Niels Heemskerk makes Indonesian Fried Rice
Letting dinners unfold makes for culinary surprises
Most weekdays at 2 p.m. Deb Heemskerk phones her husband Niels and asks, "What's for dinner?"
The two discuss that vital question in general terms - fish or chicken? - and Deb shops for whatever fresh ingredients are required.
At 6:30, when Niels gets home, he selects a recipe off the Internet, perhaps sweet potato and pecan-crusted tilapia, and starts cooking, but then he improvises as he goes.
"When planning starts at 2 o'clock, I usually don't have everything I need, so I modify the recipe," he says. Creme fraiche becomes plain yogurt, portobellos become button mushrooms or vice versa, sherry becomes brandy. No sweet potatoes for the tilapia? He'll make it pecan crusted instead.
Niels, regional sales manager for Cigna health insurance Midwest office, handles all the cooking for this Bloomingdale family of five (two of three kids are at college). Deb shops and does cleanup.
"I'm in sales," he says, "I do a lot of talking and thinking. It's great to come home and do something with your hands. I love the tactile aspect too; the feel of the ingredients, the slicing and dicing."
One of the keys to his creativity is stocking the right stuff in the pantry and refrigerator. Niels keeps on hand a global assortment of spices and condiments to jazz up the basics. Maple or honey mustard glazes, Marsala wine and beurre blanc sauce adorn chicken or fish, chipotle chiles in adobo sauce heat up Mexican meals, balsamic vinaigrette with Bordeaux wine flavors a sauce for those few times when steak appears on the dinner table.
Born and raised in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Niels learned to cook while watching his mother after school. At 25 he moved to the United States and discovered "How Cooking Works" by Sylvia Rosenthal and Fran Shinagel.
"It has lots of recipes, but it explains the technique, too," he says. "It's still my bible."
What's for dinner this week? From his Indonesian favorites Niels shares a fried rice recipe, exotically seasoned with Thai chile paste, ginger and coriander.
"This dish is a staple in the Netherlands," he says." Some of the spices can be purchased at an Asian market or through the mail."
Though the Heemskerks don't eat many carbohydrates, pizza is an exception.
Typically a weekend project, Niels makes the dough by hand. This week he tops it with homemade pesto, marinated artichoke hearts and prosciutto.
"We eat more European style, a small piece of meat and lots of vegetables," says Niels.
Pesto and prosciutto appear again in his stuffed chicken breast, this time accompanied by goat cheese. (Get the recipe at dailyherald.com/food.)
Roughly once a month the Heemskerks entertain. For those occasions Niels plans ahead, choosing interactive recipes involving his guests, like ravioli or the pizzas.
"I enjoy having people help," he says. "It's fairly casual."
Otherwise Niels makes no long-term promises for family meals.
"Every day is a surprise."