How I won a beer-tasting contest…and encountering Westvleteren

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Please note that I’m using the famous line of the Confiteor in its original language since (a) it’s the most sacred of weeks in Christendom, and (b) I can’t believe that the folks closest to me here in Leuven (and the rest of the EU) has dubbed me the beer-queen.  Such dubious honor was given to me by my labmates when I won the beer-tasting contest a month ago.

Wait, a virtual teetotaller winning a beer-tasting competition?  I kid you not, I identified 8 out of EIGHT beers.  Here’s the proof:

There was the easy-breezy kriek (gueuze beer flavored with sour cherries), then the blond-type and amber ales like Stella Artois (very light, almost watery mouthfeel), Duvel (made me think of bitter lemons and hops), Delirium Tremens (there was something vaguely medicinal in its aroma) and Leffe blond (heavier mouthfeel, heavily hopped), and La Chouffe (almost like Duvel with its citrus notes, but has a heavier body)…then the two dark Trappist beers, Chimay Blauw (rich body, with a bitter, toasted grain flavor) and Rochefort 8 (also rich in mouthfeel, but with a sweeter, nuttier tone).

I wasn’t expecting to win the contest, but I swore to myself that I should be able to identify the Chimay from the Rochefort 8, since the latter is my favorite dark Trappist beer.  Yes, I prefer donker Trappisten bier than lager-type ales.

And speaking of Trappist beers: a few nights ago, I was lucky enough to have tasted the one of the rarest Trappist beers in the world—a brown, no. 12 beer from Westvleteren monastery.  It’s so hard to find in shops since the monks limit their production and sell only one case PER PERSON visiting their holdings.  This one was sold in De Bier Tempel in Brussels for 10 EUR.

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I know—you’re wondering if all the hype about this beer is worth it.  I say—IT IS!  Taste-wise, it’s almost like a Rochefort, but with a heavier texture, and a deeper, nutty taste mixed with burnt caramel, toasted grain and hops and creamy foam—it has “presence”.

And I had to open this with a Chimay bottle opener.  Well, they’re both Trappists.

I guess I’ve earned my badge as a beer expert, having specialized in one of the major food groups necessary for the health and sanity of grad students in Belgium–beer, waffles and chocolates.  And beer is “liquid bread”.

Getting schooled

First of all, let me use a Staubtuch to wipe off the dust from this blog. You might have noticed the lack of posts of late, particularly from moi. “Real” graduate student life took over and I personally didn’t have time to properly cook moreso to engage in a hobby. Sorry about that. Hopefully the developments the past month may alleviate things.

Anyway back to food, back in January, since I didn’t have time to celebrate my birthday as I did last year, I gifted myself with a cooking course.

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Breakfast in Bed

There are few things more lazily gratifying in the morning than being served breakfast in bed.  You don’t even need to get out of bed, and you’re already being fed – how great is that (especially in the winter, when you dread that first step out of bed onto the chilled floor)?  It’s also a great way to surprise someone, but doesn’t require too much work, skill, or money (only a lot of preparation).

I not-so-recently made breakfast in bed, and I have to say that the time I put into pre-morning preparation was probably the key to finishing on time.  You’ll, of course, need a breakfast tray, some matching plates and cutlery, and some food.  The breakfast tray can be bought anywhere where they sell kitchen things – I bought a wooden one with legs to stand the tray up in bed.  You can tailor the breakfast to the person, depending on what they do or do not like.  If you don’t know, try to extract it (in a subtle way) from them.  Some common components are:

  • eggs – scrambled, sunny side up, boiled, poached (from easiest to hardest)
  • bread
  • cold cuts and sliced cheese
  • cereal or muesli
  • coffee or tea
  • orange juice
  • pancakes
  • meat – sausages, bacon, meatballs

One note about the orange juice – please please please make an effort to squeeze it yourself!  The difference between store-bought and freshly squeezed orange juice is HUGE, and this is one thing you could definitely do on the (late) night before and chill in the fridge.

For my breakfast, I cooked:

  • soft-boiled egg (wasn’t so soft-boiled by the time I served it…)
  • croissant and roll (from the bakery downstairs)
  • sliced cheese and salami
  • freshly squeezed orange juice
  • crêpes with berries and fresh whipped cream
  • Nürnburgers (small sausages)

It took me about a half hour to finally prepare everything before service, but I woke up periodically during the early morning to squeeze orange juice and premake the crêpes and Nürnburgers (I reheated them afterward).

The cold items are easy enough, as is the bread (I assume you will be buying fresh bread and cold cuts from the deli, not making them yourself), but the hot items are a bit tricky.  If you know what time the person is getting up, you just need to get up about a half hour (or however long you think you need) before that to prepare everything.  If you don’t know, then…try to guess.  You can also cook everything beforehand and leave it in a warm oven until it’s ready to be served (not ideal, but will still work).  Of course, this also depends on what you’re cooking.  Use your judgement.

Some final tips about preparation:

  • Buy everything beforehand (the night before, at least) and try to store it where they can’t see it or won’t be suspicious.
  • Prepare what you can ahead of time.  Measure out ingredients for pancakes, set aside enough eggs and sausages to simply throw into the pan and cook as quickly as possible in the morning.
  • Use linens and nice cutlery.  Add a flower if possible.  Small details make a huge difference.
  • Cook with love!  Yes, waking up early is not really that pleasant, but I guarantee it will be worth seeing the smile on their face.

Have fun!

Culinary Instrumentation 101: The Trusty Food Processor

I don’t know how much blood I have lost from accidentally getting cuts on my fingers with either a chef’s knife or a cheese grater over the past two months. All I know is wherever the site of the bleeding is, it’s too far away from my entrails, unless I perform hara-kiri. Aside from that, it just occurred to me two weeks ago that julienning and mincing meat and vegetables into strips or pieces with a knife seemed a tedious and time-consuming process for a graduate student who should spend more time pursuing erudition rather than olfactory and gustatory indulgence.

As time is more important than money, I decided to invest on a substantially “expensive” instrument – the food processor. Well, it was substantially “expensive” because I bought the Cuisinart brand with a 7-cup capacity. I bought it brand new from an Ebay auction at 66 USD – 20 USD shipping charge included (but this is already considered cheap because the 7-cup Cuisinart food processor costs 100 USD on Amazon or on grocery stores.) I don’t want to sound like a beauty pageant contestant but I have to say this. I personally believe that every graduate student studying ALONE and ABROAD should own one. Here are my Top 5 reasons justifying my worthy investment:

1. Versatility: A food processor is like the entire set of food preparation apparatuses crammed into one machine. It does not only chop and mince. Provided that it comes along with the shredding and slicing discs, it can grate, julienne and slice too. You can also use it for mashing without you complaining about the lumps produced from using a fork. This feature also allows you to prepare soups, sauces, stuffings, dressings and garnishes. (Limitations: It does not dice.)

2. Automation: A food processor is like a spectrometer without the detector. Not that I am lazy in cooking but as a graduate student, time is of the essence. So just plug your food processor and and individually put whatever vegetable you need for cooking. Press the button. Presto!!! You are done in 2-3 minutes as opposed to using a knife which will take you 10-15 minutes to get the job done.

3. Safety and Protection: One cool feature of the food processor is that it is covered. That way it protects your eyes from whatever lachrymose vapors released during chopping. (This is somewhat analogous to a pair of laboratory goggles except you don’t have to put on it because it’s the food processor that wears it.) In addition, to avoid any future possibility of getting cut, you can skip washing the food processor blades with sponge and detergent. Instead, use the dishwasher.

4. Consistency This feature will come into play if you need to prepare scalloped vegetables. What your food processor does is that it slices your vegetables evenly, maintaining the consistency of food texture upon cooking. (Sidebar: Not advisable if you are julienning vegetables for garnish.)

5. Practicality: If you are done with your graduate studies and you plan to go back to your home country that you no longer need it, sell it via Ebay or Amazon. That way, you will be able to partially retrieve your money.

In other words, the food processor is your trusty kitchen sidekick.

Florian’s Easy Schnitzel

Schnitzel is one of those quintessential dishes that the Germans actually make and eat on a regular basis (unlike Chinese Chop Suey – I’m not even too sure what that is…).  The Mensa at our university serves schnitzel at least once a week, normally with some kind of sauce, but it can also be eaten as is, hot and freshly fried from the pan and perhaps garnished with a slice of lemon.

The following recipe comes from Florian, my boyfriend.  Schnitzel, like most meat products here, is usually made of pork, but chicken and turkey are also frequently used.  For an authentic Wiener Schnitzel, veal should be used.  He normally uses prehammered schnitzel (you can buy it like any other cut of meat from the supermarket here in Germany) and breads and fries it himself.  However, on the day we went shopping, they were sold out of schnitzel, so he substituted with turkey breast instead, and absolutely hammered it into the ground flattened it with the back of a frying pan on a cutting board on the floor.

Ingredients (makes 2)

  • 2 pieces of schnitzel or chicken/turkey breasts
  • 50 g flour
  • 100 g Paniermehl (bread crumbs)
  • 1 egg
  • pepper
  • salt
  • canola oil for frying

  1. Flatten meat using a hammer/frying pan if not already flat.
  2. Put flour, egg, and bread crumbs into three separate plates.
  3. Mix a pinch of both pepper and salt into egg.
  4. Using one hand, coat the schnitzel evenly with a thin layer of flour.
  5. Using the same hand, transfer the schnitzel to the egg and coat evenly on both sides.
  6. Transfer the egg-coated schnitzel to the bread crumbs and turn it with the other hand.  Pat the bread crumbs lightly into the schnitzel to coat evenly.  Place coated schnitzel on a plate for later frying.
  7. In a pan, heat canola oil (or any equally neutral frying oil) until a small ball of bread crumbs sizzles.  Add the schnitzel and fry approximately 3-4 minutes on each side, or until the coating is golden brown.
  8. Drain the schnitzel on a paper towel shortly.  Serve hot with a slice of lemon.

Thanks to Flo for making this (all I did was eat and take the photos, which really don’t do the schnitzel justice…it was very crispy and delicious)!

Hamburger Science: Why I Will Probably Never Eat At Another Burger Joint (Unless Starvation Calls For Desperate Measures)

If you were asked to name the ultimate American food or fast food on the game show “Family Feud”, there’s no doubt that hamburgers will probably be the top survey answer. Perhaps to the food amateur, he/she will be looking for the ground “ham” component from the burger patty even though the former is a slab of salt/sugar-cured pork while the latter comes from minced beef chuck. Hamburger was actually a German word coined after the city of Hamburg which served as an important Russian trade center of steak tartare (but that’s another recipe) during the last century of the Holy Roman Empire.

Even before I became a Julia Child fan, I had this curiosity on preparing and cooking hamburger patties. Most people consider the simplicity of its preparation because you just mix ground beef, onions, salt and pepper and fry them on a thin film of oil. Voilà! You have a burger!!! One of my friends gave me an account that her mom used to prepare hamburger patties before but they had a tendency to contract even before cooking that you don’t get your appetite’s worth at all. I had also made several food trips in the Philippines (where I come from) to search for the best burger joint. I even watched an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show just to find out the The Top Ten Best Burgers in the U.S. (If my memory serves me right, the best burger in America comes from a sirloin burger joint somewhere in Chicago)

Aside from simplicity, students like myself take into account the cost of a homemade burger versus a burger ordered from a fast food chain or restaurant. Assuming you don’t have to pay any state tax, service charge or value-added tax from your restaurant bill, the cost will still be at least thrice the price of making your own hamburger sandwich from the convenience of your own home.  But, here comes a big (and all-caps) BUT!!! Advantages of simplicity and cost obviously compromise the ideal flavor, texture and taste. The patties greatly contract even before frying as mentioned above. They dry up by losing their juices upon frying. No matter how iconic the hamburger is to U.S. culture, Americans (no offense) have probably underestimated its simplicity. So where does the problem lie? Lipid/fat biochemistry.

Fat inside the ground beef works two ways. Being hydrophobic or water-fearing, the presence of fat retains the moisture and juices inside the meat, therefore slowing down the dehydration/contraction process. It also adds flavor to the meat during heat-induced hydrolysis and/or oxidative cleavage.  However, if fat degradation takes place at a faster rate before or during cooking, then dehydration will occur quickly too because water is less trapped due to reduced fat levels. To solve this problem, fat content of the meat is increased by adding sour cream, thus, keeping your meat swollen and moist during cooking. This is the scientific basis behind Julia Child’s hamburger recipe from The Way To Cook.

I have a confession to make. I was pretty unsure of what might happen while I was preparing the entire hamburger meat based on Julia Child’s recipe. It turns out the result was awesome. The patty itself was so thick and fat as seen on both pictures. If you ask me about the taste, it was juicy and mouth-watering that I have to fry another patty to satiate my appetite. Honestly (and I don’t mean to brag), the burger was a lot better than the burger joints here in the U.S. or those from the Philippines. Also, if you are cutting costs, hamburger is probably the practical way to go. I finished the entire hamburger meat for 6-7 dinner meals at an estimated total cost of 10 USD. That’s spending around 1.50 USD for one night of fine dining without sipping a glass of red wine.

Now that’s a HAMBURGER!!!

Burger Patty Recipe (taken from “The Way To Cook” by Julia Child)

1 1/2 pounds (681 g) of ground beef
1 egg
2 tablespoons of onion, grated
2 tablespoons of sour cream
1 teaspoon of thyme (fresh or dry) or Italian seasoning
Cooking oil

1. In a large bowl, season the ground beef with egg, grated onion, sour cream, thyme, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly.
2. Divide them in any way you want to and shape them into round patties.
3. Film the frying pan with cooking oil under moderately high heat.
4. As the pan undergoes heating, lightly dredge each side of patty with flour. Fry each patty two minutes in one side and two minutes on the other.
5. If hamburger is squashy, then it is rare. Once the meat starts to bounce when pressing with a turner or your finger, it is medium rare. The hamburger patty is well done when it doesn’t bounce/spring back.

Oktoberfest Fare

Inside the Schützenzelt

Where: München, Germany

When: Annually, 16 days before and including the first Sunday of October


  • 1 Maß beer = 8.80€
  • 1/2 Bradhendl = 7.80€
  • 1 Kaiserschmarrn = 12.10€

Oktoberfest brings together three of the most important aspects (at least in the eyes of foreigners) of Germany: beer, dirndls and lederhosen, and wurst (and other grilled and roasted forms of meat).  The Wiesn is one of the biggest festivals in the world, and starts 16 days before the first Sunday of October.

There are all sorts of types of food – mostly carnivorous – to try: Schweinebraten or Scheinehaxe (roast pork or roast pork knuckle), a variety of würstl (I like Käsekrainer, a cheese-stuffed sausage stuffed in a bun), Kasspatzn (Käsespatzle, see Kookie’s post here), Reiberdatschi (shredded potato pancakes), and Weißwurst (white veal sausage usually only eaten before noon for breakfast, also see here).

They roast whole oxen here...and then put up the name of the ox that they just roasted.

I think Joanna’s favourite was Leberkäs (corned beef and pork), while mine was definitely the Brathendl (roasted chicken).  These come in half-chicken portion right off the spit, and are still crispy-skinned on the outside, fatty and juicy on the inside, and really, REALLY hot.  The only real way to eat them is to just pull it apart with your hands – the stalls provide moist towelettes to clean your hands off after it’s all gone.

More than 700 million liters of beer are drunken each year at Oktoberfest.  For the occasion, the Munich breweries that participate in the festival – Paulaner, Löwenbräu, Hofbräu München, Hacker-Pschorr, and local favourite Augustiner – brew a special type of beer called Märzen.  This beer has a slightly higher alcohol content than most beers, a property that helped the beer keep for longer in the old days when there was no refrigeration and people weren’t allowed to brew beer in the summer (because of the risk of fire).

Ein Prosit, ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!

And of course, there isn’t only meat and beer served at the Wiesn.  For those that have a sweet tooth, there are also plenty of choices available.  Crepes, chocolate or sugar-coated fruit kebabs, gingerbread hearts (more for decoration than eating), and roasted candied nuts can be found every few feet.  Our friends also recommended that we try the Kaiserschmarrn at the Schützenzelt (literally, the Shooters Tent, one of Löwenbräu’s tents), which they said was the best Kaiserschmarrn at the festival.  An Austrian dessert, Kaiserschmarrn is fried pancake bits, usually served with some kind of sauce.  Ours came in a hot pan with caramelised raisins and toasted almond slivers and a dish of pflaumen sauce (plum sauce) in the middle.  Excellent when it’s just hot out of the oven and it’s just starting to get a little cold outside.

So, after an excellent Oktoberfest this year…who wants to come next year? 😉

Herring in Amsterdam

Foodies have to try everything, right?  I’ve been travelling a lot this summer, and have been twice to Amsterdam in a month, so I felt it was finally time to try herring from a street stall.  Let me just note here that I don’t actually like raw fish very much (unless it’s smoked or sliced super thin) and only recently got over my sashimi-phobia, so my review of raw herring will probably be a bit biased.

One fine Sunday afternoon in Amsterdam after Dance Valley, David, Jeremy and I moseyed over to the floating Bloemenmarkt on the Singel canal to check out the flowers.  Surrounded by bright yellow waxed wheels of gouda and bucketfuls of tulip bulbs (fun fact: did you know the Dutch continue to donate 20,000 tulip bulbs to Canada each year in thanks for their contribution to the liberation of Canada and sheltering of the Royal Family?), it seemed like a great opportunity to finally try herring.  Is it typically Dutch?  No idea.  Were there a lot of tourists?  Most definitely.

The herring itself was simple to order, and came with the option of having raw onions and/or mustard on top.  It’s sliced into bite-sized chunks and served with a cute Dutch flag, which also served as the eating utensil.  My first bite was alright – a little fishy, but still somewhat tasty.  The onions were a definite bonus and, in hindsight, I should have asked for the mustard as well.  It looked like standard raw fish, though I feel like it could have been more salty.  However, it was the texture that really threw me off.  There seemed to be a bit of a slimy film on the fish skin – I should have expected it, since it’s fish, after all.  It was a bit difficult to finish the whole thing, but I finally got through it.

So the question is – would I ever eat it again?  Probably not raw.  It might also be a good idea to have it in a bun (Broodje Haring) with the mustard; I’d imagine this would be a pretty tasty snack.  The place we went to also had other options; there’s a Broodje Garnalen for the not-so-adventerous…

PhooD around town – Quo Vadis?

Unlike David and Kookie, I never managed to come up with a real birthday dinner menu, much less find the time to cook one.  For starters, as much as the common kitchen/dining area in my residence is clean and airy, the interior décor left me in constant state of despair (evidences here and here).  I know, what can I expect from a university dorm kitchen anyway?  Second, my birthday fell on a weekday (a Wednesday), which is a regular lab day for me, therefore no kitchen-time for cooking.

Besides, family (and work) traditions dictate that birthdays should be celebrated with pizza (from Pizza Hut).  Fine, I’m away from my family—and from my old workplace—but I won’t give up on the pizza tradition.

So,  I celebrated my birthday last May with my adopted Leuven family (composed of a few friends from the lab and the seminary) in an aptly-named place called “Quo Vadis?“, an Italian restaurant somewhere in the middle of Muntstraat (a.k.a., Leuven’s “restaurant row”).

A friend asked, "Where are we going?" Response: "Quo Vadis." "Yes, that's my question."

Quo Vadis? has been up and running for 20 years in Leuven, serving pizzas and pastas to university students with a bit of extra cash (pinched from their regular “beer money”, haha), families and other Leuven townsfolk.  And, from what I gathered from eavesdropping students’ conversations in Dutch, it’s one of the best places to go for Italian thin-crust pizza.

The place itself was clean and sailor-themed—none of the kitschy “we are Italian!” décor.  The service we got was efficient and unobtrusive.  And the pizza, yes…the pizza!!

I had the Quattro Stagioni, which came loaded with tomatoes, mozzarella, bell-pepper strips, pepperoni slices, mushrooms, artichoke hearts and black olives…on a perfectly-thin, crisp crust straight off the oven.  This pizza was hearty—they did not scrimp on the toppings, and artichoke hearts!—and the flavors very robust without overloading the senses.  And the crust was thin enough to be crispy, but not too thin as to get soggy with the sauce easily.  One of the few Italian restaurants who had achieved this Golden Mean of pizza-making.

in vino veritas

Oh, and it went well with their house red.  Magnifico! 🙂

Tips for a hungry PhooDie

One: If female, bring along a friend. So you can share the pizza.  One order is enough for an average guy, but is too much for a lady (unless, of course, the lady missed lunch as well).  Added advantage to this set-up is that you can split the bill. 😀

Two: Be adventurous. I’ve been a long-standing fan of Quattro Formaggi in other pizzerias just because it’s cheese pizza—very plain and very safe.  To make things interesting and memorable, try ordering a different variant.  I picked Quattro Stagioni because of the ‘chokes.  Curiosity can surprise you with a new favorite.

I guess when I celebrate my future birthdays back in Manila, I won’t look for Pizza Hut.

Quo Vadis?
Muntstraat 11, 3000 Leuven, Belgium

Practical advice to the food storage junkie

You bought a carton of eggs last month and forgot when the expiry date was. Two weeks ago, you used up half. Today, you have nothing in your fridge and you have no time to prepare anything else cuz because you have to get on with writing your paper. Eggs are there. Hmm a quick sunny side up or maybe a Tamagoyaki. But then are the eggs still ok?

If you’ve been lurking in Huffington Post, you would have caught wind of this website called StillTasty, Your Ultimate Shelf Life Guide. No, our blog is not paid to advertise them. I just find the site extremely useful especially since sometimes I don’t know how long I can keep food in for.

What I really find nifty is that they try to cover as many situations as possible. Because you know that fresh, raw, cut up peaches will keep differently compared to fresh, raw, whole peaches.

Opened a package of cottage cheese? It’ll keep for over a week if you keep it in the refrigerator in a sealed container. Pop it in the freezer, and it’ll be ok for the next three months. Just remember, the longer they’re stored, the less likely they’re going to be tasty.