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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Rebollita - My Version of an Italian Fave

Ok, let’s get this straight…I did not invent this soup.  I shamelessly downloaded a link that was mentioned on a wonderful wine blog written by a friend of mine, Laura Uncorked, and then made some not so discrete changes.  (There’s a link to Ms Uncorkced’s blog in the margin to the right.)

But, to be truthful, nobody invented ribollita, or nobody whose name is ever mentioned in the annals of history.  Legend has it that serfs reboiled (rebollita) the bread trenchers left over from the nobles’ feasts, adding veggies and broth.  But, not much evolved clearly from the mist of medieval history.  Weren’t those the folks who thought the sun revolved around the earth and had the Inquisition make Galileo Galilei swear to it?  I suspect waterboarding was not the issue it is today and fact and fiction were held in equally high esteem.

One thing for sure, this soup will fill your guests' stomach cavities, every one.  Want to add an interesting white wine?  Check Ms Uncorked’s blog, or pop the top on one of my favorites, a gewürztraminer, and let your tantalized tongue tingle.

Disclaimer!!!  What does it mean when I say this is MY version?  It means I DID NOT USE TRENCHERS FROM THE NOBLES’ MEALS.  Nor did I make Galileo swear to anything. 

Since every Italian mother, son, daughter-in-law, and street vendor has his/her/its own version of rebollita, I high-fived culinary tradition and unabashedly joined the rebollita conga line.

Ribollita – I did it my way

Serves 8 or more, so use a big pot.

These are the ingredients, but you really can’t go wrong.  Don’t have something?  Substitute something else.  That’s what the peasants did when the nobles weren’t looking.

2  15 oz cans cannellini or great northern beans, undrained
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 pound pancetta or smoked lean bacon (if you must)
1 lb chopped pork – I use the lean, stir-fry strips, but chop them
2 onions, well chopped
1 Cup carrots, well chopped
1 Cup chopped celery
6 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 teaspoon black pepper, fresh ground or coarse ground
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 14 oz can plumb tomatoes, drained well and tomatoes chopped
1 package frozen leaf spinach, thawed
handful fresh basil leaves, chopped
4 Cups chicken broth
4 Cups sourdough bread, cubed (one small, round loaf should do the trick)
Parmesan cheese

Puttin’ it together…

Drizzle the oil in a large pot and add the onion, garlic and pancetta.  Cook until the onion is wilted.  Add the chopped pork, and all the vegetables except the beans and tomatoes.  Stir well and add all the spices except the basil.  Stir.  Add the chicken broth.

Do not drain either can of beans, but put the contents of one can in a blender, or food processor and puree it.

Add the whole and pureed beans to the soup.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes to fully cook the vegetables and allow the flavors to blend.

Add the chopped tomatoes and cubes of sourdough bread.  Stir.  Cook another ten minutes.

Sprinkle basil and Parmesan cheese over individual bowls.

Make this recipe a day or two ahead if you wish.

You’re going to feel so Italian you’ll find yourself waving your hands, talking loudly, and reaching for more wine.  Keep a bottle handy.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

FC Kaiserslautern - Futbol!

A red sea of the faithful

Got invited to see the local professional soccer team play.  It was my first pro soccer game in Germany.  FC Kaiserslautern is in the second tier of German leagues, but the soccer was good, the stadium huge, and the crowd boisterous.  Futbol Club Kaiserslautern is usually abbreviated FCK, which confuses English speakers who buy tickets thinking its a dating service.

This was a VIP who honored me with the invite.  What does it mean to be a VIP in this situation?

It means you park your car in a protected area in the very shadow of an immaculate 50,000 seat stadium.  Every security guard at every checkpoint stares at your creds then bows to kiss your ring, all the while apologizing for a leaf on the road that could possibly ruin your driving experience.  Smiles shine like the Rhine on a summer’s day.

After the car parking ceremony, you walk ten feet and ascend near heaven in a polished elevator. When you step out, a bevy of dewy-eyed flowers of young womanhood welcome you to the VIP suite with white-toothed, winsome smiles. They wrap your wrist in color-coded ribbon to let everyone know not to screw with you as you make merry with casual abandon. 

In this stadium, a suite means a luxury box slightly smaller than an aircraft carrier and every bit as well equipped.  The glass and steel tables stand glistening and ready, laden with silverware, and bottled water in its own chilled casing.  The glassware sparkles. A beauty, dressed in a tastefully black, form-fitting outfit, waits breathlessly at tableside to seat you and take your order for beer, wine, coffee, etc.  The etc is extensive.  So extensive it made my mind wander. Prefer champagne?  No prob.  Drinks appear in a flash, along with more winsome smiles.

In this lavish room, there are almost as many buffet lines as buffeters (my own word for glutton), plus several bars, in the off chance you want to wander, meet and greet.  Hundreds of people mingle, slake their thirst, and nibble. This was no ordinary buffet affair.  Slabs of smoked salmon.  Paper thin layers of smoked ham.  Chicken cordon bleu.  Stuffed pork loin. Oven baked green beans with bacon.   I could go on and on, without mentioning the string of German desserts and made to order crepes.   You big on salads?  Try twelve or fifteen exotics, and an array of various lettuces, no doubt picked by virgins that very morning.

The routine was this:  You eat and drink and ogle the drink-maids; you go outside to shade-side, upholstered seats, watch a half of soccer, go back inside to eat and drink, go back outside to watch the second half, then go back inside to….ta-da!  Eat and drink.  By this time you’ve become proficient at eating and drinking, but talking is beginning to be a problem.

Flat screen TVs of heroic size line the walls and in case you missed the game entirely, the usual shellac-haired drivel spouters stare from the screens, idling in their studios, breathless for the interview with the winning coach, which in this case was Kaiserslautern.  For that I was very thankful, as I was counting on a ride home.

I only wish the coach would have answered the sportscasters lame questions with more panache. Something like this:

Q:  In the past you’ve been concerned with your defense and especially the interaction of the mid-fielders on the crossover passes that have sometimes left the advancing side in an unbalanced position.  Did that concern you today?

A:  I need a beer.

Q: How about your goalie and his gimpy walk after the leg amputation?

A:  I like beer.

Q:  Were you pleased with the way your offense controlled the ball on scoring opportunities that some would say walked the edge of satisfactory ball handling?

A:  I will go home with your wife.  I hear she has pleasant nipples.

Q:  How are you preparing for your next game against the Brukenbach Bone Snatchers?

A:  I think I’ll let our goalie pull down his pants and answer that question.

Q:  Overall, how would you describe the game?

A.  We scored two goals.  They scored one.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pumpkin Fest

Some moppets play on giant prolate spheroids

Pumpkin Soup

The food hall

It’s that time of year when the warmth of long summer days drifts silently into memory.  The mornings turn crisp.  The days creep shorter.  But, hey, don’t waste time grieving over summer’s memories.  If anything, fall perks up the social schedule.  Weinfests galore.  American football keeps your Saturdays (and Sundays here in Germany) exciting and your heart in your throat.

There’s also something else to celebrate.  Pumpkin season.  And if you think German words are tongue-twistingly difficult to remember, try using ‘pumpkin’ on your German friends.  Their word is much simpler, Kubis.  And yes, dear hearts, there are pumpkin fests!

There’s a big one at the Kaiserslautern Garden Fair, which runs until 31 October.  Lots to see and do.  This is a fest on a grand scale, with all sorts of large animals and such, made from pumpkins.   If you’re looking for a kiddie fest, you might want to try the K-town Garden Fair. Visit:

Like something a little more homey and rural?  Well, I do.  Each year around this time, we head to Hitscherhof farm for arts, crafts, a corn maze, pumpkins and pumpkin products, bier, wein, oompah band, and lots of good food.

What is a pumpkin and why the hell would I ask?  Fruit?  Vegetable?  Depends on how you want to slice that definition.  Botanically, it’s a fruit.  But in truth, most people use a culinary definition and slice it this way:  sweet = fruit, not sweet = vegetable.  So, for pumpkin, I'm going with vegetable, actually a member of the gourd/squash family.  The Hitscherhof farm has about 30 varieties and some of them are huge, as in several hundred kilos huge.  Others are so tiny, you want to put one in a cradle and help it find its mother.

Back to business.  Want to expand your vocab and sound like something more than a soup sloshing, beer swilling swine? Now’s your chance.  Check this.  Most pumpkins are oblate spheroids, meaning they’re bigger around the middle than they are tall, unlike the prolate spheroids which have it the other way around.  Hey, no personal remarks, please!  Picture the oblate spheroids as squatty and the prolates as egg shaped.

The Hirscherhof is a working farm, but also a superb bed and breakfast, with flowers in profusion and some of the best pumpkin soup I’ve ever tasted.  The Hirscherhof  variety is smooth, creamy, with dark pumpkin oil drizzled over the top and toasted pumpkin seeds on top of that.  Ever had pumpkin wurst? My mouth waters.  My palms sweat.  I need some soup and wurst and I need ‘em now.  But, I’ll have to wait until 23-24 September, to wander the grounds, prowl the clutter of arts and crafts booths, and belly up for some wine.   Ah, well, there’s college football to keep me entertained until then, and maybe a weinfest or two.  It’s fall and I know I won’t suffer.

Tatting Lace

Hitscherhof is a working farm!

Beauty in every corner!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Blanc de Noir

Here’s something from the dark corner of the wine cellar, Blanc de Noir.  What the hell kind of grape is that?  Not a variety of grape.  It means white from black and refers to using dark grapes to produce white wine.  Most of the time you see it on the labels of sparkling wines, many notably from the Champagne region of France.

But there are also lots of still wines that feature Blanc de Noir.  In Germany, much of the time the B de N’s come from the Spätburgunder grape, the German word for Pinot Noir.  How in the living swamp of Mesopotamia does Pinot Noir get translated to Spätburgunder?  You’re about to find out.  Spätburgunder means late Burgundy and refers to the first vines of Pinot planted in Germany coming from Burgundy.  Also, Pinot matures late.

But, lots of other dark grapes can do the job.  In this case, my favorite German weingut (wine grower and seller) Karl Dennhardt, used Cabernet Sauvignon and Lemberger for his 2010 Blanc de Noir.  Pretty much everyone is familiar with Cab, but Lemberger? 

Although not widely known by wine swilling Americans, Lemberger vineyards stretch from Austria to Hungary to Germany.  It’s also grown in Washington State.  It’s a late maturing, dark grape, usually sturdy and rich in tannins, but there is also a softer side to Lemberger and that’s what Dennhardt has tapped into.

But, let’s back up a sec.  Black grapes, white wine?  How does that happen?  Most grape juice is white, but when you squeeze the grapes and leave the juice to soak in the skins, gradually the juice turns dark, absorbing not only the color, but also the tannin.  So, guess what?  If you want a white wine from dark grapes, you juice the grapes and separate the juice from the skins immediately.

In the case of Karl Dennhardt’s Blanc de Noir, you end up with an amazingly sturdy and flavorful dry white wine.  A fragrant, almost yeasty nose kicks in, and your first sip offers notes of pear and plum.  When I say notes, I don’t mean the whole damn song.  Slow sip this dry white a moment and let the nectar float to the back of the throat.  You’ll see what I mean.  It’s full, yet crisp, and lacks that heavily acidic finish you find with many dry whites.

A note on temperature.  Lots of folks think if a white doesn’t have frost on the bottle it’s not cold enough.  Don’t believe it.  Try it cool, but not cold, somewhere north of 60 ºF.  If you don’t like it immediately, give your taste buds a little more time to adjust.  You’ll start to pick up flavors you didn’t know were there.  Another hint:  If it’s not a sparkling wine and the bottle says ‘Serve Chilled,’ I advise you to put it back on the shelf.  There’s something the vintner doesn’t want you to know and he’s using the cold temp to cover up the wine’s shortcomings.

Blanc de Noir pairs perfectly with avocados, salads light on vinegar, shrimp cocktail, fish, ripe fruit, and light desserts.  Don’t despair if you can’t find the Dennhardt label.  It doesn’t travel far.  Find another German Blanc de Noir and enjoy the last days of summer, in a bottle.  You’re gonna be sorry if you didn’t buy a couple of bottles.  Nobody drinks just one.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Eagle

Welcome to The Eagle

Outside, academics continue...

Note the well scorched ceiling in the RAF Bar

A corner of wartime memories

Steak 'n Kidney Pie, with chips and peas

Let the world roll by, while...

You enjoy your pint

Let’s talk about England.  Wait a sec, let’s get more specific and talk about Cambridge.  No use stopping there; let’s get down to the basics of life and talk about The Eagle, one of England’s and Cambridge’s finest pubs.  Matter of fact, we can talk about The Eagle and the basics of life in one breath, but we’ll get to that later.

Everybody know about The University of Cambridge?  I didn’t think so.  It’s only one of England’s, and the world’s most famous universities, another being Oxford.  Matter of fact The University of Cambridge is a spawn of Oxford, germinating when a group of disgruntled Oxfordsonians (my own clever word) left the older institution in disgust in 1209.  Don’t know what the arguments were.  Who can truly penetrate the snide and foggy brains of academicians (not my own clever word)?  In 1231, King Henry III granted the new university a charter. 

Not organized at all like most American universities, Cambridge is a collection of 31 colleges and over 150 departments.  With a university this ancient, you’d never guess that the last association to be granted college status was Homerton College in 2010.  Google it to read more about its lineage.

Colleges accept their own students, hire their own staff, own their own property and receive their own income. Students of a particular college live and eat there, and also meet for small group teaching sessions, known as supervisions.  Thereafter, the academic landscape broadens and students from one college may attend classes in all the colleges.  The University of Cambridge awards degrees.

Kinda cool.  Students not only end up taking classes at many colleges, but are also encouraged to attend lectures outside their fields of study, giving them glimpses of multitudinous subjects they would never have encountered in an American style institution.  Boys and girls, this is called education and you probably didn’t encounter it unless you were Ivy League.

By the way, Harvard and MIT rank right up there with Oxford and Cambridge in study after study of the world’s best.

But, enough about expanding your brain and b-o-r-i-n-g stuff like that.  Who needs it when there’s a neat place to drink beer? 

I refer, of course to a quaint spot, nestled right around the corner from the city’s bustling market square.  The Eagle pub.

Bustling is not an idle handle.  The churn of the market, the buzz of the voices, the rattle of trucks and stream of bicycles permeates the city center. Hard to distinguish whether you’re in the city or the university.  They mingle like strands of a rope. The streets run from broad and open, to narrow and tangled, as though a horse-drawn plow had run amuck.  Cars creep through this warren of streets and alleys, but pedestrians beware.  People in flowing robes ride their bikes where they damn well please.

As I was saying, near the market square sits a pub called The Eagle.  Some call it a living shrine to all that college drinking establishments should be.  Two whiskey-stained bars.  Lots of scarred-top tables.  Lots of centuries-old timber, and memorabilia galore. Also, lots to know about The Eagle besides that they serve some of the best bitter this side of heaven, an observation I don’t plan to test anytime soon.

In 1525, the site was bequeathed to Corpus Christi College and by 1667 (a year after the great fire of London) there was a tavern in the same place, called The Eagle & Child. Don’t know what happened to the Child.

Remember I said The Eagle and the basics of life are intertwined?  The Eagle is where, in the 1950’s, the discoverers of DNA, Watson and Crick, often huddled over a pint or two.

But, that’s not all that’s special about The Eagle.  In the back is the ‘RAF Bar,’ where amid the tumult and death of the Second World War, RAF and American aircrews downed their pints, sweaty and bruised from battle.  For some it was their last pint. 

The walls are plastered with aircraft photos and squadron plaques, but the real show is on the ceiling.  Blackened with the carbon from candles and cigarette lighters, you can clearly read the names and squadron numbers and aircraft types.  Mute testimony to those who, despite great odds and the constant reality of death, held the weight of our civilization on their shoulders for six long years.

The food isn’t half bad either.  The usual pub grub, but surprisingly tasty.

Just remember, when you order your first pint, The Eagle is a place to throw care and time to the winds.  Linger much longer than you’d planned.  Bring a book, or sit calmly in the courtyard and watch the unfortunates, who don’t have a brew in their hand, stroll past. There’ll be plenty of time later to wind your way through the serene, cold stone of college courtyards and visit the fabulous Cambridge bookshops, like Heffers on Trinity Street, or stop off in ‘Chocolat Chocolat’ for chocolate as you’ve never had it.

For right now, just sit back, enjoy the company of academics and tourists and the silent ghosts of aircrews who never returned.   While you’re at it, order another pint in honor of the gallant aviators!

The world's best chocolate?  I think so.

Inside Heffer's bookstore

Glimpse of a college courtyard

Punting on the River Cam

The bustling downtown market square

The market is dead  center in Cambridge

Doorway to another ancient college