Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bigos Blog

Somerville, Mass - My faithful readers will remember the story of the cabbage, and my brilliant idea to turn it into sauerkraut. Well, here's where the story ends...

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely loved being a member of the Food Project CSA this summer. It was a joy to receive all of those fresh organic veggies every week. Sometimes it was a challenge to figure out what to do with them, but it led to the discovery of many new kinds of soups, salads and other veggie delights.

One week back in July, my CSA box contained the first head (of what would be many heads) of cabbage. Having just returned from Krakow, Poland, I was inspired to make sauerkraut. The Polish national dish is bigos, a sort of hunter's stew made from a sauerkraut base, with many kinds of meat, mushrooms, etc. mixed in. One tends to eat a lot of bigos when in Poland, but I had never made it myself.

Well, I confess, the sauerkraut thing did not go so well. It's easy enough to make, but I was overly liberal with the salt, meaning I didn't measure, I just dumped it in. It did cause the brine to form as it's supposed to, and underwent the fermentation process. But it was way too salty. And when it seemed to be ready (after about a month), I moved it out of the "Bigos Bucket" and into a tupperware in the fridge. At this point, I dumped out most of the brine, which was a little grody looking. Unfortunately, I think that brine is actually important to the preservation of the sauerkraut. By the time I got around to making my bigos, my sauerkraut was covered with a fine fuzzy mold. Ew.

In the meantime, I had stocked my freezer with many pounds of meat and I really had my heart set on making bigos. Fortunately, I found a jar of sauerkraut in my pantry. I know it's not quite the same - not sure it would meet the approval of the Polish peasant - but it would have to do. At least I checked the label to make sure it was the real deal: sauerkraut made with only two ingredients - cabbage and salt - and no vinegar or other additives.

There is no consensus about exactly how to make bigos, mainly because it's one of those dishes where you can throw in anything that you happen to have in the root cellar (or fridge, if you are not actually a Polish peasant). Did you shoot a wild boar on the hunt last week? What a great addition. Trying to get rid of some Polish sausage left over from last week's cookout? That'll work too. The more the merrier. And remember, this is "hunters' stew" so game is good.

I got some great pointers from this poster on Chowhound, who revealed her mother's secrets. But I did a lot of other research, and came up with my own version of the recipe:

1 lb pork shoulder (or some other stew meat), cut into 1-in cubes
1 large onion, coursely chopped
1 small head fresh cabbage, coursely chopped
4 carrots, thickly sliced
10-12 oz mushrooms (I used baby bellas), halved
1 lb sauerkraut
1 lb sausage (I used elk sausage, which was delish), thickly sliced
1-2 stock cubes
bay leaf
1 C dry red wine
1 C pitted prunes

Briefly brown your pork cubes over high heat to seal. Set aside.

In a large pot, saute onion, fresh cabbage and carrots in vegetable oil for about 10 minutes. When the volume of the cabbage has reduced by about half, add mushrooms and cook for a few more minutes.

Add sauerkraut and just enough water to saturate the mixture. Mix well and bring to a boil. Lower heat to simmer and add your browned meat and sausage, plus stock cubes, bay leaf and plenty of pepper. Simmer on low heat for about an hour.

After an hour or so, add wine and prunes. Return to simmer.

After simmering a few more hours, I started eating it. I couldn't help it, I was hungry, and it was pretty tasty. But everyone agrees that it tastes better the next day. So if you can wait, store it overnight in a cool place (the poster on Chowhound said "My Babcia would do this on her balcony"). The next day you can bring it back to a simmer and cook for a few more hours, adding water if necessary. Every time you do this - cool and cook - the flavors get more intense and more delightful. Serve with a hardy peasant bread or boiled potatoes.

Bigos is also supposed to good for freezing and eating later. But I wouldn't know. I gave some of it away, and we ate the rest in two sittings.

Incidentally, I still have two heads of cabbage sitting in my fridge leftover from my CSA. Maybe it's time to give that sauerkraut another try.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The First Thanksgiving

Plymouth, Mass - Sure, it's a repeat. But it's worth repeating, right? In honor of Thanksgiving Day, here is a little history from the Lonely Planet guide to New England:

Plymouth is known for one thing most of all - Pilgrims. And, as all schoolchildren in the US are taught, Pilgrims are known for one thing most of all - Thanksgiving. Maybe two things - Thanksgiving and big-buckled shoes. While footwear styles come and go, Thanksgiving remains a time-honored tradition of feasting and football for American families. But to what extent is today's celebration of Thanksgiving consistent with the Pilgrim forebears?

The first Thanksgiving was held in the early fall of 1621 and lasted for three days. The Pilgrims were thankful, but not for a bountiful harvest. In fact, virtually everything they planted that year failed to come up, except for some native corn. The Pilgrims were thankful simply to be alive. Of the 100 passengers aboard the Mayflower, only half survived the first year in the wilderness. There may have been a wild turkey on the table, but the plates more likely featured venison, lobster and squirrel…mmmmm. There was no pumpkin pie, alas, the Pilgrims did not have any ovens.

True to legend, the Indians were on hand for the first feast. Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoags had no problems with the pathetic Pilgrims, since he had set them up on the land of a rival tribe, the Patuxet. The Patuxet certainly would have objected, but they were wiped out by smallpox a year earlier. The Wampanoags, in fact, provided most of the food. The Pilgrims were really not very good hosts.

There were no Lions or Cowboys, but there were games played that weekend. The Pilgrim men folk competed against the natives in shooting, archery and a colonial crude version of croquet.

Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims pretty much ended there. The fall festival was not repeated in subsequent years. The Pilgrims were pious, not partyers. The Wampanoags came to reconsider their stance on the newcomers. Over the years a fall harvest feast was common in some colonies, especially in New England. In 1789 George Washington called for a national Thanksgiving day to honor the new constitution, but again this did not become a widespread annual event.

The Thanksgiving celebrated today has more to do with 19th-century nationalism, than with 17th-century settlers. It is an invented tradition. In 1863, in the midst of civil war, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving holiday. The popular depiction of the Pilgrims in peace and harmony with natives and nature was meant to emphasize the common heritage of a people at war with itself. The Thanksgiving tradition is the celebration of a myth, but a myth that unifies the nation.

Oh, and by the way, the Pilgrims really did not wear big-buckled shoes either.

Friday, November 20, 2009

20 Years

Somerville, Mass - Twenty years ago this month, I sat through Professor Dick's Russian class, as he made jokes about the Russian tendancy to use the negative when making requests (something like "You're not getting off the metro here, are you?" instead of "Excuse me, I'm getting off". Or "You wouldn't be able to help me?" instead of "Help!").

"The Russians are so polite," Professor Dick said mockingly, and everyone laughed.

I'm sure Professor Dick was a good teacher, but I didn't think he was funny. Nobody is funny at 8:15 in the morning.

Aside from the cases and the conjugations and the other torture that Professor Dick inflicted on us, I remember his utter amazement as he read us the headlines from the Washington Post each morning. "Are you following this? Are you reading your newspaper? I hope you are reading the newspapers, because this is absolutely astounding, what's taking place over there."

Of course, I was not reading the newspaper. (I was reading hundreds of pages of European history and microeconomics and "The Problem of God", but I was not reading the newspaper.) In retrospect, it's a good thing that Professor Dick brought to our attention the events unfolding in Eastern Europe; otherwise, I might have been completely oblivious.

So here we are, 20 years later. Who would have guessed that these events would so shape my life?

This year, I was back in Eastern Europe. Indeed, I was in Krakow on June 4, the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking Polish election -- the first that allowed participation by an opposition party (and in fact resulted in a landslide victory for Solidarity). It was arguably the first tile in the domino effect that would take place in Eastern Europe throughout that fall.

Twenty years later, there were some parades and some protests in Krakow; but there was no denying that this day was a day to be remembered.

November 9 was the anniversary of the unexpected opening of the Berlin Wall - the first time that residents of East Berlin were able to travel freely to West Berlin. Borders all along the East-West German border would be flung open throughout the following week.

To commemorate this historic event, the Goethe Institute here in Boston is hosting an excellent exhibit. "Moments in Time 1989/1990" traces the events of those years - mostly using photographs taken by regular people, amateur photographers from both East and West Germany, who were experiencing the events as they unfolded. The photos and accompanying descriptions express surprise, wonder, curiosity, confusion, exaltation and - more than anything else - bewilderment about what might happen in the future.

As indicated by the exhibit's title, it covers not only the events of November, but also the following months, which saw the dismantling of the wall and the reunification of Germany (which seemed to catch everyone by surprise). The exhibit will be in Boston until mid-December, and it is highly recommended, especially for people (like me) who did not make it to Berlin before the wall came down. Alternatively, you can visit the expanded online exhibit.

This week (November 17-20) marks the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. It started with a peaceful student protest in Prague, and ended - just over a month later - with the election of playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel as President.

December saw demonstrations in the Romanian town of Timişoara. Unlike in other countries, the Romanian police fired on demonstrators. Angry citizens responded to the violence with mass protests, and by the end of the month, the crazy communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife had been sentenced to death. (This pseudo revolution and other wacky Romanian historical events are the subject of the Communist Dracula Pageant, which was performed by the American Repertory Theatre last year.)

The communist regime in Bulgaria voluntarily stepped down in February 1990 (you would too, if you had seen what had happened to the Ceauşescus). And that was pretty much the end of the Iron Curtain.

Eastern Europe is obviously a different place than it was 20 years ago. I learned all about it, when I worked on the anniversary edition of the big Lonely Planet guidebook that covers the entire region (now 20 independent nations - read an excerpt here). And while all of these countries are moving closer to their western counterparts, they are still colored by their communist past. And that is part of their charm.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not Your Babushka's Moscow

Somerville, Mass - A friend of mine sent me this awesome video of a flash mob that took place in Moscow last week. Personally, I'm not sure it counts as a flash mob if the participants practiced for two weeks beforehand, but that doesn't really matter. Check out what happened when they came together on a Saturday afternoon in a Moscow shopping mall.

I love the babushka at 2:20. She doesn't know the moves, but that's not stopping her from throwing down. She's like "Communism, shmomunism.... We didn't do this back in the Soviet Union!"

MK Flash mob, Moscow, 31 october 2009, 16:00 from Timelapser on Vimeo.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Duck Village

Somerville, Mass - Oh, Somerville, how I love thee. Today I discovered a new Duck Village on Hanson Street.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Indian Summer, Part 2

Medford, Mass - The warm weather continues. Today we decided to check out a new destination. Although I have ridden my bike many times past the Middlesex Fells Reservation, I have never really stopped to explore it.

Today was the perfect day for it. Sunny skies and warm temperatures drew out plenty of dog-walkers and a few mountain bikers, although the trails were remarkably unpopulated compared to our regular destinations. The main reason for this is that there are miles and miles of hiking trails - I mean some 25 miles of marked hiking trails, as well as a mountain biking loop - so even if there are people, your chances of seeing them are slim.

We had no idea where to go. We parked on South Border Rd and picked up the first trail we found, which turned out to be the Cross-Fells Trail. We didn't start at the beginning, which is near Medford High School, but this 4.5-mile trail was a pretty good sampler plate - offering a glimpse of the reservoir, a view of the Boston skyline from the top of Cairn Hill and some lovely secluded woods. (The Fells website classified this trail as difficult, but that's a bit of an exaggeration, really.)

Of course we could not come back the way that we went - that would be too easy. So we made our way back first on the Skyline Trail, then on the Reservoir Trail, with some fire roads in between. I never would have ventured off the Cross-Fells Trail by myself - yes, I do make maps for a living, but that doesn't mean I have a good sense of direction! Fortunately, my husband does and we found our way back to our car without incident.

Funny, after all these years living in Somerville and writing about Boston and New England, I am still making new discoveries!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Indian Summer, Part 1

Concord, Mass - Most of the leaves are brown by now. We finally raked and swept in front of our house, convinced that there will not be too many more coming down. Aside from my day canvassing in Maine, I didn't take any special leaf-peeping trips this year. There was no time for hikes in the White Mountains or drives along the Kangkamangus Highway. Foliage season is so fleeting.

But just when I thought fall was going to fade into winter, we experienced a sudden spike in temperatures. The sun came out, the thermostat reached into the 60s and everybody took off their wool jackets.

We spent the afternoon at one of my favorite urban escapes, Walden Pond. We had brought with us a little picnic - roasted vegetable and goat cheese quiche from Petsi's Pies. Don't you think that's what Thoreau used to eat when he "went to the woods to live deliberately"? Isn't a roasted vegetable and goat cheese quiche one of the "essential facts of life"?

After lunch, we enjoyed a delightful stroll around the pond - so peaceful now without the splashing and screaming of kids. Last time I was here was back in August, when we rode our bikes and swam in the pond to escape the brutal summer heat.

Now, the pond is silent. Even the birds have retreated to warmer climes, although we did spot a great blue heron, posing majestically as he spied on the fish in the water. Other than that, the only signs of life were a few walkers circling the pond and the brown and yellow leaves, still stunning against the blue sky.