Friday, June 6, 2014

Raghavan Iyer's Chicken Simmered in a Coconut Milk-Vinegar Sauce from 660 Curries

Here's another chicken curry for ya'll (no, I'm not from the South) to try!  This was a last minute sort-a curry, but I can't really remember how I landed on it (there's so many to choose from!) ... my thought process probably went something like this

Chicken doesn't need to be marinated? ... check. 
Do I have all the ingredients listed? ... check.  
Simple process?... check.  

As you can see in the first photo, this is a vindaloo... which equals spicy, but in my opinion the coconut milk significantly cuts down the heat.  You can still make this recipe and tailor it for your tolerance level, but if you're not into spicy food, I'd recommend trying another chicken curries with more flavor (check out some of my past posts!).  

So, here's the recipe: 

Chicken Simmered in a Coconut Milk-Vinegar Sauce


As I have now cooked a significant number of curries from this cook book, I prefer a higher ratio of curry (sauce) to chicken.  I have tailored my recipe accordingly.  
  • 2 tablespoons of oil (I used coconut oil, recipe calls for canola)
  • 1 medium sized red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 300 grams of chicken breast cut up into approximately 1 inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar (I didn't have enough vinegar so I used up what I had and filled the remainder with cider vinegar per the suggestion in the book)
  • a couple cloves of garlic minced
  • 1 tablespoon of coriander seeds, ground (freshly ground is best)
  • 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds, ground (freshly ground is best)
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper mixed with 3/4 teaspoon of sweet paprika (the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of ground Kashmiri chiles, but since I don't have this I used the replacement)
  • 1 teaspoon of sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Once warm, add the onion and cook until light brown until light brown around the edges (stir so they don't burn), about 3-5 minutes. 
  2. Lower the heat to medium and add the chicken pieces.  Cook until they have browned, about 2-3 minutes per side.  Transfer the chick and onion to a plate. 
  3. Pour the vinegar into the skillet and add the minced garlic, ground coriander, ground cumin, cayenne, Kashmiri chiles (or replacement), salt and turmeric.  Scrape the bottom of the skillet to deglaze.  Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally until some of the oil starts to separate around the edges of the skillet and on the surface.  
  4. Stir in the coconut milk, and return the chicken to the skillet.  Cook, covered stirring occasionally, until the meat in the thickest parts of the chicken is no longer pink inside and the juices run clear, about 18 to 20 minutes.  Cook longer if desired to thicken the sauce (note the original recipe calls to remove the chicken and then thicken the curry  separately... I chose not to do this for the sake of time and convenience!).  
  • Raghavan mentions that cider or malt vinegar can be used instead of white wine vinegar for a sweeter tasting sauce.  As I mentioned above, I used cider vinegar out of necessity.  I didn't detect much sweetness, so it's subtle at most.  

Note, I served with rice, as is pretty much always standard for me.  You could certainly serve with naan or roti, but I find the rice soaks up the curry best, also cutting a bit of the heat.  

Hope you enjoy this curry!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Raghavan Iyer's Green Mangoes with a Yogurt-Toasted Coconut Sauce from 660 Curries

Gah!  I know it's been over 2 months since I last posted.  My computer died and for a while we thought it was completely kaput, but it turns out some love at the (look-alike) Apple store did it some good ... so now we're up and running and I have a lot of backlog topics I really want to share with you all... so bare with me as I get through it all. 

Last weekend, my husband bought mangoes at the fresh market in Wonsel and while one of them was this delicious, juicy, sweet mango.... the other, unfortunately and disappointingly (!) was not ripe enough.  In seeing that it wasn't ready for eating, I quickly consulted my good old Indian curry cook book, 660 curries... thinking if I was going to find a mango curry, it would only be there!  I was in luck, as you can see from the photo below, and this dish was soooooo delicious!  The combination of the tart and sweet mango with the savory and nutty taste of the coconut flakes and coconut milk were an awesome combination!  There was a lot of heat in this dish which contrasted to the sweetness of the mango and the creaminess of the coconut milk well.  DELISH!

So, here's the recipe: 

Green Mangoes with a Yogurt-Toasted Coconut Sauce

  • 2 large green (unripe) mangoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2 inch cubes (I used 1 green mango, because that's what was available to me and it was slightly ripened... i.e. the flesh had some sweetness, but you wouldn't have found it very good to eat plain)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil (I used coconut oil)
  • 1 cup shredded fresh coconut (I used coconut flakes, the were not fresh, but they weren't dried such that they needed to be reconstituted - they are for snacking, but you know.... )
  • 1 tablespoon yellow split peas
  • 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorn
  • 1 or 2 fresh green thai chilies (or whatever type of spicy chili you have available, add to your taste level) 
  • 1 or 2 dried Thai chilies (or whatever type of spicy chili you have available, add to your taste level; I used Italian pepporncini since that's what we currently have in the house!)
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled (or chopped) jaggery or firmly packed dark brown sugar (I used brown sugar)
  • 1/2 cup thick yogurt (I used greek yogurt)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds (I used black, for no particular reason as I have both)
  • 1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

  1. Combine the mangoes, salt turmeric, and 3 cups of water in a medium-size saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Continue to boil, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the mangoes are tender but still firm looking, about 8 to 10 minutes. 
  2. In the meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the coconut, split peas, peppercorns, and the fresh and dried chilies, and stir-fry until the coconut is toasted (brown colored), and the chilies are blistered slightly.  Approximately 5 minutes. 
  3. Drain the mangoes reserving 1 cup of the yellow broth they cooked in. 
  4. Pour 1/2 cup of the reserved mango broth into the coconut mixture and scrape the bottom of the skillet to deglaze it, releasing any browned bits of coconut.  Transfer the mixture to a blender jar and puree until a gritty like past speckled with spices. 
  5. Return the drained mangoes to the same saucepan thy cooked in, and add the coconut paste (I used a plastic spatula - typically used for baking - to get all of the paste out of the jar).  Pour the remaining 1/2 cup of reserved broth into the skillet. Add the brown sugar and stir in.  Cook the mixture over medium heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally (until the jaggery dissolves, if using).  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the yogurt. 
  6. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a small skillet over medium high heat.  Once warm, add mustard seeds and cover quickly.  Allow the mustard seeds to stop popping and then add the fenugreek seeds.  The fenugreek seeds will quickly brown and emit a nutty smell.  Remove from heat and pour over the curry.  Stir to combine and serve! 

I looked in the book for a recommendation of what to serve this curry with and didn't find anything.  I ended up choosing white rice, which worked out really well as it mopped up the curry pretty well without changing the taste of it! 

Hope you try it!  Happy curry-ing!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Chicken with Almond Yogurt Sauce (Chicken Korma) from 660 Curries

Update: March 28, 2014

I remade this recipe after I went out and bought blanched almonds.  I also took more time blending (I used an immersion blender as you can see from the photo below) the 'curry' through so there weren't large chunks of almond.  The immersion worked well to blend through the whole spices (peppercorn, cardamom, etc.) as long as I gave the mixture time to blend together.  I think this recipe turned out a lot better, packed with flavor and not weighted down from the skins of the almonds.  

You can blanch your own almonds by soaking them in room temperature water overnight and peeling the skins the next day.  Alternatively you can buy them and if you don't have a powerful blender, consider buying them slivered, this will help immensely!  

I used cut cub chicken breast again instead of a whole breasts. I used cinnamon powder (which I bought at our local Persian store and which is very strong) instead of cinnamon stick since I needed to use it up.  I used green cardamom pods instead of white (I don't find a flavor difference here, I think it's used for appearances as in if you were going to use cardamom powder in a cake or frosting... anyone out there know?). 

Blending the curry.  Used the immersion blender and blended for a good 5-8 minutes to make sure everything was blended together and evenly.  Whole spices were blended in this mixture as well. 
Chicken curry cooking, with reduced sauce.  Very mud-like.

Dinner is served (over white rice)


Original Post:

Trying to get back onto the bandwagon of posting food recipes.... so here goes my first food posting of the year! 

While this was not my favorite curry recipe from 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer, it's nevertheless worth a post since it's an interesting dish.  It happened that the next day, as I was reading, Curry: A tale of cooks and conquerors by Lizzie Collingham, I also learned a little about its origins and how the curry became as it is today.  According to this book, Indian cooking was heavily influenced by Persian cooking techniques.  For korma, the concept of marinating the meat in yogurt with spices (the first step of this recipe) was a Persian one.  The Mughals ('kings' ruling regions of India) brought food influenced by Persia and central Asia added spice to the marinade/dish.  The Mughals would not have used chilies, but as chilies made their way from South India to North India, they eventually were incorporated (chilies originated from the Portuguese who brought them to Goa, India... fascinating stuff!).  The chefs of Lucknow (another region in India), added cream to everything which was also eventually incorporated into this dish.  In this case, the marinade in the form of yogurt, but in other cases, actual heavy cream is used to thicken the curry.  In this particular dish, ground almonds is used to thicken the cream, which is also a Persian influence.  

I love that I'm getting  dose of history as I make these curries, it makes it so much more fun to cook.  


1/4 cup yogurt (I used greek yogurt)
1 thumb sized piece of ginger, minced (recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of ginger paste which is a lot of ginger and water ground together than can be stored in your fridge for use whenever... I don't do this)
3 cloves of garlic minced (1 tablespoon of garlic paste - same as above) 
1 kilo (2.2 pounds) of chicken breast (recipe calls for 3.5 pounds) cut into cubes
2 tablespoons of olive oil (recipe calls for canola oil)
1/2 teaspoon of whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon of black peppercorns 
6 green or white cardamom pods (I used white)
3 black cardamom pods (I bought these at Penzeys)
3 cinnamon sticks (each 3 inches long)
2 fresh or dried bay leaves (I used dry)
1 medium sized red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/2 cup of slivered blanched almonds (I did not blanch them, next time I would try this)
1.5 teaspoons cayenne pepper 
Fresh cilantro chopped for garnish

  1. Blend together the yogurt, ginger and garlic (use a small amount of water if you find it too thick or regular yogurt as opposed to greek yogurt which is very thick) in your blender or a small bowl.  Cover the chicken pieces with the yogurt blend and refrigerate, covered overnight (you could also do this for a shorter amount of time, ~ 1 hour if you are limited on time) to marinate the chicken.  
  2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the cloves, peppercorns, green/white and black cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves.  Cook until they sizzle and smell aromatic (~recipe calls for 1-2 minutes).  Do not let the spices burn. 
  3. Add the onion and cook until they are light brown, about 5 minutes.  Transfer the onion and all the spices to your blender jar and port in 1 cup of water.  Add the almonds, salt, and cayenne.  Puree until blended together forming a gritty solution, not quite paste-like, but it could be if less water was present. 
  4. Place the chicken including any marinade in the skillet and cook over medium-high heat.  I find that there ends up being too much water so I use a paper towel to soak up the water. Cook until the chicken is browned. 
  5. Add the onion paste to the skillet.  Pour 1/4 cur pot water into the blender jar and wash out the remaining almond solution.  Cover the chicken in the curry completely, make sure all pieces are covered.  Once it starts to bubble (like mud!), reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the skillet.  Occasionally stir the mixture ensuring all chicken pieces are cooked evenly.  Cook until the chicken is fully cooked (which I check by taking out a thicker piece and cutting it at the thickest portion to see if the inside is white). 
  6. Sprinkle the cilantro over the curry for garnish.  Serve with rice. 

To be totally honest, while the curry has lots of flavor and included new spices (white cardamom) and techniques (ground almonds to make a thick curry), the dish was not novel to my palate.  I do want to re-try this recipe with blanched almonds (without the almond skin), I think this could lighten up the curry a little.  Perhaps a fresh squeeze of lemon would give it some brightness, but then it might change the flavor profile altogether.  

Regardless, I wanted to post this recipe as I think it could be fun for those willing to try.  If you do, let me know how it goes! 

Happy Currying! 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dinner in Amsterdam at Restaurant de Kas

Perhaps you noticed on my facebook feed, we ventured to Amsterdam last Saturday to try another restaurant.  In particular, this recommendation, Restaurant de Kas, came from a book we picked up on a trip to Amsterdam last summer.  The book is a compilation of restaurant recommendations from other chefs stratified by region (in Europe), cost, type of food, and etc. For this particular outing, I was looking for an establishment serving French food, but when I saw that this restaurant had its own greenhouse on site and a farm nearby, my curiosity got the best of me and I had to check it out.  Online, the website mentioned the food was influenced by Mediterranean cooking... I can't say I saw that reflected in the food I the evening we were there.  In my mind the food was neutral, not influenced by any particular country or region... just tasty! I'm happy with that!

While we intended to go to Amsterdam to see the Hermitage museum, due to the train station construction and what not, we didn't get into town in time (darn museumkaart is gonna go to waste, I can tell already!).  So, we walked around a little, went into the Oude Kerk (translates to Old Church... I know, super creative... most Dutch towns are like this by the way) and then found a small weekend neighborhood area to do some antiquing.  We found a great oyster plate, but then realized if we move back to MN we might not have much use for the plate.  So while our day to Amsterdam wasn't as educational as we initially planned, we sure did enjoy a nice sunny day in the big city! 

Below are some food pics that I'll share for your drooling pleasure (iPhone pics).  There is only a fixed menu available, but the experience can be completely your own.  You begin with three appetizers (which all come out at the same time), one main course, and one dessert.  You may replace the dessert with a cheese plate if you like (in true French form... hmmmmm.....), or you can supplement the cheese plate for an extra charge.  There is a massive wine selection, or there is a wine pairing you may choose to have instead. For us, the evening started off with the waiter asking us if we wanted to be surprised by the menu or if we wanted to know the full details.  We told him we wanted to be surprised.  Then he asked us if there was anything we didn't eat and I said no, but my husband very cleverly said he gets a little squeamish around offal.  The waiter assured us that this was not the case except for sweetbreads and we both said, no problem-o! We also chose the wine pairing, but asked for half pours as there was a lot of wine to accompany the meal, which they happily were able to accommodate.  

One last thing, I read on an informational booklet that you can tour the green house and participate in cooking events from May through October.  We definitely plan to go back and partake in these activities.  I also noticed there is a parking garage directly across from the entry way, so if you don't have time to explore the city, but want to check out the restaurant, don't worry about parking! 

On to the photos.... 

Outside shot of the restaurant, I can only imagine what it looks like when everything is in bloom!  To the right of this photo was a part along a canal/stream with a place to walk dogs and places to sit and read a book or admire the scenery.  I imagine this is can be a great getaway from the city life of Amsterdam when in need of something green and fresh.  

Apertif, olives from Puglia, Romaensco and cauliflower marinated in something with a bit of parsely, olive oil from Spain and warm bread.  

My hubby with a glass of organic, Dutch sparkling Riesling.  What's fun about the glass is that it's a view of the skyline from the restaurant's farm etched in.
Appetizer #1: Pork Belly with shaved truffle and brussel sprout. 

Appetizer #2: White fish (I think trout) with mushrooms and greens

Appetizer #3, Grilled fennel with a paprika/pepper sauce and a sesame seed twirl

Main Course: Veal with sweetbreads, bok choy, turnip (super small!), roasted purple carrot

Dessert: Blood orange tart with chocolate ice cream with dark chocolate shavings on top.  You can see the flower petals which were edible, but didn't add flavor to the dish - nice plate presentation touch though!

Restaurant Details: 
Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3
1097 DE Amsterdam
service: everyone speaks English
reservations: you can call (of course), but you can also make them online and they will send a confirmation email the day before

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lessons Learned from Living Abroad continued

As promised, here's my husband's thoughts on living abroad, with a focus on managing finances, dealing with tax preparation, managing remaining finances back home, etc.  I love how practical his advice is and while it may not work for you, it's something to think about as you're making the transition abroad or still figuring it out (it is indeed an ongoing process!).  Feel free to drop a comment if you want him or me to expand on any points you see here! 


Monica did a really nice job explaining the challenges we've faced, both personally and professionally, during our expatriate experiences.  You can imagine there are stories behind each and every bulleted item in her list, but expanding on those may be fodder for other posts.  She has asked me to comment on the paperwork and financial challenges that came with our experiences, so I’m going to spend some time going over my methods for managing those topics.  The methods I use are not strictly for expats…they can also be useful for day to day life experiences, but there is a strange marriage of paper and electronics that happens when you become an expat, so I’ll go through that.

First things first, though…

Where is your home country?:  United States of America (Minnesota)
How many years have you been away from your home country?: 4 years
What is your current and previous expat location?:  Currently in Eindhoven, The Netherlands; previously in Torino, Italy
Why did you choose to live abroad?: I was presented with an interesting professional opportunity, with an interesting product, in a fascinating culture.
Are you working?: Yup.  I’m a mechanical engineer for a medical device company.
How often do you go to your home country?: perhaps once a year.

So I’m going to tell you how we manage our paper and financial lives while overseas…this isn’t “the right way,” it’s my way.  If you think these kinds of things are helpful for you, I encourage you to find ways to adjust them to meet your own needs.

With what currency are you paid?
You need to think ahead about this question, because it has an impact on your access to funds overseas.

There are at least three ways that an expat can get paid.  For our first jobs, we were paid in dollars to our US accounts by the US branches of the companies we worked for.  This means that we would be earning dollars and spending euros…that’s obviously a mismatch, but we still had a lot of US expenses that needed to be paid in USD, from US accounts.  So this worked fairly well.  We just needed to figure out how to buy stuff in local currency without paying exorbitant exchange fees.

Another way to go is to hedge - I met one colleague who was paid half his salary in euros and half his salary in US dollars.  That’s pretty smart, and provides him some margin when the exchange rates fluctuate.

In our current position, we are paid solely in euros.  This brings its own challenges, because while we have wound down most of our US expenses, we do still have some, and now it is expensive to wire money back home to keep those accounts funded.

How do you get spending money in each of these cases?
The easiest way to make purchases is with a Capital One credit card.  They don’t charge extra for foreign currency purchases.  You pay the Wall Street exchange rate and that’s it.  But they only accept dollars, which is relatively challenging to address when you are paid only in Euros.  You also earn points on your payments, so you continue to have a small benefit.

For access to cold hard cash, we set up an account with Charles Schwab.  If you take advantage of their offer to link a brokerage account to a checking account, then you can withdraw cash from your US account using overseas ATMs at no extra charge!  It is literally just the wall street rate.  What’s great about this is that we can be traveling anywhere in the world, and if we need money, we just pull it from the local cash machine.  Easy peasy.  That said, it’s still critical to call the bank if you travel to make sure they know you’re abroad.

If you’re paid in euros, then you have a European bank account.  That’s pretty easy to figure out.  Europeans are debit card nuts, so you have PIN payments possible at almost any establishment you want, making cash withdrawal almost obsolete anyway.

Banking as an expat:
We only have two experiences with this…assuming you have your residence papers, setting up a bank account in Eindhoven is EASY.  Sign a few documents, they mail us PINs and debit cards and that’s that.  Funny enough, the hardest part of the whole transaction was the initial deposit.  We had hand carried a thousand euros or so to give us a little spending money when we first arrived.  We withdrew it using our US-based bank cards by using the local Italian ATMs.  But we found out that the banks here in The Netherlands don’t actually carry cash…nor do they typically accept it.  It turns out that when you open a bank account, you get a one-time opportunity to deposit cash without additional fees.  Good thing we only wanted to do it once.  Basically, every bank transaction is electronic.  We got used to that fast.

The contrast between Italian banking and Netherlands banking couldn’t be starker.  Banking in Italy was an amazing experience.  The sheer volume of paper that was processed in order to make it work was shocking.  And what’s even more amazing is that the system seems to work like 20 years ago in the USA, with really horrendous bankers hours, reams and reams of paper documents, but also with fees for using the teller.  Remarkably, they actually use real paper to record your transactions…paper!  with signatures!  To set up an account, you set up a formal meeting with a local banker, who greets you very formally.  The specific bank branch is also critical to the process in Italy, as it serves as the location for bank deposits (for expats, anyway) and is the place to go for mortgages should you want one.  In this day and age of electronic banking, it is remarkable to suffer through those kinds of strange restrictions, but it’s a typical example of the kind of thing you have to realize you are taking for granted back in the US.

But here’s another hint: maintain a bank account in the US with somebody you trust.  Put their name on the account with you.  In a pinch, they can help you move some money around.

What obligations do you have…and which will you maintain from afar?
Here’s a list of obligations we had, and our thought process behind each of them:

We each had our own homes when we got married, so we started dealing with those...

  • House #1: keep it and rent it.  Turns out that being able to depreciate a property is a huge help when tax time comes.  So combining the depreciation with the rental income actually manages to (almost) pay for the property.  We don’t earn anything, but it has allowed us to avoid losing much money.  Find a reputable management company who is full service.  They’ll make the process one of low overhead.  Note that we also needed landlord insurance on it, so we need a way to pay that bill...
  • House #2: I had some roommates for awhile, but once they left, we decided to sell this house.  It wasn’t in a good enough neighborhood to rent it out at a high enough monthly price.  This was an incredibly painful decision because I had invested a tremendous amount of money in remodeling it.  But without a rental income to sustain it, the cost was far too high.  It had to go.
  • Accomplishing the sale of a house from afar was much easier than I ever expected.  We were able to use online electronic signatures for everything, so contracts were pretty easy to review from email.  The hardest thing was to manage the timeframes involved.  Due to timezones, you’re never able to respond fast enough.  The second hardest thing was the check with the proceeds…but since we had an account in the US, we were able to have the proceeds sent to our parents, who were on the same account, and they were able to make the deposits for us.  If we hadn’t done that, then we would have had to fedex or DHL the paper check across the ocean.
  • Monica’s pet cat…we were expecting to take Dusty with us, but after exploring what would be necessary with shots, and the cat’s violent lack of interest in receiving them, we decided to give the cat to Monica’s parents…who proceeded to feed him salmon.  So no more cat.  It’s in love with them now. [Monica’s editorial note: Grr, he just doesn't like the cat!]
  • Mortgage payments: managed electronically through the bank websites.  This is awesome. 
  • Electronic bill pay.  Equally awesome. 
  • The truck: its purpose was for remodeling the house.  With the house remodeled and sold, the truck needed to go.  No need to keep paying insurance on it.
  • The sports car: the smart thing to do is to sell it.  After 4 years of being overseas, it gets a whole body style older.  But I just couldn't part with it.  I already paid for it, and I put so many personal hours of hard work into it that I just couldn't let it go.  Besides, it still looks pretty good.  So that’s one where I needed to set up an insurance program on it.
  • Insurance: a few interesting bits of insurance…I mentioned that we needed a rental policy for the house, I needed a fire and theft policy for my car that I could turn into a driving policy when I’m back visiting, and we needed to have a separate jewelry policy.  I cannot stress enough the value in having a great insurance agent who likes to give good service.  It is very easy to manage and pay for our policies over the phone using an American credit card.  We don’t have good visibility to the due dates of the policies, nor the paperwork that regularly arrives, but the agent calls us to check in if there’s an issue.  It works really well.

Speaking of calling in…
When we came to Europe, we ported our existing cell phone numbers to Google Voice.  This provides us with a local US number at no additional charge, and it provides a nice voicemail box as well.  We just use that phone number if we need to list a local US number.  The biggest benefit is that it is the listed number for our credit cards already, so when I call my card companies from google voice, it already recognizes that number as my home number, even though I’m way over in Europe.

One of our friends uses something called MagicJack, which has a monthly subscription fee, but is still pretty cool.  The idea is that you plug an extension into the router, and you plug any landline phone into it.  At that point, magic jack communicates with its service, and the telephone is activated through the internet - you have a VOIP connection through the US, and you can talk with that line through a normal home telephone.  This is more comfortable than with google voice, and more private, given that Google Voice communications are like talking to a speakerphone.

For personal communications, FaceTime and Skype work well when at home, as long as everyone in the house wants to participate in the conversation.  For a more private solution, I have been using an application called Localphone on my iPhone.  It’s a neat application.  It contains its own list of contacts, and when I select the contact to call, Localphone dials my phone to a local Netherlands number, but the person on the other end of the line is the person in the US I wanted to talk to.  The cost is really low…I put $10 in and it would last me for many 40-minute phone calls (the length of my commute home in Italy), because they are less than a penny per minute.  This approach is nice because it doesn't rely on the phone’s data connection or download limits…it is actually using the phone minutes.

Managing your paperwork:
Although most of our mail in the US has been stopped by virtue of our departure from the country, we do still get correspondence, some of which is very important.  Monica’s parents have been indispensable in managing our mail for us.  They perform a quick sort to throw away the trash, and then periodically forward our documents to us using the postal service.  It’s about $16 each time for about 4 months of mail.  Included are our various 1099s and W2’s from the US that come around tax time.

Both Italy and The Netherlands have their fair share of paperwork and bureaucracy.  But Italy is a whole new world of bureaucracy.  They have special colored ink stamps they aggressively apply to documents printed from a dot-matrix printer (dot matrix!!!!) in an effort to partially emboss the papers.  Then they sign over the top of the colored stamp.  They also have a paperwork tax you have to pay for official papers, and that’s done with a self-adhesive sticker, just like a US postal service stamp.  Remarkably, every regional authority has its own method for registering you as a resident alien, so it’s a different process every time.  You should just assume that you will do it wrong the first time and will need to reschedule.  The end result of all this is that you will generate a ton of documents that you really aren’t allowed to get rid of.

As expats, we live in a smallish apartment in a city.  As Americans, we used to live in a big house with big storage.  So, we used to keep a lot of papers around.  As expats, we don’t keep paper unless its absolutely necessary.  There’s just no space for it anywhere.  I do keep one 3-ring binder with all of our papers for each country.  Our Italy one is bursting at the seams, but the one from The Netherlands is still ok and doesn’t seem to be filling up quickly.  The things I keep in real paper format are the things that have to be that way, like the residency applications and letters granting residency status.  Dates of entry and exit from the country, our dog’s pedigree, things like that which are really on paper and need to stay that way.

How do I manage to keep all my files in order without keeping all the paper?  ScanSnap and OCR.

The Fujitsu scansnap is an incredible scanner.  It’ll scan duplex in one pass, feed different shapes of paper with ease, all while performing on-the-fly OCR for your documents.  I use the OCR to make the documents searchable, which means with my Mac, I can use the spotlight search to find anything.  I also use it to scan all of our receipts so I don’t have to keep track of them.  Why do I scan receipts?  Well, partially because it was really hard to keep track of expenses when spending money in foreign currency.  We had a budget to stick to, but it was really hard to do that without a real time understanding of our expenses.  The Mac also has a neat application called Hazel, which is able to look into the OCR text of a document and take actions, like renaming the files and sorting it into the proper folders.  So when I get a document, I can just scan it it in, and if it is a tax document it goes right into the tax document folder on its own, with a proper name.

The real magic of this approach though is that when I get a long letter from the Dutch government in the mail, which looks very imposing being full of Dutch words, I can easily feed it into my scanner, push the button, and because of the magic of OCR, I can copy and paste the entire text of the document into google translate in less than 30 seconds.  Then I know the meaning of the letter, and I can throw it away, and file it electronically in the Dutch government electronic file.

With all of my documents going into my computer, I also have to have a strong backup system, both in-house and off-site.

This leads us into the next topic: Taxes!
I’m not a tax expert.  I’m just not.  But I have had to learn how to retain all of my tax documents in a good format for my reference.  Many expats (like us) have access to accountants who will ensure our taxes are filed in a prudent way.  The accountants were hired by the employer, and their allegiance is to the employer, not to us, so it still takes a bit of vigilance.  The process is simple but time consuming.  They send an electronic organizer to us that we have to fill out where the questions are similar to those provided for turbotax style tax software.  But this is where having set up electronic access to everything will pay off.  One of the trickier parts of the taxation is the funny questions asked in different countries.  In both The Netherlands and in Italy, they levy a wealth tax, meaning that they tax us on the total value of our assets and savings.  This is anathema to Americans of course, but there isn’t much choice.

As Americans, we are taxed on worldwide income every single year, and we are required to file our returns every single year.  The only way to avoid that is to stop being American.  It is important that we apply for the foreign earned income exclusion in order to reduce our tax burden in the USA.  If this isn’t filed for properly, then it is likely that the exclusion will be lost, which means a huge tax hit.  So stay on top of that!

To be properly prepared, you will want to save:

  • year-end statements for all retirement accounts, including 401k, traditional IRA, roth IRA, roth 401k, pensions
  • year-end statements for all of your bank accounts
  • an accounting of the value of all of your stock purchases, in particular any stock purchases done through an ESPP.
  • mortgage statements…in The Netherlands it turns out to be handy to have access to all your statements.  Fun fact: when you sell your home, you lose access to all the documentation online.  So make sure you download it first!
  • rental profit and loss statement…one trick we found useful was to have a breakdown of our town home association fees,which are somewhat deductible.  We had to get it from the management of the association.  In order to make rental properties really useful to you, you have to deduct everything possible, so take advantage of that by keeping good records.
  • any foreign bank accounts need to be declared if the value was ever above $10000 in the year.  There’s a special form to fill out that isn’t actually part of the normal IRS process.  It’s a separate electronic declaration.  It is pretty important because the fines for forgetting to file the form are exorbitant.  In fact, while this is true for US taxes, the fines for failing to report your worldwide assets for the wealth taxes of foreign countries are REALLY exorbitant…in Italy, it can apparently lead to forfeiture of the asset!  And since the wealth tax is like 0.01%, it’s better to declare than to lose your stuff.
Making tax payments is also a bit tricky.  When we were being paid in dollars, we were unable to pay our Italian taxes for Monica’s income because we had to make payment in euros.  We were able to work with her company to have them make payment for us in euros, and then we paid the company in dollars.  It took some extra steps!

I recommend consolidation.  To make this process easier, it’s best to get your financial life compressed to the fewest number of accounts possible.  I’ve been reducing my accounts year by year, and it has been making the process easier for us.

That’s all folks

That’s a huge outpouring of stuff for my first-ever blog post.  If you’re interested in a little more information on any of the topics above, I can probably expand on them.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Restaurants in Yerseke and Middelburg, Zeeland, The Netherlands

In our quest to explore local hotspots near Eindhoven, we decided to travel to Zeeland, a group of islands in the south-western part of the country.  We traveled to the southern most island and stayed in a little town called Yerske, a harbor town on the North Sea (specifically the Eastern Scheldt).  We took a 1.5 hour tour through to learn about the towns top source of income, seafood!  We walked through the harbors, learning about the process for farming, auctioning, and selling mussels, oysters and lobsters specifically from the area (the rest of the time, they ship in Canadian lobster).  Since it was oyster season, we took some time to enjoy eating a variety of different oysters, raw and cooked.  

A photo of the other side of the Oesterij menu where we ate oysters.  They were located on the harbor in Yerseke. 

Our first plate of oysters where we tried three different types, one was a traditional European style oyster (flat tops), one was a Japanese style oyster (vary curvy shape - they actually grow upwards) which can be difficult to eat due to the shape of the shell, and a raked Japanese style of oyster which is groomed so the shell is flat and its easier to eat the oyster.  The European oyster was the fullest flavor of the three which lingered well after eating the oyster. 
Argo joined us and hung out under the table while we ate.  He gave me a smile thinking I would pet him! 

We finished with some baked oysters, but unfortunately I only got a black and white photo, these had a bit of onion and herbs in them and then were baked covered in cheese.  Pretty yummy, but oysters are truly best raw!
In the evening, we decided to explore the old city, Middelburg, also the capital of Zeeland.  Since we arrived pretty late in the evening, as is the case in many small European towns, it was completely dead (all shops closed, not very many people out and about).  We saw the amazing abbey from the outside in the center of town and then walked around looking for a decent place to grab a small bite to eat.  As we were walking and debating, I spotted a small restaurant called Brassiere Panneke and peaking through the window I decided it would be the perfect place for a dessert.  After finally securing a table around 9pm, we took a look at the menu and what others were eating and decided we had to try more than just dessert!  We settled on a one main dish to share and then we each selected a dessert and dessert wine, because one can never indulge too much.  We ended the night with a Italian-like espresso to keep ourselves wired for the drive back to the B&B.  The experience at this restaurant was amazing, the food is French influenced and the service was fantastic. We were so pleased with the owner who treated us the same as the others, giving us lots of details of the menu, our selections, and recommendations for wine.  While the crowd in the restaurant was older, this did not deter us from having an enjoyable experience, the food truly spoke for itself.  

We started off with a Moroccan influenced lamb stew served in a phyllo dough 'crust' and accompanied with sides of couscous, mashed potatoes with herbs (couldn't figure out what it was and the name was lost in translation), and a mash of red beets.  This also came with a side of oven-baked potatoes.  Then I had a pear tart dessert served with pear ice cream, whip cream, a raspberry sauce and a crunchy biscuit (the ladder looking thing in the photo) with a Moscato dessert wine.  My husband took a traditional (for the French anyway) cheese pate and on the recommendation of the owner had this with a port wine.  We ended the night with an espresso which was served with chocolates and plain cookies.  

These photos were unfortunately taken with my iPhone, so they are not as good as the ones from earlier in our trip.  Hopefully they get the point across and if you are ever in Middelbury, you'll look them up! 

Main course: Moroccan lamb dish

Oven baked potatoes served with main course
Dessert: the highlight of my menu.  Pear Tart

Dessert: My husband's course, cheese platter

Chocolates and biscuits served with coffee

mmmm, italian coffee - had to document it!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lessons Learned from Living Abroad

This is a two part 'mini-series' of lessons I've learned from living abroad for the last three years. This part, by me, will focus on tips and tricks of establishing a home and things to consider when you have a job offer or before taking a new job abroad.  The next part, a guest post by my husband, will provide advice on financial considerations when making calculations to move abroad and advice on filing taxes as an expat (our experience is that we've always had another firm contracted to file our taxes, so this advice will focus on how to keep your papers in order, how to work with the tax firm, etc.).

I am pretty sure I do not always observe my own advice, but being aware of these differences is half the battle.  If you can actively recognize that these things will be a change for you or are different than what you are used to, you will begin to adapt faster to the new culture around you.  Expat experiences are different for each person and vary drastically depending upon the country you land in.  Expats also vary between whole families, couples, or singles explanted from one country and brought to another, but also include one person joining their  significant other in a new country.  Both situations can result in drastically different experiences for those moving abroad, but in both cases you have a common bond, being the new country you live in, and hopefully you will also find some expats that come from the same country as you!

Expats are not only those that move from the US to another country, they include anyone going to a new country independent of their country of origin.  Seems obvious when it's written down, but I was completely ignorant to this fact when I first arrived.  Be open to meeting all sorts of expats, it only expands your own horizons.

On to the advice.... these are in no particular order, I wrote them down over a period of a couple of weeks as they came to me.  I think you'll find that I gravitate towards compensating for food issues since it's so important to me (hopefully not a surprise if you read this blog often enough!), but I also tried to incorporate some non-food, every day life issues as well based on my own experience.  If there are any you'd like me to expand on, drop me a comment!

First some basics about my expat experience to give you some context:

What is your home country: United States (Minnesota)
How many years have you been away from your home country: 3 years
What is your current (and previous) expat location: Eindhoven, The Netherlands and Torino, Italy
Why did you choose to live abroad (note this could be the same answer as below): Originally my husband's job
Are you working?: Yes, locally in NL and was working remotely for a US company while in Italy
How often do you go to your home country?: Once per year (although I think we're just over at this point)
  • Understand the city you are moving to, especially if you are single.  Big city life is less of a culture shock, and often more apt to have the conveniences we are used to in the States. 
  • Things are slowly changing in Europe, but typically stores are closed on Sundays.  This will almost always be true for small store operations (much more common in Europe than the states), but large mega-like grocery stores or electronic stores may be open on Sundays.  Sometimes if the stores are open on Sundays, it's not every Sunday (e.g. in Eindhoven, when we first arrived stores were only open the first Sunday of each month).  Check local listing, co-workers or fellow ex-pat friends.  
  • Understand what ex-pat groups are available, how often they meet, what the membership is like (i.e. only women, women and men, moms, company groups, etc.).  These groups are essential to getting over the nostalgia of home over the holidays, venting issues about the new country you are living in (they will be there inevitably), getting recommendations for the hair dresser, doctor, dentist, etc.  You will make some of your dearest friends from these groups.
  • Expats are a transient group.  People come, people go, some for longer, some for shorter.  As a result, friendship with fellow expats happen fast, you just don't have as much time to waste getting to know someone.  Embrace it, it's a lovely thing to bond with people so quickly especially because they are people you likely may not have bonded with in your home country/region.   
  • Cultural differences are real (we are not as universal or worldwide as we’d like to think!), take some time to understand them and figure out how they will impact your work and/or social life.  It may be helpful to understand the history of the country, it could shed some light on any peculiarities you may/are experiencing.
  • Make sure that the job you think you have is the job your company wants you to do (there can be a difference!). Use an example of a general task you would expect to perform and see if that matches your manager's expectations.  
  • Don’t compare everything to the US, keep these thoughts to yourself and make a mental note.  One, it’s better for you: you’ll acclimate and adapt to your ex-pat life faster.  Two, your fellow co-workers and new foreign friends think you are saying everything is better in the US (even if you’re not trying to). 
  • Even if you were hired for your American experience, you will have to adjust to the local methods and management style.  It’s hard and sometimes seems counter-intuitive, but you'll question even your most basic understanding of the way the world works which is part of your expat experience! 
  • Figure out if you can obtain exclusively American food ingredients where you are moving to.  Some items we've had trouble acquiring are brown sugar, powdered sugar, molasses, maple syrup, Heinz ketchup, gel food coloring, Christmas cookie decorations (actually, holiday decorations in general), cranberries (in some countries), American candy bars (e.g. Reese’s peanut butter cups – I have found Snickers and Twix bars, but they taste different).  Note, all of these things depend on the country you are going to, you’ll figure it out with time, but for the your first trip there, grab a couple of these if you really think you’ll miss them!
  • Organic foods are available: In many of the countries we've been to, obtaining organic food (called bio here) is not difficult and can often be found in the grocery store.  There are often fresh markets (even in the cold Netherlands) where you can purchase vegetables, fruit, fish, etc. all year round (it’s a little warmer in Europe than MN). If you are from the mid-west you will likely find this pretty cool! 
  • Find a source of English TV shows and movies: this will allow you to stay current with the American social scene.  Some successful options are Amazon Prime, Roku, Slingbox, etc. Of course, it could deter you from learning the language of your chosen country, so be careful with this mixed blessing. 
  • Contrary to this, listening to the local radio and watching local TV can help you learn some very basic language skills quickly.  Put yourself out there and try a bit of the local language if you are interested to learn, I have found that local people are responsive to this and will help you learn... but only if you put yourself out there! 
  • Don’t expect people to speak in English because you have arrived... Remember, you are the foreigner!
  • Get an e-reader.  Keep your life light and not full of stuff, a great way to start is with an e-reader.  In an English speaking country, there will be some English books, but you will probably want a larger selection.  Most expats use the e-reader approach to get around this.  Large cities such as Amsterdam, Paris, etc will have larger English bookstores, but the cost can be high.  
  • You will find American treats/candy taste REALLY sweet when you go back for vacation or permanently. 
  • Donuts and cupcakes are primarily American. Tear… =(
  • Most of Europe is dog friendly, this is a nice bonus.  Often (but not always) you may be able to bring your dog into a store or restaurant. Generally they are not allowed in grocery stores/bakeries/etc.
  • American beef is a luxury, you will find the beef in Europe lean.  Enjoy American beef while you have it.
  • Beef can be eaten raw (called steak tartare), it’s delicious especially with all the condiments (and when in France!), give it a try!
  • Usually there are amazing places you can travel to within only a 4 hour drive – take advantage, don’t squander this opportunity.  Cheap airlines with equally cheap flight tickets can usually be bought and is also a good way to get around.... take note of the rules and regulations though, they will always try to get more out of you this way! 
While being an expat is  overwhelming at times, the best advice I received when I started my expat journey was that 'home' is where your family is (immediate in these terms) and the experience is what you make of it.  While you will undoubtedly experience frustration, loneliness, 'homesickness', and a desire to be back in your 'home' country where everything is comfortable... you will also feel extreme joy and awe, luck that you get to have a life in another country, and gratefulness.  Take it in stride and know that there are other expats out there to help you through it all!  

By the way, if any of my expat friends have any other tips, please share them by leaving a comment at the bottom of this post!