corders in the hague

It's like having the Corders round for dinner - except the kids don't smash stuff and Mike doesn't drink all your booze. And when you're bored you can get rid of us with a mouse click rather than having to start tidying up the house.

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Location: The Hague, Netherlands

Monday, November 10, 2008

puedo hablar espanol?

Julia has a habit of surprising us.
It's usually just little things.
For example, she hides stuff - from lolly wrappers to half eaten bread rolls to socks and underpants. Anything she can't be bothered to put in a washing basket or rubbish bin she just stuffs somewhere out of sight and forgets it.
She can make a Dresden-after-the-firestorm type of mess in the blink of an eye of and genuinely not appear to notice it.
She NEVER flushes the toilet unless she's specifically ordered to.
Seen positively, these could all be evidence of a carefree spirit reluctant to be fettered by bourgeois conventions.
I however tend to see it as laziness - probably because I recognize it as inherited from her father. 
So imagine our surprise when she started working hard at school.
Esther and Julia's school works on a system of giving pupils responsibility for their own work. They get a bunch of tasks on Monday and have to finish them by Friday. 
I had Julia picked as the type of student who does nothing for four days and then has to rush to get it all done on day five.
It seems I underestimated her. 
She came home today and said she'd finished all but one of her assignments and - honestly - wanted to start learning Spanish.
I suggested her English might benefit from a bit of polishing, but no Spanish it has to be.
Her teacher will probably tell us next week that Julia's been copying all her work from her neighbor and still getting it wrong in her haste to finish.
But for now we'll bask in the fact that Julia seems to have gotten competitive about matching Esther's good marks at school.
La vide es buena.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Belt tightening

Times are hard. 
If we're not all in recession already, we're hurtling that way so fast that there's no turning back. With that sombre economic outlook in mind, I thought it high time to start thinking about how to economize on our food expenditure and cut down waste.
Time for a cooking lesson at the Michelin-starred restaurant just around the corner from our house. 
If there's one thing that really tugs at the purse strings, it's a lobster that hasn't been correctly rested after cooking and as a result becomes as tough as old boots when you get it out of the shell.
So with my old friend Daniel, visiting from England, I headed over to the Savelberg ( on Saturday with a group of like-minded men to spend the morning cooking our own lunch and drinking so much wine that everything we learned is now more or less lost in an alcoholic haze.
The menu was simple and obviously tailored to the credit crisis:

-Tartare of Brittany scallops with celery and apple on a bed of butternut squash puree. Washed down with an Italian pinot gris.
-Pheasant with mashed potato and sauerkraut followed by a ragout of wild mushrooms with more pheasant. Accompanied by a French grenache.
-Poached fig with home made star anise ice cream on a biscuit decorated with a peanut coated in sugar with a long thread of caramelized sugar attached that looked kind of like an antenna. 
With a delicious sweet desert white whose provenance I can no longer remember.

The morning was touted as a lesson, and we were allowed to mess around at certain stages, but whenever some serious cooking was being done the chef Edwin (31 years and a man whose body mass index suggests to me that he enjoys his own cooking. a lot.) and his sous chef and pastry/desert chefs stepped in to ensure that we got an edible meal at the end of it all.
So I learned the crucial culinary skill of getting scallops (jetted in from Brittany that very morning in first class airline seats) out of their shells and cleaning them. 
Use a blunt knife to lever open the shell (think 1970s ash tray) and then slide the blade along the inside of the flat underside of the shell to release the flesh. Then use a spoon with a sharpened edge to cut the meat away from the muscle that opens and closes the shell. Drop the scallop in iced water and rinse carefully to get rid of any sand. 
It was a meticulous, time-consuming and labour-intensive process that gave the first indication of why I cannot afford to eat at the restaurant - fresh, high quality ingredients carefully prepared. Any fish that don't meet the restaurant's standards are sent back and probably end doing sterling service at a Chinese restaurant in The Hague.
The scallops were then (carefully) chopped up and squeezed into short lengths of pvc pipe with diced apple and lightly blanched celery. All mixed with lemon juice and sushi vinegar.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the kitchen, three live lobsters were hauled off death row and plunged into boiling water. 
Not stock - no point. They're only in there three minutes and that leaves no time for stock to get through the armour plating and impart any extra flavor to the meat.
Edwin went into a long spiel about how plunging lobsters into boiling water was absolutely the most humane way off helping them shuffle off this mortal coil. He argued passionately against the practice of plunging a knife through their heads etc, etc, etc. 
He need not have bothered with the sermon. The assembled students looked like they collectively couldn't have cared less about the plight of the lobsters just as long as they tasted good. (For more info than you could possibly want on the subject, I suggest David Foster Wallace's excellent article Consider the Lobster:
As it turns out, the lobsters didn't scream or rattle the lid of the pan as they tried to haul themselves out and three minutes later they were there looking red and ready to eat. The claws get ripped off and cooked for a couple more minutes because their shell is thicker. 
At this stage, we began drinking some very nice champagne and Edwin kind of took over when it came to cooking the pheasants.
They were greased with oil infused with several herbs and spices then cooked in their own juices in a large pan. 
DO NOT EVER cook your pheasants in the oven unless you want a bird as dry as the Australian Outback on your plate.
Obviously lobster and scallops may sound a little expensive for these troubled times, but essentially they're both things you can go out and catch yourself with a little training and time, a ticket to northern France and a pair of chain-mail gloves. Same with pheasants, of course. The lead shot in a few of them bore testimony to the fact that they had not been farmed and electrocuted - these birds had been pecking around a forest until pretty recently. 
In my youth, my brothers, sisters and I used to occasionally drive around the woods with our dad running over pheasants that were then hung by their feet for a week or so in our outside toilet and then plucked and cooked. I don't know if our family was having trouble with the shopping bill those weekends or it was just a way of getting five kids out from under the feet of our mother for a couple of hours. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that you don't even need a Beretta over-and-under shot gun - any modern automobile will do.
Same story with desert. I had nothing to do with its preparation - who cares about coating peanuts in sugar when you can be torturing shellfish to death? It was basically just a fig, which if I'm not mistaken grow on trees. How cheap is that? The industrial ice cream maker that created the star anise ice cream looked a little less inexpensive.
So we then got to eat all this stuff and it tasted pretty damn good for a collection of freely available foodstuffs.
All in all a fine lesson in culinary economy to help you through the credit crisis.