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Monday, March 11, 2019

Brussels in the Budding Springtime

Brussels in the Budding Springtime

This was only an overnight visit with friends, but fabulous enough to make me yearn to go back.

Getting there:  German autobahns are not always what you’d expect. The Germans keep their roads in near perfect shape, but that means constant roadwork, which often adds time to a trip. “You can go as fast as you want,” is the common misconception.  Yes and no, is the reality.  On our way to Brussels, we’d go fast for a spell, then have our speed gradually stepped down from “Blur the Countryside Lamborghini Style” to 60 mph, to 50 mph, to 35 mph, and sometimes to 25 mph.  And if there’s an accident, may mercy guide you and I hope you packed a lunch.

Trucks are restricted to 60 mph, but on our way, that didn’t stop two eighteen wheelers from flipping to their sides and straddling a few lanes.  Police and fire trucks held a convention, fortunately on the opposing lanes. 

Our trip to Brussels lengthened from three and a half hours to four and a half.  We arrived in the city to face Friday’s rush hour traffic, hampered by unruly bicycle lanes and plagued by an impossible number of non-coordinated traffic lights.  It’s not that Brussels’ drivers are bad drivers, but that the roads and oddly timed traffic signals promote a suicidal determination to get home or die trying. Capturing the right of way on city thoroughfares requires nerves of steel and obedience to one rule:  Don’t make eye contact.

Tired, but satisfied, we finished the journey.  Fortunately, the friends we were visiting have spots in a parking garage, a gift so rare as to bring tears of joy, kisses on both cheeks, and promises to the almighty to never sin again.

Those are the inconveniences. And now for the wonders of a city I refer to as the Small Paris.  The streets are perfect for walking and walk we did.  As you may know, Brussels is famous for two things:  Beer and Chocolate.  Every other store offers one or the other.  And no matter which beer or chocolate you choose, rest assured it will be a bit pricy and unbelievably delicious.

Cobblestone streets are common in the shopping and drinking and chocolate areas of the city. But, that doesn’t prevent the curvaceous, lavishly attired Belgian ladies from strutting the cobblestones in high heels.  This must take practice, but no more than riding a unicycle, while juggling silk scarves.  Men, too are rather well dressed, but lack the unicycle skills.

On to the outdoor antiques market, with stall after tented stall of every rarity imaginable.   Full sets of silver, the finest crystal goblets, luxurious fur coats, ornate walking sticks, and art of every description. Oddly enough, my companion found three sets of clip earrings at a price much lower than she would pay in a departments store, and also more beautiful, and at no extra charge, she can wear them remembering the romance of having earrings from an antiques market in Brussels. 

We visited a very special chocolate store in Les Galaries Royales Saint-Hubert. This mall rivals London’s Burlington Arcadein elegance and price, although Burlington ArcadepredatesLes Galaries Royalese Saint-Hubert, 1819 vs 1846.

 Mary’s Chocolatesis somewhere in the middle of this justly famous, enclosed shopping street. Les Galariesis home to every pricy brand, including half a dozen chocolate stores, some wonderful cafes, antique stores of the first order, bookstores, furniture stores offering wonderful designs, glove stores, jewelry stores, and so much more.

But, even in this royally priced area, Mary’s Chocolatesstands out. Prices are listed in ounces of gold……only kidding, but I walked out with a small bag full of chocolate and with my Visa Card melting in my hand, not in my mouth.  This is chocolate to savor and remember and drop to your knees to thank the heavenly father for.  The original Mary opened her store almost exactly one hundred years ago, in 1919.

The shop ladies are extraordinarily helpful and speak every language in Europe and the Far East. They also pass out samples that allowed us to taste almost everything in the small, brightly lit shop.

The range of confections is boundless and runs from the familiar truffles and filled chocolates, to real egg shells filled with soft chocolate, tall and slender confectionary roses.  The rose flavored white chocolate truffles are heavenly.  Mary’s confections are not just different, but sensationally delicious. Yes, we sampled the candies and drank large paper cups of rich hot chocolate.  We left the shop poorer, but richer (pun intended) for the experience, and with a fierce determination to return.

Ok, we’d finished with chocolates, so it was time to trot across the road from Les Galaries, for a visit to my favorite Brussels beer hall, La Mort Subite, the name meaning sudden death, is named after a card game.  I’ve written extensively about La Mort Subite, so I will give you a link and right now you’ll have to settle for newly taken photos.

Your immediate question may well be:  What about the food???  You damn well better mention the food!!!!

Ok, I will, but sadly, I did not bring my camera to table.  The bistro where we ate was in the old city, on a cobblestone walking street and carries a succinct name:  C’est Bon C’est Belge!  (It’s Good, It’s Belgian), featuring Belgian specialties, such as chicken in a rich cream sauce, and beef stew cooked in dark beer. 

We’re led to a table, then order beers and talk awhile.  There is no rush.  We’re brought a tin tub of dark, grainy bread and a deliciously creamy butter.

The delicious aroma gets to the table before the main course.  My stewed beef is in a sauce as dark as chocolate, but with a perfect melding of herbs and beer and beef.  Magnifique!

Meal over and it’s back to the streets for a long walk home.  Orange streetlights guide our way past massive stone building, a palace and the palace garden.  A pleasant ending to a most pleasant evening.

I know I used the description “cobblestone “ a lot, but once you’ve seen the old part of the city, you’ll know why.  In most older cities I’ve visited there have been a couple of stone streets, but only enough to offer a polite bow to the past.  Not so in Brussels!   

And if you want to blend, have your clothes tailored and dress well!  I told you, it’s a small Paris.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Roasted Root Vegetables with Chickpeas

Yes, it’s March, but still chilly.  I need something warming on these evenings when a burger or a pizza just isn’t going to do the job.  Besides, I like to eat healthy and there’s only one way to do it…..Just do it!  No if, ands, or burgers and fries.  Ok, you know the routine, but are you going to do it? I’ve got a recipe that will make you lick your lips and swear to never eat fast food again, except for beer, of course.  After all, perfection is the enemy of enjoyment.  That’s why we marry.

Most everyone doesn’t mind eating healthy if healthy tastes good.

Next puny bellyache:  I don’t have the time to cook every night! 

Ans: Being a true and understanding friend, I have a solution for you.  This is a dish you can cook on a weekend and eat all week long.

Next complaint:  I’m not a cook.  

Ans:  Well, uh, let’s see….can you peel and chop vegetables, stick ‘em in the oven for a while and pull ‘em back out?

And a final bitch:  I don’t like any vegetables, but potatoes. 

Ans: Ok, I admit, ya got me there.  Good luck.

Roasted Root Vegetables with Chickpeas
Heat the oven to 400ºF, if your oven has a fan, if not, heat the oven to 420ºF.

2 large parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped in 1 inch chunks
1 bunch of baby carrots, washed, green leaves chopped off and discarded (I buy the little bags, with no leaves)
2 beet roots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 small red onion, peeled, cut in half and thinly sliced
2 heaping tablespoons smoked paprika and ground cumin
1 tablespoon each cinnamon and turmeric
2 tablespoons (or a bit more) seasoned rice vinegar
Several generous splashes of olive oil
A generous handful each of fresh cilantro and mint, chopped (remove the stems on the mint and discard)
A handful of dried apricots, cut in half
A small bag of slivered almonds, toasted (see instructions below)

Put the chopped vegetables (except the beets and chickpeas) in a LARGE bowl, add olive oil and spices. (save some of both for the beets). Mix well.

Spread the vegetables on two baking pans.

Mix the beets in a separate bowl to keep everything from turning red, then add them to the other vegetables.

Put the slices of red onions in another bowl and splash in some seasoned rice vinegar.  Mix well and let them marinate.

Put both baking sheets in the oven and set your timer for 25 minutes.

While the vegetables are roasting, toast the slivered almonds.  Put a bit of oil in a pan, toss in the almonds and stir as necessary to get an even toasting.  Watch them closely.  Almonds can go from nearly ready to burned in seconds.

Check the vegetables, add more seasoning if desired, and toss in the chick peas.  Continue cooking until all vegetables are cooked through.

When the vegetables are cooked, let them cool a bit, then put them in a large bowl and mix in the chopped herbs and dried apricots.  Add the marinated onions and mix again.  Sprinkle the almonds on top.

As the French say: Voila! As Americans say: Looking pretty damn good. Or, in British English:  I say, it seems a bit of all right!

And as I say, dig in! You not going to miss that pizza!

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Morning Walk

Photo courtesy of Jan Stroud

I go to the same German bakery every morning, eager to sit and sip and munch.  I chat with those I know and I know quite a few.  All the ladies behind the counter and the regulars who flow past.  We speak.  Shake hands.  Trade smiles. Comment on the weather.  I ask how they’re feeling and if I know their children, I ask about them.

Then I walk home.  Some days it’s a pleasure, but not always.  The bluster of winter, or the hot days of August take their toll on pleasure. But, no matter the morning, I like my stroll private and quiet.  Some like a musical accompaniment, ears with plugs, thoughts blocked out.  I’m not one of those.

Morning Walk

Nostrils moist like morning dew,
The cheeks so rosy, scarf askew,
Lips that quiver when I speak
Through tall forest on I trek.

Past still lakes, reflecting all 
In glassy water, trees so tall
They seem so still and quiet too
Painted on the water’s view.

Up and down the hills alone
Lost in thought, I wander on
Until I’m startled by the sound
Of paws that race on rocky ground.

Come here, calls the man to dog
We trade smiles and then they’re gone.
Lost are all the rhymes I made
Gone the prose my mind displayed.

But, no matter, not forlorn
I’ve watched a new day being born.
I’m content, the sun so bright
Uncovered from the dark of night.

Photo courtesy of Jan Stroud

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Beneath A Sodden Sky

A sodden sky so smudged with soot,
The wind that streaks my face with tears,
A ground that crackles under foot,
The dreary months turn into years.

And although the snow is gone,
Frost coats limbs and rotting leaves,
The breath of winter lingers on
And my sunny soul bereaves.

Oh how I long for April’s blast
Of sun filled skies and flowers strewn
And dream the trill that love songs cast
By birds that flutter ‘neath the moon.

But, fire crackles in the hearth, 
While songbirds shiver in the night.
It’s winter’s dreary lack of mirth
Oh how I long for spring’s rebirth.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Red Oxen, Zum Roten Ochsen

The Red Oxen, Zum Roten Ochsen

This was my first visit to The Red Ox (Rote Ochse) in the ancient city of Heidelberg, in the southwest of Germany, straddling the river Necker. Ancient?  The word barely covers it.

Prehistory:  Between 600,00 and 200,000 years ago, The Heidelberg Man died nearby. His body was discovered in 1907.

Romans?  Of course, until 260 AD, when Germanic tribes took over.
Celts?  Yep
Byzantine Empire?  Check.

Old news, right?  Can’t connect those with anything?  Let’s step forward a few years.  Invaders and conquers by the numbers.  Thirty Years War.  France took over.  The Swedes took over.  Back and forth for centuries.  Visit the famous Heidelberg Castle and see how Louis XIV’s army used gunpowder to make one of the massive turrets come crashing down.

Enough about war.  The city has a population of around 160,000, with a quarter of them students.  The University of Heidelberg was founded in 1386, making it the 20tholdest university in Europe.  (First is the University of Bologna, Italy, 1088; second is Oxford, England, 1096.)

That brings us to The Red Oxen, Zum Roten Ochsen, over 300 years old and long known as a student drinking and driving dining hangout. For the last 175 years it’s been owned by the Spengel family.  Still is.

A few hundred years of student drinking has left it’s marks and blemishes.  But, that only adds to the flavor of this fine old restaurant.  Over 400 photos cover the walls and every wooden table is a mosaic of carved initials.  The walls hold initials, too.  On shelves above sit rows of drinking mugs.

All the table tops are like this.  Seating is bench style, so you'll likely be seated with random strangers.

As you can imagine, famous footstep have trod the wooden floors and famous hands have lifted a flagon or two, from poets and painters, to political figures and well known scientists, along with Helmut Kohl, a former Chancellor of Germany and Mark Twain. In Twain’s case, I’m told he drank at the Red Ox and later wrote about his German adventures.

And what is true about Heidelberg is true wherever you go on this side of the Atlantic.  Something in Europe always fascinates, and nothing fascinates me more than the deep and endless wells of history that make the present seldom what it seems.  You see a church and catch a date, but it’s only a date, without the benefit of knowing how people lived and what they celebrated and what they suffered.  There is no ‘simply now’ in Europe.  The faces of the old folks share even more modern history.  Can you peer through the wrinkled skin, the thinning hair, now gray and disheveled? Do you bother to ask, or perhaps you fear the old don’t speak your language.  And what about the history of people and places who came before them? It’s been said many times, when an old person dies, a bit of history dies with them.

We’re left with only books that describe the stone and bricks we see, mere skeletons of the past. Even within the very old faces, if we’re lucky we can barely peel back one layer. The history we think we know is only a thin coat of scratched and peeling paint.

Still, we try to know. The other night, our foray into the sprawling old city along the river, was only a soft step into the historic dust trod by thousands of students and professors and invaders.

But by now, most of you, and also the most clever will plead:  Forget all that dusty history stuff and tell us about the damn food!

Executive summary: Delicious, both food and drink.  

Read on only if you have time.  My companion ordered a plate of smoked salmon, smoked trout and pickled herring, with a stylishly mixed salad and a bowl of country style potatoes, which the Germans call Brotkartoffeln, or bread potatoes. 

I had pork steaks in a rich, dark beer gravy and a side of crispy French fries.  I’ve found the Germans use beer in their cooking as often as the French use wine.  Both give such a full, rich flavor to any dish.

She drank a half liter of alcohol free beer and I had a glass of half-dry white wine.  Yes, white wine.  I’ve long since thrown off the dictates of those who know what they’re talking about and choose to wallow in the ignorance of my own preferences and taste buds. 

A word about German alcohol free beer:  Delicious, with robust flavor, but with slightly sweeter notes.

And as I wrote earlier, all was rich and delicious, but there’s more.

If you’ve been to Germany and seen how Germans put away enormous quantities, you know we must have been sated.   Well, yes, but….still room for dessert.  A lavish platter of house made ice creams, chocolate mousse, and a slice of apple strudel, with a dollop of the richest whipped cream.  Coffee?  Hell yes. Two cups of double espresso, please.

Around us, conversation buzzed and the service of the matronly staff was impeccable.  Our server didn’t just speak tolerable English (as opposed to my intolerable German), she spoke perfect English.

Speaking of English, and by that I mean the Queen’s English, I’d say we had a jolly evening, and a wonderful repast in a fine old restaurant, which sits on a narrow cobblestone street.  Yes, we fully enjoyed the taste and aroma and surroundings of historic Heidelberg.  Prost!