Friday, September 30, 2016

Small Town Street Art in Connemara

On a very long ride today we stopped in several small towns in the Connemara, which is not far from Galway. We saw lots of beautiful scenery; little harbors with small pleasure boats and fishing boats; the "Twelve Bens," which are small mountains; and very nice little towns. We had lunch at an old-style hotel, and also did some birdwatching (also one seal).

I'll be catching up with birds and more eventually!

Irish creatures, wild and tame

Wagtails are everywhere. We saw them walking at the edges of roofs, on headstones in graveyards, and along fences.
Of course we saw lots of sheep. 

Geese were in a pond at Lough Boora Discovery Park in the center of Ireland. We watched from a blind,
where we also hoped to see other birds that unfortunately didn't appear.
We especially hoped to see the rare grey partridge, but unfortunately it was very windy so all we saw was the signpost.

The two places we went yesterday: in the center of Ireland. We are staying in Galway, due east of them.
From Lough Boora we went to Clonmacnoise Monastery. This ancient site is located at the crosssing of a main East-West road with the Shannon River, an important North-South route across Ireland in the Dark Ages. The monastery at Clonmacnoise (which I posted photos of yesterday) was consequently a frequent site of raids and battles in the struggle among many different people for dominance. According the the historic site's webpage: "The site includes the ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th -13th century), two round towers, three high crosses and the largest collection of Early Christian graveslabs in Western Europe."

From the Clonmacnoise historic site, we could see the Shannon River,
which flows diagonally across almost the entire country.
A grebe on the Shannon.
Two swans near Clonmacnoise. The white one is an
adult, the dark one a young swan.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Best Irish Rainbow of the Day

At the Clonmacnoise National Historic Site, County Offaly, Ireland.
Used as a monastery and holy site since the 7th century.

Earlier in the day we looked for birds at the Lough Boora Discovery Park -- more about that later!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Around Galway: Stones and Oysters

We'll let this be wordless Wednesday!

Moran's on the Weir

Shannon Airport welcomed us to Ireland late yesterday afternoon. Arny and Tracy picked us up, and as we drove towards Galway and their temporary house (for the year), we stopped for a seafood dinner, all from local waters. The sun was almost setting as we arrived at Moran's on the Weir, a restaurant that's been in business for something like 300 years. The landscape reminded me of a painting by J.M.W. Turner.

Rooks were flying over the thatched roofs nearby.
I had a prawn and crab salad. The waitress says the prawns are definitely local and not farmed. 
Tracy's salmon. 
Inside Moran's.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Trader Joe's Hacks: Black Bean Soup Made Chunky


As you may know, I'm a fan of Trader Joe's, which by great good luck is very close to my house. Sometimes it seems too close! I get lazy. I buy too many kinds of candy. Anyway,  I've decided to summarize things I do with Trader Joe's stuff, just for fun and because maybe it will give other people ideas.

Trader Joe's Hack: Black Bean Soup.

Trader Joe's Latin Style Black Bean soup is pretty good if you like totally smooth soup without any noticeable beans in it. I like soup to have more texture, so I usually add stuff to the soup. Most recently, I added around 1/3 of a jar of TJ's Cowboy Caviar, which is a not-too-spicy corn and bean relish/salsa. It really peps up the soup! This time, I also added some leftover roasted squash and onions, but that's not a thing I always have. Check the fridge: any leftover vegetables that sound appealing would also be a good addition. 

I usually put Cowboy Caviar on tacos, but I think the soup is an inspiration -- it would even be good with more than 1/3 of a jar. I expect it also would pep up TJ's tomato soup, also a fairly smooth soup. This is not a recipe, it's a hack!!

In case you have any doubt about it, I would be thrilled if TJ's gave me free food or prizes in exchange for my blog post but that's never going to happen. I bought the soup etc. just like anyone else. I might eventually write up some other TJ Hacks, or maybe you know some yourself.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"The Cuisines of Germany"

"We had Dampfnudeln yesterday,
Dampfnudeln again today
We have Dampfnudeln every day,
We like it fine that way.

Dampfnudel hamma gestern g'habt,
Dampfnudel hamma heut
Dampfnudel hamma alle Dag
Weil's uns halt gefreut!

This nursery rhyme about Dampfnudeln (a type of steamed bun) is typical of the little literary touches in The Cuisines of Germany, a book I bought recently. The many regions of Germany each have special ways of making traditional dishes, sometimes reflected in the works of famous German authors and in folklore.

In this interesting cookbook published in 1990, Horst Scharfenberg (1919-2006) collected historic recipes, recipes from restaurants, recipes from home cooks, and literary quotations to demonstrate the wide variety of German dishes and food traditions. His approach reminds me of Waverly Root's books on France and Italy -- but with lots of recipes.

Earlier this summer, I blogged a guest post by Evelyn here: German Food. She agreed with Scharfenberg that culinary critics often underestimate the range and quality of German food. She said: "Yes, wurst, potatoes, schnitzel, and spaetzle are common dishes, but the unsung German emphasis on fresh unadulterated ingredients, and the willingness to place those ingredients front and center of a meal are exactly what the entire slow food movement is based on."

The Cuisines of Germany begins with a region-by-region summary of traditional and twentieth-century German foods including seasonal foods and fresh foods. Each recipe has an introduction, including a description of the sources of the recipes, which sometimes come from quite old cookbooks. Consistent with what Evelyn said, Scharfenberg often refers to Germany's high standards of ingredients and sources, pointing out that many of them originated centuries ago, and that EU regulations at the time he wrote were often less exacting.

The first region discussed in the book is Bavaria, where Evelyn was visiting her in-laws when she wrote her post. Tom, Miriam, and Alice were learning quite a few family recipes during their visit, and they've made us some excellent ones. Scharfenberg is most enthusiastic about Bavarian cuisine. In the course of the book he gives recipes for quite a few special Bavarian dishes Evelyn and Tom have mentioned or cooked for us, such as Bee-Sting Cake, Zwetschgendatschi (damson plum tart), dampfnudln, and Falsche Hase (a meatloaf). Scharfenberg also talks about some Christmas dishes:  poppy-seed pudding, Nurenberger Lebkuchen, and weisswurst, which we have enjoyed with the family.

When we first arrived in Ann Arbor, the main choices for eating out here were several German restaurants -- specifically Swabian restaurants run by members of the German community that had immigrated to this area in the late-19th and early 20th century. Scharfenberg includes recipes for many of the dishes I remember in these restaurants. Some of the foods that I remember most: Maultaschen (filled noodles), spaetzle (a type of dumpling), herring salad, zwiebelkuchen (onion cake), and various types of meatballs. The restaurants we liked the best closed some years ago in favor of brew pubs and other more trendy places, and though some incarnations still exist, I consider them extinct.

Scharfenberg often describes his favorite dishes in a rather colorful way, for example:
"I suspect that Maultaschen would have very good chances in a four-way international competition with ravioli, won tons, and pirogi for the championship of the Roughly Rectangular Pasta with Meat (plus Miscellaneous) Filling division." (p. 130)
Many types of potato salad, cabbage slaws and other cabbage dishes, old-style game dishes, and traditional ways to cook chickens, ducks and geese all show up in intriguing sections of The Cuisines of Germany. Fish dishes include many species of fish caught and eaten in the Baltic areas. Preserved fish such as salt cod and preserved herring are eaten in the land-locked parts of the country. Smoked trout, we learn, came to Germany from America -- European native trout are quite rare and limited to high mountain areas, so American species have been introduced into German streams. Scharfenberg mentioned various recipes and preserved foods that he had not eaten since East Germany became inaccessible, years before he was researching his book.

This is a rather obscure book, long out-of-print. Scharfenberg had a career in German TV and radio food broadcasting, and I believe this is his only work that's appeared in English. Uncomfortably, I learned, he was employed during World War II as a propagandist: "Während des Zweiten Weltkriegs diente er in einer Propagandakompanie als Kriegsberichterstatter," says his German Wikipedia page. The automated translation is "During World War II he served in a propaganda company as a war correspondent." He doesn't seem to have an English Wiki page.

I haven't tried any of his recipes yet, but eventually I hope to do so. And I have often enjoyed the family versions of these dishes.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Update on Traditional and Cultural Native American Food

From Mother Jones: Chef Sean Sherman 
Last week, I wrote about a presentation titled "The People of the Three Fires" about American Indian traditional foods (those consumed before contact with Europeans) and cultural foods (those now in the repertoire because they are familiar from Reservation days).

A new article and podcast, published yesterday in Mother Jones, adds quite a bit to the discussion of traditional food at that presentation. "You Can Get Any Food You Want in America—Except This: Meet the chef trying to revive his ancestors' delicious and healthy vittles," by Maddie Oatman contains details of the efforts of Chef Sean Sherman.

Sherman, according to the article, is attempting "to construct this 'un-modernist cuisine,' as he calls it." His sources for the foods and recipes are "historical documents, cookbooks, foraging manuals, first-person accounts, and even archeological texts."

The article also includes a brief, informative summary of native food history:
"In 1864, the US government forced the Navajos and Mescolero Apaches off their land in Arizona and onto a reservation in remote New Mexico, dragging them on what was soon known as 'the Long Walk.' Stranded on inhospitable desert, the tribes couldn't farm, and were sent canned goods and rations of white flour, sugar, and lard to eat. Frybread emerged as a survival food. As Native American writer and activist Suzan Shown Harjo once put it, 'Frybread was a gift of Western Civilization from the days when Native people were removed from buffalo, elk, deer, salmon, turkey, corn, beans, squash, acorns, wild rice, and other real food.'"
The podcast included an interview with Sherman. To begin, he talked about his rather idyllic childhood on a South Dakota Lakota Reservation, his great-grandparents' homestead on the Badlands, and other memories. His food memories include big family gatherings at his grandparents' ranch (8-10,000 acres) where women cooked familiar festive foods. Kids participated in lots of activities like harvesting "prairie turnips," choke cherries (which his grandmother cooked into sauce), and more.

Choke cherries are among the most delicious food in his experience, he related later in the podcast. They are small and dark black-purple, a bit tannic when just off the tree, but with a unique flavor when cooked down. In old days they were dried into patties for later use. Now in his new traditional cuisine, he slow-cooks them, strains out the pits, and makes an "awesome" syrup. This can make tea or sorbet or be used in other preparations.

Traditional soups and other foods that were cooked at these events echoed traditional foods, but putting things together from these memories is challenging. "Food systems" have been wiped away, and a lot of government canned goods like canned salmon, government cheese, and more became the common foodstuffs. Because his grandparents had a ranch, his own family also had wild game not available to many of the families.

Sherman grew up with frybread, and later bannock (a similar thing) which were thought to be Native American but really were the result of having to eat government food beginning more than a century ago. Since it was the only thing to eat many winters, in a couple of generations that was the food people associated with their grandmothers' kitchens.

The menu development Sherman is doing now includes trying to build "plates" that represent native foods of single regions, researching what he can, consulting every cookbook he can find, and trying to escape from fusion cooking with some traditional ingredients. He's trying to find the food and medicinal values from foraging books, historical and archaeological texts -- trying to piece back together "a shattered pot" that is how he sees native cuisine.

He's already been working on this effort in his food truck, using corn and sumac, turkey, soy-free foods, and more. He makes a cedar and maple tea (not soft drinks), wild-rice salads -- unpretentious indigenous foods. There are efforts to restore old food processing techniques like sun-drying or smoking. He emphasizes trying to keep it simple, like using maple syrup, fruit and berries as sweeteners and other recipes with indigenous foods.

A broad vision encompasses a new restaurant under development, funded by Kickstarter. And beyond that: he hopes there will be more restaurants in other areas, showcasing the local native cuisines. Longer term, he hopes to participate in revitalizing the culture, offering new foods and new meanings to foods, and working with various activist groups who are trying to preserve resources.

For more, I also looked up a recent story in Saveur by David Treuer which describes the food to come from the developing restaurant:
"Sherman’s more straightforward notion of indigenous comfort food includes dishes like smoked turkey soup with burnt sage, bison slow-cooked in spruce boughs, and a sunflower and hazelnut crisp. Using modern combinations and ancient ingredients and methods, he’s after something simultaneously old, and yet new."
From Saveur: the Native American Food Truck discussed in the two articles.
The New York Times also published an article and slide-show about Sherman last month, and many other articles also appear in a google search.

Pondering the Chimichanga

"Where did the chimichanga, the glorious deep-fried burrito, come from anyway?" is the title of an article currently at the top of the L.A.Times column "The Daily Dish." I found both the question and the varying answers quite fascinating. I must admit that I find chimichangas delicious, enormous, and pretty undigestible, so in my experience they are more a memory of something I used to eat than an anticipation of something I might order in a Mexican restaurant any time soon. Maybe that's what inspired me to look around for more about this story.

What's a chimi? On the small chance that you don't know, the L.A.Times writer Margy Rochlin explains that a chimichanga is "a deep-fried burrito stuffed with steak, chicken or what-have-you. By most accounts, the chimi was invented in Tucson and is no less integral a part of the city’s fabric." Being invented in Tucson means that the chimi might be considered fusion food, though in fact the cuisine of southern Arizona in the early-to-mid twentieth century is pretty authentic Mexican.

Here's a screen shot of the google imagery for this dish:

The Times article summarized the two main origin stories for chimichangas, both taking place in Arizona restaurants. One story takes place in the 1920s: a burrito accidentally falling in hot oil elicited a near-curse from the restaurant owner (a curse that turned out to be "chimichanga!" which sounds like some other expression, never explained, in Spanish). Of course the resulting deep-fried burrito was so delicious that the restaurant kept making and serving them. The other story involves a restaurant owner who wanted to use up semi-stale burritos so he deep-fried them. These folklore-like tales also appear in numerous other sources as well -- in the New York Times in 2011, in a Smithsonian-sponsored website "What it Means to be American," in a 2014 article by Gustavo Arellano, and on quite a few sites of restaurants that claim some connection with this history.

The writers who looked into the chimichanga origin story generally agreed that smaller deep-fried snacks appear in the cuisine of Mexican state Sonora, nearest state to Arizona. Arellano, whose book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America I quite enjoyed, suggests (maybe whimsically) that Chinese men who lived in Arizona and Sonora in the early 1900s often married Mexican women, and that the chimichanga is their effort to make egg rolls for their homesick husbands. He even tries to invent a linguistic explanation with a Chinese origin for the name "chimichanga," which I would say is utterly unconvincing!

Arellano warns his readers: "Let me also note that folk etymologies are notoriously inaccurate, that Mexican-food origin stories are frequently ludicrous, and that this mini-essay might be the most ludicrously inaccurate history of a Mexican foodstuff yet."

Friday, September 23, 2016

"Green Onions" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

"Soon O-Kimi saw that they must have turned a corner and now were walking down a narrow back street. On the right-hand side there was a small grocery store open to the street, its wares displayed in piles beneath a bright gas lamp: daikon radishes, carrots, pickling vegetables, green onions, small turnips, water chestnuts, burdock roots, yams, mustard greens, udo, lotus root, taro, apples, mandarin oranges. As they passed the grocery, O-Kimi happened to glance at a thin wooden card held aloft by a bamboo tube standing in the pile of green onions: '1 bunch 4 sen,' it said in clumsy, dense black characters. With prices for everything surging upward these days, green onions at 4 sen a bunch were hard to find. In O-Kimi's happy heart, which until that moment had been intoxicated with love and art, the sight of this bargain instantaneously -- literally, in that very instant -- awoke latent real life from its torpid slumber. Her eyes were swept suddenly clean of images of roses and pearl rings and nightingales and the Mitsukoshi banner. Crowding in from all directions to take their place in O-Kimi's little breast, like moths to a flame, came rent payments, rice bills, electricity bills, charcoal bills, food bills, soy sauce bills, newspaper bills, make-up bills, streetcar fares -- and all the other living expenses, along with painful past experience. O-Kimi's feet came to a halt in front of the grocery store. Leaving the flabbergasted Tanaka behind, she forged in among the green mounds beneath the brilliant gaslight. And then, extending a slender finger toward the pile of green onions among which stood that 'bunch 4 sen' card, she said in a voice that might well have been singing 'The Wanderer's Lament,' 
"'Two bunches, please." (Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, p. 127-128)
This rather long paragraph, for me, illustrates beautifully the way that Japanese author Akutagawa develops tension: in this case, the story "Green Onions," an amusing sketch of a very young woman, O-Kimi, a waitress in a cafe in a "used-bookstore neighborhood of Tokyo" in 1919 -- the time that he wrote the story. (Note: the rest of this review contains spoilers about the very short story.)

The main tension that O-Kimi suffers comes from her worries about money and where her next meal will come from -- all the payments and obligations for rent, food, and daily life weigh her down. The mention of surging prices suggests that there's also tension in society at the moment of this novel, which affects O-Kimi and her reaction to a bargain. Though she's walking with her date, an artist named Tanaka, the sight of green onions stirs in her much less romantic thoughts.

Then there's the immediate tension about Tanaka, whose dubious intentions are much more obvious to the reader, but becoming clear to O-Kimi. We've already learned that she had a crush on him, which reflected her very idealistic and romantic view of life -- her "happy heart ... intoxicated with love and art." And this evening, we've already seen him make an excuse about their original destination -- a circus -- and begin leading her to a dubious neighborhood where he says they will eat dinner. We've seen how the very ordinary sights of the streets and shops they walked past seemed to her "to sing of the magnificent joys of love and to stretch off in splendor to the ends of the earth."

When she buys the onions, the love scene in Tanaka's imagination is also swept away by "the very real stink of green onions -- as penetrating and eye-stinging as real life itself." The implication is that her down-to-earth moment has saved her from Tanaka's intentions to seduce her. But the author is subtle, there's just the tension of the potential danger.

The tension between stark reality and poetic hopes of romantic love in the story is even stronger because the lives of O-Kimi and Tanaka appear within a frame story: the story of a writer (Akutagawa himself?) who has only a single night to write a story and make a deadline, and therefore invents the characters and their background. He's very tense about whether he'll finish the story. So the long descriptions and lists of foods and expenses make it clearer that he's struggling to include all the correct elements and meet the expectations of his readers and even more so the expectations and demands of his editors. And as soon as the two lovers deal with their reality, the author concludes:
"I did it! I finished the story! ... O-Kimi made it back unscathed to her room over the beauty parlor that night, ... All right, that's it, I'm going to stop writing. Goodbye, O-Kimi. Step out again tonight as you did last night -- gaily, bravely -- to be vanquished by the critics!" (p. 129)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Chelsea, Michigan: The Jiffy Plant

In Chelsea, Michigan, this morning: I was getting ready to meet a friend for lunch and a tour of the Jiffy Plant. We learned that in the plant, flour is milled from the grain held in these grain elevators. Wheat and corn for the Jiffy mixes are raised mostly in Michigan. 
The Jiffy grain elevators create one part of Chelsea's distinctive skyline.
Across from the plant, also next to the railroad tracks, the Chelsea clock tower is another distinctive landmark.
Before our tour, we ate lunch at the Common Grill just down the street from the plant. 
It's lobster month in Chelsea, and my friend and I both ordered lobster rolls.
For dessert: Meyer lemon sorbet.
Here's my friend: Jeanie, from The Marmelade Gypsy blog with our Jiffy tour guide. Jeanie drove from Lansing to meet me.
Unfortunately photography wasn't permitted inside the fascinating factory, where close to 300 workers make millions of packages of corn muffin mix and other mixes, as well as 25-pound bags of mixes for hospitals, military cafeterias, and other institutional kitchens.

The noise level is incredible. Sometimes the floor of the plant seems to vibrate or tremble. I loved seeing and hearing the large number of machines and conveyor belts. Some machines assemble the colorful and recognizable little boxes from flat printed sheets of cardboard; other machines fold and insert the wax-paper box liners.

Elsewhere, the newly-milled flour or cornmeal is mixed with shortening, sugar, and other ingredients for corn muffins, apple muffins, brownies, pizza dough, and other mixes. Sometimes the boxes are conveyed overhead as they go from one machine to another, and sometimes they just seem to be circling endlessly around the factory floor. After the boxes of Jiffy mix are filled, they move on to be placed around 24 at a time into larger corrugated boxes. Finally, at the loading dock trucks pick them up for shipment to grocery stores across the country.

I purchased a 12-pack of various mixes, and made some Jiffy cornbread for dinner when I got home. Since the grain is grown in Michigan and the Jiffy plant is right here too, this is definitely a local food!

I added some chopped hot pepper (grown in Michigan) and cheese on top...
Very nice!