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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Gehaktballen met jus

Woensdag Gehaktdag! "Wednesday is ground meat day". It used to be the marketing slogan for the butchering trade during the fifties and sixties, and even now, on many a Wednesday you can find children standing on a little stool at the kitchen counter, helping make dinner by learning how to roll meatballs in their little grubby hands, and sneaking small bites of the seasoned raw meat when the adult is not looking.

Why Wednesday? Presumably because the butcher would butcher harvest on Monday, cut on Tuesday and process all the leftovers into ground meat on Wednesday. Whether that's entirely true or not, I don't know, but it sounds plausible.

Broodje Bal
Dutch meatballs are a couple of sizes up from the average American spaghetti meatballs. Slowly simmered in their own jus, these carneous clods are versatile, easy to make and affordable, and one of those typical dishes that are somehow associated with "gezelligheid", grandmas and wintery dishes. Gehaktballen can be served in many ways: as your main protein with one of the various stamppots, by itself on a piece of bread, broodje bal, with a good lick of mustard or ketchup, or sliced and deep-fried with onion and served with peanut sauce, the famous bereklauw... The gehaktbal will endure practically any kind of culinary treatment: it's all good.

Preferably made with half-om-half gehakt, fifty percent beef and fifty percent pork, these meatballs will also do fine with an 85/15 (eightyfive percent meat, fifteen percent fat) ground beef. Too lean a meat will not do much for their flavor, you need some fat for the simmering and the jus. Since quite a bit of water is added at the simmering stage, the meat itself will have lost some of its calories, in case you were minding your diet.

Gehaktballen met jus
1 lb of ground beef, preferably 85/15 or half beef, half pork
2 slices of white bread
1/2 cup of milk
2 shallots or one small onion
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, ground
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper, ground
2 tablespoons of mustard

2 tablespoons of flour
4 tablespoons of butter

Mince the shallots or small onion. Add the meat to a bowl, mix in the shallots, the egg, the mustard, nutmeg, the salt and pepper and knead a couple of times. Cut the crust off the bread, soak it in the milk and add it to the meat. Dispose of the rest of the milk.

When the mixture has come together, divide it in four equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, roll the meatballs throught the flour and set aside.

Heat the butter in a Dutch oven and sear the meatballs on all sides until brown. Lower the heat, place the cover on the pan and let them simmer for a good twenty minutes, then turn them over in the grease and simmer for another ten. Add 1/2 cup of water to the pan, cover and simmer for another twenty minutes. Remove the meatballs from the pan, add 1/2 cup of beef stock to the pan and stir to loosen up all the meaty bits from the bottom of the pan. Taste and see if you need to adjust salt/pepper or bind the jus a little bit with cornstarch or flour, you decide.

Meatballs made one day ahead somehow always taste better the next day. Serve one meatball per person, and add a generous spoonful of jus on their potatoes for some good old-fashioned prakking.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On the practice of prakken....

Table manners are an important reflection of upbringing and common courtesy. Both hands above the table, no leaning on your elbows, no talking and chewing at the same time, no stuffing your mouth full or taking a sip while you still have food in your mouth....for those of us that were raised in Holland, these rules for board behavior sound probably very familiar.

Not all eating etiquette, however, transposes well into other cultures. Whereas in America most foods are served to be consumed with only a fork, the Dutch use both a fork and a knife to eat: the fork firmly lodged in the left hand, the knife in the right. The fork (vork) is used to spear the food and bring it to the mouth, the knife (mes) cuts a piece of meat, vegetable or potato as needed. Open-faced sandwiches are cut into neat little squares, fruit is skillfully severed into edible pieces. It's all very polite and educated and, the Dutch, we innerly scoff a little bit at those people that still eat sandwiches with their hands, peel oranges with their fingers and scoop up rice with a fork.

Mash those potatoes well
But do not be deceived by such haute haughtiness. Because behind closed doors, when we are alone, we subject the food on our plate to a practice so abhorrent, so abominable that even the most barbarous barbaric would drop its jaw in disgust. This is the practice of prakken. If you are familiar with Dutch cuisine, or have read the articles on this blog, you know that it suggested to always have "jus", pan gravy, with the meat when you serve potatoes. Why? Because this fatty fluid is the key to prakken.

Now what the heck is prakken? Prakken is having a beautiful plate of steaming, perfect globes of crumbly boiled potatoes, over which you drizzle hot, greasy pan juice and then brutally attack with a fork, mashing the potatoes, sometimes even mixing in the vegetables, and reducing it to a soft pulpy state. Why do we do this? I have no clue. But it tastes good.

Add enough pan gravy

As young children, when we just start to eat solids, our food is often prakked for us, sometimes with sweet applesauce mixed in to mask the taste of liver, Brussels sprouts or whatever else we tend to dislike at that age, and to make it more palatable. Perhaps that's why we still prak, I don't know. But mashing your boiled potatoes, mixing it with the gravy of the meat and having the slightly sweet, savory flavor of those mashed potatoes is a whole new experience. A more grown-up, and socially acceptable prakked food would be a stamppot, of which we have many varieties. But the home-made, plate-local prak is praktically, no pun intended, illegal, forbidden and most certainly "not done". And that is what makes it so sweet........

So prak away. At home, that is. Just not when you've been invited to dinner at some new friend's home. Or if a potential new employer invites you to a lunch interview. I know you'll be tempted when you see the gravy from the meat dripping onto the plate and slowly making its way towards the potatoes, but prakken is just not done. At least not in public!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Stokvis, or stick fish, not to be confused with fish stick, is a dried piece of cod. Fresh cod is caught, cleaned and stuck on a stick and left to dry in the cold Northern wind. Several months later, you have a dried up, leathery, rock-hard piece of fish. The main reason to dry fish is, ofcourse, to preserve it, often up to a year. In order to make the fish palatable again, it needs to be soaked for at least 24 hours in water to soften the tissue, refreshing the water every six to 8 hours. 

Who in the world would want to eat that? I'm glad you asked. Stokvis is quite popular in a variety of cultures: northern countries such as Norway and Sweden, southern regions like Portugal and Spain, and ofcourse Holland, or the Netherlands are all countries that regularly integrate the delicate flavor of this dried-up finny food into their daily meals.

Stokvis is hard to find in the United States but the salted bacalao, known in Dutch as klipvis, available in the seafood department of larger grocery stores, will do just fine for this purpose: the only difference between one and the other is that bacalao has been salted extensively and the skin, tail and bones have been already removed. Soaking and refreshing the water becomes even more important in this case. 

Up until the Second World War, stokvis was very popular in Holland. It was very affordable and the high amount of protein provided a very nutritious meal. The lengthy prepare time and the characteristic smell made it eventually an unpopular dish. Nowadays, it is one of the more expensive foods to consume, but it has never reached its pre-war popularity.

Stokvis is traditionally served on New Year's Day in various provinces, like Friesland and Zeeland. Steamed white rice, boiled potatoes, fried onions, a lick of mustard and warm creamy buttersauce are side dishes to the fish. It doesn't sound like much, and the color combination is terrible (white, yellow, brown, yellow and beige....not appetizing!) but once you mix the buttersauce in with the rice, mashing the potatoes and mixing in the onions, it all of a sudden becomes a very honest, almost heartwarming meal and most certainly worth the effort.

1 case of cod
Plenty of water
1 cup of white rice
4 potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 onion, peeled and sliced
1 stick of butter
1 tablespoon of cornstarch
White pepper to taste

Soak the cod in cold water for 24 hours, refreshing the water every eight hours or according to instructions on the box. The fish doesn't take long to cook once it's soaked so time it accordingly. Both rice and potatoes usually take about twenty minutes, that's enough for the fish to be ready.

Boil rice per instructions (usually one cup of rice on two cups of water, bring to a boil, cover, simmer for twenty minutes) as well as the potatoes (add enough water to a pan to cover, add a teaspoon of salt, bring to a boil, cover and medium boil for twenty minutes or until done).

Fry the onion slices in one tablespoon of butter until golden. Set aside. Melt the rest of the butter in the pan but do not brown. When it's warm, add half a cup of water, bring back up to temperature. Add the cornstarch to a little bit of water, mix and stir into the warm sauce. Stir until it thickens and makes a nice creamy sauce.

When all is done, place a  piece of fish on a plate and surround it with rice and potatoes. Pour the warm buttersauce over the rice and potatoes, add some fried onions on top and sprinkle some white pepper to taste. Add some mustard if you wish and enjoy your meal!