Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Touring Holland

Today, Nicole and I got an earlier start as we begin to feel the strains of time. We have so much to see, but in a short period of time. Between family visits, travel time and searching for sites, things go by pretty fast.

A beautiful thing occurred today because of technology. The use of GPS (global positioning system) makes traveling in a foreign country seamless. It takes away the intimidation of driving in an unknown place and lets you drive the Dutch freeways with Los Angeles abandon. I loved the freedom of not having to drive and read a map at the same time.

We set out to a small city 30 minutes west of Amersfoort called Apeldorn. We drove past vast green pastures dotted with black and white spotted cows, the occasional woolly sheep and some small farms. The scenery is lush, but flat with not a hill in sight as Holland is completely beneath the sea level. The cows and their slow and lazy activity add to the tranquil scene.

Nicole and I visited a park called the Apenhuil (Ape Hill). It is a pedestrian park filled with various species of monkeys roaming freely throughout the park to mingle with all the passing tourists. We encountered squirrel monkeys, small cute and hyper yellow monkeys that were jumping, screaming, and scampering all over the place. What was so cool about these little guys were they carried their babies right on their back, but jumped and skied through the trees like circus acrobats. The Macaques were interesting as well. These were medium sized monkeys with a tan and fluffy fur and were located in a Moroccan style setting with bridges and a desert feel to them. These monkeys walked straight up to us, rested at our feet and then began plucking each other like we always see them do on the Discovery channel. Their hands and eyes are so human like that we become fixated on these features. There is something bigger in thought behind those eyes that you don't see in other animals. We saw a few other monkeys in their habitats swinging and jumping and while using their tails like a fifth hand.

The next area were the Great Apes. These guys were a little less active than the monkeys, but a lot more communal. They all sat and rested in the same area whether it was the gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, or orangutans. These are big and strong specimens with facial features and interaction like humans. Once a large crowd surrounded the shy gorillas, they got up and turned their back on the viewers. The orangutans, stereotypically, climbed some ropes and ate bananas, but were the most part as lazy as I felt.

In a stretch for time, we powered through the monkey park without ever experiencing the anticipated monkey robbery. Last time I was there, these black woolly monkeys would walk up to you and brazenly search through your pockets, bags and anything loose until they found something to their liking. Unfortunately, this did not happen as the park decided to cut down on this activity as the monkeys were becoming to aggressive with the tourists. It was a little disappointing that Nicole didn't get to experience this particular highlight of the Apenhuil. We left the park with the most expensive french fries in hand. They were the equivalent of $4.50 for about a small size. Expensive, but we justified the cost as support for the apes.

We then headed to the Openlucht Museum which was located in Arnhem, a medium sized city southwest of Amersfoort. Our guide, the lovely lady we call the navigation system, led us to our destination with ease. This is a huge open air park that focuses on the Holland of old. I guess the best picture I could paint is that of the Amish country that we have seen on television our in movies. There were lots of farm animals, small old world villages, wooden shoes and windmills. The highlight of this visit was of course the Poffertjes. These little pancake-like puffs are what the best dreams are made of. They are small, about the size of a half dollar, tender soft, freshly cooked in front of us, slathered with high fat European butter and then showered with powdered sugar. If there is any treat to travel half the world for, this is the one! I ordered two dozen and Nicole said that would be too much. Ask her 10 minutes later and she would have a different response....these treats were so addicting that we finished a dozen each and even hungered for more, but we had to restrain ourselves.

We headed home and felt pretty accomplished that we were able to visit two museums and get a view of local scenery all in the matter of 6 hours. By the time we arrived, the family was hungry. We piled back into the van and headed to the supermarket. It was my turn to cook at home. The market was impressive. It had all the offerings for the masses, but had artisinal sections within the market of cheeses, meats, fish and breads.

Nicole and I started the cooking in Saskia's well equipped kitchen. Her kitchen is abnormally large for a Dutch kitchen so it made things easy. We started the meal with melba toast and a green olive tapenade. Then I had to introduce my relatives to one of my favorite dishes which was obviously inspired by our next destination. The Parisian Salad, bitter greens tossed with a pungent mustard vinaigrette, cherry tomatoes, crisp and salty cured pork lardons and the star of the group - the soft poached egg. We broke our eggs over the salad and the custardy yolk created the perfect foil for the sharp dressing. This was truly enjoyable.

The main course was a hearty one. We seared some rib eye steaks that were seasoned with salt, pepper and nutmeg. We served this with a creamy and rich scalloped potatoes that were oven baked with caramelized onions, bacon fat and topped off with gouda style cheese and breadcrumbs. We garnished the plate with tender haricot vert that had been sauteed with garlic and mushrooms. Finally, I made a quick pan sauce with port wine, the beef juices and finished with a small amount of creme fraiche to tone down the assertiveness of the wine and to add a nice sheen to the sauce.

Finally, on center stage was dessert. I chose an all American classic that brings theater to the table. This is a recipe I learned in culinary school, but it is always a fan favorite - Bananas Foster. Caramelized bananas sauteed in rum, brown sugar and butter and then placed over vanilla ice cream. The contrast of hot and cold, the simplicity of vanilla versus the sweetness of the brown sugar and cinnamon always make for a popular finish, plus everyone liked that we turned down the lights as I started the flambe and a wild blue flame shot up to the ceiling in the kitchen!!

We finished the evening with yet another movie and discussion until 3am. How sweet it is.

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