April 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
Rugged coast, cozy pubs, lots of sunshine. It may have taken an entire day to get there, but it was most definitely worth it. Our road trip to England began at 7:30 in the morning—that’s right, 7:30—as we pulled away from the house, stopped around the corner for croissants, and hit the open road. By evening, we had arrived at our cottage near Bude in the north of Cornwall that would be home base for the next five days. Dinner was waiting in the oven, and our lovely hosts said the kids could let the chickens out of their coop in the morning and collect fresh eggs for breakfast. There was also a playhouse in the woods, a trampoline, winding country roads for nice runs, and beautiful views all around. It was the kind of place you didn’t want to tear yourself away from, but the delights of Cornwall awaited.
March 31, 2014 § 2 Comments
This weekend we celebrated Frank’s birthday. And while it was a great weekend, what made it great in part was that is was so ordinary—with one delicious exception (see below). Our days were basically spent within a fifteen-foot radius of our house, save for the kids who were constantly up and down the street (and Frank did ride his bike to fetch some Sunday papers). Instead of a day trip to another town or even a picnic in the park, both of which we considered, it was about impromptu gatherings with neighbors—ranging in age from eighteen months to eighty-two years—sidewalk chalk and bubbles, bikes and scooters, afternoon cake, coffee, and folding chairs on the sidewalk, and then some more cake (this time of the birthday sort). Did I mention it was 72 degrees and sunny?
On Saturday night Frank and I did venture out for a pretty special dinner at Comme Chez Soi, a Brussels institution with two Michelin stars that is run by the fourth generation of the same family. We got the five-course tasting menu that included some incredibly delicate seafood dishes, rack of lamb with sweet spices, couscous, green cabbage, and lardons, and a deconstructed cannelloni served in a broth made from exotic fruits. And this being Belgium, after we were “done,” it seemed someone kept passing our table and offering a small chocolate or leaving a tiny plate of something sweet.
March 12, 2014 § 3 Comments
Though we seem to be the only people in Belgium—possibly western Europe—who didn’t go skiing for the Carnaval holiday, we did manage a quick trip to the coast. It was a particularly beautiful day of warm sun and blue sky, especially given it was only early March. De Haan is a pretty little town, more low-rise and seemingly low-key than the beach town we visited last summer, Knokke (though it’s hard to say when it is technically still winter). There is just something about the beach that makes everyone happy, isn’t there?
The center of De Haan seems like it was planned by a committee of six-to-nine-year-olds. There is a big playground, a carousel, a pavilion surrounded by dirt paths for riding bikes and pedal-powered dune buggy contraptions (actually kids were zooming all over town in these), and of course the requisite purveyors of treats. Many of the houses have names, which is usually a good indicator that a place is well-loved. I can’t wait to go back and soak up more sun, fly a kite, and explore the pretty dunes on the edge of town.
February 4, 2014 § 6 Comments
Just before the holidays, the boys’ school hosted a soirée with an international theme. Everyone was asked to contribute a traditional food from their country, which would be offered for sale on the night of the party. I pondered for a moment, and thought, of course: chocolate chip cookies. We haven’t yet met another American at the school (although it is plenty international), and while chocolate chip cookies are not exactly original, I figured they would be welcome. Imagine my surprise when the table representing North America was filled with about nine platters of slightly different chocolate chip cookies.
Given the variety on all the other tables, it was pretty embarrassing. While of course there is amazing cooking to be found all over the U.S. (a big reason I miss Brooklyn!), and much of it is trumpeted as American cuisine, I realized that it is largely a style, an attitude, rather than specific dishes that speak to a national identity. A beautiful farm-to-table roast chicken with seasonal vegetables sounds great, but it’s not recognizably American. Of course, that’s part of the beauty of our country: that there are so many traditions, no single dish could possibly even hint at the whole.
So one weekend morning over pancakes, it dawned on me that this is something typically American, that no other cuisine does anything quite like it. Crêpes, blini, palačinky, and untold other variations, sure. But none of these is the same as a stack of fluffy, warm pancakes served with maple syrup and a side of bacon. It inspired me to invite our neighbors to partake of our weekend tradition. (Though they have spent time in the U.S. and certainly had pancakes before, I’m proud to say they did have an epiphany here: bacon and maple syrup!)
I’ve made a lot of pancakes in my day. We probably have them at least every other weekend. My “recipe” is very forgiving, and it has changed over time. It is loosely modeled on this one, which includes ground flaxseed and chopped walnuts. But it is also easy to change based on what’s in your cupboard at any given time. This is my current iteration. For a change from syrup, I love these with fresh lemon juice and sugar sprinkled on top.
- 2 cups flour (I generally use a mixture of whole wheat, all-purpose, and buckwheat)
- ½ cup fine cornmeal
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 ½ cups buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- butter for cooking
Whisk together dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk together buttermilk and eggs. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients and stir just until incorporated. (If too thick, add a little more milk or buttermilk.)
Heat large (preferably cast-iron) skillet and heat over medium heat, then swirl in a pat of butter. Add batter to skillet by scant 1/4 cupfuls. Cook until bubbles appear on the surface and undersides are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Flip pancakes and cook an additional 1–2 minutes. Reserve on a platter in a warm oven, and continue with the rest of the batter. Serve with warm maple syrup.
February 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
January 28, 2014 § 6 Comments
It’s called classe verte, and it goes like this: nearly all elementary school classes take a trip away—whether it be to the countryside, the coast, or the mountains—that lasts several nights (or in our case, a full school week). Yes, this starts with first grade: in other words, six-year-olds. In fact, these trips often begin in the Belgian equivalent of preschool. It is not unheard of for four-year-olds to pack their bags and get out of town. This is madness, right? I have certainly spent the past months thinking so. As Sebastian’s own trip drew closer, things got a little tense around here. While of course not participating was always an option, it is considered a week of school, and there is a lot of pressure to make sure the entire class goes.
Not much arm-twisting is generally needed, however. The whole idea is very normal here. The parents of Sebastian’s classmates did it when they were this age, as did their parents. I asked countless people their thoughts. I was mostly met with shrugging shoulders and promises that they have an amazing time. The more people I talked to, and the more I learned about what they would be doing, I started to get it. In addition to some classwork, they would be playing outside, feeding the farm animals, enjoying spectacles (and, it turns out, going on an evening scavenger hunt with flashlights, having dance parties, watching Dennis the Menace, and eating bread sprinkled with sugar for dinner). It did sound like fun.
Still, I couldn’t fathom pushing a terrified child onto a bus to do something I was only just coming to terms with myself. We told Sebastian—who kept asking if he could be sick that week—that if he really didn’t want to go, we wouldn’t force him. Then we set about bribing him with everything we could think of. Darth Vader slippers were purchased. He got a sleeping bag and long underwear that made him look like a ninja. We told him he’d get a letter from us every day. We talked it up endlessly. And ultimately, it worked. He started feeling excited himself. He told people he was going to a “castle.” He wanted to pack his bag three days before they left.
Now he’s back. He did have an amazing time. He sounds different. He seems more confident somehow. After such a hard transition to this new school and new language, maybe this is exactly what he needed—to feel independent, to cement new friendships. And I really do respect the philosophy behind it all: that kids, even young ones, are capable and curious; that not all learning happens in the classroom; that it’s just as important to learn how to bake bread and feed the goats (and Big Mama the guinea pig) as it is to study addition and proper handwriting. It wasn’t easy—we worried, we wondered—but in the end it was absolutely the right thing to do.
January 14, 2014 § 5 Comments
Hands down, one of the best things about where we live in Brussels is the proximity to the elegant Bois de la Cambre and the adjoining Fôret de Soignes, nearly 20 square miles of woodland that stretches from the Brussels capital region into both the French and Flemish regions. While we can walk to both in just a few minutes, yesterday we drove less than ten minutes to reach a different part of the forest and were rewarded with endless walking trails and sunlight streaming through grove after grove of beech trees. As we set out, everything was blanketed in thick frost but the sun was warm on our skin. A perfect day for a walk.
When heading out on my own, I tend to stick to the more manicured bois, as I fret at how easily one could get lost in the wilder fôret, but I hope to get a bit more adventurous on this front. Long ago the forest was a royal hunting ground and was even home to brown bear and wolves, but these days wildlife consists mainly of the more usual suspects: deer, many species of bats, squirrels (I’m keeping my eyes peeled for a red squirrel), and so on. Apparently wild boar have also made a comeback in the past few years. But you are much more likely to encounter multigenerational families walking all manner of dogs, runners, and septuagenarian ladies on bikes zooming down hills with the wind in their hair.