Friday, June 30, 2017

In My Kitchen, June 2017

Most of June, I was on the road, never in any kitchen at all. During the past week, however, I've been cooking and shopping again, and thinking a little bit about the history of a few of the foods that I have in my kitchen now. I frequently write about New World foods, but in this post, I'm concentrating on Old World produce.

Tabbouleh and Other Foods from the Middle East


I'll start with some middle eastern foods in my kitchen now that are now pretty standard in US supermarkets. Above is a photo of a tabbouleh salad I made this week, using bulgur "the traditional grain of the Levant" according to the package from Bob's Red Mill. "The Levant," as you probably know, is an older term for the eastern Mediterranean region, or middle east.

I prefer to make my own tabbouleh because the tomatoes and chopped herbs need to be fresh: in packaged tabbouleh, they're often kind of tired and tasteless. Obviously, the fact that this grain comes from Bob's Red Mill, a natural foods company in Oregon, shows that this is a pretty Americanized product! (The tomatoes and bell peppers you see in the salad illustrate how New World foods have been adapted by middle eastern cuisines.)

In my kitchen: Baba Ganoush and Hummus from Whole Foods.
Both can be made with tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds.


We ate the tabbouleh and also pita bread, baba ganoush, hummus, charcoal-grilled meat, and salad with olive oil for dinner one day this week. Other middle eastern foods now appearing on American tables including mine include olives, several sorts of cheese, falafel, lentil salads, stuffed vegetables, and more. Quite a few of these foodstuffs are mentioned in the Bible and other early works of literature from the Mediterranean region.

The history of the names of these foods (which often have multiple spellings) also points to their origin in the middle east. Tabbouleh is a word of Arab origin, meaning something like "seasoning." Hummus is the Arab word for chick peas, the primary ingredient of the dish. Sesame has its word roots in Arabic, Coptic, and early Egyptian languages. Tahini means crushed -- as in crushed sesame seeds. Baba Ganoush also comes from Arabic: baba can mean father or daddy and gannuj can mean coquettish or pampered (source).

In Israel, I've enjoyed these foods at a variety of places, especially the famous restaurant in the Arab-Israeli town of Abu Gosh, as well as in people's homes. A generation ago, they were pretty exotic in America, but now it's normal to find them in American supermarkets both packaged and in delis such as the Mediterranean counters at Whole Foods. People serve them all the time, bring them to potlucks, etc. So my kitchen isn't particularly unusual.

A refrigerator case full of hummus etc, in a small supermarket
near Tel Aviv, Israel. I think our markets are catching up with this selection.
-- (My photo from 2016)
A quick bit of history of two common ingredients:
  • Chick peas were among the "founder crops" of the fertile crescent, where Eurasian farming began. They began to be cultivated something like 11,000 years ago, so they have been a basic foodstuff throughout the history of the region and the places to which cultivation spread. (source)
  • Sesame seeds have been cultivated for at least 5000 years. In China sesame oil was used in making ink. In Africa sesame seeds have long been an important foodstuff. And in the middle east they have been used for cooking oil and in tahini and the candy halavah. 
"The earliest recorded use of a spice - sesame seed - comes from an Assyrian myth which claims that the gods drank sesame wine the night before they created the earth." (source)

Cherries

California Cherries in My Kitchen this month.
It's cherry season. Our first cherries, as usual, came from California, but this week at the farmers' market the first Michigan cherries appeared. Cherry trees in the Old Mission Peninsula of northern Michigan date to 1852, when a Presbyterian missionary named Peter Dougherty planted them -- this area has a micro climate good for growing fruit. Commercial production there began in the 1890s. We have visited there several times: a very beautiful place -- maybe some day we'll get there for the Cherry Festival! (source)

Cherry trees are native to Europe, Asia, and the middle east. They've been around so long that quite a few places claim them. Probably they were first cultivated in central Anatolia, but were known to the Greeks and Romans and highly valued in many parts of the world, including ancient China and Japan.

In My Kitchen: a magnet from the Washington, D.C.
Cherry Blossom Festival.
The Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington celebrates trees that were a gift to the US from Japan a little over over 100 years ago. These trees, which surround the Tidal Basin near the major monuments of Washington, are very beautiful during their brief blooming season in early spring. Huge crowds enjoy the sight of the blossoming branches reflected in the water along with the Jefferson Memorial and other buildings. 

The Japanese cultivation of cherry trees began over 1300 years ago. Early cherry blossom viewing festivals were part of ancient Japanese nature worship: "every spring, the mountain deity traveled down to the fields on the falling petals of cherry blossoms and transformed into the deity of the rice paddies, a critical crop for Japanese agriculture and productivity." Each era refined and developed the meaning that the fleeting moment of cherry blossom time embodied. In the 19th century, cherry blossom viewing played a role in Japanese nationalism. (source)

 Lemons 

I try to keep lemons in my kitchen all the time. They add
flavor to a wide variety of foods.
I've written a few previous posts about the history of citrus fruit, especially the book Hesperides by Samuel Tolkowsky which I wrote about here. According to Tolkowsky, citrus fruits were mentioned in China in a compendium dated around 500 BCE, and in a number of older works that refer to the fruit. Citrus fruits were known to the Jews in Israel as early as the time of the Maccabees (around 136 BCE). The word origins of lemon trace ultimately to east-Asian languages, as lemon cultivation began there and slowly spread through Persia, the middle east, North Africa, and Mediterranean Europe. (source)

Genetic scientists are still analyzing the exact ancestry of the many varieties of lemons, citrons, oranges, grapefruits, and other citrus fruits. According to an article in Science Daily published in 2011, bergamot and lemon species came from citron and sour orange. The article explained:
"Even with a documented history of cultivation spanning more than 4,000 years, the exact genetic origins of cultivated Citrus species such as sweet orange, lemon, and grapefruit have remained obscure. Chinese researchers used a combination of analyzed amplified fragment length polymorphism and Chloroplast DNA data to identify the exact genetic origin of cultivated citrus." (source)
Obviously I have many other foods in my kitchen, which no doubt have histories and word origins at least as complex and intriguing as these. However, I think this post about what's in my kitchen this month has gone on long enough. I'll be posting it with Sherry's Blog for the monthly In My Kitchen event where bloggers from many lands share their new and favorite kitchen things.

Kitchen wrap-up: The top shelf of my refrigerator.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Restaurant in Santa Fe

Restaurant Martin in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was the best place we ate during our recent long trip west. It's classified as "progressive American cuisine," and the chef-owner, Martin Rios, is a longterm resident of Santa Fe who was born in Guadalajara. The location is outside the main tourist area, but in easy walking distance of the central hotels. I was too busy to document our meal there at the time, but now I want to show some of the beautiful and delicious dishes we ate there, in a very charming and relaxing outdoor setting.

Roasted asparagus. The menu offers a very elaborate asparagus dish as a
first course, but I requested asparagus only, which is technically a side dish.
Chilled pea and mint soup with various garnishes.
Duck breast with various vegetables on a bed of duck confit.

Dessert: panna cotta with fruit and sorbet.
For more information, the restaurant website is here: https://restaurantmartin.com/about/

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Un-Pasta


Home-made tomato sauce from a can of Italian peeled tomatoes, onions, red wine, etc. Turkey meatballs with a mushroom sealed inside each one. Steamed broccolini. Freshly grated Parmesan mixed with garden herbs and olive oil. And no pasta.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

"The Nix"

Reading The Nix by Nathan Hill often made me laugh out loud, which was awkward when I was reading the book and also sitting on my yoga mat while waiting for class to start. The more I try to capture the extraordinary humor of the book the less successful I am. However, here's a brief review of what I liked and the small area I didn't like as much.

The book covers several generations of one family, but not in chronological order at all. Besides the grandfather and parents of the central character Samuel, there's a penetrating though also funny description of his childhood friend Bishop, who defies authority and figures out how to stop the class bully, of Bishop's beautiful sister, and many others. Some reviewers have referred to this as a "Great American Novel," which fits when you consider that Hill covered so many quirks of American life through these four generations.

One of my favorite characters is Samuel's vengeful student Laura Pottsdam, a habitual cheater. Laura uses every buzzword in the college lexicon to avoid the consequences when Samuel catches her submitting a free-on-the-internet paper about Hamlet. Laura has hilarious encounters with her boyfriend and his strange demands on her (which I won't quote because I'm embarrassed), and also spends a lot of time on a social media app called iFeel. "The thing about iFeel was that she could broadcast how she felt at any given moment to her huge network of friends, and then their apps could auto-respond to her feelings with whatever message was appropriate... She could select an emotion from the fifty standard emotion choices and post a little explanatory note or photo or both, then watch the support roll in." However, she is challenged when she feels doubt. Nothing like it appears on the list. (p. 423)

The otherworldly life of compulsive computer gaming is critical to several of the characters, including Samuel himself, who is immersed in an online game called Elfworld, where he joins a number of anonymous players including the unemployed and divorced Pwnage, whose life is nothing but gaming and trying to stop. Pwnage wants to switch from a weirdly cheap diet to organic health food while he is literally starving himself nearly to death by never getting up from his screen. Pwnage:
"See, what's important for me is to be frugal. I'm saving up. Do you know how expensive that organic health food stuff is? A sandwich is seventy-nine cents at the gas station but like ten bucks at the farmer's market. Do you know how cheap, on a per-calorie basis, nachos are? Not to mention the Go-Go Taquitos or Pancake and Sausage To-Go Sticks or other food that have no organic equivalent that I get for free at the 7-Eleven down the street. ... Of course eating these food items is not what I might describe as pleasant, since they're tough and scorched and moistureless from their all-day cooking on high-temperature rollers. Sometimes biting through a burrito's thick tortilla casing can feel like chewing through your own toe calluses." (p. 224)
Samuel is forced by a chain of events to engage in a detailed quest to learn about the secret life of his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father when he was eleven years old in 1988. He discovers her frustrating life in high school in Iowa, and how she escaped for just one month to Chicago, where she was caught up in the violent protests during the 1968 Democratic Convention nominating Hubert Humphrey, a mostly-now-forgotten horror show which Hill brings back to life. Excessively, I thought. The last 200 pages of the book where the book turns from satire into a historical novel was the part I liked the least. On the other hand, I much enjoyed Faye's high school experiences including home-ec and her very proper teacher Mrs. Schwingle:
"Mrs. Schwingle teaches them how to host a dinner party, how to cook for a dinner party, how to make pleasing conversation with dinner guests, how to create the sophisticated dishes she insists the wives on the East Coast are right now making, mostly involving some kind of gelatin, some kind of lettuce trim, some kind of food-within-another-food conceit. Shrimp salad in an avocado ring mold. Pineapple in lime gelatin served with cream cheese. Cabbage suspended in jellied bouillon. Peaches split and filled with blueberries. Canned pear halves covered in shredded yellow cheese. Pineapple boats filled with cocktail sauce. Olive pimento mousse. Chicken salad molded into white warheads. Tuna squares. Lemon salmon towers. Ham-wrapped cantaloupe balls. ... America has fallen in love with these foods: modern, exciting, unnatural." (p. 288-289)
The Nix has a kind of a message, embodied in a Norwegian folk tale about a supernatural being called a Nix. The message is that we are destroyed by what we love the most, or "Don't trust things that are too good to be true." Or the last sentence of the book: "Eventually, all debts must be repaid." Fortunately, the message is carried by a series of wonderful and mostly very funny tales of life in America, the good and the bad, the political horrors and the merely commercial. (p. 115 and 732)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Back Home


... for our first lunch at home: grilled eggplant, red bell pepper, fresh herbs and tomatoes.

How the herbs grew while we were gone!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Four Fathers Celebration

A photo of our "four fathers" celebration. The fathers are: Brian, Jack, Jay, and Len. Also a few moms & kids.
Update: the original of this family photo from 1982. Same location, some different family members, some the same.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

On the Road Again: Albuquerque

Aliens at a rest stop between Flagstaff & Albuquerque. 
A long convoy of tanks was also stopped at the Rest Stop. 

Lunch in Albuquerque, at a place we've enjoyed before, the Church Street Cafe. The decor is very beautiful. Then we did a few more gallery visits. Tomorrow: a long drive. The next day: another long drive.



Montezuma Well National Monument

Montezuma Well, a natural water formation in the Arizona Desert.

Today we visited several beautiful sites where various bird life might be found. I had never heard of Montezuma Well, which is a small lake with very deep sides that is always filled with water. The source of the water is very deep underground, and the water flows out via a crack in the rocks far down below the surrounding rock cliffs. The geology, history, and beauty of the site are all impressive.

People of the Sinagua culture built dwelling places in the cliffs beside the water, and used the water for agriculture in the lower fields nearby. We walked around the area, as well as visiting several other mountain and forest sites in the area.

Montezuma Well is quite mis-named as the Aztec emperor of that name was years later and had nothing to do with the people who lived there and used the water. Several very ancient irrigation ditches can still be seen in the National Monument surrounding the very beautiful water source.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Along Oak Creek


Oak Creek is a beautiful stream near Flagstaff, where we are staying. Today we birded at several sites along the creek, and ate lunch in Sedona, where the creek flows into the Verde River. We especially enjoyed a walk along an irrigation channel beside the creek, where we walked on private land near the home of a friend of our guide. Irrigation channels were built along the creek over 100 years ago when the area was developed for agriculture. We saw several farms with cows and horses in fenced enclosures as we walked and searched for the many types of birds that live in this beautiful habitat.

A young Great Horned Owl near Oak Creek.

Monday, June 12, 2017

California Condors and More

The high point of our incredibly long and eventful day today was seeing this California Condor. These birds became extinct
in the wild, and are being reintroduced from a captive breeding program. There are only a few hundred of them alive now.
The male condor was outside the small cliffside cave where the pair are raising a chick. The female was nearby. 
We spent several hours at the Grand Canyon -- obviously another high point of our day and of our entire trip west.

We had dinner at the Cameron Trading Post on the Navajo Reservation.
Another high point of the day was trying a Navajo Taco on fry bread.
The trading post is  decorated with magnificent Navajo rugs and other artifacts.
We left our hotel at 6 AM and returned at 8:30 PM. Our guide drove us 360 miles, from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon and onward to the Navajo Bridge where a pair of condors are nesting. The beauty of the scenery on the reservation, the many views of the Grand Canyon, and the many other birds we saw also made for a remarkable day -- though very long.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Flagstaff Birding Tour

A Bullock's Oriole.
Today was the beginning of our guided bird trip to the Flagstaff area. After a long day visiting quite a few beautiful areas and seeing many birds, especially many new ones, we were invited to our guide's home for dinner. From his back deck, we saw the beautiful oriole in the photo above.

We loved walking among pines and aspens, searching for birds.

We also spent quite a bit of time in this burned-out pine forest...
An unusual species, the three-toed woodpecker, lives in and near the burned out forest, eating the beetles that
live on the dead wood. After a long and frustrating search, we finally saw the bird in this photo.
We saw a total of seven species of woodpecker today,
including this Williamson's Sapsucker.
Aspen trees have eyes!
Also at our guide's home: a pinyon jay.

Our guide and his wife, who cooked us a marvelous dinner including a pie.

If you ever want to take a great bird tour, here is a link to tours organized by Field Guides Birdwatching Tours and guided by John Coons, our guide:


Friday, June 09, 2017

Birds, beasts, flowers, and streams

 The Santa Fe River, far upstream, near the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary in Santa Fe.
During our Santa Fe visit this week, we took a morning walk there.

A hummingbird at the Davey Audubon Center.
Flowering cactus, Davey Audubon Center.
A western bluebird, which we saw in downtown Santa Fe, near the Santa Fe River.


The Galisteo River (or Creek) runs behind the small town of Galisteo, NM.
We took a beautiful walk there.
A friendly dog ran, jumped, and waded in the stream, accompanying
us on our walk.
We called the dog Dolly because she looked like the dog we used to have.
The Galisteo church stands quite near the stream where we walked.
Galisteo is about half an hour from Santa Fe.
After three days of varied activities, we left Santa Fe this morning, and drove to Flagstaff. We will be spending a few days of intensive, guided birdwatching here. On the way, we stopped briefly for a picnic at the visitor center of the Petrified Forest.

A bunny near the picnic area at the Painted Desert.
Two finches in a yucca plant at the Painted Desert.