Monday, March 26, 2007

The Ramen Continuum

Mmmm, ramen.

There are many wonderful variations on the ‘noodles and broth’ theme throughout the world, all with their own tastes, textures and presentations. There's Vietnamese Pho, light and fragrant yet full of the rich flavor of beef and the crunch of bean sprouts. And Japanese Udon, thick and slippery, soft yet chewy. There's the classic Italian torellini in brodo, little soft navels of rich meat in egg pasta, gently simmered in an unadorned meat broth. Of course there’s chicken noodle soup, the childhood/sickbed favorite that even the most sophisticated palates rarely outgrow. And there's another Japanese noodle called Soba made from buckwheat flour, grainy and with a serious chew, often dipped in a side bowl of broth just to be different. There's a simple dish of rice noodles and broth that I had for breakfast in Thailand where the fun is in twirling the accompanying tray of condiments and deciding what to spice your breakfast up with (sliced thai chiles in fish sauce, please!)

There are many more still, enough that, if you live in a decent food city like I do (Boston) with a lot of different ethnic restaurants, you might find that you have a different favorite every few weeks or months that you exclusively dedicate yourself to. Vietnamese food was mostly new to me when I moved to Boston in 1999, and so when I discovered the wealth of Vietnamese restaurants in this city Pho duly occupied most of the part of my brain devoted to noodles in broth for a while. And of course I still love it and eat it a few times a year.

But it seems I always return to ramen eventually. What does ramen mean to you? For me, ramen means many things. I see myself sitting at Eli Kurtz’s kitchen table while in high school, eagerly slurping down 25 cent packages of Top Ramen, beef flavor. I remember eating oodles of the same stuff during college as it was cheap and quick. I remember slowly starting to develop myself as a cook during late college and after and experimenting with the basic packaged ramen recipe, adding steamed vegetables, spicy condiments, black mushrooms, eventually substituting my own (not entirely homemade) broths, or even just soy sauce and sesame oil instead of the little packages of caked MSG.

I remember seeing a memorable movie called Tampopo, probably my favorite movie about food . A young woman’s quest for the perfect ramen recipe to serve in her small restaurant is the core of this wonderful movie that mixes many different cinematic metaphors (western, gangster, Godard, slapstick), yet retains an easy and charismatic warmth as it experiments and cuts from one storyline to another.

My current appreciation is largely due to one of my favorite places to eat in all of Boston, Ken’s Ramen. It resides in a small space right next to the asian supermarket Super88 in Allston. It serves a few different styles – soy sauce, clear salt, miso, and a thicker, cloudier broth that I forget the name of. I usually have the soy sauce flavor. I think the different styles mostly refer to how they salt the broth, as all of them except the miso are clearly meat broths.

The broth, of course, is the key to superior ramen, as it is to most soups around the world. Ken’s is light yet rich, with great depth of flavor, never overwhelming the springy texture and eggy taste of the crinkled noodles, the soft greenery of chopped spinach or the butter-soft slices of pork belly that lie atop the carefully swirled noodles. The briny, musty crunch of pickled bamboo shoots provide the requisite sharp contrast to rest of the comforting ingredients.

Still, I feel that there are two places in the ramen continuum that I have yet to visit, two places I need to go to fully understand and appreciate ramen. Number one is to experience ramen in Japan. To see what rises to the top in a culture devoted to this humble noodle of Chinese extraction, and to see the grand spectrum of styles and recipes in a place where every corner has its own humble (or not so humble) shop dishing it out to hungry people. Number two would be, of course, to make the real stuff myself. But how far to really go in this venture? Would I really make the noodles from scratch? Is that even possible in a home kitchen? Would making a real ramen broth from scratch be enough? Is this a stupid idea anyway? I don’t think ramen is made at home in Japan except from the little packages- the real stuff is for eating out. But still, I'm probably influenced by the romance of the movies, but it seems like a great adventure.
Anyway, here’s to ramen!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

An exceptional album of Irish fiddling and guitar

Up until now, I’ve never really gotten along well with Irish music. I’m not really sure why. I’ve tried a number of times over the years to develop an appreciation but could never really maintain my interest for very long.
It seems like it would be a good fit. It’s music that obviously lends itself well to the violin/fiddle, my main instrument. It has a rustic, earthy character, and thrives in an acoustic setting, all of which I approve of. It has strong ties with American Appalachian fiddle music, which I’ve always enjoyed. Finally, though I’m mostly a mixed bag, I have a large block of Irish blood in me, virtually the only ethnic heritage that I’m consciously aware of. But it just never really clicked. I kind of thought of it like I think of a lot of baroque concerti (such as from Vivaldi or Telemann) - little musical perpetual-motion wind-up machines, having a distinct character as a genre but all tending to sound alike, as well as lacking in drama or structural invention.

But do you ever have that moment when you finally figure out what it is in something that really makes it something? When you realize why people love it? Why they have conventions about it, spend their lives studying it or learning it or living it?

I saw a documentary recently on Charlie Parker, and the anecdote I remember best is a tale about how he used to hang out in a particular bar with a jukebox and he used to fill it up with quarters and play a whole row of country tunes. And everybody would look at him like he was crazy – an incredibly smart, gifted, hip, urban black guy listening to that hillbilly music? They’d give him hell, and he’d just say “Listen to the stories”.

I love that moment when something clicks like that. I’m not near the point where I’m going to dedicate my life to Irish music or anything, but I did have that moment recently. I went down to the grand state of Connecticut to work a music educator’s convention and my coworker was a fellow from Cape Cod who is an Irish fiddler. A beginner, really, having played mandolin for a few years but only a year or two into the fiddle. But he has progressed very quickly, and to my ears (admittedly inexperienced with Irish fiddling) he has a really feel for it, playing authentically in the style. In any case, he was playing a slow tune that I liked and I asked him what it was. He said “It’s an air by Liz Carroll called ‘A Long Night on the Misty Moor.’” An evocative title, I thought, and I went and bought the album a couple days later, which is actually a duo album with Liz Carroll on fiddle and John Doyle of guitar. The title is "In Play".

This album has completely blown me away. In all of a week, I’ve listened to it several times. I’ve simply never heard any fiddling before that has excited me so much, with its style, virtuosity, invention, structure, driving rhythms and overall energy. There’s even a wonderful tension, a suspension almost, to the slower pieces, the waltzes and airs. The ornamentation of the fiddle playing, which before has always seems like just that, ornamentation, comes through in Ms. Carroll’s playing as this endlessly surprising, visceral texture that is inseparable from the melodies and rhythms of the pieces themselves. It adds an incomparable richness to the whole affair without taking away from the exciting direction of the melodies themselves.

Is there something here that has not been there in other Irish fiddle playing I’ve listened to? Maybe. John Doyle’s guitar has been mixed a bit higher than is usual with these recordings, and I really think I’m hearing more harmonic invention and direction in this music than is typical. Many of the development sections and B sections really develop the character and story of the track rather than just seeming to be a linked ‘medley’. There’s a part in track 9, “Freemont Center/The Vornado/Minutemen” which has this feeling of the sun breaking out; you almost can’t avoid picturing jubilant dancing in a sunny green field.

But the best part is, however new and exceptional it might be, it has nonetheless opened up an understanding and appreciation for this type of music that really wasn’t there before. I went back and listened to an album my dad had recommended years ago called “The Lonesome Touch” by the fiddle/guitar duo of Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, and enjoyed it much more than I ever had before, especially listening for and noting their differences in style and execution from other players. Martin Hayes has a smoother and more open style, slower and with a more classical touch to his ornaments, certainly less percussive than the more rhythmic and surprising style of Liz Carroll. Both of them have a way with melodies, however. Liz Carroll composes the bulk of the pieces she records herself, and I think she is remarkably talented.

Anyway, if you have even a half-interest in traditional music like this (this album is all instrumental), I urge you to check it out. The album is “In Play” by Liz Carroll and John Doyle.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Another trip to Plum Island

Sunset, looking west through the dune grasses.

Approaching the ocean through the dunes.

A northern harrier, intent on its meal. You can see the owl-like facial disc here.
Well, we had a weekend of nice weather and I got out for some birding yesterday up at Plum Island. Though I must say the conditions were more severe than I expected. Saturday had been very sunny, fifty-plus degrees, and calm, and somehow I dressed as such for my outing on Sunday. I was cold. There was a fierce wind roaring across the marsh from the southwest that cut through my flimsy jacket. By the end of the day my knees were knocking with the cold, my lips were sluggish with the easiest of consonants and my toes were going numb.

Why did I stay out there? Oh, I don’t know. It was still nice to be out after a month-plus of staying mostly indoors. I usually get myself out early but this time I waited until early afternoon, thinking I’m maybe catch the late-afternoon light for once, and maybe the short-eared owls.

I didn’t see the owls! A bit of a disappointment, as they have been seen regularly up at Plum Island all season and a couple others had seen them up at the north end of the sanctuary, flying back and forth over the marsh between lots one and two. The birding in general was unspectacular yesterday but I did have some nice sightings and observations. Two snowy owls, distant looks. Northern Harrier’s were everywhere, coasting low and near, and far, giving great looks of these very interesting and beautiful birds. These may be my favorite hawk to watch, with their wobbly flight and arresting, owl-like facial features. I was lucky enough to watch one dive and successfully catch some sort of bird – I couldn’t tell what kind – and then proceed to tear it apart and eat it. I got a few blurry pictures of it through my scope. But my real luck came as I was watching that and decided to keep scanning with my scope and came up with a rough-legged hawk just fifty yards away from the harrier, on the ground consuming something with a long, narrow tail that was nearly as big as the hawk itself. Though they are sighted regularly this time of year around here, I have only one or two sighting of rough-legged hawks in my life and this was actually my first for Massachusetts. If I did more of my winter birding in the fields and marshes instead of the water I’d probably see more. Both the harrier and rough-legged stayed put for a long as I could stand the wind – I watched for quite awhile as I got colder and colder. Twice another harrier came along and tried to snatch a little bit but was chased off by both birds.

Though I missed the owls, I very much enjoyed being there for the light at dusk. I walked out the boardwalk across the dunes to the ocean and the light from the setting sun at my back lit up the dune grasses wonderfully, giving them a healthy, vibrant golden glow as they bent in the somewhat gentling breeze. I was just going for a quick look so I hadn’t carried my scope, but I could tell that the water beyond the breakers was full of loons and scoters, hundreds, probably thousands of them. It’s neat to see the large congregations of birds massing before migration. I saw the same thing in the eiders in the mouth of the Ipswich river a couple weekends ago, all clustering about ice floes as they drifted out to sea.

The mornings around here have already begun to twitter with a few early-spring songs, from cardinals and chickadees and titmice – Spring is on its way!