Ode to the Perfect Fry

Ciao Readers!  And HAPPY FRIDAY!

Today I wax poetic about the most humble of foods, but one that if done correctly can be elevated to soaring heights of yumminess….the simple fry (or frites).  Probably a remnant of my 1.5 years working at McDonalds as a teenager, I used to think fries were junk food, never really thought much about them, and definitely was too snobby to eat them. Oh, how misguided was I!?!?!

If done correctly (in the European fashion – sorry, yes, they really do kick our butts in the fry department), fries are hot and soft and fluffy in the inside and brown and crisp (never greasy) and slightly salty on the outside. (And by the way, it is most likely that the Belgians, not the French, invented the fry, though Thomas Jefferson and WWI soldiers discovered them in France).  The key is to 1) soak them in water for a few hours before frying (then dry), 2) fry them twice (once on lower heat to cook through, the second time on higher heat to crisp up), and most importantly 3) be patient! – a proper fry is worth waiting a few minutes for it to take its last hot bath in oil (for the love of the gourmet gods, NO heat lamps!).  If you really want to gild the lily, serve with a euro-style mayonnaise sauce and use duck fat or ox fat or some other extraordinarily unhealthy but delectable type of animal fat for the frying (yes, this is coming from a person who was a vegetarian until age 31 – what can I say, I saw the light).  (If you ever happen to be in the area, Duckfat in Portland, Maine makes the perfect duckfat fry.)

Since we’ve been back from our trip Steve has tried to make fries twice – both times successfully, the last time, perfectly!   The pictures in order: Belgium frites in Brugge, French fries in France, frites in Amsterdam, jalapeño fries I MacGyvered in Italy, and last but not least, the fries Steve made last week (insert drool here):

Eating and Art in Amsterdam

Ciao Readers!

Today we go back to one of my favorite topics – the art of Van Gogh, with some yummy food thrown in for good measure. Despite catching colds and being rained on for several days, we ate well and overloaded on art while in Amsterdam. Being from land-locked, non-cosmopolitan New Mexico, any opportunity to eat interesting foods (and any from the sea) is a welcome opportunity. And any chance to see great works of art, another score. Instead of going on about everything we saw and did, I wanted to focus on two highlights – our “Rijsttafel” (rice table) dinner and the Munch/Van Gogh comparative exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum.

Rijsttafel – Since Indonesia was a Dutch colony for about 300 years, it’s no surprise that the Dutch gained an affinity for Indonesian food.  However, while the “rice table” is made up of a grand sampling of Indonesian dishes, this way of presenting them is uniquely Dutch.  It was created as a way for Dutch folks to sample dishes from islands all around Indonesia at the same time. And lucky for us! I lost track of how many dishes came out (you can count for yourself, below), but they were each unique and yummy (or at least interesting) in their own way. Some dishes reminded us more of Thai food (chicken in peanut sauce), while others had more of an Indian flare (curried goat).  They all had some level of heat (an added bonus for us chile-loving New Mexicans) and next to the meal in Rouen, it was the second-grandest feast of our trip – Yum!!!

Munch/Van Gogh Exhibit –  Man, I really have a hard time wrapping my brain around how I went from being someone without a passport to someone who has been to the Van Gogh Museum 4 times in the past 8 years!!!  Since I’ve gone on about Van Gogh in several posts, I’ll stick to the unique exhibit we just happened to catch during its final week in Amsterdam –  “Munch: Van Gogh.”  The exhibit focussed on the parallels between the two artists, who, while painting about the same time and some of the same subject matter, never actually met. One really cool thing was there was a TON of paintings on loan from the Munch Museum in Oslo, including one of the iconic “The Scream“-s (though since it’s done in crayon, I guess it’s not technically a “painting”).  The other cool things was, in addition to the hundreds of Van Gogh’s usually at the museum, they had many more on loan from around the world (including one from the Kröller-Müller Museum we’d been to the day before).  It was such an overload of amazing art that they actually had Stendhal syndrome boxes you could close yourself in to calm down!  All in all, between the Kröller-Müller Museum, the usual Van Gogh’s on exhibit and the on-loan Van Gogh’s, I think we saw almost 300 Van Gogh’s on this trip!!!

Pictures of Amsterdam, the rice table, a Munch/Van Gogh self portrait comparison (the one picture Steve was able to take before being reprimanded – unlike the Kröller-Müller, no photos allowed), and some seafood thrown in for good measure….enjoy:

 

A: A lovely local lager, the world’s best chocolate, a ginormous yummy bratwurst, 8 oz. of water; Q: What does 5 bucks buy you in Brugge, Belgium? (or “A glimpse into the grumpier side of travel”)

Ciao Readers!  And Happy Birthday week to me (and Brian, and Joseph)!

Lest you think that my travel tales suffer from rose-colored-glasses syndrome, today’s post will only be partly about fun and deliciousness, with some grumpiness thrown in for good measure.  While it’s really hard to have a bad time traveling the world (seriously, you’re on vacation, you’re seeing famous sites, you’re eating yummy food – how bad can it be, even with the travel delays and noisy hotel rooms?!?), once in a while your mojo just gets off.

Brugge, Belgium has been (and still is) one of both Steve and my favorite places.  It’s got that great old world charm, it’s small and friendly and walkable, it’s quirky and quaint, and it has the BEST chocolate on the face of the planet.  We first came here in 2008 during our grand tour; at that time the movie “In Bruges” had just come out and Brugge really hadn’t been discovered by tourists yet.  Since then I think Brugge has started suffering from what I call “Rick Steves Syndrome.”  (For those of you unfamiliar, Rick Steves is a great PBS travel host, and we honestly owe a great deal of our travel skills to his guidance, though his following can be somewhat cult-like).  We first discovered this syndrome in the Cinque Terre in Italy – what used to be a sleepy gem on the sea that only locals knew about is now a place teaming with tourist, replete with “Rick Steves Recommends” signs hanging in restaurant windows.  Brugge, especially the prices in its restaurants, seems to be similarly suffering from its “outing” by Mr. Steves.

Syndromes aside, we did have a fabulous time here – we stayed in an apartment in a quirky historical tower, strolled (and ate at) the fun Christmas market, enjoyed a great New Year’s eve (future post), toured the windmills when everything was closed on New Year’s Day, hung out at a local pub, ate amazing fries (again – see Steve eat the same fries in 2008, below), and indulged in what we consider to be the world’s best chocolates (from Dumon Chocolatier).  We also hit a little bump in the road, in the form of an eight once bottle of water costing 4.50 euro (5 bucks).

Usually when we travel we mostly leave our food choices to serendipity, but when there are special things we want to eat, I do a little research and maybe even make a reservation (like at the place in Rouen). Since mussels is on my “must do” list in Brugge, I researched some places to enjoy them.  I found De Vier Winden, and even knowing it was located in the main tourist square, Frommer’s assured me it was “INEXPENSIVE” and has “amazingly cheap meals considering its location” (seriously Frommers, you have way too much money and too little perspective if you think this place was cheap).  Now, to be fair to this restaurant, despite being a touristy place, the food is actually quite good. Couple that with a waiter who speaks 7 languages (I tried out French and Italian with him) and a great view of the medieval buildings from the windows, and you have the makings of a lovely time. Until you try to order tap water (or more specifically, in very polite French, “l’eau de robinet”).

Now, you must understand that all over Europe people order and get tap water – it is a common occurrence (not just one of those things only silly American tourists do). While I was willing to fork over the way-too-high prices for our mussels and steak, I had to draw the line at 5$ for an 8 oz. bottle of water (and since it arrives with the cap already removed, I don’t think my suspicion that it IS actually tap water is completely unfounded). You can see the tiny bottle in the picture, below, behind my admittedly delicious mussels. It was at this point that the waiter informed me (in English) that it is forbidden by “the boss” to provide tap water, and why would you, seeing as they have such high quality bottled water (fyi, you can buy these same bottles of water at every convenience store for about 45 cents). While I was tempted just to cancel my order for water all together (and drink the bottle in Steve’s backpack), I could see that Steve was getting increasingly uncomfortable with my (admitted) further questioning of the denial of tap water, so I caved. At this point, Steve was left feeling (understandably) that I’d “harshed the buzz” of our one splurge meal in Brugge, and I was still feeling pretty grumpy about being gouged like a stupid tourist. Needless to say, a memorable meal for the wrong reasons.

So, we were compelled to have a heart-to-heart about “water-gate,” our respective reactions to it, and so on. However, once the discussion was over, I decided to turn this into a running joke the remainder of the trip. Every time we would eat something cheap and yummy, which was most things (the bratwurst pictured, herrings sandwiches (3 euros), frites, a kebab, etc.), I would say something like “Aw, I could have gotten 8 oz. of tap water for the price of this giant sandwich!” in feign disappointment (and laugh maniacally at my own joke). After a while even Steve had to laugh. Thus, the title of this post.

Photos of Brugge, the infamous water, the more delicious things 5 bucks brings, our cool apartment, and more – Enjoy:

 

In Search of Van Gogh (or “A Visit to the Kröller-Müller Museum”)

Ciao Readers (or for this post “Hallo”)!   Happy 2016!  I hope this post finds you and yours well and keeping warm this new year.

As you may recall, we were headed out in December to visit France, Belgium and the Netherlands.  While I have many more tales to tell (mostly involving food), I thought I’d start with our strangest adventure of the trip – a trek to the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands. (As you may also recall, I love the art of Van Gogh and will go to great lengths to see it.)

To make a long story short, there once was a rich art patron, Helene Müller, who married another rich person, Anton Kröller, and between 1907 and 1922 she bought over 11,000 works of art (including numerous Van Goghs, Monets, Seurats, Picassos and countless others)!  Her collection of Van Goghs is second in number only to the actual Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (more on that museum later).  She wanted to share her collection with the world, so she opened this museum in 1938, shortly before her death.  As you will see, while her intentions were good, she may not have thought out the practicalities of this whole “sharing” concept….

The museum is located in Hoge Veluwe Park, which is located in the middle of nowhere, about an hour train ride (then a bus ride, then a van ride) from Amsterdam.  While I understand the route may be a little easier on weekends, here’s what it took for us to get there during the week:

Step One – buy a round-trip train ticket from Amsterdam to Ede-Wageningen for about 27 euros each (we did this the day before with the help of a ticket agent as this is not a common train trip/stop).  The train takes you to a train and bus station in a very small town:

otterlobusstation2

Step 2: From this bus station you take the 108 to Otterlo (and the helpful driver sells you a roundtrip ticket for both this bus and the next for about 9 euros each), a trip taking about 20+ minutes and leaving you off literally in the middle of nowhere:

Otterlobus.vanstop

Step 3: At this point there should be a van arriving shortly or already waiting (we had read it was the “106 bus”, but it was literally this van with a piece of paper in the window with “106” written on it):

Otterlobus

Step 4: This van then takes you to the entrance of Hoge Veluwe Park, where it lets you out to pay the entrance fee to the park (9.15 euros each);  you apparently can also buy your ticket to the museum here, but we didn’t know and the lady selling the tickets didn’t volunteer that information.  After proceeding through the entrance, the van drops you off at this bus stop (and the driver assures you he returns once an hour to pick you back up across the street):

krollermullerbusstop

Step 5:  You walk about 5 minutes down this road to the museum (sorry, no photo of the museum, but fairly non-descript from the outside), where you then buy your ticket to the museum (another 9.15 euros each).  (There are free loaner bicycles throughout the park, so in nicer weather you could take advantage of those and spend part of the day bicycling as well).

Step 6: You stand there (mostly alone) with your mouth agape as you view MANY Van Goghs, including iconic famous ones, along with many other amazing works of art (all the while thinking how surreal and bizarre it is that these masterpieces are out here in the middle of nowhere):

Step 7: You remember what time the van driver said he comes back and you do the whole thing in reverse, feeling a certain sense of triumph, as if you have just succeeded in some medieval quest which has rewarded you with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see many great works of art.*

Thank you, dear readers, for coming on the quest!!!

*According to Wikepedia’s numbers, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam gets about 5 times as many visitors per year (1.5 million) as this museum (300K+), but I have a hard time believing the numbers are even that close, as the Van Gogh Museum is ALWAYS packed and this one was almost empty.

 

The Marvelous & Maddening World of Air Miles

Ciao Readers!

In my last post I promised you some tips on how to travel on air-miles. Before I do, some caveats – I am by no means an expert and I almost exclusively use American Airline miles, so your airline’s mileage program may differ (there are also “non-denominational” credit cards that give you miles good on several airlines); this is also not meant to be a comprehensive “how to.”  However, as we’ve been traveling mostly on miles since our trip to Japan in 2008 (business class, all on miles!) hopefully I have a useful idea or two.

First off, using miles requires advance planning – lots of advance planning.  Most airlines put their tickets on sale 331 days before the travel date.  If you are using miles and want to fly as directly as possible, using the least amount of miles possible, you should plan on booking your tickets as soon as the dates you want open up.  Depending on the airline, you may be able to book each leg of the trip separately – though if you book the “to” trip before the “back” trip becomes available you may find yourself with no return tickets options once the dates do open up.  The longer you wait to book, the more convoluted route you will have to choose (this is why we were routed through, and got stuck overnight in, North Carolina on a trip back from New York last year*) and the more miles you will have to use. For example, as I have already booked our France & Belgium trip for the winter, I was able to use only 20,000 miles per return ticket; if you try to book that same trip today you will have to use at least 40,000 or have 4 stops (like a trip overseas isn’t long enough!) (we actually had to use 50,000 to book business class tickets on the way there because that’s all that was available).  Also be aware that the time of year you travel makes a huge difference – tickets cost less miles and are more readily available at “off-peak” times (why you always see us in pictures bundled up – dead of winter is the easiest time to go anywhere non-tropical).  In addition to planning far in advance, be flexible.  For example, we are flying in to one Paris airport but flying out of a different one – for this trip it really doesn’t matter and opens up many more options (I tried flying us out of Belgium, but that was a no-go).  Another idea is just get on your airline’s booking page and play around – maybe you will discover there are no tickets to where you wanted to go, but lots of tickets to somewhere that piques your interest – a travel adventure awaits!  The moral of the story is to use miles when you know where you’re going way in advance…or when you have no idea of where you’re going and will take whatever you can get.  Miles are not the way to go for important and imminent travel.

Well, great advice you say, but what about first things first?  How do you get enough miles for all these trips? (If you did the math you see our upcoming Europe trip took a total of 140,000 miles).  That’s a good question.  There are several ways to collect miles and they take a little bit of work (though I think less work than actually using the miles once you get them).  All I can do is tell you how I’ve done it.  So here it is: when your preferred airline or other travel card is having a great promotion on a credit card (one that gives you at least 40,000 to 50,000 miles after you make a minimum purchase amount), go for it!  Be aware, though, these cards usually have a 85$ – 95$ yearly fee (waived the first year), so you have to really use the miles to make it worth it.  Once you have the card, use it – for everything that will not cost you a fee (and only if you are self-controlled enough to pay it off every month as if you were paying cash).  For me it’s pretty easy – I have a personal card and a business card (so I got tons of miles upfront, thus the trip to Japan) and I use both of them for everything. Luckily, almost all of my business overhead, including my rent, can be paid with a credit card without a fee; as I would have to write a check for these expenses every month anyway, I just pay the credit card in full.  Be careful, though, some things, like apartment rent and taxes, while they will accept credit cards, will charge you the 2.49% the credit card company charges them.  Look at how much it costs to “buy” miles straight out on your airline – the 2.49% is likely more and not worth it. In addition to using the credit card for straight dollars-to-miles purchases, some airlines (at least AA) offer you bonus miles for other purchases – using your credit card at certain restaurants, shopping online through their own shopping portal (I use www.aadvantageeshopping.com), and donating to certain charities or booking cars and hotels through their website.  (Sometimes there are “miles-for-weird-reasons” promotions – like Steve and I just got 1,000 miles each for watching little educational cartoons about AA’s Advantage program (a promotion due to their merger with U.S. Air)). All of these things can rack up the miles (during Mother’s day and V-Day there are often 30 miles/$ flower promotions, for example), but be careful not to overpay. If you can buy something cheaper from another retailer, don’t buy through your airline just for the miles (again, you can do the math by seeing how much it would cost to just buy the miles).  Some of these methods require signing up in advance, so read the fine-print.  (And speaking of “buying” miles, it’s not always a terrible option if you’re close to the miles you need for a ticket, especially a business or first class ticket; many airlines will let you hold miles tickets for up to a week while your purchase the miles you need to “pay” for the ticket.)

Finally, you can get miles by flying of course!  There are many trips where it just makes no sense to use miles (unless you have a bunch just lying around) – long haul trips in the U.S. that don’t cost too much but get you tons of miles (LA to NY for example), business trips, or trips to places next to impossible to book on miles.  In those cases, buy the ticket as you normally would – you will get miles for the flight, and depending on your credit card, you may get 2x extra miles for paying with the airline’s card (plus the basic dollar = miles).  If you’re going on vacation and book the entire vacation as a package through your airline you will often get a very large amount of bonus miles.  While I hate SPAM as much as the next person, I am signed up for AA emails as not only do I find out about specials, but I think I got 5K or 10K bonus miles for signing up.

If you’re interested in learning more from folks who really do have this down to a science, “flyertalk” is a great site devoted to frequent flyers.  Also, if you have some of your own tips, I (and others) would love to hear them – please post them in the comment section! Happy Travels!!!

*If you do get stuck somewhere, or sit on the tarmac for hours, or anything else unpleasant that is the airline’s fault, by all means ask customer service for compensation in the form of miles.

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