I hate to hear people trash-talk potatoes. I once had a friend sniff, “I don’t consider potatoes to even be a vegetable” and I rolled my eyes and flipped her off (which, okay, I could do because I was actually online chatting with her at the time). Potatoes, in my mind, are pretty much an absolute good and I feel rather protective towards them.
Remember a couple of years ago when food prices shot up and then suddenly staple grains were all crazy expensive, and there were protests and riots in parts of Africa and Asia over food prices? Well, that’s what globally-traded food commodities can get you.
Rice, wheat, and maize are the top three sources of carbohydrates in the world and they’re all subject to price fluctuations, but potatoes don’t keep well enough to ship very far, so they’re not globally traded—which is great news if you live in a developing country and you’re now royally screwed because rice/wheat/maize is now too expensive for you. Potatoes can be grown by almost anyone, anywhere, in any country. So long as you have dirt and people to water said dirt, you’ll get potatoes and you’ll get fed.
But here in the rest of the world (I hear you say), we don’t have that problem.
What a rubbish summer 2009 was for tomatoes. I can’t remember eating even one really good tomato this year, which is just so depressing. Still, these San Marzano plum tomatoes were a flickering bright spot in an otherwise bad year.
Unlike a lot of tomatoes, San Marzanos are really meant for cooking—and if you’ve ever popped open a can of these tomatoes, you know why. Sweet and a little bitter, they’re often compared to a good bittersweet chocolate, which seems fairly apt. They’re nearly all meat inside, with only two narrow seed chambers (compared to four or more in other tomato varieties) making them exceptional for cooking. And with summer being so definitively over (if you can say we even had a summer this year), I knew exactly what to make of these tomatoes: soup.
Tomatensoep (Dutch-style tomato soup)
Chop two leeks, two onions, and one peeled carrot and saute in butter (or oil) over medium heat, making sure not to brown the vegetables. Add two pounds chopped, peeled, and seeded tomatoes and a peeled, diced potato. Add enough liquid to cover everything. (I used a combination of water, a bouillon cube and a Parmesan rind.) Add a couple bay leaves and a handful of chopped parsley. Let simmer until all the vegetables are tender, fish out the bay leaves (and cheese rind, if you used that) then blend into a puree. Add salt and/or pepper to taste, as well as some milk or cream, if that suits you.
The last time we went to Holland, my husband and I both got really nasty sick halfway over the Atlantic. It was the worst gastro-intestinal virus I’ve had in years, certainly, if not ever — and we spent the first 48+ hours of our trip in bed, shivering and miserable.
When we finally felt well enough to eat, my husband’s aunt sent over groentesoep met gehaktballen — a vegetable soup with meatballs. It was like gezellig in a bowl: salty, with beefy broth, spoon-sized meatballs the size of marbles, and some vegetables I was still too muzzy-brained to identify. It was probably the happiest a bowl of soup had ever made me feel (with the exception of this potato soup with truffles I ate in Maastricht one time, but no soup’s ever gonna top that).
A couple of months ago — around the time the weather got cold and I started thinking about Dutch food — I became determined to reverse engineer this soup. I knew the two main components — soup and meatballs — and I asked my mother-in-law about it, what was in it, how it was made, et cetera. She told me in the Dutch supermarkets, you’d usually buy pre-chopped soup vegetables, cover it with water, and add a Maggi bouillon tablet or two, along with the meatballs.
Seemed simple enough, I reckoned.
I started with the meatballs, finding a couple different recipes for gehaktballen, and then came up with the following:
- 1 lb. ground beef
- 1 egg
- 2 slices bread, crusts removed, torn into small pieces
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
Cover the pieces of bread with milk and let soak until soft. Squeeze out excess milk and add bread to bowl, along with remaining ingredients. Mix well.
I formed the meatballs with a small melon baller, and I think that was maybe a little too big. They should be about the size of a rounded teaspoon. I started by browning a couple of them in a pan, until I realized the meatballs were probably poached in the soup instead. No matter; I ate the browned ones while I cooked.
I simmered the meatballs in about 4 cups of water in the soup pot, along with a bouillon tablet. Here’s what I did next:
- 4 leeks, quartered and sliced 1/4″ thick
- 2 carrots, quartered and sliced 1/4″ thick
- 1 large waxy potato, peeled and diced
- 1 tsp. pepper
- 1 tsp. thyme
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
- 2-3 bouillon tablets (I used a combination of beef and vegetable)
- 8-10 cups water
Combine all ingredients. Simmer 45-60 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
I started with the leeks and carrots and let those simmer together. I didn’t want to add any potato, because I always make way too much soup, and freezing what’s leftover becomes out of the question with the addition of potato — however, I evidently added one bouillon tablet too many and really needed a potato to make it less salty.
The meatballs — while really good — just didn’t have the texture I remembered. I think instead of a meatball with eggs and bread, those meatballs were just seasoned meat, more like these.
Still, the end result came really damned close to what my husband and I remembered. The leeks were soft and almost buttery-tasting. The carrots added a note of sweetness. Even the potatoes were okay, although I don’t think I’d add them again, along with a couple of changes I think I’d make.
But for now, here it is — groentesoep met gehaktballen: the beta version, stable but not ready for general release just yet.
Around this time of year, especially if it’s cold, windy, and rainy (like it’s been here lately), I start thinking about Holland.
Admittedly, the food is not what comes springing to mind when you think of the Netherlands (and what they pass off as “pizza” is a goddamned crime). It’s very… homey: sausage, potatoes, kale, bread, etc. And if you’re there — as we were — in December, when it’s rainy (it almost never snows there) and windy (which is almost always), it’s perfect.
So, last night, I made Limburgse stoofpot van lamsvlees — lamb stew Maastricht-style. What makes it “Maastricht-style”? I have no idea, but it was still good.
Recipe (adapted from GoDutch.com) is under the cut.