Sankt Nikolaus and Krampus

Today is December 6th, a day awaited by all children and also all those children at heart in Germany. The first Christmas Markets have already opened. Grandmothers, mums and all those who enjoy it, have started baking Christmas cookies and cakes. We could say that Christmas is in the air…

Who is or who was Saint Nicholas? Nicholas was born around the third century A.D. in a territory that used to be Greece, and that is nowadays Turkey.  He was from a wealthy family though his parents died when he was still young. He was named bishop of Myra and he dedicated his wealth and life to help the suffering. If you want tor read more about him, follow this link http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/.

Saint Nicholas is not only well known in Europe, but also in the US in cities that have a big German heritage, such as Cincinnati, Milwaukee, among others.

In Southern Germany not only the good ones will get a present from “Nikolaus”, as he is known over here. No, those who have been bad or naughty will start sweating as St. Nikolaus doesn`t always come alone. He has a “partner” called “Krampus”. He is sometimes represented as a demon with a big sack where he packs children who have been bad and takes them away. I can imagine that having such a figure at your door will make you regret a lot, if not all of your sins in the past year.  And yes, it is a tradition in Southern Germany to engage someone to play the part of  Saint Nicholas and to ring at your doorbell. Parents with especially “difficult” children can also engage a “Krampus”… He would also be good for some difficult partners, don’t you agree? 😉

Krampus

Krampus, one of his representations

There is even a parade dedicated to this character, in an Austrian town at the Wörthersee.

To celebrate Saint Nicholas, families gather on the eve of the 6th in the warmth of their homes sharing cookies, a steamy tea and some “Glühwein” (spiced wine) for the adults.

There are many different recipes to prepare your own spiced wine. I would say that the classical ingredients for a red one are a 1 liter of a not very dry wine, an organic lemon sliced, some cinnamon ( 2 pieces of bark), 3 cloves, sugar white or brown, some cardamon.  You can also add orange peel and some aniseed, if you like. Add the ingredients to the wine, heat it, but be careful not to boil it, and leave it warm for an hour or so. Ready, enjoy!

Some families will be awaiting the visit of Nikolaus with his presents singing the Nikolaus song:  “Lass uns froh und munter sein…”, which would be more or less “Let us be happy and cheerful…”

Other families will leave a shoe with a small letter for him at the main door. On the next morning, the morning of the 6th, a plate with “Lebkuchen” or gingerbread  cookies, oranges, clementines, nuts, a chocolate Nikolaus and maybe some extra present for the little ones.

Nikolaus plate

Brought by Nikolaus

 

Especially on the weekends, the Christmas markets with all their smells, lights and charm are very attractive. There are cities famous for their markets, such as Nürnberg. You may book a tour to visit the Christmas market. However, Munich has also got a wide selection of markets, from the very commercial and well known one at Marienplatz to smaller ones. Almost every neighborhood has got its own. There is avery nice one, specialized in handcrafts at the Münchner Freiheit, which is a square in the neighborhood Schwabing with the same named underground station. There you can find exclusive handmade jewelry, lamps, paintings, knitted clothing and very good food.

There is another very popular Christmas market downtown, called Medieval Market. The artisans sell their handmade products, such as leather goods, wood, ceramics and of course, mouth watering specialties, such as oven baked bread with sour cream and scallions.

Other smaller ones are the “Weihnachtsmarkt” in Haidhausen, next to the S-Bahn, or suburban station “Rosenheimer Straße. You can eat a delicious 1m “Bratwurst” or sausage and drink some hot honey wine from the horn, the same way the “Barbarians” did… There is a very small one, but not a secret one anymore, in the “Residence” yard. They mostly have food and spiced wine booths, and while enjoying your hot beverage you can listen to live Christmas music playing.

One of my favorites is the “Weihnachtsmarkt” at the Rotkreutzplatz, a square in Munich West. Here you can buy very nice candles, stoneware and wooden toys and before you get real cold, you can drink some “Glühwein”, too.

The last market I’m mentioning is the “Tollwood”. It is not only a market,it is really called “Tollwood Winter Festival” and you can find it in the same area where the famous Oktoberfest takes place, in the “Theresienswiese” with direct underground access.  It’s nice to visit this place when it’s dark and snowing. As you may remember, it’s already dark at 4.30 pm However, on Saturday and Friday evenings you may rather stay home or go somewhere else because it will be very crowded. The good thing about it, you will forget everything about the cold weather, especially in the tents 😉 Another important thing to remember, most of the Christmas  markets will be open till 8 o’clock, except Tollwood.

Tollwood

The Tollwood Christmas market

 

I know that this tradition is now very popular all over the world, so look for the Christmas market close to your place and get some Christmas inspiration 🙂

 

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Bio and organic… Really?

Nowadays we ask each other, if what we are eating is really what it is supposed to be. Some of us try to be fair to ecology and look for sustainable products, avoid eating meat and only buy “bio” or organic products… What would my grandmother think, if she could see that everything healthy is now ‘bio’? Aren’t we all biological beings, that is, ‘bio’?

What is Organic? Lets see the definition of http://usorganicproducts.com/why-us-organic: “Under USDA regulations, “organic” is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.” Aha, now we know a little bit more.

Doing the groceries week after week we encounter different types of organic or bio products in every supermarket, in a food discounter, a standard one or in the specialized, certified organic supermarket. If we are looking, for  example, for: eggs. Every place has an enormous amount of organic eggs. Is this possible?  How come? Where do these happy, well fed chicken live? If never seen such a farm while traveling around, and judging by the tons of eggs that are sold, there should be many of those farms everywhere. Close to where I live, there are some ‘Bio-Bauernhöfe’ or organic farms. Some of them sell not only season vegetables, but also eggs, honey and sometimes even pork or beef. How do I know, if the eggs are really organic? In German supermarkets eggs are all and each of them marked with a seal with a series of numbers. These ciphers show a 0 (zero) for organic eggs in the first place, followed by other digits that encode the country they are from and even the original farm or producer. In this way, as a customer you can decide, if you stick to national German eggs or if you buy some foreign eggs… (http://www.deutsche-eier.info/das-ei/erzeugercode/).

The prices are a little higher than for non organic eggs, but they are still affordable.

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German bio or organic eggs

 

Trying to buy some ecological correct chicken or organic or bio chicken in the supermarket will leave you quite breathless. I have seen half a chicken breast for up to 10 €, so that for a whole chicken breast you’d easily pay about 20€! There is even an online shop for organic chicken. http://www.biohaehnchen.de/Bio-Haehnchenbrust

Are bio turkey or chicken really happier and healthier than their counterparts?

In this article, http://www.biohandel-online.de/cgi-bin/mobil/display.pl?file=/public/HTML/2013/mb20131201.shtml, in the magazine biohandel.de, they reached the conclusion that there is no perfect type of bio turkey. The breeds used for the food industry are very prone to illnesses and are of course treated with antibiotics. There are some specifications for the bio animals, for example, they are allowed to medicate the bio turkeys only once in their life… However, the dosage will then be prolonged as much as possible. And chicken? Well, you may draw your own conclusions. I try to be conscious and I buy ‘bio’ chicken, if we ever want to eat some meat. However, last week while looking at the 10€ for the mini chicken breast, I was thinking that this chicken was maybe one of the Royal organic chicken of Prince Charles in England!

I know, some of you may be thinking that the solution is to stop eating meat and convert to a strict vegetarian diet… Mmmm, are all the biological vegetables we find in the supermarket really ‘safe’ and politically correct ;-)? Nowadays, every supermarket has its own ‘bio’ brand, always with a very green etiquette and biological sounding name, e.g. BioBio or simply Bio… Are they to be trusted? I doubt it. Bio or organic grown products are usually more expensive. Searching some web sites for tests and opinions, I found this article from one of the official TV channels in the north of Germany, the NRD. After having tested bio products in discount supermarkets, which are very popular over here, they came to the conclusion that their bio brands are ok. They taste better than conventional products and are less expensive than the products from exclusively organic-supermarkets. Are there any negative points? Of course, the long transportation having products traveling thousands of miles from other continents to get to our racks and the packing. Most of these bio-vegetables or fruits are packed in plastic trays covered with plastic… Really ecological or bio?

Bio spinach

Organic spinach from Italy

 

If we start questioning our ‘modern’ way of life… we wouldn’t be here anymore. We are more than 7 billion people on this planet. How can we get organic food for everyone? If I remember that there are millions of people suffering famine, without water and no medical care to be able to grow healthy. I consider our ‘first world problems’ and lose my appetite.

Have a healthy week!

Food sins in the city

I’m sure everybody knows the rhetorical question ‘What are we eating today?’or ‘What should I cook?’ Very often we can’t find a practical answer. An easy way out is the ‘Let’s go get Indian or Chinese food’ But where can you get it? The restaurant on the corner, the fast food one with the Call Nr. or the supermarket?

Inspired by an Italian blog presenting instant food inspired in the Italian cooking (http://www.einespressobitte.com/un-minuto-di-silenzio-food-disaster/) I want to show you and comment some of the International delicacies we can find in supermarkets.

First of all an introduction of one of the most famous chefs in German supermarkets must be done: He is Dr. Oetker, and he is a star in every cooking discipline, from a simple soup with noodles to a chocolate chip cake. Difficult? No way. I was referring to Dr. Oetker as a he, but maybe I’m wrong and it’s a she! Dr. Oetker, a mysterious character we may encounter in German kitchens… One thing I have to recognize that his or her recipes are almost infallible, provided you can read and follow steps accurately.

Dr._Oetker_Schokinokuchen

From the German Doctor 😉

 

There are other brands in our German supermarkets, for example, Knorr and of course the no name products of best buy supermarkets such as Aldi or Lidl. These shops are famous for their super retail prices and their simple arrangements of products. In those places you find a simple rack with the open cardboard boxes showing the products and that’s it. They are also proud of having the fastest cashiers where you have to almost catch your products and put them in your caddy at an astonishing speed, almost like the Flash 😉 Nevertheless, you usually have to stand in line for a long time to be able to pay because of the 5 cashiers only one or two will be working.

Talking about international products in our supermarkets, what is one of the most popular Mexican products that you can find in every supermarket over here? Can you guess? Of course the vegetable mix, with kidney beans, red paprika and golden corn… Does it sound familiar to my Mexican readers? No? Of course not, we don’t eat that combination in Mexico. How about combining it with tuna? A Mexican tuna salad! Very simple.

However, we are more fortunate than our Italian friends, they find from the pizza burger, the newest Dr. Oetker’s creation to the spaghetti carbonara in the cup…  The French have not been forgotten. Dr. Oetker created a special line on the French cuisine, called le Bistro. All types of frozen ‘baguettes’ with several fillings, such as cheese and … Jalapeños!! Very French!

pizza_burger

The authentic pizza burger or burger pizza?

 

If you don’t know how to cook or let’s say read, or you don’t have time and love International dishes, you may then run to a mini supermarket at the gas station close to your place and grab a ‘Ristorante Pizza’ with salami, mozzarella and pesto. Lots of the so called Mexican dishes have to have red kidney beans and corn and the Italian ones, pesto of course.

Has Dr. Oetker ever been to Asia? I don’t really know, but another well known Mister, Mr. Knorr, surely has 😉  The choice of Asian specialties is huge. From Bami Goreng noodles to Asia Curry Noodles sweet ‘n sour. Very Asian!

As for people who worry about ecology and ecological products, Mr. Knorr offers the new Spaghetti Bolognese. The most “tomatoly” ( a word only invented for this sauce) Bolognese of all time with sustainable green tomatoes, especially enriched with many herbs. This is the new Knorr’s Bolognese with a fruity taste… Mmmm, I don’t quite understand the effect of the herbs in the fruitiness of the sauce, or are the sustainable tomatoes responsible? As everything is dried, made to powder packed in a small bag I still don’t get where the freshness comes from… Ah, it’s part of my imagination! The mind is very powerful indeed…

Our American friends have also a special selection of products, for example, the All American pizza! With chicken or barbecue and a thick dough, very American, of course.

To be fair, I have to mention the products we can find in mostly every kitchen, the different types of broth or soups where you only add water. This makes me think of another brand, Maggi! Do they also have international products? Italian friends, please, close your eyes and don’t read… Yes, they even have the ‘fix’ for spaghetti all’amatriciana!

How about instant typical German dishes? You can find almost everything starting from the famous “Jägersauce” or “Hunter’s sauce” a little bit similar to a gravy to add to your “Schnitzel or pork steak that you’ll still have to buy. To accompany your meat, you can choose among many side dishes to serve on a Bavarian meal such as “Kartoffelknödel”, or potato dumplings, the ready fix mixture for the salad with “real” herbs and the “Bayrische Creme” or Bavarian creme for dessert. Do vegetarians have a choice? Yes, they may buy the instant “Käsespätzle”, similar to gnocchi, but smaller and served with melting cheese… a little bit like maccaroni and cheese, no problem.

maggi_sauce

Fresh and tasty…

 

So, cooking international meals at home isn’t that difficult! Long live the chemists! 😉

Mexico and its food

Mexico’s cuisine has a very long tradition and an immense variety of dishes influenced by history and its geographical situation.

The very basic ingredients all over the country are corn, beans and chili peppers in all their varieties. There are many vegetables, fruits, herbs and animals that can only be found in traditional dishes in the country. Because of that mosaic of flavors and colors Mexican cuisine has been declared by UNESCO as one of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.

Although all Mexicans are more or less familiar with their specialties, there are dishes that are almost exclusive to one of the 31 federal states and can only be found there.

I can also say that there are the brave Mexicans, who eat almost everything and are used to eating very spicy or very hot food. There is also the not so brave kind… I have to confess that I belong to the second one because I don’t like chilies and I’m not used to eating very typical food.

In my last trip to Mexico I started the gourmet tour in a very well known restaurant called “El Cardenal” in the south of Mexico City. The cardenal, in English cardinal, is a red bird found in North and South America, and just to remind some of my European readers, Mexico is in North America, neither in Central nor “Middle” nor South America, and this last one is not to be confused with Latin America.

We were celebrating three birthdays on the same day and had a very large table. The friendly waiters shared their seasonal specialties and we ordered some starters and a small tequila shot with lemon slices and salt.

I was very excited to have my first Mexican dinner and looked expectantly to the plates that they were serving. They brought some guacamole, the very typical one only with creamy avocados, coriander, lemon juice and green chili peppers. This type of guacamole is usually used as a sauce for either quesadillas or chicharrón, which is pork rinds fried till it gets golden and crusty. Not the best dish for a cholesterol reduced diet 😉  And just to clarify the term quesadillas, those are corn tortillas filled with cheese. If they are hand made and the dough is a little bit thicker they can be filled with potatoes, or squash blossoms (flor de calabaza).

I knew these two starters and enjoyed them with white cheese and warm corn tortillas. Following these two, they brought two nicely decorated stoneware plates with some white stuff with herbs. I didn’t know what it was, but got a little bit suspicious asking my sister what it was. “Mmmm… escamoles”, was her answer rolling her tortilla ready to serve herself a big portion. I started unwinding my Mexican memory and remembered what it really was, saying aloud: “ Oh, my goodness. Those are ants’ eggs! I think I’ll pass!” Some of the guests were delighted and attacked the plate with lots of tortillas while I watched thinking, well, it’s like insect caviar. However, I was a coward and didn’t try them.

IMG_1369

Escamoles

The next dare was served in another stoneware dish called cazuela. In this case I had no doubt, they were what they looked like: worms! They served the specialty of the months of May and June in Central Mexico, the worm that only grows in the agave plant or maguey. They are called Maguey worms. One of the agave plants, the agave tequilana form the Tequila region in Mexico is used to produce tequila.
I could sit next to the escamoles and continue eating my tortilla with guacamole. However, the sight of this dish, was too much to bear for me, so I asked the Maguey worm fans to take them to their side of the table. I was saying that I’m a “bad” Mexican because I don’t like exotic things and I really admired our Russian guests that night who really tried and even liked the worms… not with vodka, but with tequila.

IMG_1370

Maguey worms

There were a lot of spicy dishes to my right and left, but as I had just arrived to Mexico, I ordered a medium beef steak with some beans and it was delicious. For dessert we had some tequila strawberries and guanabana sherbet. Guanabana is a fruit that tastes as a combination of strawberry and pineapple, with some coconut and banana. Simply refreshing and delicious!

237px-guanabana

Guanabana, it’s not a mango.

My next culinary highlight was in Acapulco in the Mexican Pacific Coast. The day we got there we were served a delicious white fish steak in an Aztec marinade… This marinade is prepared with achiote (Bixa orellana) which is a small tree originating from the tropical region of the Americas. The name derives from the Nahuatl word ( language spoken by the aztects) for the shrub, āchiotl.  

Achiote can be found in the market or supermarket as a paste that is usually diluted in vinegar and some orange juice. It is a delicious marinade for fish, pork or white meat.

Another traditional recipe we had in Acapulco was “Pescado a la veracruzana” very similar to the “Pescado a la vizcaína”. It’s not scientifically proven ;-), but I dare to say that the style “ a la veracruzana” is quite hot and includes a lot of chiles of the chilaca sort. If you want to know more about chile you can read here http://www.eatmorechiles.com/chilaca.html

This dish was also delicious though it left my lips and tongue burning!

On our small boat trip surrounding the Acapulco bay we were served ceviche, or in other countries cebiche, made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with chili peppers. Additional seasonings, such as chopped onions, salt, and coriander, may also be added.

I was mentioning that the Mexican cuisine was influenced by its history. Before the Spanish conquerors arrived in the 16th century, there were no big animals such as cows, pigs, horses, etc. and therefore the native cultures covered their protein intake with insects, smaller animals and lots of fish and seafood. Nowadays we can also eat a lot of seafood in modern combinations such as the carpaccio of almeja (clam or mussel) that we had on our second day. The clam meat was very thinly sliced seasoned with a sweet, sour and spicy balsamico vinaigrette. Simply marvelous!

Back in the city… Two other excellent restaurants in Mexico City are “El Bajío” which can be found in different locations and where they don’t use chemical additives, such as artificial chicken broth, to their dishes. I had a mole enchilada, being mole one of the most traditional Mexican dishes with fried beans puree and rice cooked with tomatoes.  The word “mole” is also from the Nahuatl and it simply means sauce. We can find many different types of mole and in many colors according to the main ingredients. One of the best known, even out of Mexico, is a brown or reddish brown thick sauce that contains chocolate as a main ingredient. If we go back in history, one of the versions says that the word chocolate comes from the nahuatl word xocolatl, meaning “bitter water”. Xocolatl was a bitter beverage made from the cacao beans, not the creamy and sweet paste we know as chocolate. Other ingredients for mole are nuts, such as peanuts, almonds, and many spices such as cinnamon without forgetting the different types of dried chilies.   For more on mole, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mole_(sauce)

If you cannot visit one of the very extense Mexican coasts you can go and eat or dine in the fish restaurant “ Los Arcos” in the Avenida Insurgentes in Mexico City. I had the best fish taco ever! It was fish “al pastor” or shepherd’s style. Its like the Greek gyros or turkish döner. You’d be disappointed if it weren’t spicy. So, yes, it was spicy, but not very hot. Tacos al pastor are usually of pork meat marinated with “adobo” which includes a red dry type of chili peppers called chile ancho. They serve it in corn tortillas with pineapple dices, raw onions and coriander. In this case instead of pork they used fish and it was a complete success.

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A fish taco

I also had the best shrimps ever! They were coated in flour, eggs and coconut, fried and served with a freshly made mango sauce. My father had a fish stuffed with shrimps in a hummer sauce.

I could tell you for hours about Mexican food, its origins, exotic ingredients and family recipes such as the chicken in cilantro sauce or the white fish in green sauce…and… and… and… as you may have noticed, Mexican food is not chili con carne, nor nachos nor tortilla chips with sweet tomato sauce, nor any kind of salad with kidney beans, red paprika, sweet corn or yellow cheese…

Frankly speaking, after describing all these dishes I got hungry and will go to the kitchen to serve dinner.
Buen provecho! Guten Appetit! Bon appétit! Buon appetito!