way of getting around. Some mommy bloggers would have a fit if they saw how unprotected children are on the bikes, for sure. But that’s the way this society is, and motorists just motor along with bicyclists’ safety top of mind. Again, we should be so lucky.

Interestingly, bars/restaurants serve only particular beers. Like some restaurants in the States have either Coke or Pepsi products. For the bigger beer companies, they’ll serve Heineken or Amstel—that’s regular Amstel, not Light—or Grolsch or whichever other. Oh, and by the way, Holland, you need to have bigger beer glasses. If only to keep around in service for American customers.

For the foodie types out there, I have an interesting food delivery gadget for you. I ordered the largest piece of apple cake I’ve ever seen “to go,” or as they say, to take away. And check out the cardboard sleeve they placed the slice into. It’s not a pastry box, but it still gives support to the baked item. And it uses minimal cardboard. Who knows, maybe these are commonplace somewhere in the U.S., but I’ve never seen it and I think it’s a fabulous way to box up a to-go pastry.

The hotel I’m staying in has the most amazing line of toiletries. I stayed at the same hotel last year—Jennifer joined me at the end of the trip for a few days, too—and we snagged as many of the teeny tiny bottles of shampoo, shower gel and lotion as we could. Especially the lotion. The brand is called Rituals, and I believe it’s made in the UK, but I’m not sure. We’ve been very judicious in our use of our bottles from last year and are constantly on the hunt for it. In fact, I nearly accosted a flight attendant last week because I swore she was wearing the stuff. I slather as much lotion as possible on myself each morning and seriously, I should be a little worried about this obsession. I wish smell-o-vision was possible, but until then, here’s what the bottle looks like:

Rituals body milk, shampoo and shower gel.

This is truly a beautiful city. Picturesque beyond words. I don’t have the best photography skills but I think this might capture just a bit of what makes Amsterdam so special.


Day 2 coming up next.

A Dozen Things I Have and Have Not Done This Week

May 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve been off my usual schedule lately. And not just with Dainty. With everything. Spring and summer are busy times for me. My calendar fills up, the fridge empties, dust bunnies leap with springtime glee on my office floor.

So I thought I’d use this week as an example of things I’ve done and haven’t done, all of which are not the norm.

  • I have flown to the DC area and back, and to Chicago and back, just this past week. And I’m packing for Amsterdam tomorrow.
  • I haven’t cooked nor eaten dinner at home. The closest I came was a lunch of spaghetti topped with frozen homemade pesto. And it looks like that’ll be my lunch again today.
  • I have matching rug burn-type scars on my elbows. They are my first slide injuries in about 35 years. Walking up a slide and then turning around and sliding down as a 5 year old jumps on and rockets toward you is harder than it looks.
  • I have run the dishwasher only once all week. And only because we’ve run out of coffee mugs.
  • I haven’t visited my community garden plot all week, but I have consulted on garden matters for at least three different people.
  • I have struck up a conversation with a woman in a bar at O’Hare who, as her stories went on, has an obvious drinking problem. I left my second beer unfinished. She eyed it as I left.
  • I have won an iPad 2! People really do win those giveaways during Public Radio fundraisers.
  • I have not finished half the things I have on my to-do lists. Crap.
  • I have attended a fundraiser for a wonderful organization, BayCove Human Services, the largest provider of human services in Boston. They serve hot meals, help people of all ages who have developmental disabilities, support their families, and do all sorts of great stuff that makes you really thankful someone is doing this incredibly necessary work. Think about how miserable society would be if organizations like this weren’t around. We couldn’t live with ourselves.
  • I have not sent an anniversary card to my parents, who’ll be celebrating 60 years of marriage while I’m away next week. Oh man, I gotta get that in the mail.
  • I have lost a friend to cancer.
  • I have not been thankful enough.

The Ever-Versatile Roasted Vegetables

May 11, 2011 § 7 Comments

I don’t share Dainty with my real-world colleagues as a rule. Not sure most would approve of Dainty’s exploits. But my super-awesome colleague Chris T.—the designer of the Dainty Dot logo up at the top of the page—is definitely Dainty worthy.

So when Chris T. told me yesterday that I use a lot of—too many?—ingredients, I considered it. Do I really? Salt, pepper, oils and vinegars not withstanding, I’m mentally going over my recipes and counting up. The Steel-Cut Oatmeal I’m currently eating definitely doesn’t have that many ingredients—oats, raisins, slivered almonds, maple syrup. Okay, yeah, that’s a lot for a simple breakfast. Plus, it takes 20-plus minutes to prepare. But at least you can shower while it’s cooking—that’s something.

Chris T., to show that Dainty can prepare a flavorful dish with simple ingredients and instructions, I humbly present this for your consideration: Roasted Vegetables.

It doesn’t matter what it is—beets, leeks, broccoli, and old tennis shoe—you add EVOO, salt and pepper, put it on a baking sheet or cast-iron pan in a 42F oven and you’re going to end up with something tasty. You can skip the oil maybe, but why? If anything, it helps prevent the veggie from sticking to pan. The salt and pepper add flavor, yes, but the salt also helps to draw out the vegetable’s own juices. The high heat caramelizes those juices, so you end up with a tasty savory sweetness. Want to get your children in the habit of eating veggies? Don’t serve them bland boiled bleck—lightly roast some carrots or cauliflower and let them have at it. I don’t have children and I’ve never tested this theory so it might be bunk, but you never know. Give it a try.

Roasting vegetables is my go-to method when it seems there is absolutely nothing left to cook with in the house. There’s always something—a sweet potato, an onion or leek, a pepper, something—laying around that, with a little high heat, salt, pepper and EVOO, can be incorporated into a meal. If anything, they can be tossed with penne for a simple pasta supper.

Do you need instructions? Really? Okay, here they are.

Roasted Vegetables

-Firm vegetables work best. Sweet potatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, winter squashes, onions, leeks work really well. Summer squashes such as yellow and zucchini, are good, too. Tomatoes … I typically use cherry tomatoes and put them in a medium-sized cast iron. They’ll burst, beware. But the flavor is phenomenal. Be forewarned—the acid will mess up your cast iron’s patina a bit. Clean immediately.

-Set your oven to 425F. I never rely on the temp gauge—your 425 may be hotter than my 425. So keep an eye on the veggies the first time you roast them to get a good idea of how your oven works.

-Veggie prep: The secret is to cut the veggies into uniform pieces for even cooking. All the sweet potatoes should be about the same size. Easily enough to do. When chopping the onion, leave them in relatively big chunks. No dicing. Broccoli and cauliflower can be kinda tricky to get into even sizes. But if some get more crispy than others, hey, that’s ok—it’s all tasty.

-Put your veg in a medium to big bowl, depending on how much you have. Add olive oil—I tip the bottle down and go once around the bowl for a small amount of veg, two to three times for more veg. Add one to two large pinches of kosher salt and several turns of a pepper mill. Toss to coat. Your hands are fine, or a wooden spoon or tongs work too. I prefer hands. Spread out evenly into a single layer in a cast-iron pan or rimmed baking sheet. Single layer! You want each veg to get in contact with the hot metal. Put in the oven and close ‘er up.

Note: What’s a large pinch? It’s a pinch that uses your thumb and your index, middle and ring fingers. It’s one finger away from a small grab. Go ahead, try it.

-Roasting time: Well, now, that all depends on what you’re roasting. Broccoli—2o minutes. Cauliflower—20-25 minutes. Beets, same thing. Sweet potatoes—up to 40 minutes. Butternut squash—35-40 minutes. Onions, leeks—15 maybe? Same with summer squashes. Asparagus, maybe 10 minutes. The softer the vegetable, the less time it takes. For softies, I check them at 12 minutes and then gauge from there. The harder the veg—like sweet potatoes—the longer it takes. For broccoli and cauliflower, I check them at 10 and give them a shaky toss. If you’re roasting a two or more different veggies—like broccoli and onions—on the same pan, I separate them so it’s easier to remove one if it’s done ahead of the other.

-When’s it done? When they turn a nice golden color, especially around the edges. Broccoli’s florets will begin to get a bit dark. That’s ok. Are the stem parts firm yet edible? You don’t want them to be floppy, but you want to be able to chew them without an awful crunch as if they are raw. Squashes—you should be able to stick a toothpick or fork into it easily but it shouldn’t be mush. Get the idea?

This weekend we made a simple pasta meal with roasted broccoli and onions and sun-dried tomatoes. We took a small handful

Roasted broccoli and onions with sun-dried tomatoes over pasta

of the tomatoes and put them in a bowl of maybe 1.5 cups of boiling water. Let them sit there while the broccoli and onions roasted and the pasta water boiled. Just before the roasting was done, we took out the tomatoes and gave them a rough chop, then threw them in with the drained pasta, a 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water and the roasted veggies. We served with a bit of Parmesan cheese. Delicious. Want some meat with that, you meat-eaters? We’ve had similar dishes where we’ve added a link or two of Al Fresco chicken apple sausage cut into bite-sized pieces.

Pasta, quinoa, bulgar, rice … whatever you have, as long as you have a veggie or two around and know how to roast it, you’ve got yourself a meal. And one with not that many ingredients.

Five Random Thoughts

May 4, 2011 § 3 Comments

Sigh.

A recent visit to the family homestead has wiped me out. Psychologically, that is. Physically, too, as the trip was mainly to help my parents with some of their spring gardening. But my parents, especially my Mom, are difficult and heavy on the soul. It takes a few days to rebound.

So, while I’m rebounding, I think I’ll share a few random thoughts with y’all.

1. I had the good fortune this week to go to both Symphony Hall (my first time, can you believe it?) and Fenway Park. Both buildings are about 100 years old. Has anyone noticed how much wider the seats are at Symphony Hall? I mean, substantially wider. You need a shoe horn to squeeze most Sox fans into the old grandstand seats. And the reasoning has always been, “Oh, people were smaller back then.” Then why the ample room for the music lovers?
2. Speaking of Fenway, I had a Fenway Martini last night. As good as ever. We introduced the guy next to us to the fabled drink. He got to the end of it, ate a peanut, shell and all as is the custom, then complained that the shells were too crunchy. Here’s the thing: He drank his beer too fast. The shells need to soak a bit. Drink slower, dude.
3. I’ve been making rye salt starter and liquid levain to make a tangy sourdough. The recipes are from the Amy’s Bread book. It kills me when it says to let the starter rise at room temperature – 75F-80F – for X number of hours. 75F-80F? Come on now, that’s not room temp – that’s a bakery’s room temp.
4. I haven’t been doing much gardening yet this spring. My mother’s gardening, yes. A garden project I’m working on for a local human services agency, yes, putting a lot of brain power into that one. But our own garden, not so much. I’ve planted a bunch of seeds, indoors and out. Some are up, some aren’t. Nothing seems to be growing in my “carrot bed” and I can’t figure out why. I hope my luck turns around.
5. Who are you, Tracey Hawkins? You took the time to hunt down my professional email address and write, “Are you the Ellen of the Dainty Dot? Kind regards, Tracey Hawkins.” And then nothing. Did you have a question? Can I help you with something? I’ve come up with lots of scenarios of who you are and why you wanted to contact me. You are a hipster and you love my recipe for trout. You’re a scout for Martha and want Dainty to be a regular on the show. You’re a book agent and think I have a compelling style and are going to offer me a contract. You’re an attorney and want to sue me for … I dunno, something. You rep a line of cookware and want to offer me some products to test. You, Tracey, are many people. Let me know which one I’m addressing.

That’s it, my five random thoughts. Please feel free to share your random thoughts, too. Especially you, Tracey.

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