02 May 2013

How to Use Your Oven in Dutch (Kind of...)

Or if there is someone looking to make a really boring graphic novel, I suggest Ace vs. the Convection Oven.

One of the things that surprises a lot of Americans about Europe is the smaller living space; you see the overly-incredulous reactions to the space/cost ration all the time on House Hunters International. But smaller spaces stem from old (ancient) buildings and cities and you make due with the space you do have, so many European kitchens are compact, keeping space-saving appliances and just few cabinets with clean lines. Think IKEA without the 6 burner stove and island counter top you see in the American catalog. We're fortunate that the home we live in is WAY bigger than our little apartment in Chicago. But even with this fairly large space, we have a small refrigerator, a glass top electric stove, and the appliance with which I have developed an unhealthy love/hate relationship: a small microwave/convection oven combo unit. But before delving into the nature of our analysis, a little cooking background information.

Our old apartment had a little galley stove with gas burners and oven which previously ranked as the bane of my existence. If you needed multiple burners you had to light them in a particular order otherwise some wouldn't light at all, which often meant playing "musical pans" as you shuffled your dishes around the stove top. I worked around this by eventually learning which was starter was the weakest and which burner would bully the others into staying off. None of the knobs for the burners or the oven were original to the stove, so the hand-painted numbers and symbols meant nothing as far as "accuracy" goes. I kept a thermometer in the oven and eventually learned to estimate the position on the dial for my approximate temperature needs. But just to keep things interesting, the oven would also occasionally throw in a surprise when the temperature would inexplicably rocket from 350F to 550F, char the bottom of whatever was inside, and set off the smoke alarm. All this would drive me up a wall in the 4 years that I would coax, cajole, and battle the stove... and yet now I miss it like an old friend.

Since moving to Tilburg, I'm now at home with the Little Man and I have a little more time to mess around with cooking (mess is often the most appropriate descriptive term, as it turns out - anyone who has witnessed my methods would be hard pressed to disagree) and we eat at home more often than we did in Chicago. As after every move in my adult life, my cooking habits have adjusted with the new appliances. Recently I've done pretty well accounting for the switch between the gas and electric cook tops. The oven, however, continues to provide a new challenge on a near-daily basis.

See that strange white box? That's my "oven."

If you ever go to Europe and find yourself having to cook with a similar strange heat-producing box like mine, here are some pointers for use:
  • The oven may have a "roasting" setting, but it's not a good idea to try and roast a whole chicken - especially if it's uncovered. Steam will pour out from around the door like dry ice set up by an overenthusiastic special effects intern on the set of a bad made-for-TV sci-fi movie. 
  • Using the "baking" setting on the whole chicken you have gone ahead and attempted to roast anyway will only char the outside of the chicken while keeping the interior raw - this is especially true if you tried to stuff the cavity with anything.
  • Whenever you are baking something, set it for 4/5 of the cooking time. When the oven turns off, turn the food by 90-180 degrees and bake for the remaining 1/5 of the recommended cooking time. This will ensure that your dish isn't left major burn marks on one side of your dish while the other half remains underdone. Instead, the food to look only "kind of burnt" on one side.
  • It's probably not worth your time to translate the manual because there are likely too many instances of Google Translate not being able to find the equivalent terms.
  • When you decide to clean the oven without chemicals, decide to follow a Pinterest suggestion to microwave a mix of half-cup water and half-cup vinegar, and forget that microwaving liquid for too long (a.k.a. the recommended amount of time) will lead to super-heated exploding liquid, don't be too surprised that the liquid explodes and the safety-fail turns off the appliance. Just find the fusebox in the utility cabinet, reset the house power, and let everything air-dry for the next day or so.
  • When you decide not to clean the oven at all, don't be surprised when something starts smoking.
  • If you happen to be below average height for an American and move to a country where the average height is taller, your counters and appliances will be placed higher and potentially above eye-level. Purchase a stool or keep a chair handy.
  • Some times it's okay to just throw out the attempt and pretend like it never happened. No one was going to eat it anyway.
  • Google is your friend when you can't remember how to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius on your own. It's not recommended to just "assume" you know what you're doing when you 
  • Make sure to press the "baking" setting before adding the cooking time to the appliance when using metal pans. The default setting is the "microwave" setting, and the pretty blue lighting on your pan or tin foil is a bad thing.
  • It's never really a good idea to rely on the smoke alarm to tell you when something isn't cooking right, but it's a terrible idea when you haven't yet found the smoke alarm (the house may not actually have one).
  • Adding a wish and a prayer to your recipe will never hurt your chances. 

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