A conversation with a friend the other day became a fond memory upsurge of foods that I miss from the Netherlands and other old-world places. Not only the Dutch "unidentified fried object" (bamischijf, frikandel, kroket, en dergelijks), but also lovely dinners at the Maison Du Cygne in Brussels, the Tour in Paris, and far too many small eateries to mention.
What I also remember was the last time I went to Paris with my father.
It was, of course, a hunt for edible substances, because much of what was offered in the Netherlands in that day was barely three steps above English food. Excepting veal in aspic, in Limburg province. With cunning little rosettes of carrot scattered on top of the setting meat, then the whole encased in another layer of gel.
Paris, even for Americans, offered a marvelous array of good things to stick in your mouth. Not only the fabulous selection of small dishes at that place run by the crazy Russian, but also La Cuisine d'Afrique du Nord, gastronomie de Sénégal, numerous bistrots et brasseries serving the regional specialities, and even fine Italian tratorie and osterie, as well as Greek food at sundry dives.
The less said about that ghastly Achaean dump in Mont Martre, the better.
Rice flavoured with what must have been horrid French imitation tomato Ketchup, alongside rubbery octopudes in their own ink. And completely inedible black olives that may have started life as canned peaches.
Likely in a prior decade. Borderline repulsive.
And agonizingly wretched retsina.
A feast for the adjectively enthusiastic person.
Not even the drunkard rolling downhill afterwards could get my mind off that horrid Hellenic hash, or persuade the turbulent torrents in my splagchnos to subside. I was utterly convinced that the Greeks were the worst cooks in Christendom. As I still largely remain, despite excessive evidence to the contrary (much better Greek food, and far worse cooks from elsewhere).
Its a mental thing. I still cannot shake the memory of that miserable pulpo en su tinta from my mind. And I haven't drunk retsina since. I refuse.
Life is too short to drink lousy Attic plonk.
One the other hand, I have an indelible fondness for that estiatorio on Polk Street, where I often ate spanakopita late at night, after closing-up at the Indian place.
Mostly, however, I remember eating fabulously well in Paris for that week.
Then upon returning to Valkenswaard looking up almost everything in the Larousse Gastronomique , as well as browsing through all the yummy things that we could have had but didn't.
Next time, maybe.
A lifetime of eating has taught me to prepare foods that I like, or that can seldom be found in this neck of the woods. It's only common sense; you must examine how the good things are made, so that you can think about them intelligently, and discover fun relatives and variants.
I rarely cook these days. Most of my favourites are better done in doses for two or more people. Good food requires good company.
But one of the dishes which I haven't had in ages keeps well in the refrigerator, and I might actually do it sometime soon.
Beef, small onions, mushrooms, and carrot, simmered in wine and stock.
More meat than onion, more onion than mushroom.
Significantly more mushroom than carrot.
The carrot is for colour, mostly.
Drizzle a little olive oil into a large heavy stewpot, and render the grease from a bit of chopped backfat or thickcut bacon. Remove this before it browns and set it aside. Add chunks of beef to the pot and gild these nicely, then remove and set aside also.
Use the grease left in the pot to sauté sliced carrot and onion to provide a fragrant base, pour off the excess grease, and re-add the beef and bacon, plus salt, pepper, and a dusting of flour.
Agitate and stir the ingredients over medium heat, making sure that they are distributed and coated evenly. Take care not to burn the flour. Add a little tomato paste, and inundate the meat with equal measures red wine and good meat stock. Add one or two bay leaves and garlic cloves. Raise barely to boiling, then turn heat low, place a pad between the burner and the pot, and simmer for a few hours.
An hour or so before you intend to serve the dish, sauté small onions in a little oil till golden all over. Add some of the liquid from the stew pot and a bay leaf, and reduce down till very nearly dry. Reserve.
In a separate pan sauté thick-sliced mushrooms till barely done, reserve.
When the meat has become suitably tender, dump the small onions and thick-sliced mushrooms on top. If the stew is too moist at this stage, ladle most of the sauce into another pan and reduce this to a velvety consistence and re-add it to the stew pot.
Leave it simmering a few more minutes, then sprinkle it generously with freshly chopped parsley, and bring it to the dinner table.
Serve with either fries or noodles, and some crusty bread.
If you really want balance, a salad also.
But I often omit that.
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