Friday, May 31, 2013

Holland: Weekend in Holland

Dear Daughter and a Windmill - outside Vollendam, Holland

Let's start with a picture.  Holland...cheese, canals, bikes, windmills and cheese.  We wrapped all that into one glorious visit this past holiday weekend.  Late last June, we visited Stockholm and while we all loved the trip, we felt that we were missing something by spending all of our time in the city.  We wanted to see more of the countryside.  So when we began planning this trip, we decided to stay outside the city and travel into Amsterdam on only one day.  In the end, we think it was a great success and fit nicely into our "travel behavior".

As soon as the school day ended on Friday afternoon, Dear Daughter and I were in the car and headed to pick up Dear Husband/Dad.  We were on the autobahn by 3:30 and within three hours, we hit our first destination, Brunssum, Holland. Nothing really to know about the town.  There is a NATO facility nearby and we stayed at a wonderful hotel in town.  After a tasty Greek dinner and a walk in the nearby park, we settled in our comfortable room and crashed for the night.  By the way, did I mention that the weather had not changed...still rainy and cold?

Saturday brought no change to the weather but we were on our way shortly after breakfast.  Our next destination was a touristy spot, about 40 minutes outside of Amsterdam.  It was a small farm and many of Dear Daughter's friends had raved about the farm, the cheese and the wooden clogs.  Seemed like a money maker to me but since it was on the way...why not.  I have to admit, it was a bit of a let down as we drove into the parking area - only to see at least one tour bus parked in the lot.  Once inside the main visitor area, my thoughts did not change.  Wooden clogs hung all over the walls and behind the first room was a cheese making facility.  Luckily, a woman quickly grabbed our attention and took us on a private and very informative tour of the cheese making facility, which had been in the family for years.  Of course, no cheese tour would be complete without a sampling of  Gouda (pronounced GOW-DA).  It was fantastic and naturally, we left with two rounds of the cheese.

Satisfied and eager to move on, we resumed our trip and within no time, we were on the Ring around Amsterdam - the beltway.  After only a few minutes, we took an exit and it seemed impossible to only be two or three miles from the city center.  We had hit Waterland, the area outside of Amsterdam, which consists of marshland and tiny villages.  You could see canals all over the farms and the land was actually inhabited by tons of ducks, sheep and cows.  It was incredibly rural with these lovely little houses dotting the landscape.  The road was incredibly narrow - with only one car able to pass at a time.  Even with my driving, we made it unscathed and arrived at our destination within 15 minutes of leaving the Central Ring.

The Lake House, a Bed and Breakfast in Uitdam, Holland, is owned by the cousin of my former boss.  The village consists of twenty or so houses perched against a dyke.  The houses are tiny and the architecture of each was very different.  The backs of the houses have fantastic views of the IJsselmeer Lake, and the fronts gaze out at a lovely bay.  It is perfect for taking advantage of the sun.  In the mornings, you could have your breakfast with the morning sun in the back of the house and in the evenings, cross the tiny street to the bay - where you had yet another patio to enjoy the sunset.  Our hosts had added a two story apartment to their old farmhouse and it provided us with incredible, private, spacious accomodations.  Breakfast was even included and brought up to our apartment each morning at a time designated by us! This was living!

Dear Husband preparing dinner

We were up early on Sunday morning and headed into Amsterdam early in order tour the city and visit the Van Gogh museum.  Parking is an obvious issue in the city, so we easily took public transportation and were standing in line when the museum opened.  Currently, there is a new exhibition of his work which took eight years of research and planning.  It centers on how Van Gogh learned to paint and it was fascinating.  From looking at his strokes, one could make the assumption that he was a fast painter but the opposite was true.  He developed his style over time and he copied many of the Masters in order to truly learn his craft and hone his own style.  Even Dear Daughter seemed engaged in the exhibit and we all left with our own personal favorites.

Following the museum, we took a short walk to one of the canals and took the typical touristy canal tour.  It was actually quite informative and we learned all kinds of tidbits about the city, its architecture, history and fun facts.  It also gave us a chance to hit some of the major sites quickly.  By the time our tour had ended; however, we realized that the city was becoming quite crowded.  A quick lunch break followed by a short visit to Dam Square and the location of the Royal Palace and we were back on our tram and headed for the countryside once more.  Cross Amsterdam off the list.  It was nice and we enjoyed it but we were eager to experience more of Holland.

Monday and Tuesday were spectacular days with sunny skies and warm temperatures.  The area of the Waterland is naturally quite flat, rural and scenic.  Seated on our rented bikes, we took off on Monday on an ambitious tour.  We left Uitdam along the dyke to the small fishing village of Marken.  From there, we boarded a ferry, which took us across the lake to the touristy town of Vollendam.  After a quick drink, we were off to Edam, home of cheese and a quaint, more authentic town for lunch.  Our return trip took us back to Volendam and into what would become our favorite town, Monnickendam for a late afternoon beer (Heineken, of course).  When we arrived home later that afternoon, we all were in great spirits - having enjoyed the day.  Tuesday was a repeat of Monday and Dear Husband and I were thrilled that Dear Daughter was such an avid biker.  At one point, we lost her as she decided to do her Tour de France impression and took off after an experienced road cyclist!

At the conclusion of every trip, I always ask the family if they would ever want to return to the destination.  Many times, the answer is basically that while we had a great time, we can check it off the list.  When I asked this time, I was surprised to hear each of them emphatically state that they definitely wanted to come back.  I agree.
Now pictures:

Biking along the dyke to Marken, Holland

Edam, Holland

Sunday, May 19, 2013

France: Weekend in the Alsace

     Yes, we were back in France this weekend.  We traveled to the Alsace to purchase wine and to have a short weekend away.  Given that we are, perhaps, half-way through our tour, we have decided to make a concentrated effort to purchase some great wines to bring home with us.  So, that adventure started this weekend.  Riesling is Dear Husband's favorite grape and while we took a short trip there about a year ago, we decided to venture that way again-- to visit another town along the Alsatian Wine Route.  Another change to this trip...we were bringing a friend of Dear Daughter's.

    When we visited last year, we went to the town of Riquewihr.  This is a town that everyone must see.  It is so quaint and beautiful.  The small town is surrounded by the existing ramparts and its vineyards cascade down the hills.  During that trip, we spent most of one day exploring the various wine houses, sampling Rieslings and Dear Daughter was completely bored.  Late in the afternoon, we realized that we would perhaps never come back to this quaint village...throngs of tour buses descended on the town, choking the cobblestone streets and crowding the tasting rooms.  We left with some wonderful wine and nice memories of early mornings and late evenings, when the buses departed but little else.

     We knew that we wanted to bring back some Grand Cru Rieslings...the wine from the best vineyards and we knew that we wanted to get these in the Alsace.  Dear Husband has been gently telling me for months that I should just and make a day trip of it.  But who wants to go alone, drive three hours, buy wine and turn around and come home before school is out for the day.  While I could probably find a companion to accompany me, it still just didn't sound like much fun.  Finally, I convinced him that it would make a nice, quick weekend trip.  Dear Husband finally long as we did not stay in Riquewihr.  Dear Daughter finally long as she could bring a friend.  So, off to France...again.     

     Through some quick research, I learned of the town of Eguisheim, located about 20 minutes south of Riquewihr.  It seemed to have some of the same characteristics...surrounded by vineyards, good Grand Crus, ramparts around the city but I found no mention of throngs of tour buses.  I secured a very inexpensive apartment in the old part of the village and plugged the dates into our calendar.

     We left right  after school on Friday...driving once again through the rain and clouds.  We arrived in Eguishem shortly after 6:00 pm.  The girls had been occupied for entire trip immersed in making various duck tape creations and planning out their venture into Corporate America, with their new business idea.  The village was perfect...ramparts completely surrounding the old part of the village with the streets forming a series of circles until you reached the center of the town.  Our landlord met us at the apartment, a building on the north rampart, separated into five modern apartments.  He was extremely helpful, giving us various pieces of information and recommendations on wine houses to visit.  We took a short walk around the village.  The streets were almost empty and the girls loved exploring the various passageways separating one street from another.

     To keep it simple and economical, we had decided to eat dinner at the apartment.  I had packed our raclette grill and that evening we had a lovely meal of raclette cheese, meat and potatoes.  Dear Daughter's friend kept telling us over and over again how great the meal was and it was now on her all time favorite list.  It was quite fun.  The grill has a heating unit in the center.  Below, you place little trays filled with cheese and the heat from above melts the cheese.  Above the heating element is a flat grill surface and there you cook bite-sized pieces of meat and potatoes.  When these are finished cooking, you place them on your plate and then slide the melted cheese so that it covers the other items.   It is comfort food at its best and very communal.

Our Street in Eguisheim
Eguisheim Village Center
     Saturday morning brought brilliant, brilliant blue skies!  It was fantastic and a sight we had not seen recently.  Fueled by those tasty French croissants, we were out the door by 9:30.  We had an idea this time when it came to wine purchases.  We would not purchase immediately...but taste wines from several houses and then return to those that we liked.  The town was very quiet and in each tasting room, I asked if we could taste their Grand Cru (in my limited French).  We were blown away by the quality of the wine and the fact that while the grapes were grown in the exact same area, the flavor of the wine was completely different from wine maker to wine maker.  Because of our limited French, we did not get to learn as much as we wanted to and in many cases, the individual just poured us a few drops and then waited for us to talk.  Our strategy was blown during a visit to the fourth house.  We tried an inexpensive everyday Riesling and both liked it quite a bit.  Then we tried the Grand Cru and Dear Husband and I looked at each other simultaneously and explained, "This is the one!"  We left several moments later, loaded down with two cases of wine.  We did visit a few other houses and returned to one.  Within 90 minutes, our collection had grown to three cases.

     During this time, Dear Daughter plus 1 entertained themselves, shopped and munched on French pastries.  They were both quite happy in what they were doing and it was nice to see them both enjoying themselves.  But we realized that we needed to give them a nice, memorable afternoon.  Our landlord talked about a park on the edge of the old part of Colmar, a larger town 10 minutes away.  We decided that a picnic there would be nice and would give us all the chance to see a larger town.

     This ended being the biggest hit of the trip.  For at the far end of the park was as series of fountains coming up directly from the pavement.  I didn't realize it but the girls started plotting their return to the fountain from the time lunch was set up.  They ate quickly and then asked to be excused.  We were watching them with eagle eyes while we enjoyed the last of our wine and were completely surprised when we saw them walking THROUGH the fountains!  This continued for 30 minutes or so and they were completely soaked.  At one point, I tried to explain that we wanted to visit the old city and they told me not to worry.  They were true to their words...after a time, then exited the fountains, and tried to get the sun to dry them.  We did manage a short excursion into the city and by the time we left, they were for the most part, dry.

     While we had dinner reservations at one of the best restaurants in town for that evening, we decided that perhaps the wisest thing to do would be to have dinner at the apartment.  Both girls seemed a bit tired and a late, long dinner was probably not the wisest move.  I ran out to the local butcher and found a pre-cooked roast pork and several potato pancakes.  We made an appetizer of melon and prosciutto (left over from lunch), dined on our new main course and finished the meal with some treats the girls had purchased earlier in the day.  I think that everyone was asleep by 10:30 pm.


     This morning, the rain had returned.  After breakfast, we loaded up our belongings and headed not for home...but to Riquewihr.  I know, I know.  We were in the area, right?  So we had to visit Dopff au Moulin, to replenish our  stock.  I thought it might also be nice to walk in the village early before the tour buses arrived.  We were the first visitors in the tasting room and the attendant spoke very good English. We told her of our visit the previous year and how we had depleted our Grand Cru stock.  She immediately pour us two tastings of this year's vintage.  While she was packaging our case of wine, she asked us where we lived.  It turns out that she is from a town in Germany only 30 minutes from us.  As she gave us our purchase, she also placed a bottle of Cremant (sparkling wine) into a separate box and gave it to us - to thank us for coming back.  We tried to walk into the village but at 10 am, the town was bustling and we passed two tour buses.  Oh well...

     It was a nice weekend not only for the wine but to also see Dear Daughter happily hanging out with a buddy.  It does change the dynamic and pace of the trip a bit for us but not in a bad way.  So, I think it was a win-win for everyone.  But sadly, I do not think that we will be enjoying one of our bottles of Riesling tonight.  Promptly upon getting home, Dear Husband delivered them all to the the start of the collection!

    To console myself, I placed a bottle of Grand Cru Champagne into the fridge to enjoy with our delicious, decadent cheeseburgers tonight!  Evidently, you can't ship Champagne why not enjoy it!


Friday, May 3, 2013

Crockpot Chicken Tortilla Stew

I decided last week to split the travels and the recipes into two separate blog entries.  Yesterday, you read (hopefully) about our recent travels to Versailles.  Today, I give you a great go-to recipe.

Crockpot Chicken Tortilla Stew
Adapted from somewhere - just cannot remember!

I call this a stew but you can also make it a soup.  Actually, it is incredibly versatile.  If you want it thicker, add less chicken broth and more chicken.  If you want more of a soup consistency, then use more chicken broth.


1 cup of chopped onions
1 can of Rotel tomatoes
1 can black beans, drained
1 can enchilada sauce (I used mild)
2 cloves garlic, minced
10 oz frozen corn
2 chicken breasts
4 cups of chicken broth (less if you want a thicker consistency)
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp chili powder
 Salt and pepper to taste

Tortilla chips
Shredded cheddar cheese
Sour Cream
Chopped avocado

Here is how easy it is:

The night before you want to serve this, chopped the garlic and onions, place in a container and put in the refrigerator.

The next morning, put all of the ingredients in a crockpot.  Stir.  Cover and cook on low for eight hours.

When ready, take off lid and shred the chicken.  It should fall apart quite easily using two forks and I do not even take it out of the crockpot.  I do make sure that it is finely shredded.

I have two serving suggestions but I am sure you can come up with many more.

Serving Suggestion #1:
Place tortilla chips in bottom of a bowl.  Sprinkle grated cheese on  top.  Ladle soup on the top and garnish with sour cream and avocado.  This works really well when the finished product has a more soup consistency.  However, Dear Daughter also likes this serving suggestion when the stew is thicker.  She calls it Sloppy Nachos and adds an additional garnish...shredded iceberg lettuce.

Serving Suggestion #2:
If you have a thicker consistency, make burritos!

Once you make this, send other serving suggestions!

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

France: Super U + Champagne + Versailles + the Market = A Fabulous Weekend

     We drove to Paris this past weekend.  (Ooh, that is really fun to say!)  Frankly, I would have rather taken the train but I can accept any opportunity to travel.  The trip had been planned for months and we were really looking forward to it.  On the outskirts of Paris is the city of Versailles and its incredible Chateau de Versailles.  We wanted to spend an entire day there so the plan was to leave on Friday, make it there in time for dinner, get to bed early and get an early start on the Palace on Saturday morning.

     The weather was wonderful all last week and of course, that could only mean that by Friday, it was cold and rainy.  I was not to be daunted and still packed my favorite picnic backpack and made plans to shop for picnic provisions once we crossed the border into France.  We absolutely had to have a picnic on the grounds of the Chateau.  We were on the road by noon on Friday and thirty minutes later, had arrived at my favorite French grocery store, Super U.  After a quick but productive visit, we were loaded with picnic provisions:  three types of cheese, an assortment of meats (salumi, prosciutto, copa), fig jam, incredible hazelnut cookies, water and of course, a bottle of wine.  Back in the car, we headed in the rain to our second destination, the small town of Verzy in the Champagne region.

     On the numerous drives we have made through the area, we have frequently noticed the miles of vineyards and one vitner's name in particular, Louis de Sacy.  After a quick Internet search, we learned that the winery had been in the family for 12 generations and its Champagne was the preferred bubbly of the French.  I wasn't sure if I actually believed this as I had never even seen it stocked in any French store but perhaps I do not visit the best places.  We exited the Autoroute, and snaked along the vineyards, through an incredibly small village and up a hill.  Entering Verzy, we learned that the entire area was designated a Grand Cru and we actually saw the vineyards belonging to Veuve Cliquot and Roederer.  We were excited to sample and purchase what had to be some really fancy stuff.  I will not go into great detail, but needless to say, the tasting was a bit anticlimatic, but we did leave the area with six bottles of Louis de Sacy Grand Cru Brut Champagne.  Who really knows if it is any better than the 7 Euro bottle of Cremant de Bourgogne that we purchase regularly at Super U...but hey, if you are in the Champagne region of France then you got to buy Champagne!

     Back on the road and in the rain, we continued our drive to the town of Versailles.  Our hotel was a gem...a lovely two-star called the Hotel des Roys (Hotel of the Kings) and it was located on the Avenue de Paris, one of the three large boulevards leading up to the Chateau de Versailles.  After one of the worst meals we have ever experienced, we slept soundly and woke up early Saturday morning. The weather had improved.  The Picnic Gods knew that we had to have a picnic that day and while it was still a bit cool and breezy, the rain did not reappear.  After breakfast in the hotel (note to self:  "Never pay for the French hotel breakfast, it is way overpriced"), we headed out to look for a bakery in order to procure our last picnic item, a baguette.  Believe it or not, the two bakeries we found were CLOSED?  On a FRANCE....what was the deal with this....were they on STRIKE? There are strikes in France all the time, for all kinds of reasons.  If we wanted a baguette, then we had to visit Paul - the name of a chain of bakeries that is becoming quite popular in France...and one that we try to boycott at all costs.  I didn't want a chain bakery....but I did want a baguette.  I acquiesced.

    After the little detour, we were back on our way and only a few minutes off my intended schedule.  Yes, we did have a schedule and for those that know me so are not surprised, are you?  I had already purchased our tickets online and we easily entered the queue for those who already had tickets.  If you go, get the Passport as it gives you entry into everything.  Children are free but you do have to buy a ticket to get them into the gardens later.  We went through security and were instructed to leave our bags (as they contained food and wine) at the bag drop and claim them later. 

     Wow, Wow, Wow...this place is impressive.  Built by Louis XIII, it started as a small hunting lodge.  Louis XIV, the Sun King, basically made it what it is today and he was definitely making a statement.  Later, his grandson, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lived at Versailles exclusively.  Can you imagine how Thomas Jefferson must have felt during his first visit?  Did he feel like a country bumpkin?  I bet he was totally intimidated...and that was exactly the point!  Armed with the free audioguide, we took a self paced tour of the King's and Queen's Royal Apartments and the Hall of Mirrors.  It paid to get there early as rooms filled up quickly after the tour buses arrived.  We spent about 90 minutes inside the Chateau and only hit a fraction of the rooms available to visit.  Getting our bags back took a bit of maneuvering but soon we were in the gardens.

One of the many gardens at Versailles

     Louis XIV, with the assistance of his head gardener, Notre, created an absolute masterpiece.  Back in the day, the grounds hosted over 1,500 fountains and these were mechanical marvels!  Today, nearly 300 still remain, and it is no less impressive.   At various times of the day, music flows through the gardens, the spigots are turned on and the gardens become a magical treat.  We roamed the area for over an hour but the best part was when Dear Daughter turned to me and said, "Thank you, Mom for bringing me here.  This is totally cool!"  Really, she did say that and she was excited the entire day.

     Our walks pointed us in the direction of the smaller, lesser known palaces of the area: the Grand Trianon and the Petite Trianon.  The King, feeling "overwhelmed" by the stresses of royal life, needed an escape.  So, he had these smaller palaces built.  Can you imagine...."Oh, I am so stressed out.  I think I will head a mile or so down the road to my vacation home!"  While obviously not nearly as impressive as the main Palace, it does continue to give a glimpse into the inhabitants' lives.  Dear Daughter went goo-goo, gaa-gaa over Marie Antoinette's Hamlet.  The series of twelve buildings were built to look like a working farm, and actually, it was a working farm, and she loved to go here and "pretend".  While you cannot enter the buildings now, it was really cool to walk around them and imagine her playing with her children, etc.  As we wandered past a few old trees, we wondered if Marie might have actually touched them.  I noticed that Dear Daughter actually veered off the trail to place her palm on the tree trunk.

The original structure built by Louis XIII

    Nearing 1:00 pm, we were weary from the morning of walking and touring.  From the Grand Trianon, we found some steps heading down to the Petit Venice.  Louis XIV also built a small canal because he liked the ones  in Venice so much.  We figured that the canal would make a nice picnic spot but when we arrived at the bottom of the gate, we found that it was locked.  Dear Daughter scampered back up the stairs a bit, climbed up on the wall and nimbly jumped over the gate!  What may be easy for a 11 year old, is not necessarily easy from her much older parents.   However, we made it and after a short walk, we arrived at a perfect spot.  It was thrilling to enjoy our lunch while the grandeur of the palace loomed behind us.

Dear Daughter and Dear Husband in front of one of the many fountains

     Following lunch, we continued roaming around the extensive grounds and finally by 4:30 pm, we were exhausted and ready for a break.  It had been a fabulous day.  That evening, we celebrated the day at a local brasserie.  I cannot remember the name but it reminded me of a diner in New York City.  We were the youngest ones in the place and by 9:00 pm, the owner was ready to close for the night.  The food was good and we enjoyed the after-dinner drinks that the owner brought by just as we finished our coffee.

     On Sunday morning, we opted out of the expensive hotel breakfast and instead decided to visit the local Sunday market.  The Marche Notre Dame has been around  since the time of Louis XIV and today, the four buildings of the Marche Couvert (or Covered Market) provide a plethera of tasty food items.  There were numerous fishmongers selling oysters from Brittany, lobsters from the Atlantic and all sorts of fish.  We saw butchers selling horse meat! (And no, we did not buy any.)  There was an incredible fresh pasta vendor and we could not pass up the ravioli filled with figs and blue cheese.  It took all of my will power not to splurge on escargots from Burgundy.  If that was not enough, three times a week, in the center is an incredible open-air food market where you can find the most amazing produce.  This was, by far, the largest food market that we had ever visited.  After an hour or so of wondering around, we had our Sunday dinner completely planned.  Loaded down with our purchases, we hopped back in the car and made the 4.5 hour trip back home.  Later that evening nibbling on our purchases, we vowed to return to Versailles.  And I think we will...