The update milkshake

This is going to be a short little post as I’ve spent a shamefully low number of hours outside of the house in the past few days and as a result have no pictures to share!

After a bit of a tumultuous time and a few emotional breakdowns, I’m happy to report that
a) I’m back to being my usual cheery self, and
b) I have some good news on the bureaucratic front!

No – I don’t have my job back, and I still don’t know if I’ll end up getting it back at all. However, after a string of never-ending phone calls to the immigration office and the institution in charge of approving work permits (and with a lot of help from my personal hero and defendant, Pieter), I have managed to convince the job agency hag worker to just SUBMIT my application already! I realize this hardly sounds like a victory, but given her shocking reluctance to do just that, I’m willing to take what I can get. And now I can finally feel at peace, because I have done everything within my power to fix my problem.

The bright side to this little nightmare is that I have nothing but time to work on my thesis! Sounds fun? No?

I’m not complaining, though. Because of all of my free time, I got to take a little trip up North to see my wonderful friends last week. We had the intention of ‘working’ together, but – shockingly – that didn’t really happen. Instead, I laughed and relaxed and cheated a teeny little bit on my diet, and now I feel about 100 times better.

This milkshake should make you feel 100 times better, too.
I do have to confess that I am by no means the genius behind the idea of freezing banana to replace ice cream. About a week ago, Pieter’s house received some promotional fast food flyers in the mail, including coupons for McDonald’s milkshakes. Usually even the smell of McDonald’s cannot move me, but I guess being on a diet really heightens your awareness of delicious things that you can’t eat! I decided right then and there that I would have a milkshake, and a quick scour of the internet really delivered.

Here it is: the peanut butter-chocolate milkshake.
(But you could make it in any number of different flavours.)

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There isn’t really any way to make this look beautiful, so you’ll have to take my word for it: it tastes incredible!

What you’ll need:
1-2 bananas, sliced and frozen (it takes between 4 and 5 hours to get them to the right consistency, so you do have to exercise some patience … the more frozen, the better)
1/2-3/4 cup milk (or any substitute you like)
1 tbsp peanut butter
1-2 tsp honey or other sweetener
1 tbsp cocoa powder
and, if you have them/if your blender can handle them (mine sadly cannot), a handful of ice cubes

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And all you need to do is blend and, if possible, enjoy through a colourful straw.

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In hindsight, using my wooden table as a backdrop may not have been the finest artistic call I’ve ever made … I’m seriously considering naming this post ‘Fifty shades of brown’, but I’ll do my best to resist the urge.
Now, back to my milkshake and back to work!

Magic minestrone

I’ve gone over this in my head quite a bit, trying to decide whether or not to address my current situation on this blog, as I like to keep things quite positive here. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer. However, I feel that making no mention at all would be sort of dishonest … It’s practically all I can think about. So! I’ve decided to intertwine my tragic tale with pictures of delicious comfort food – try to lighten the drama a little. Plus my post about my zucchini soup recipe is one of the most consistently popular posts I’ve written in my 3 months of blogging, so why not give the people what they want?

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Coincidentally, that zucchini soup post is sort of also where this story starts. At the end of it, I briefly mentioned that I’d been offered my first ‘real’ job – loosely defined: a job at an office, where the dress-code does not require one to wear 10 items of makeup or more, where I need not be addressed as if I were a dog and, most importantly, with work related to my field of study. I was thrilled! Not having an EU passport in the Netherlands makes it very difficult to get a job here, so this really felt like a small miracle. I would finally have something impressive to put on my CV, and – who knew? – this job might even lead to something else.

The next month went by ‘like a dream’, if I may be so bold. Working two days a week gave my life more structure so that I became more productive on my off-days. Plus, for the first time, I actually really enjoyed working, and looked forward to days at the office. In my head my summer stretched itself out before me, all pastel-coloured work blouses and awesome work parties (preferably held in beautiful gardens) and days off spent writing my thesis in the sun (cough) by a canal – complete with super cool funky summer music, obviously.

I guess my tone sort of gives away the surprise ending but here goes: I lost my job. Or at least, for all intents and purposes, I lost my job. There is still a teeny tiny chance that I can go back to work, but it will be at least five weeks, and, given the level of assistance I’ve been dealing with, likely much more. And no – I didn’t show up to work drunk or call my boss ugly or delete any important data files or anything. My big mistake was trusting that the job agency in charge of my employment would be competent enough/bothered to do their job and take care of getting me a work permit.
They weren’t. They also didn’t give me even as much as the semblance of an apology.

I could go into the whole sordid story, quote the many enraging email conversations I’ve had regarding this issue, and then moan about my sad fate. But I’m already doing an awful lot of those things offline, so suffice it to say that I’m not only furious, but incredibly discouraged, frustrated and – yes – a teeny little bit homesick.

Hence the soup. This is my new favourite, adapted from a minestrone recipe I found here.

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It’s hearty, comforting, and, importantly, healthy, so I can return to the industrial-sized pot I make 2-3 times and still consider it only one meal. (Admittedly, ‘portion sizing’ is not one of my strong suits.) Because, yes – while I’m dealing with this absolute load of … manure (sorry Papou) … I’m also trying to fit back into my jeans!
I’d throw myself a pity party, except that this soup is so good that I feel only great delight when I’m eating it. Plus no longer being able to fit into my clothes wouldn’t exactly show the incompetent idiots hardly-working folk at the job agency the error of their way. I’m trying to feel better after all, and wearing sweatpants outside in the Netherlands will only earn you further antipathy.

Maybe I’m homesick for an idealized version of home. I’m not sure. This sort of thing probably happens to foreigners in all countries. All I know is that every time someone who is allegedly ‘competent’ and ‘in charge’ of taking care of things for me tells me that they ‘don’t know’ and are ‘waiting for a call from x person’ on the matter, I want to scream a little bit, and then apply for that person’s job because SERIOUSLY?! I took more responsibility than that when I was 17 and working part-time at a café. And then every time I have to contact one of these people to prompt an update after two days of silence, I want to get into my bed with my entire pot of soup and the complete Friends box-set and never emerge again.
Soup or ice cream. Depending on the level of despair I happen to be feeling at that moment.

When I first found out, I stepped outside of the office and onto the gorgeous Pieterskerk square. My indignant sobs echoed poetically/embarrassingly against the church as I tried to regain my composure for what had suddenly become my last day of work. I swore that I was done with this country and its load of bureaucratic hooey. Some very strong language was uttered.

But at the moment I’m feeling optimistic.
I have awesome friends who are a 7 hour plane ride away but who send me treats and hilarious letters in care packages. I have friends who stoically listen to my self-pitying rants and then, as if by pure magic, manage to make me laugh. I have my wonderful family, and a beautiful new baby nephew. I have the maple sugar hearts my grandpa made for me and that I received by post at the time it seemed I needed them the most. And I have my knight in shining armour, a certain blondie working tirelessly to right the injustices inflicted on me.

I also have this soup. And whatever you’re dealing with at the moment, you can have it too!

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For a huge amount (8-10 bowls), you will need:
1 tbsp oil (15 ml)
1 onion
1 large carrot
3-4 cloves of garlic (you can obviously adjust this as you please!)
3 stalks celery
1 large zucchini
1 cup green beans
as much spinach as you please! I used about 8 cups (raw)
2 cans (4 cups) diced tomatoes
5-6 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup basmati rice
Italian seasoning, cayenne pepper, salt & pepper – to taste
and, optionally, parmesan cheese for topping
(I forgot to include the celery and the rice in the picture – clearly I’m more distressed than I thought!)

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Dice all of your veggies into roughly the same size. In a big pan, get your oil going on a medium heat, and then add your onion, carrot and celery; once they’ve softened just a bit, add your chopped garlic and season as you like. (I season every layer, but it’s a matter of personal preference of course.) After the veggies have been cooking about 5 minutes, add your tomatoes. Let simmer another 5 minutes. Now add your diced zucchini and green beans, cover with vegetable broth, lower the flame to a low simmer and cover your pot. Give all of this about 10-15 minutes to cook.

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When the veggies have softened, add the rice directly to the soup and stir it in. Cover again and allow the rice about 15 minutes to cook. Now your patience might be wearing thin, but you’re on the home stretch! Once the rice is done, stir your spinach in and, as soon as it’s wilted down, you’re ready to serve.

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For an extra bit of comfort, I like to break off chunks of parmesan right into my bowl. This way, I end up with gooey, melty, delicious bites of cheese in my spoon. What better way to soothe your weathered heart than with melty cheese nestled between slices of buttery zucchini and swimming in delicious tomato broth?

Now I’m keeping my fingers crossed, and with a bit of luck and a lot of perseverance/harassment, I’ll be back with some better news in no time.

Dutch delight: zucchini soup

Rain or shine, I consider myself to be something of a soup enthusiast – spicy noodle, egg-drop, butternut squash, lentil, and carrot-ginger are just a few of the soups I make on a regular basis. That’s what leads me to believe that courgette soep, or zucchini soup for us anglophones/North Americans, is a typical Dutch delight of a dish. (Yes, I did that!) How else would I never have heard of it?!

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I woke up this morning with a feeling of purpose. I was going to take out the recycling, clean the kitchen, get through the pile of doom books I need to read by the end of the week, get in a ‘work out,’ and send some postcards.

I somehow ended up experimenting with food photography and making/devouring this delicious soup instead.

My first encounter with this green goodness was this summer, on the terrace at Humphrey’s in Groningen. The whole meal was incredible, but the soup made a particularly lasting impression. It was too long ago to remember for sure, but knowing myself I had probably recreated the dish within a week of my discovery. Since then, it’s become a staple in my fridge, and I think it’s about time I shared the love – or at least try to in a virtual way.

(Now, please read the rest of this post in your very best cooking show host voice.)

Not only is courgette soep hearty and richly textured, but it’s also good for you and, as a bonus, it’s super easy to make. Every time I’ve had it, the quantities I’ve used have been different, and every time it’s been delicious. Not to brag or anything.

To make enough to feed a small army (or your hungry self throughout the week), you will need:
1 yellow onion
6 cups zucchini, diced (roughly two zucchini)
3 cups potatoes, diced
glug of olive oil (or butter)
2-3 cloves garlic
1.5 liters veggie broth (I shamelessly use bouillon cubes)
salt & pepper to taste
1-2 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)

Additionally, I highly recommend:
fresh basil and
crème fraîche, for garnish

This is so easy it hardly requires a recipe – all you really need to do is put everything in a pot, let it simmer, and then blend. But just for kicks (and to further procrastinate), I’ll walk you through it.

One thing I will explicitly elaborate on is seasoning. Ever since I first discovered the Food Network at the tender age of 14 and subsequently caught every single episode of Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals – at least twice – I have abided by one simple rule: season every layer. In my case, this means salt, pepper and cayenne. Is this good for my sodium intake? No. Is it delicious? Yes.

Now that that’s out in the open, we can get started! Soften up your diced onion in some oil in a big pan over a medium heat.

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(Note the first layer of seasoning!)

While that’s working, slice up your zucchini and, once the onion has become more or less translucent, toss it into the pan.

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Leave the onion and zucchini to cook down while you dice your potatoes. Regardless of the exact amount of soup you’re making, one basic reference point to keep in mind is the 2:1 zucchini to potato ratio. In my experience, this ratio gives you the perfect texture – creamy but not quite as thick as a purée.

Now go ahead and coarsely chop your garlic – don’t worry too much about the size of the chunks, as it will be pulverized in a moment anyway!

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Once your zucchini has started to loose some of its liquid and you’ve got a bit of a broth at the bottom of your pan, add your potatoes, your garlic and your broth (at least enough to submerge everything), cover, and that’s it!

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Leave everything to simmer for about 15-20 minutes, or until you can stick easily stick a fork into your potato slices. Then it’s time to blend.

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The soup is magnificent as is but, if you’re looking for something a bit more decadent, try adding a dollop of crème fraîche and some roughly chopped basil.

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Stir everything in, sit back, and enjoy this divine creation! It’s so virtuous you could practically put it on your to-do list …

Note:
Shortly after I made this particular pot of soup, I got offered my first non-retail, non-service industry job! If that doesn’t convince you of its magical properties, I don’t think anything will.

Banana walnut pancakes

This weekend I took part in what is apparently one of the most typical of all Dutch traditions: I went to Ikea on a Saturday afternoon. Apparently entire comedy sets have been written about this phenomenon – I’m almost embarrassed that I only just found out about it.

Everyone and their mom feasting on 'Swedish' goodies at Ikea

Everyone and their mom feasting on ‘Swedish’ goodies at Ikea

My housemate announced just over a week ago that she’s moving out this Thursday, and she’s taking everything in the kitchen with her. As an avid cook (and eater), this news initially sent me into a bit of a panic, but once that had subsided, there was only one thing for it … I had to book the eternally patient and heroic Pieter for a day of fun (!!!!) at Ikea!

The first stage was a romantic stroll through the showroom … Just us and several hundred strangers, elbowing each other out of the way, trying not to collide with running children, commenting on the tile in the display kitchens and seriously contemplating recreating an entirely pink demo they had for little girls’ rooms. (Maybe that was just me.) When we’d made our way through the entire upper level, it was time for an Ikea tradition: bottomless ‘lingonberry’ soda (or ‘lingon’ as we affectionately call it) and coffee, with a side of pie. Heaven in a crowded cafeteria. We’ve been doing this since I first arrived in Holland and dragged Pieter around the linens section for well over an hour, agonizing over which bedspread to choose and later, whether or not to buy plants.

We are folk with refined tastes.

We are folk with refined tastes.

This trip we tried the Swedish apple pie and the butterscotch tart. It may not be the most photogenic of pies, but the latter was a clear winner in our books! And, as usual, the lingon did not disappoint.

A couple of hours, a bus, a train and a windy walk later, everything was safely home and we were triumphant. We may or may not have baked not one but two celebratory cheeses in said triumph, but that’s a whole other story. This post is called ‘Banana walnut pancakes’, after all, so I’ll skip ahead to Sunday.

I’ll just preface this by saying that I recently found out about a store right in the centre of Leiden that sells … maple syrup! So not only did we have the perfect occasion – successfully making our way out of Ikea on a Saturday not only alive but well – but we also happened to have the key to the whole operation (the maple syrup, obviously). BUT because of her move, my housemate had already cleared out most of the kitchen, and what we didn’t have was a plate big enough to keep our pile of pancakes warm in the oven. (I did in fact forget to get one of those in my excited Ikea frenzy.) Finally, in true Canadian fashion, it was a multicultural effort: we popped them into my housemate’s abandoned tagine.

Hubbah hubbah

Hubbah hubbah

And they were, in one word, magnificent. Thick, fluffy, and smothered in butter and syrup.

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Best enjoyed on a lazy Sunday morning with hot mugs of coffee, basking in the glory of the previous day’s heroic accomplishments.

(To make these bad boys, all you need to do is add 1-2 thinly sliced bananas and a handful or two of chopped walnuts to your standard American/Canadian pancake batter – enough for 2-3 servings, so the equivalent of 1 cup of flour, 1 egg, and you know the rest! Also, make sure someone’s there to share the responsibility of eating them or you will have a happy heart and a decidedly unhappy stomach.)