I was sipping a cappuccino in the kitchen of the split-level house, in a village near the Germany-Luxembourg border. Fifteen children were entertaining themselves at the birthday party in other rooms; I could hear Alex's unrestrained laugh of hilarity from somewhere. Here in the kitchen, a dozen adults were sipping and talking. In Dutch.
Somehow I've fallen in with a crowd from the Netherlands. When I'm around, they mostly speak English, and with barely any accent, much easier for me to understand than a lot of the native tongue I hear from England, Ireland, and Scotland. And it's from all these Dutch that I came to know about Keukenhof, supposedly the largest flower garden in the world, in Holland. (To clarify: the Netherlands is a country of 12 provinces, 2 of which are South Holland and North Holland, which contain most of the Netherlands cities that people like me have heard of. At some point in childhood, I was led to believe that the Netherlands=Holland, but it's simply not true. The language and the people are both Dutch, which I think I already knew, but the whole thing confused me--in particular, how did Denmark and Danes and Danish fit in? [answer: different place, different people, different language/pastry]--until very recently.) And what better place to go with my mother and her friend Harriet?
It was a long drive north through Belgium, skirting Brussels and Antwerp, then into the Netherlands, past Rotterdam and the Hague, heading toward Amsterdam on a road parallel to the North Sea beaches a few miles away--a lot of famous-but-unknown-to-me places. Windmills and canals everywhere, fields filled with cows and sheep and an immense population of fluffy little lambs, and of course with flowering bulbs--daffodils and hyacinths and tulips, all planted in long, straight rows on the flat-as-a-board earth. A color-block landscape painted by a pointillist.
The traffic was horrific--heading-to-the-Hamptons-Memorial-Day-weekend horrific, albeit without the SUVs. All of Europe seemed to be on Easter break this sunny day, heading to this famous garden at the height of tulip season. Teenagers wearing Day-Glo vests were directing traffic to park in fallow fields, like at an over-capacity-crowd championship game. The cost of the tickets was considerable; the scope of the gardens was impressive; the variety of tulips was staggering. But the boys were relatively unimpressed until we found the garden maze. I was compelled to wend through it ten times while Sam mastered every route and Alex never stopped talking.
We stayed two nights in Delft, from whence the blue-painted plates. Canals popping up (rather, under) like mad. Nearly every house made of brick, three or four stories high. They started building what they call the New Church in the fourteenth century; the Old Church is of course older. It's a lovely little old city. And, like Gouda a few miles away, I had no idea it was a city; just thought it was a thing in the kitchen.
a recipe: penne with white asparagus and fresh morels
Tulip season is also asparagus season, and asparagus is everywhere here in Luxembourg, especially the big thick stalks of white asparagus. I came across the first batch a few weeks ago at a tidy little primeur near our apartment, and bought a bunch. While the cashier was weighing them, I grabbed a blood orange, and she beamed at me. "Très bon, Monsieur," she said, congratulating me on my fruit. "Pour la sauce!"
She was correct, for that bunch. But this recipe is something different, a variation on what I used to have at a restaurant in the West Village in the early nineties, now gone. It had a bar on the ground floor and the dining tables downstairs, in a glass-roofed subterranean room in the courtyard. They served the asparagus cut in the same shape as the noodle, and in the same color--both green--and hence a confusing dish. That tickled me then, and it still tickles me now.
1 bunch white asparagus
1 bunch scallions, white and light green parts sliced thin, dark green parts reserved
1 small onion, quartered
1 carrot, quartered
1 herb sachet (I used parsley, thyme, a bay leaf, and a few peppercorns)
1 heaping handful fresh morels, cleaned
Freshly ground black pepper
Splash of white wine or vermouth
The first thing to do is blanch the asparagus and make its stock. So bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil while you trim the asparagus, saving all trimmings: snap off and reserve the thickest part of the stalk, then peel the tough outer skin from the remainder. Cut the peeled stalks and heads into penne-sized pieces, keeping the head pieces separate from the stalk pieces.
When the water comes to a boil, drop in the stalk pieces and cook for a couple minutes, then add the head pieces. Let cook another 2 minutes, then try a piece--it should still be firm, but cooked through to edibility. When done, remove with a slotted spoon to an ice bath, allow to cool, then drain. With the water still aboil, dump in your asparagus trimmings, dark green parts of the scallion, quartered onion, chopped carrot, and herb sachet. Let boil away while you continue with the other steps.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. In a very large saucepan, heat a slick of oil and a tablespoon of butter over medium-high flame. Add the morels, season with salt and pepper, and saute for just a minute; remove with a slotted spoon to a large bowl. Replenish the oil and butter, add the scallion slices, season, saute until golden, then remove to the bowl with the morels. Replenish the oil and butter, add the reserved asparagus, and saute for a minute, until lightly golden, then remove to the bowl. Deglaze the pan with the wine, and empty the pan into the bowl. Don't wash this pan.
Cook the penne until a bit firmer than al dente, then drain, reserving the pasta cooking liquid.
By this point, your asparagus boiling water should have reduced down to a rich stock. Strain it from the medium pot into the big pan, and boil over high heat until reduced to 3/4 cup. Add the firm-ish pasta to this liquid, and finish cooking for another couple of minutes, giving the penne the opportunity to absorb all that asparagus flavor. When they're done, add the reserved asparagus, morels, scallions, and any liquid in that bowl, and stir around for a minute. Add salt and pepper to taste, and then a big handful of grated cheese. If the whole mixture has gotten too thick, mix in a bit of the pasta cooking water. Serve with more cheese on the side, and, in the middle of the table, tulips.