pulse, quickener.

I've mentioned these critters before, and there's a goldang good reason: they's spicy enough to blow y'damn brains out, son.

Pictured above, that's a bara, a fritter of black lentils originally from India, where it's normally served with yoghurt, cucumbers, and chutney (here's a suspicious-looking recipe); the large Indian population in Surinam, however, took it upon themselves to transform it into a blazing Caribbean heatslap by ditching the dairy and instead smearing it with a fiery fiery sambal made from local peppers, some of the hottest in the world.


These tropical chile cultivars can be tricky to identify, at least for me: strap on your botany helmets for a moment and let's see if I can maybe learn something.

In America you often see these "lantern-shaped" chiles referred to somewhat generically as habanero or Scotch Bonnet. In fact, most Caribbean cultures have their own cultivar/variant of the species Capsicum chinense, and many of them have slightly different physical features (in fact, habanero and Scotch Bonnet really don't look much like each other at all, here's Wikipedia's take on it): the relatively smooth-surfaced habanero originated in the Yucatan, the curvier Scotch Bonnet is from Jamaica, and the slightly skinnier Madame Jeanette is typically used in Haiti, Aruba, and Martinique. Surinam's version is called adjuma, or adjoema (same pronunciation). In Amsterdam we normally see Madame Jeanette or adjoema, which makes sense considering The Netherlands' relationship to Aruba and Suriname.

Hey, I know! Let's look at some photos, graciously provided by Gernot Katzer, whose Spice Pages provide much of the detail of this post. Remember that color isn't the best way to tell these apart, as the green, yellow, orange, and red varieties are sometimes just different stages of ripeness.



Scotch Bonnet:



But back to the back to the bara y'all. So, I continue to get my bara at my local toko because their salsa really couldn't be much better. I've tried the bara at Riaz, for example, and it was yeah OK, but I've really become accustomed to the ones from Toko Hangalampoe (click on the photo for a seriously graphic version):

By the way, this toko also sells THE HOTTEST hot sauce I've ever experienced in my life*. There's nothing that's even close in terms of apocalyptic heat level that still tastes like something. I'm pretty sure that that's because this sauce is nothing but roasted Madame Jeanettes and a little oil and vinegar.

And I love that it's completely the opposite of the macho-man marketing thing that happens to hot sauces in O-merica: it's not called Dave's Kick-Ass anything or any bullshit like that, there's no cartoon on the label to get your attention. It's a white label that says "Surinaamse Sambal X-Hot" in underlined, italicized Times New Roman. And it. is. not. kidding. Welcome to Scoville. BTW, this is not what they put on their baras, or you would catch fire. And die.

* This is no longer true. In 2011, I was staying at someone's apartment and I tasted a Bhut Jolokia hot sauce. It was a weapons-grade substance, not pleasurable in the least, simply painful, for 20 minutes or so.


playing catchup.

Quite a week here. Or more, maybe. Let's see, the last little hazy block of hazy activity started on a very long, beautiful, and even occasionally hazy Saturday. It began with a last-minute semi-surprise visit from our friend Tony from Berlin, and a subsequent nice market walk and unexpectedly good Italian lunch (ravioli with truffle, eggplant, and sage for me...nice!), and then a brief pause in the sun and a KitKat:

This lunch could've been a serious misstep, as we had a dinner to go to 3 hours later, but a quick nap proved restorative. So, off to a lovely light dinner at another friend's place (tilapia with lemon/caper sauce, salad, and frites for me)...no photos of this; and then a 65th birthday party at the Muziekgebouw which was frankly a little too crowded to really enjoy (the pictures below are from the significantly less-crowded afterparty and then the seriously-uncrowded parking garage at 4am), and thus required experimentation with high-dosage alcohol scenarios (white wine, cognac, and Grimbergen dubblelen for me, a mixed success):


Sunday consisted of hangover management via who knows what. Call it a day of rest. Monday was also relatively low-key...Tuesday involved a dinner down the hall at Andy's (gin and tonics, a beautiful minestrone, spaghetti with garlic shrimp and parmigiano-reggiano, and creme brulee [being torched by Mara in the first pic above] for me), followed by Tuesday night jazz, excessive beers, and then a couple of days off from all manner of social contact.

BTW, that is a real, authentic Konono No. 1 hat Mara is wearing. Like, from Africa



duck, you sucker.

Goddamn, that's a cute fucking duck. How could I eat this? Well, here's my hypotenuse: I've never had a serious relationship with a duck, or really a bird of any sort. But you know I can sort of see why that's the case: what other species of animal is inconsiderate enough to crap on your head (unprovoked, I might add...I could totally see a cat doing this in a revenge-exacting context)? It's like birds are completely on some first strike shit...and frankly I think this backfires on them: it completely justifies my wanting them dead, as I would anyone who shat on my head (I think this perspective can also be specifically traced back to the Russian Lit Final Exam Head-Shitting Incident, which I'll elaborate upon later). And personality? Come on. There's no one home. Fetch! Nothing. If I meow at my cats, they'll fall down in their tracks and writhe around on the ground. Try that with a duck.

So it's for these reasons that I can continue to munch on them happily, regardless of their faux-snuggleability (which I'm pretty sure is nothing more than a [apparently ineffective] defensive measure anyway). However (and they'll be happy to hear this), I think I'm reaching the end of my recent French phase, a decision perversely enabled by my discovery that my local poelier Jonk (Haarlemmerstraat 53) has perfectly decent duck confit available by the leg (4 euro per). IIRC, a duck confit craving is what kicked this whole French fixation off a few months back, but somehow I never actually got around to buying or making any.

Or eating any. Until now! I tasted my first Jonk leg this morning for breakfast and it was everything I hoped for: very lean (you know, except for the fat that it was preserved in) and purely ducky. Really good.

One of the other great things about mister duck is that he submits dutifully to Mexican preparations: as a quesadilla or tamale filling for sure, and duck's affinity for corn, red chile, maple, and mushrooms would make it nice in some kind of dark saute over some sort of masa cake. But since I don't really feel like dealing with masa at the moment, maybe I'll try that idea over a grilled semolina cake called a harcha (I get them from Bakkerij Mediterrannee on the Haarlemmerstraat, here's a recipe). They remind me of cornbread, but you know, without corn. Here's the one I bought today:

Another duck confit plus is that you can use the fat to cook with, and it's supposedly a bit healthier than butter or lard due to its high percentage of monounsaturated fats, you know the kind that supposedly help raise good cholesterol. We'll see about that.

In Googling Jonk and harcha I came across an interesting Dutch food site called Cheffen. At least it looks not totally useless. Or it may be totally useless, but at least it looks like genuine regional restaurant culture.

Anyway, here's what I'm actually going to do with my duck since I already have black beans made and also have some masa that I made for tamales (during an overly ambitious moment) that I'll use to thicken it. This recipe is not based on the Rough Creek Lodge's version, but I did look at theirs, here.


duck and black bean chili.

1 skinned and defatted breast of duck confit, removed from the bone
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 cups cooked, seasoned black beans and their liquid
1/2 cup ancho chile puree
1/2 to 1 chipotle pepper, minced, or 1 tbsp adobo sauce from the can
1 tbsp ground cumin, freshly toasted
up to 1 cup chicken or duck stock
1 tbsp blueberry or blackberry preserves
1-3 tablespoons masa harina (optional)

1 sweet onion, diced
1/2 cup mint leaves, chopped

saute the duck meat in a skillet for 3-5 minutes to brown a little, add garlic for 1 minute, then add beans, chiles, and cumin. cook for 1 minute, stirring. add the stock and preserves, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. if it's still too soupy at this point, sprinkle the masa over top to thicken, and simmer, stirring, for 3-5 minutes. when you reach your desired consistency, you're ready to put it into bowls: top it with chopped onion and mint. and maybe a little crumbled goat cheese if you've got it hanging around as we usually do. and serve.

serves 2 probably.



is that thing loaded?

When Mara was traveling in Scotland this summer, she had a good long soak in the bog of contradictions that define British-American culture clash.

Or something. Perhaps an example would be more illustrative: Mara is on a 12-hour ferry ride from Aberdeen to Lerwick. The seas are rough. Her stomach is desperately in need of some comfort food, so she heads to the cafeteria to see what she can find. She spies baked potato on the menu and her spirits lift....that sounds perfect, a nice fluffy baked potato with a little butter and sour cream. She orders it, becoming very hungry now that she is potentially in the same room with an actual baked potato. In preparation, her tiny mind conjures up a steaming image of The Perfect Baked Potato.

The counterperson turns and opens an oven, in which there are several naked baked potatoes slowly dying a shriveled death. Mara is so suddenly hungry at this point that she doesn't care that it's a gnarled old dried-up tuber....it'll be fine fluffed up and buttered, right? The counterperson then gets ready to pass Mara the plate, but before he does so he grabs a huge meat cleaver and brutally quarters the potato into unfluffable, smashed wedges and hands it to her.

Frown. Sigh. OK, where is the butter? She turns to the "potato topping area" and is a bit mystified by the contents. Tuna salad, coleslaw, cottage cheese, corn....no butter. In fact, not only no butter, but no scallions, no sour cream, no bacon. No potato toppings at all. She asks the counterman for butter and grumpily trudges off to configure her potato into something that might resemble her mind's potato.

Mara survives the ferry ride (the potato does not), and eventually makes her way to Hillswick in the Shetland Islands. At some point, she is relating this story to some nice English chaps who are staying there. And she's saying, "You know how sometimes you have something in your mind that you want to eat, and there's just this ideal version of it you're picturing....for example, there are certain things that have to be on your baked potato for it to be a satisfying baked potato." Before Mara has even finished this sentence, the English blokes are agreeing in unison: "Oh yeah...tuna salad, cottage cheese, corn...."

This hilarity would continue just about every time Mara would have a craving for an old standby.

Mara: Hey guys, let's get a pizza. I really need a pizza.
Englishman: Jolly good, spot on. I'll just pop round and pick it up. Em...right, then: what toppings do you fancy?
Mara: Um...just the most basic ingredients, you know, the things that are supposed to be on a pizza.
Englishman: Oh, right, so....crab, corn, tuna salad, cottage cheese...
Mara: You fucking Limey bastards.



we watch channel zero.

Well, all hell broke loose here last night from a digestion POV (we're still not really sure what the culprit is), and Mara and I both spent the day crippled by continuing intestinal nastiness, which means that we ate almost nothing and watched an excruciating amount of TV.

The high point would have to have been a tugging-at-the-heartstrings episode of American Chopper (it reminds us of home), but then at 8:30pm we had a tough call to make: Unbreakable or A Haunting in Georgia. Neither of us could remember a single thing about Unbreakable except that it had one of the most disappointing endings ever recorded on film.

So we watched about 3 hours of A Haunting in Georgia (while occasionally switching back to Unbreakable to see if we could remember what was so bad about the ending...we couldn't, until we saw it start to happen, and then...we did).

I won't go into the details of the aforementioned haunting right here, but I will say that after 3 hours, you'd think there'd be some sort of resolution. And you'd be wrong. "I think they just giant squid-ed us," Mara noted cheerily afterwards, referring to the National Geographic feature Hunt for the Giant Squid, where after 3 or 4 hours, they don't actually find the giant squid.



back in the saddle again.

After passing within 1km of the Eiffel Tower yesterday during a brief layover in Paris, I have now returned to Moep Centraal, and I must say it was just in time: the wear and tear on my linguistic and gastrointestinal systems had reached its limits....in fact, my tummy is still recovering. So much so that I am currently unable to appreciate the booty which I lugged back with me:


Butter with Smoked Sea Salt from Jean-Yves Bordier:

Bordier has been referred to as "the butter darling of the French gastronomic scene", but frankly I didn't actually realize how well known this butter was until after I brought it home: all I knew was that the butter I'd been eating in Brittany was the best butter ever, and Bordier's shop was supposed to be the place to get it.

I didn't want to get too much of it because I had a 12-hour day of travel ahead of me, and wasn't quite sure how I was going to get it home without it melting (luckily I had a MacGyver moment and concocted a Butter Transport Device out of two bags of frozen french fries, it worked perfectly).

Haven't really had an opportunity to taste it yet because of stomach rebellion. France Magazine has a detailed article about this butter here.


Beurre d'huitres de Cancale from La Cancalaise.

As I mentioned earlier, the most impressive things I ate in Brittany were Cancale oysters and butter. This combines both of them, basically "oyster butter". This line of products comes from a chef in Cancale named Daniel Ledoult, more info if I dig some up. I also bought his Rilettes of Mackerel with Calvados.


Tartare d'algues from Bord & Bord.

I picked this up at Bordier's shop, it's basically a seaweed tapenade or relish? Designed to be spread on bread with butter or drizzled over fish. More on this to come, but here's the product page in French.


Confit de
Mirabelles a l'Edelzwicker et au Cumin.

This is also from Bordier's shop, made by a company called L'Epicurien, it's kind of like a chutney made from Mirabelle plums designed specifically to be eaten with a seriously stinky Muenster cheese. Edelzwicker is a white wine from Alsace. Looking forward to this very much.


au revoir, bretagne.

Well, I'm out. Off to do some last-minute shopping and maybe snag a photo or two. Shopping list includes salt and maybe butter. And a new G-I tract.

This bottom photo? Unenhanced. That's what it really looked like.


st.-malo: kouign amann.

Lipitor, here I come, Part II. The always-informative David Lebovitz has a nice bit on the miracle of caramelization known as Kouign Amann I'm holding here (including a recipe). You'll find it here. He's also written a very helpful Guide to Tipping in France which I took as gospel.

Friends and family do not be concerned, I am not eating this whole thing...I could only buy it in the one size (too big).

The time has come for me to decide what foodstuffs to bring back with me. The most suprising and educational things I've eaten here have been the butter and the oysters, neither of which should transport well. I've had some excellent ciders and a great beer made from buckwheat:

However I don't really have enough space to bring home a bunch of booze. We'll see what I can work out.

st.-malo: crêpes and galettes.

Lipitor here I come. Today's goals were: exercise and crêpes. After last night's supertraditional French heaviness, my gut was in a bit of a disarray this morning. So, unbreakfasted, I took a big ol' walk up on the ramparts of St. Malo.

...and by 3 o'clock or so I was finally able to think about eating something. That something would not be Colin, for obvious reasons....

But rather un galette avec jambon ou fromage. The establishment that generated this puppy might have been the slowest and most inefficient street food vendor I've ever seen, a husband and wife who made it look as if this was their first time in the kitchen together, or possibly their first time in a kitchen at all.

But at 3pm your choices are limited. Anyway, standing around for 20 minutes was only a problem because my blood sugar gauge had dipped into the red. Once in my hands, the galette was light, crispy, hammy, and just cheesy enough. Werry nice. Then, some more walking...

And then a brief siesta at the hotel, after which I emerged to find the beach looking like this:

I really wanted some more Cancale oysters after Saturday's "best oysters ever" meal (in Brest, which I haven't written about yet), but I couldn't get into anywhere for dinner. OK, I only tried Le Brick, but the others on my list were very obviously full of happy diners. In fact, I can't believe how full the resturants are in general here...it's supposed to be off-season, isn't it? Yesterday, Monday, everything was packed out totally. And they're all French people it seems...I haven't heard a word of English since I've been here.

Anyway, but, so...maybe not getting in anywhere was what they call a blessing in etc., forcing me to eat responsibly. At this point I decided to make today a 100% crêpe day, oh just call me the Crêped Crusader ha ha etc. etc. etc.

I knew nothing about any of the 17,000 crêperies in town. I made a semi-random selection, Crêperie La Brigantine, chosen because their interesting menu featured andouille, which I understood to be different than andouillette. Thus, here we have a very blurry galette with andouille, caramelized onions, and cheese:

And you know what? If there's a difference between andouille and andouillette, I can't tell you what it is. This was pure tripe. Ha. No, it was very tasty, but, yeah...I should've gotten something else, it was very much like the gas station andouillette from last week and you know my purpose here is to eat broadly....

I also had the traditional accompaniment to galettes, cidre brut served in a vessel similar to a coffee cup called a bolée.

And then came one of the better things I've eaten in the past couple weeks: a crêpe with toasted almonds, honey, and caramelized apples. Doesn't sound like much, but it was superduper.

The great thing about galettes and crêpes is that they take up a lot of surface area, so they look like an actual meal, and they take a while to eat, but they're wafer-thin so they're not a belly bomb.

Another interesting note: these galettes and crêpes came out of the kitchen piping hot and crispy literally two minutes after I ordered them....my entire dinner could've been over in less than 7 minutes if I'd so desired.

But I did not so desire. I tried to do my bottle of cidre proud, and mostly succeeded. All in all, this was good eating. I've not yet mentioned how downright reasonable everything has been pricewise (except my train ticket home I just found out...ouch!!). Dinner at Duchesse Anne was something like 70 euros for three courses and a great bottle of wine. This dinner was under 20 and included a bottle of cidre brut. Nice one! So, next goal: more oysters.


st.-malo: death to the death mope.

I'll flesh this post out more later today....

Still recovering from the whirlwind of the last 10 days, but made it out to dinner last night, my first solo outing without really speaking any French. I stopped at Gilles, but they were booked full, probably because they only have like 4 tables. To minimize the number of times I would have to go through the whole "access denied" routine, I went to the biggest restaurant in the guide, A la Duchesse Anne. I was again, denied...but ho! I must've looked really dejected, because after I turned to go, the elderly maitre d said "wait...you can have a table until 21h00 then you have to give it back". Yay! I think.

There were a lot of things that were nervewracking about the dining room: no music or extraneous sound; and my location was such that I always seemed to be under the watchful eye of a stern-looking elderly woman who seemed like the manager/owner (who ended up being extremely sweet...later in the meal she asked me what nationality I was, and I told her...as I was leaving she handed me a stack of postcards and told me "bon voyage"). But this and the extremely attentive waitstaff (more on this) served to put my table manners under the microscope, as it were, and I realized I could use a refresher course (haaiy!).

I could actually use a French course as well. I did pretty well I think, the waitstaff and owner seemed to become less suspicious of me after I ordered my extremely unhealthy meal: foie gras, coquilles st. jacques a la bretonnaise, and tarte tatin. And a really interesting Pinot Noir from Alsace: Maison Hugel & Fils.

As you know, I don't take photos of my food in restaurants as a rule, but thought I'd make an exception here. The quality is crappy because I used every spy/espionage trick in the book to take these discreetly.


This was served with toast, and I'm not sure what those leaves are...ramps? Chervil? Anyway, they helped.

Basically scallops and mushrooms in a white wine-cream sauce with a little Gruyere in there maybe, toasted nicely under the broiler. Totally decadent and a pleasure to eat.

Tarte tatin. Next to my left hand you can see the huge pot of creme anglaise that showed up a second later.