Saturday, May 15, 2010

A new adventure for my taste buds and a delicious tower

Yesterday was a holiday here in Holland and surprise, surprise, the weather was once again awful. The kind of weather that makes you not want to get out of bed for the entire day. Every fiber of my being was telling me to stay tucked in bed, to be lazy and not even lift a finger. After a while though, I got antsy and dared to utter the words to my boyfriend, "let's go to the city center". He looked at me like I was crazy. How could I suggest such a thing on such a day?

After exercising my very own persuasion tactics on him, otherwise known as nagging, we took the tram and after a whole 10 minutes (!), we arrived to our small city center. It was drizzling and bleak but people were out and about; those Dutch are resilient people I tell you. We headed for the Hofvijver Lake which is situated right next to the Dutch Parliament. I love taking walks around that area.

We were beginning to get a little bit hungry- all that walking can work up an appetite- and there are a lot of options for street food at the center of The Hague. First of all, there's the famous French fries with mayonnaise- yes, mayonnaise and not ketchup is the favorite around here- that the Dutch gobble down in large quantities. Then, there's the frikandel, which is a deep-fried sausage (have you noticed so far how artery-clogging Dutch food is?) and then there is the almighty Hollandse Haring, or Dutch Herring.

Next week, it will be three years since I moved to Holland with my boyfriend and during all this time I've been seeing this all over and I've been dreading the idea of having one of those herrings. They are eaten raw, after they have been cleaned, skinned, deboned, de-headed and cured in salt, usually with a side of raw, chopped onions or pickles, or served inside a broodje, which is a Dutch hot-dog bun. They even have a festival here, celebrating the beginning of the herring season, called "Vlaggetjesdag" or Flag Day, in late May. The new season herrings are supposed to be the best.

But yesterday, I decided that today was the day. The day for me to try the Dutch herring for the very first time. I walked hesitantly over to the stall and ordered a herring with a side of chopped onions. My boyfriend, who has not, until now, tried it, was utterly surprised by my willingness to eat it. I asked him to hold it for me, in order to take a photograph and he managed to hold it for two seconds before handing it back to me. I was asking too much of him. He hates the sight and smell of raw fish, but he enjoys sushi. Go figure.

You are supposed to hold it by its tail, lift it above your mouth and let it slide into it gradually, eating the whole fish in just a couple of bites. So I gave it a try. The verdict: I really liked it. I don't know why I waited so long to taste it. The fish was creamy, soft and slightly salty, no unpleasant fishy flavor whatsoever and along with the onions, which I love, was a great combination. Next time I'll have to try it with the hot-dog bun. The aftermath: my boyfriend would not kiss me for several hours after I've eaten it. Well, I couldn't blame him.

From Dutch food to my food, which has nothing to do with herrings, or any type of fish for that matter, as you can obviously see. Zucchinis, or courgettes, are among my favorite vegetables and there are multiple ways in which I prepare them. From the simplest of all, boiling them in water and serving them, drizzled with olive oil and a squirt of lemon, or deep-frying them with a side of tzatziki, to the more complicated way of filling them with minced meat, rice and herbs and cooking them in an "avgolemono sauce" (a classic Greek white sauce made with eggs and lemon), thus making the Greek dish, Giouvarlakia, which is known the world over. And then there's this way, the playful way, of preparing a zucchini and creamy cheese tower.

This recipe is a celebration of freshness and healthy eating, plus it is quite impressive to look at, don't you think? There's also no actual cooking involved, which makes this a breeze, even for the novice cook. And if it looks kind of tricky, well, believe me, it's not. Fresh, large, sliced zucchinis, marinated in a mixture of olive oil and lemon make the base for this green and white tower. My favorite cheese in the whole wide world, the glorious Greek feta along with fresh ricotta cheese and chopped dill, constitute a creamy, herby mixture that is thoroughly scrumptious. A simple dressing of "ladolemono", which is a classic Greek dressing of olive oil and lemon, with the addition of garlic and dill, is prepared in minutes, giving a wonderful finish to the dish.

The marinated zucchini has an amazingly natural, fresh flavor and a perfect crunchy texture that is contrasted by the smoothness of the cheese mixture. The white cheese layer of the tower, with its specks of green from the dill, has a slight tangy flavor and combines perfectly with the zing of the earthy garlic and the vibrant citrus flavor of the lemon in the dressing. Topped with some freshly grated lemon zest and chopped dill, this tower is truly a vision of freshness.

This dish is extremely healthy, refreshing, fulfilling and versatile. It can be served as a first course for a dinner party and it makes a wonderful option for a light lunch paired with whole-wheat bread. If you're getting bored with ordinary salads, try this instead. Even though it's not actually a salad, it certainly counts as a substitute. My boyfriend and I had it with steamed fish and a glass of Viognier-Chardonnay the other night and he said it was one of the best meals he's had in a long time. That counts for something.

Tower of Marinated Zucchini, Feta and Ricotta Cheese
Adapted from Myrsini Lambraki

I know I'm sounding like a broken record here but I'm gonna say it. I couldn't find in Holland the cheese I wanted for this recipe, which is the Greek cheese Anthotyro and in particular fresh anthotyro. Anthotyro, which literally translates to "flower cheese", is a sheep's and/or goat's milk cheese that has an incredibly light taste and a crumbly texture. I had to substitute with fresh ricotta cheese but if you can find anthotyro, please use that instead. It is perfect.
In case you want to try a Dutch cheese, you can go with the fresh geitenkaas (a goat's milk cheese) which is also delicious.

This recipe is not one that can be prepared on a moment's notice. The zucchinis need to be marinated for three hours and the cheese mixture needs to stay in the refrigerator for an hour to firm up after its preparation. So keep this in mind.

Each tower is rather filling, so if you're having it as a first course, you might want to cut it in half and then serve it.

Yield: 4 towers / 4-8 servings

4 large zucchinis, approximately 22-24 cm each

for marinade
1 cup olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed (juice of 1 medium-sized lemon)
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper

for cheese mixture
500 g fresh ricotta cheese
200 g feta cheese, crumbled
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp dill, chopped
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper

for dressing
1 large garlic clove
1 Tbsp dill, chopped
6 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed

for garnish
1 tsp lemon zest, freshly grated
Chopped dill

Special equipment: a food processor, a kitchen mandoline (optional)

Wash the zucchinis well under running water and cut and discard the top and bottom of each zucchini. Then cut them lengthwise into 1 cm-thick slices, either by using a large knife or by using a kitchen mandoline which is, by far, easier, quicker and more accurate. Cut the first and last slice a little thinner and discard them. You don't need the rounded parts because you will not be able to stabilize the towers. You will need 20 slices of zucchini for the four towers.

Make the marinade
Put all the ingredients for the marinade in a medium-sized glass jar with a lid, close the lid tightly and shake the jar well until all the ingredients are well blended.
Alternatively you can use a food processor or a blender to do that.

Place the zucchini slices into a large, shallow bowl or a baking tray and pour the marinade all over them. Cover the bowl or baking tray with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator. Leave zucchini slices to marinate for 3 hours.

Make the cheese mixture
Place all the ingredients for the cheese mixture in the food processor and process until you have a creamy, thick mixture. Empty it into a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator to set. It will take 1 hour at most.

Make the dressing
Place all the ingredients for the dressing in the food processor and process until you have a smooth dressing. Pour it into a jar or a bowl, cover it with either a lid or plastic wrap and keep it in the refrigerator. Just before using, shake it well or whisk it to re-blend.

After the 3 hours of marinating the zucchinis have passed, take them out of the refrigerator and drain them in a colander*. Then place them on paper towels and pat them dry.

Assembling the towers
Take one slice of zucchini and, using a small spatula or spoon, spread 1 1/2 - 2 Tbsp of the creamed cheese mixture over it, creating a thin layer, about 1 cm thick. Take another zucchini slice and spread a thin layer of cheese mixture over it. Take the second slice and place it on top of the first one. Continue until you have created 4 layers of zucchini and cheese mixture. Place a single zucchini slice (without cheese mixture) at the top of the tower and put it on a serving platter or an individual plate, with the help of an offset spatula.
Continue making the rest 3 towers.

Pour the dressing all over each tower and finish by garnishing each one with lemon zest and chopped dill.

Serve immediately.

I wouldn't suggest assembling them in advance because there is a possibility that juices from the zucchinis will run out onto the cheese (even if you keep the tower in the fridge). Besides, it only takes 10 minutes or so to assemble them.

Note: the cheese mixture can be made one day ahead and kept in the refrigerator, in an airtight container.
The following day, I had some leftover cheese mixture and I used it in a cucumber sandwich. It was delicious.

*It's a shame to let all those marinade juices go to waste. I used them the next day to poach two fillets of fish. You can also use them as a dressing on top of a green salad.


  1. This zucchini tower looks wonderful. I love the 2 cheeses you used in it.


  2. The tower is gorgeous! Really really beautiful - I dont think I have seen anything like this dish before. Hehe - you are too funny - persuasion tactics = nagging! My hubby would agree.

  3. It's amazing how you can take so many photographs of one dish and yet it remains interesting- this is certainly a dish to impress and one I intend to make.

  4. I like courgettes and aubergines but rarely cook them.....all that is set to change though. I love this tower...and congrats on herring. I've tried it once - and once was more than enough!

  5. I have never tried raw zucchini before. It sounds very interesting.

  6. Nisrine, thanks!

    Trissa, I think most husbands would ;)

    A Dutch Brit, you're right, this dish does impress. perfect for your next dinner party!

    Kitchen Butterfly, even one try is acceptable :)

    Ivy, thank you

  7. This looks delicious! I'm definitely going to try it this week. Congrats on your first herring! The first time I ate it, I didn't think I'd want to have it again very soon, yet I found myself craving it again within a week. ;) I prefer it with the pickles, though. I'm looking forward to the new season.

  8. I totally relate with your adventure with herrings, but having a boyfriend that eats no fish and no chocolate(!!) I really have to watch after what I eat if I want to get any kisses at all!
    I was not so impressed with herring although it does taste much better that what you'd think by the looks and the smells of it. I did not manage to go through a whole one. I probably took the wrong tactic, because I nibbled it instead of bravely biting into it.

    I love the marinated zucchini idea, looks like I'll have to buy that mandoline soon...

  9. If you're going to try it, this seems like the way to do it. beautiful!

  10. Hi Magda,
    This is a most clever and delicious recipe--unknown to me before now, and I will definitely make this after the giant bounty of zucchinis come in the garden later this summer.

    Brava for trying the herring. When I lived in Holland (I was very young--years ago!) I never summoned the courage to eat them.

  11. Γιώργος [Αθήνα]May 18, 2010 at 9:42 AM

    Magda your tower proposal is the best way to eat fresh that dark-green somehow tasteless variety of courgettes! As for me, I love fresh courgettes with the aggressive aroma of mint leaves. That thick dressing of yours will be great with mint, too. Plus some red pepper grains to add more color!
    Whenever I find myself in The Hague downtown, that Dutch herring will definitely be a must-try for me!!!
    Best wishes from Athens.

  12. Wow, that looks just beautiful! The main food I remember from my trip to Norway is most definitely herring! Most of it was pickled though :) Good for you for trying something new!!


  13. This looks amazing! I already loved your blog- but my sister just decided to move to Amsterdam for 1-2 years this summer- so it's all the more fun for me to read now!

  14. Pickled herring just doesn't compare. It is a totally different thing.
    Nowadays I definetely prefer my herring fresh or rather 'frozen'- all herrings are required by law to be frozen. (for food safety reasons)
    I must admit, initially I did have my reservations but after you've plucked up courage to try your 'first' you will be hooked. It kind of grows on you!
    I started by eating it with lots of onions in bread and I just progressed from there.
    Well done Magda for being so brave! Bad luck for the boyfriend!

  15. I remember seeing a similar recipe in Gastronomo last summer. This looks fantastic! I absolutely love the how this is stacked and sauced ... so very elegant!

  16. Alison, thanks! I have to try it with pickles, many say that it's very good like that.

    tigerfish, yes it kinda looks like a cake. A savory cake!

    Caffettiera, no chocolate? How can that be?
    The mandoline is very handy indeed. If somebody does a lot of cooking it's a must in the kitchen.

    El, thank you

    Nancy, it really needed a lot of courage to try it. It only took me 3 years :)

    Γιώργο, I don't agree with you about these large zucchinis being tasteless. They have such an amazing, fresh flavor. Perhaps when they are out of season they are not as good.
    Yes, that's an idea! Mint dressing with this stack of zucchinis. Sounds good

    Sues, pickled herring is very different (as Dutch Brit says also). If you ever find yourself in Holland you must try the raw one :)

    Melange a Trois, your sister will have a great time in Amsterdam. It is a wonderful city!

    A Dutch Brit, I think I'm gonna try my second one this week :)

    Maria, it probably is from Gastronomos. Myrsini Lambraki collaborates with them. I have a photocopied magazine clipping of the recipe but I'm not sure which magazine it came from.

  17. LOL! It's so true about "Dutch" treats--so many fried things, but they are so Lekker. Your herring comments made me laugh too. We moved here last year during new herring season :-)

    I am so in love with your recipe here. It is perfect for this glorious weather we're having lately. I bet it would be great with grilled zucchini or grilled eggplant too. Heerlijk!

  18. This dish looks wonderful! I like that you cook from your Greek heart even when you are in Holland.
    Thanks for sharing this recipe and for stopping by my blog.

  19. Beautiful zucchini towel!!

  20. I hadn't checked your blog in a couple of weeks, and this looks delicious - can't wait to try it! I also wanted to ask you a question - the ravani cake has become one of my favorite last-minute dessert recipes, and it is always a big hit. I was wondering if you've ever tried them as muffins/cupcakes?

  21. Kate, I've never tried them as muffins or cupcakes but I can't think of a reason why they shouldn't work. If you do try them like that I would love to know how they turned out!

  22. Hi Magda! First of all, it is nice to find a blog written by Magda (I am Magda(lena), too).
    Secondly, the weather here, in Paris, for a past few weeks was worse than bad.
    And in Poland, my country, people fight with awful floods.
    This recipe is great for a sunny picture everything very nice;
    will we have any sun this year ?
    Kind regards

  23. They look delicious..!
    Your blog is very nice..

  24. Thank you Pepela and welcome to my blog!

  25. I love your blog and all these recipes. This one also looks delicious. I am spanish, also live in Holland for 3 years, now in Germany. I can feel your pin when you don´t find the right products:)

    1. Hi Eva. Thank you so much for your kind comment. You are an expat too huh? Yep, it is difficult not being able to find all the ingredients I am so used to.