Noordermarkt- Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam boasts 12 daily outdoor markets and 15 markets that are open one or two days of the week, spread across the beautiful city that is built around picturesque canals.  At the Waterlooplein Flea Market one can find second hand clothing, while vintage trinkets and exotic spices can be haggled over at the largest market called Albert Cuypmarkt.  Perhaps the most photographed market in Amsterdam is the Bloemenmarkt, the only floating flower market in the world, housed on a long succession of boats on the Singel canal where one can enjoy tulips of various colors, even a rare black type.

On a wet autumn Saturday morning, I did as the locals did and rode my bicycle, holding an umbrella in one hand and wearing a big rain poncho, to the Noordermarkt organic farmers market in the Jordaan district to secure my week’s supply of greens and bread.

Noordermarkt, which means Northern Market, dates back to 1616 and was originally named Prinsenmarkt after the nearby Prinsengracht canal that runs along the length of the city.  In 1623, a large church called Noorderkerk was built in the town square, and for many years the current market site was used as a graveyard.  Eventually the market was revived and it took on the name of Noordermarkt to commemorate the holy landmark.

During World War II, the Noordermarkt square became the site of the February Strike, the first public protest of non-Jewish citizens against the deportation of Jews by the Nazis.  Now it is a peaceful and beautiful square lined by posh cafés and restaurants, coming alive on Saturdays as the only organic farmers market in the city.

I started filling my wicker basket with plump tomatoes, hefty beets, salad greens and fresh herbs while chatting with the vendors about how best to prepare them.  Despite the rain, the market was bustling with people from all walks of life who were enjoying this weekend tradition as much as I was.  Vibrant colors of ripe fruits and vegetables filled each stall, and alluring aromas of freshly baked breads and cheese samples drew me in from all directions.

An oyster stall at the market was the perfect place to rest my feet and indulge in some tasty bites.  David Hervé La Royale Cabanon oysters had a lovely sweetness that lingered forever on my palate.  A young boy, who looked around 8 years old, threw back the Royale like a seasoned veteran and gave me the thumbs up sign with a big smile.

The oyster vendor recommended that we try the Umami oyster, a plump oyster that shocked me with its initial jolt of saltiness, which then gradually and slowly turned into an intense brininess with a final finish of potent sweetness.  It was a powerful and vigorous oyster, unlike the more understated and elegant flavors of the Royale.

The Dutch are known for their rustic breads, and not surprisingly, there were at least 10 different bread stalls at the Noordermarkt.  Freshly baked muffins, some topped with sweetened fruits and others with herbs and vegetables, rye rusks, whole wheat loaves, braided pretzels, heavy spelt cylinders and flaky croissants colorfully lined each counter, quickly being snatched up by hungry customers.

Large wheels of cheeses, from the famous Gouda to the mellow Edam, soft goat’s cheese to buttery triple cream cheese, were on display for all to see and buy, and every vendor was more than happy to guide me in finding the right ones to satisfy my palate.

After a morning of shopping and sampling, the best way to wind down is to nosh on the best apple pie in the city at Winkel Café, situated right in the Noordermarkt square.  In fact, the organic farmers market got its start in 1987 when the owner of Winkel set up organic vegetable stalls in front of his café, hoping to draw more customers into his store. The cozy café is always crowded, day or night, rain or shine, with locals and tourists. 

Several Hollandse appeltaarts (Dutch apple pie) come up the dumbwaiter from the kitchen onto the main counter, warm and fresh, and served met slagroom (with whipped cream) for those wanting that extra sugar kick. During the rush, Winkel will easily dish out up to 10 pies an hour.

As the rain came pouring down on us at the end of our shopping spree, we darted into Winkel Café and squeezed into the communal table next to 10 other customers who were already licking up their pies. After warming our bodies and our hands on tall glasses of mint tea, we dug our spoons into our apple pies to experience a heavenly dessert like no other.  Thick soft chunks of sweet apples coated with cinnamon, nestled inside an even softer encasing of weightless crust that was delicate yet full of flavor at the same time.  No need for whipped cream on these apple pies, they were just perfect on their own.

The Winkel Cafe

Noordermarkt 43
1015 NA Amsterdam, Netherlands
020 6230223

The Noordermarkt organic farmers market is on the corner of Prinsengracht and Westerstraat, and open on Saturdays from 9.00 am – 3.00 pm.

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Cooking at home with duck breast

In the continuing series of ‘Cooking at home with…’, where my good friend Chef Haru Kishi and I engage in a monthly ritual of cooking together in my kitchen, we chose duck this time for our theme protein.  I love and look forward to these days where we choose a theme ingredient, go to the farmers market for inspirations, construct a multi course dinner menu, and cook all day in my kitchen.  Cooking is my form of meditation, and one of the only times that I can empty my mind of distracting thoughts and feel ultimate bliss in a state of nothingness.  Chef Kishi and I have cooked a lot together, sharing lamb saddle, white truffle, black truffle, suckling pig and lobster with our friends.  It’s a treat to be able to cook with somebody who I’ve developed a comfortable rhythm with, who knows his way around my kitchen, who pushes me to be a better cook and always teaches me valuable tricks of the trade.  I had a sudden yearning for duck that particular day, and we headed to the farmers market to see what seasonal ingredients we could prepare it with.

There was an abundance of beautiful and vibrant vegetables at their summer peak, like heirloom tomatoes, squash and colorful beans.  LA Funghi was overflowing with a variety of aromatic mushrooms, and we bought a bag of baby shiitake caps.  Small Gaviota strawberries packed with juicy sweetness and a hefty watermelon called out to us.  When we spotted petch siam eggplants, purple okra, Thai basil and lemongrass stalks, Haru got inspired to make a Thai curry for the duck.  We bought 2 plump Muscovy duck breasts at the butcher shop in the Farmers Market on Fairfax and 3rd, and headed to Thai Town to get ingredients for our curry.  Although we got a little side tracked by a khao kha moo pit stop at Ruen Pair, we managed to accomplish our mission by purchasing Kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk, red curry paste and coconut palm sugar at the Thai market.

Garlic, shallots, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass went into the pan for a quick sautée to bring out all of its wonderful aromas.  Thai red curry paste, coconut milk and coconut sugar was then added to make a spicy and rich coconut curry.

Green and purple okras and petch siam eggplants were cleaned and trimmed for the curry.

The Muscovy duck breasts that we purchased were enormous- I didn’t know that ducks could get so big.  They were pan seared in their own fat to a perfect medium rare with a beautiful crisp to its delectable skin.

All of the dazzling farmers market vegetables that we purchased that morning were gradually added to the Thai curry- purple and green okra, petch siam eggplants, mexican midget cherry tomatoes, pattypan squash, squash blossoms, bok choy, baby shiitake caps and Thai basil.  Lastly, the seared duck breasts were laid to rest on the vegetables.

Our dinner guests, a chef and a mixologist, arrived just on time to watch the glorious crowning of the curry.  The mixologist made us a round of cocktails using Grey Goose La Poire pear vodka with mangosteen juice, and we sat down at the dinner table to start the meal with a delicious watermelon and heirloom tomato gazpacho that Haru made.  The sweet and perfectly acidic creamy gazpacho, made with sherry vinegar and olive oil, was poured over burricotta cheese and a watermelon cube marinated in blueberry vinegar and orange blossom tea, and garnished with basil ribbons, gold flakes and a drizzle of olive oil.  Simply delicious, this cold and refreshing cup of fruity gazpacho was the perfect way to start a mid-summer dinner.

Italian Yellow wax beans and French green beans were blanched in boiling salt water and tossed with a ground hazelnut and argan oil dressing.  Sweet and juicy nectarines, intensely savory and perfectly fatty slices of jamón ibérico de bellota, burricotta cheese and smoked salt were draped over the beans for a simple salad with complex flavors.

A meal prepared by Haru and I is never complete without a little extra bling, whether it’s shaving ridiculous amounts of truffles on top or garnishing with sparkly gold flakes.  The Thai curry with seared duck breast was finished with seared foie gras morsels and served with Thai jasmine rice.  The dutch oven was brought directly to the table, and we all savored this amazing curry that was packed full of sweet vegetables and juicy duck.

I made a simple lemongrass, mint and black peppercorn granité as a palate cleanser to follow the curry, and we munched on juicy Gaviota strawberries throughout the rest of the evening.  Another fulfilling and perfect day of shopping, cooking, eating and drinking with dear friends- la joie de vivre!

Random trivia:  Did you know that ducks are able to swim in freezing water and stand on ice without any problems because their feet have no nerves or blood vessels to feel the cold temperature?

Birthday Dinner Party- Part 1, Prep

“Which restaurant do you want to go to for your birthday celebration this year?”

Many of my close friends started asking me this question weeks before my birthday.  My friends know me well, and they knew that my ideal birthday celebration would be all about good food…but they didn’t know me well enough to figure out that I had better plans for my special day.  I couldn’t think of any restaurant in LA that would quite cut it, and I cringed at the thought of making my friends pay a lot of money for an extravagant meal in a stuffy environment.  I’m extremely blessed to have wonderful and caring friends who have been by my side through my ups and downs, and I wanted to spend my birthday with them in a special and meaningful way.  I love going out to restaurants for fine dining, but what I love more is cooking at home with friends and for friends.  There’s nothing I enjoy more than cooking in the kitchen and sharing a nice meal with people I love.  So I sent out an invitation to 12 of my closest friends in LA, and started brainstorming on ideas for my ultimate fantasy birthday menu.  No gifts please, I instructed my friends, but instead bring your appetite, good spirits, and lots of champagne and wine!

My brain exploded with a multitude of fabulous culinary ideas, and I had a lot of fun writing and sketching my ideas down.  For the whole entire week leading up to the big party, my hands were practically shaking from all of the excitement.  I knew that there were a few basic dishes that I had to have, and I consulted my chef friend Haru about ordering these items from the best suppliers.  I wanted to have an oyster bar that served two of my favorite types: Fanny Bay and Kumamoto.  I wanted a seared foie gras dish, as I had a whole lobe of Rougié foie gras from Epicure Imports that was patiently waiting in the freezer.  For the main entrée, I fluctuated between choices like lamb saddle, veal chop and flat iron steak, but in the end I decided to go grand and opted for a whole suckling pig.  The rest depended on what I found at the Santa Monica Farmer’s market.

Going to the Wednesday morning SM Farmer’s market is one of my favorite Los Angeles activities.  There are rows of food stalls with fresh seasonal produce and lots of specialty food items that cannot be found elsewhere.  I found vibrant Green Zebra heirloom tomatoes and yellow wax beans, which inspired me to make a salad dish with burrata cheese and slices of jamon serrano.

One of my favorite vegetable stands, run by a Japanese farmer, was offering some adorable miniature eggplants.  Small round green Petch Siam eggplants, frequently used in Thai cuisine, were calling out to me.  In the box adjacent to them were even cuter small purple eggplants called Fairytale eggplants which I had never used before, but I had to get anyway.

Although I had many ideas about how to serve them, in the end I envisioned a simple appetizer of pan roasted eggplants with a balsamic sauce.  I found some interesting Purple Ruffles Basil at the market to liven up the plating of this dish.

Beautiful purple Mission Figs were at the height of their season, and I found an abundance of them at the Farmer’s Market.  Ah, they would go perfectly with the whole lobe of foie gras!  Coupled with a port wine reduction, this would make for a decadent and delicious plate.

The seared foie gras dish would go perfectly after the salad and before the main course, but since the main course was going to be a whole roasted suckling pig, I realized that there needed to be a palate cleanser between the two dishes.  I had a jar of wonderful yuzu purée that was just waiting to be consumed, so I decided to make a yuzu and rosemary granité.  The bite of rosemary herb coupled with the citrus tang of yuzu was sure to cleanse any palate and refresh any taste bud!

I melted the yuzu purée in sugar and water in a pot and brought it to a boil, and just after taking it off the heat, I threw in a tea bag of freshly chopped rosemary leaves to let it steep in the mixture.  This way the granité would have just enough of a hint of rosemary finish instead of an overpowering flavor.  I saved some rosemary twigs for garnishing.  This dish was prepared the night before to save some time on the busy big day.

I found a ton of beautiful vegetables to accompany the roasted pig.  Small bright orange Nante carrots were super sweet when I sampled them at the stall.  Small pee wee potatoes came in purple, red and yellow, and I bought a bunch of these for roasting.  Beautiful baby spring onions came attached to their stalks and still covered in dirt, just picked fresh that morning. Purslane was at the end of their season, and I bought these as well, thinking that its distinct fresh citrus flavor would complement the heartiness of the main course.

Now what to do for dessert?  I wanted to do a dessert that could be prepared the night before, to save time in the kitchen during the actual party.  I figured that by the end of the meal, I would be quite tired and potentially quite drunk as well.  Cake?  Too boring.  Cupcakes?  Even more boring.  Tiramisu?  I already did that for a previous dinner.  I found beautiful and plump strawberries at the market, and started getting excited about them.  And then I ran into these tropical delights, and my heart skipped a beat.  Passion fruit- perfect!

Passion fruit zabaglione, parfait, mousse, ice cream, cheesecake…I considered many options, but when I rummaged through my kitchen that evening, I came across an old friend that I hadn’t seen in a while, and he whispered to me very softly, “Use me…”  My butane torch was calling out to me, and I knew then that the dessert for my birthday bash would be crème brûlée.  It’s easily prepared the night before, and people get excited when they see it torched.  I incorporated Madagascar vanilla beans into my  passion fruit crème brûlée mixture, and prepared these in the oven the night before.  After cooling them on a rack, they went into the fridge and waited until their grand debut.

For the strawberries that I bought, I opted to use them for a mini appetizer in the very beginning of the meal with the champagne toast.  Strawberries dipped in sugar and freshly ground black peppercorns is absolutely delicious, and it goes extremely well with champagne.

For the end of the meal, I planned to do a cheese plate.  I bought a bunch of beautiful cheeses at Epicure Imports, as well as some accompaniments for these cheeses.  I also found some fresh jujubes at the farmer’s market, and decided to pair these with the cheeses as well.  Finally, for the many chocolate lovers in the attending party, I bought an assortment of unusual flavored chocolates at Epicure Imports to do a chocolate tasting with a delicious dessert wine that I also bought there.

After a lot of tweaking and rearranging, the final birthday dinner menu was officially made on the morning of the party.  The menus were printed, the wine and champagne glasses were cleaned, the silverware was polished, the dishes were stacked, the music CD’s were chosen, and I was ready to go.

Here’s the final menu:

1    Strawberries with sugar and black peppercorn

2    Kumamoto & Fanny Bay Oysters

3    Fairytale & Petch Siam Eggplants with Purple Ruffles Basil

4    Yellow Wax Beans, Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes, Burrata, Jamon Serrano, Argan Oil dressing

5    Seared Foie Gras with Mission Figs and Port Wine reduction

6    Yuzu & Rosemary Granité

7    Roasted Suckling Pig with Pee Wee Potatoes, Nante Carrots, Baby Spring Onions, Purslane

8    Passion Fruit & Madagascar Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée

9    French Cheese Plate with Quince Paste, White Truffle Honey, Jujubes, Grapes

10    Chocolate tasting

The next blog entry will feature photos and details of the actual feast!

Random trivia: Did you know that jujubes have a sweet smell that is said to make teenagers fall in love?  In the Himalayas, men carry jujube flower stems with them or put them in their hats to attract women.

Cooking with friends – Lyon, France

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View across the Saône river from the market

Continuing on with my food adventures in Lyon, France…

On Saturday morning we decided to go shopping at the farmers market along the Saône river in vieux Lyon.  My friend Guillaume offered to cook lunch for us, and we were so excited to get a homecooked meal full of fresh seasonal vegetables after our heavy meat-centric dinner at Café des Fédérations the night before.  It was a beautiful sunny hot day with clear blue skies, and the walk along the river was breathtaking.  The outdoor market was teeming with energy and the vibrant bright colors of vegetables and flowers were bursting with happiness.  Here are some photos from the vieux Lyon Saturday farmers market:

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We were lucky enough to get fresh morel mushrooms, just at the end of their season.  I’ve never had the opportunity to cook with fresh morel mushrooms, so this was a new experience for me.  I’m used to the dried store-bought version.  These fresh morels were soft and spongy, light and airy, earthy and pungent, and just simply delightful.  Guillaume also bought fresh ris d’agneau, or lamb sweetbreads which I was extremely excited about.

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Fresh morel mushrooms

Guillaume’s kitchen is tiny.  There’s really only enough room for 1 person.  It’s barely even tall enough for him to be able to stand fully erect.  I offered to help, but there was only 1 1/2 cutting boards (the 1/2 board was the size of a passport) and a few pairing knives.  How can this tiny kitchen with hardly any fancy gadgets whip out this fancy meal that Guillaume was describing to me?  Frankly, I was a little worried.  However, as soon as I saw him clean the sweetbreads, prepare the morels, sauté the fingerling potatoes in butter, cut the artichokes down to the heart, and throw the peas in boiling water all within a 10 minute period, I knew I could sit back and relax.  It’s not about the kitchen, or the equipment, or the fancy gadgets, or the space.  It’s about the chef, his creativity and his passion.

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Cleaned morels and lamb sweetbreads waiting to be cooked

The deep earthy aroma of morels filled the apartment as he sautéed them with butter.  At the same time, he individually and carefully cooked each vegetable before putting them all together in the pot.  He knew exactly how each vegetable had to be prepared to enhance their natural sweetness and character, and he was not cutting any corners.

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Chef Guillaume multi-tasking in his small kitchen

Before we knew it, a beautiful pot of asparagus, artichokes, peas, fingerling potatoes, haricot vert and garlic had been assembled on the tiny stovetop.  Meanwhile, he was finishing his morel sauce with cream and white wine from my cousin’s winery that I brought from Burgundy, and cooking it with the sweetbreads in the oven.

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Beautiful farmers market vegetable pot

The rest of the crew set the table and decanted a bottle of my cousin’s red wine, Simon Bize et Fils Aux Vergelesses.  We all proceeded to crowd around the small kitchen to watch the chef in action, all the while drooling and wagging our tails.

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Table is set, and wine is decanted

This ended up being one of the most memorable and delicious meals of my entire Europe trip.  There is just something so special about being invited into someone’s home and having a homecooked meal.  Shopping together at the market and seeing all of the fresh seasonal ingredients being transformed in front of my eyes in the kitchen also heightens the experience.   Everything was delicious, especially the lamb sweetbreads with morel mushrooms.

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Delicious market vegetable pot

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Succulent ris d'agneau with morel cream sauce

Of course we had the obligatory post-dinner cheese plate, again all selected by Guillaume at the cheese stand at the farmers market.  It included goat cheese with ashes and pepper, fresh goat cheese from goat’s milk that had just been milked the day before, and a Comté from the North Alps.

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After dinner farmers market cheese plate

Guillaume busted out his espuma gun for fresh whipped cream to complement the juicy strawberries.

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Succulent market strawberries

What a perfect weekend so far in Lyon, I thought, as I drifted away in a post-prandial snooze on the couch…

Random trivia:  Did you know that morel mushrooms, otherwise known as brain mushrooms, honeycomb mushrooms, or sponge mushrooms, are the official state mushrooms of Minnesota?