Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Veggie Restaurant Review: Avalon in Gent, Belgium

Gent is a lovely city in Belgium about 90 minutes drive from our home. Aside from the fabulous churches, museums, and eye-candy architecture lining the river in the old city center, a castle from the middle ages beckons. We lucked out as a antique bike fair was happening the day we visited.
Dina's third miracle nap also happened, unbelievably just as we were about to visit the Gent Altarpiece: The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. For an hour both Mike and I listened to the audio guide, affording myself a museum luxury not known since Dina was born.

In the Lonely Planet Belgium guide they list three vegetarian restaurants, which is quite a few more than normally listed in a city in Europe. We chose Avalon, situated near the castle.
 The reflection in the restaurant window is of Gravensteen castle, full of torture devices and armor, as at one time it housed a prison.

Avalon has a darling interior, but I recommend strolling right on through to the back garden. Gorgeous wisteria ambles up the side of the building and both sun and shaded tables abound.
We chose a shady spot and I ordered the miso soup.
 Interestingly it contained mushrooms, not something I am used to in miso, but contributing a lovely complexity. Our entrees each had six(!) different side dishes. Since I inhaled that soup, it disappointed me that I was too full to finish my Vegetable pie, or Groetentaart.
 The creamy potato-looking side at 6:00 on my plate is actually rutabaga with the most amazing dressing on it. I begged to know what was in it and the waitress told me it was a tartar sauce with rosemary and avocado. We both agreed it was brilliant. Mike got a tempeh Rueben sandwich, and the same side dishes as me.
The tempeh Rueben sandwich, pictured above, and the tempeh close-up.

The Avalon menu in English on the left and Dutch on the right.
We would definitely go back to Avalon, however the other two vegetarian restaurants await, and with Avalon definitely living up to the Lonely Planet recommendation, I'd be psyched to try the others, too.
The only improvement I'd recommend to Avalon was a rather entertaining translation issue in the drink section of the menu:
"We have a big assortment of teas and infusions. You can pick your bag of tea out of the boxes near the toilet."
Advice for all restaurants: no matter how tempting, never write the word, "toilet" on a menu.
Our seat in the shade pictured above. I also enjoyed that the napkins and menus were fun fluorescent shades.

We also found a Starbucks in Gent, however the line was almost out the door, and we were in a bit of a hurry to take full advantage of stroller-sleeping Dina.
 Starbucks worked their magic anyway, however, with free samples of their strawberry frappuccino along the side of the building, much to my delight.
I wanted to hug these guys.
Gent (or Ghent in Dutch). Gorgeous, timeless, entertaining, and full of great vegetarian food. It was so appropriate that along the river walk I spotted these two flags, waving in the summer breeze:
My home and where I'm presently calling 'home'.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Vegetarian Restaurant Review- de Waaghals (Amsterdam)

Over the past couple of weeks some exciting things have been happening. I'll fill you in later this week, I promise! In the meantime,  I have two restaurant reviews, both about 1.5 hours from our home. The first was in Amsterdam a few weeks ago.

For the first time, I went alone with Dina on the 1 hour and 20 minute train ride to Amsterdam. I wasn't sure if her boisterous 3-year-old activities would annoy the other passengers. 
I needn't have worried.

The purpose of our trip was to see our dear friends from Australia (they used to live in Rochester) and meet them for a quick museum trip and dinner. Dina has had three 'miracle' naps in her life. The first was at Musee D'Orsay in Paris when she was 9 months old.  Those 40 minutes, drinking in the impressionists paintings, catching knowing glances from older ladies at the lovely sleeping beauty in my stroller, will forever be etched in my memory. Her second 'miracle' nap happened this day, in Amsterdam, at the van Gogh museum. Chatting about the artists life, work, and familiarity (now that we've lived here for more than 3 years his work seems to be of familiar places), with friends who I hadn't seen since before we moved, was delightful. From there, we headed to Vegetarisch Restaurant de Waaghals. It is located on Frans Haisstraat 29 in Amsterdam.
My husband has been using an app on his phone to decide where to eat in big cities we've visited recently. The app has user generated reviews. This particular place had some good reviews, and since we try to eat vegetarian as much as we can (and our friends were up for it) we checked it out, in spite of one negative review where a customer was bitten by the resident cat. Hilariously, when we sat down, a cat came over to investigate (and I had already warned Dina not to touch any cats) and the owner told us that it was best to leave the cat alone, which we did. What I liked about this place was the unique dinner options.
The spinach quiche(green egg-shaped dish above) and polenta topped with herbed butter were excellent. I also enjoyed the mushrooms and the salad (olives are always a big hit, especially with Dina) and felt fortunate that they accommodated my request for a child meal that wasn't so typical (Dina wanted fries and plain fried tofu, and they did it).
 Dina ate every last black olive on my plate, my husbands, and some from our friend's, too.
The inside of the restaurant was sparsely decorated, with strange light fixtures, but the courtyard in the back let in light and we were happy to sit near it. I'm so grateful we got to see our friends, and enjoy a wonderful vegetarian meal as well.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Best Ever Chocolate Chip Cookies

 A perfect chocolate chip cookie is irresistible to me. My Uncle Richard used to receive a couple of dozen from my mom every year at Christmas time. He would eat one right after another, until they were gone, and then lament that his belly ached. But, I understand completely. The slightly crisp exterior, soft and chewy interior, bits of chocolate of just the right size and shape... perfection.

Nestle Toll House Morsels has a recipe on their bag that I've used (substituting crisco for the butter) for many years. My grandmother was the first to make them, and then my mom, and now me. While I love this version, I've been experimenting a bit to bring some butter back into this cookie. Crisco, while perfect for some things, has no flavor. Butter, which makes cookies spread more in the oven making them thinner and therefore crunchy, has lots of flavor but (in this case) suboptimal properties. My Dutch friends might beg to differ- I gave some cookies to Marieke and she explained that cookies that are soft and chewy are actually considered 'gone bad' here, because they are stale from exposure to air. Packaged cookies are always crisp, so if they are soft, they've been left out in the Dutch humidity. To me, a crisp cookie means a packaged cookie, not homemade, and so less-good. I guess that's why I never got too interested in biscotti, because it is so crisp, even when fresh out of the oven.

I love the simple, natural ingredients in Nestle's Toll House morsels. The flavor of these chocolate chips brings me back to my childhood, at Christmas time. Other chocolate chips work just as well, and may even seem to have a deeper, darker chocolate flavor (which I appreciate!), however Nestle's evokes the memories for me, and so I bring back several bags when I travel to the US.

If you use chopped chocolate instead of (tempered) chips, keep in mind that the chocolate will melt on its edges a bit, for a more gooey experience (also delightful).

Best Ever Chocolate Chip Cookies
77 g butter @ room temperature (1/3 cup)
120 g crisco- vegetable shortening (2/3 cup)
157 g granulated sugar (Fijn Crystal suiker) (3/4 cup)
187 g packed brown sugar (light bastard suiker) (3/4 cup)
2 eggs
2 tsp milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
270 g all-purpose flour/ zeuwse bloem(2 and 1/4 cups but please use a scale for the flour)
250 g chocolate chips (9 oz)

Pre-heat conventional oven to 375 degrees F (180 degrees C)
Cream the butter and shortening until light and fluffy. Add the granulated sugar and brown sugar and beat until well blended. One at a time, add the eggs, scraping down the bowl after each addition. Add the milk and vanilla and mix just until combined. In a separate bowl, sift the salt, baking powder, baking soda and flour. Add flour mixture to butter/sugar mix a bit at a time, mixing just until combined each time, and scraping the bowl often. Once flour is almost completely incorporated, add the chocolate chips, mix just until distributed. Drop by rounded spoon onto cookie sheets (I use the two spoon method, scoop with one and push the dough out of the spoon with another spoon) and bake for 8 to 10 minutes. If you like your cookies very soft, take them out just before you think they are done. If you like a bit of crisp on the outside, leave them until they just begin to brown. Rotate your cookie sheet half-way through baking if your oven is uneven (most are).
Portioning cookie dough is always a challenge. Getting the cookies all about the same size can be tricky. The method I use harks back to my childhood. In order to split the last piece of cake or cookie, my friend and I would use the slice and choose method. One person would be in charge of slicing the cookie in half, and the other person would select which half she wanted.  The slicer has a strong incentive to make a perfect 50/50 cut, so it doesn't matter which half the chooser selects.  Needless to say, I always wanted to be the chooser. But what does this have to do with cookie portioning? Simply put: pretend you are the slicer with each ball of dough. Consider that after they are cooked, the cookie you get to eat will be the smallest one on the tray, or the one with the fewest chocolate chips. You can bet I make them all the same!!

If you are excited about keeping your cookies soft and fresh you can put small pieces of bread in the tin with the cookies. Don't allow the bread to touch the cookies directly, but rather put a piece of foil or parchment paper (baking paper) in between. Cover tightly and the cookies will stay softer than without bread. The rectangular tin above has bits of bread on the edges, on top of folded-over foil. We did taste tests and Mike preferred the ones without the bread keeping them extra soft (his comment was they did not taste any fresher, and he likes a bit of crunch on the outside), but I liked both versions.