Monday, August 29, 2011


Ireland: patriotism, unity, and national identity

I learned a lot in Ireland. Not just factual information about Irish history and literature, but more subtle cultural differences. The kinds of differences that made me question the greatness of my own country.

One of the amazing aspects of Irish culture was this almost unexplainable sense of unity and national identity. Even though nobody I saw in Dublin had personally witnessed the Easter Rising of 1916 or the Civil War in 1922, they all seemed to act like they had all gotten through those events together. They show compassion and hospitality toward each other. They have this ever-present sense of optimism and determination. They spoke of heroes like Michael Collins and Daniel O’Connell with the kind of pride one uses when talking about a neighbor or best friend who happened to write a famous novel or appear on a popular television show. 

The O'Connell statue in Dublin

In our country, even important figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., or Abraham Lincoln do not receive that much affection from present-day Americans. For example, Michael Collins died in the Irish Civil War in 1922. Almost 90 years later, the Irish people are still flowering him with adoration. Literally. Every Saturday morning, the Irish send dozens of flowers to Collins’s grave in Glasnevin Cemetery. By contrast, I cannot even guess where Martin Luther King, Jr., is buried. 

Flowers given by the Irish for the beloved leader, who was killed in the Irish Civil War.

How beautiful is that?

Ireland’s unity and national identity is not simply beautiful, but also more logistical. I could simply sense this beautiful unity among the Irish people that made me realize how disconnected my own country was. 

America is so vast, and Americans are so diverse. I have very little in common with Californians or New Yorkers or Texans. Visiting a different state is often like traveling to an entirely different country. The language is different; the demographics are different; the food is different; and, of course, the political agenda is different. So how can our government logistically please us all? 

Such unreasonable expectations has left our Congress in its current state of shambles—a massive group of representatives fighting for vastly different laws, regulations, and outcomes, each trying to please his or her own regional culture.

Sure, having a Congress with representatives for each state sounds like a lovely idea. But how effective can they really be?

I wish America could be smaller. It took an event as tragic as September 11th to bring our country together. How sad is that? Three thousand people had to die for us to bond as Americans. The rest of the time, we barely see eye-to-eye.

I'd like to share one more story. While we were touring the tragic Kilmainham Gaol, our guide brought us out into the courtyard and told us about the Easter Rising rebels who were executed by firing squad there. She pointed to single black crosses on each side of the small area, explaining how they were there to memorialize those fighters.

The crosses stand over the execution site of fourteen men involved in the Easter Rising.
The crosses were the only thing in the courtyard, except for one brilliant flagpole, proudly waving the iconic Irish flag. Our guide explained to us that the tricolor of green, white, and orange represent the peace or "truce" among the people of Ireland. 

The Irish flag in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin
The green stands for the native people of Ireland, and is generally associated with the Catholic population. The orange symbolizes the Protestant population who came from England in the 17th Century. The white in the middle represents peace and honesty between the two distinct groups.

After explaining that, she smiled and said, "Can you guys tell me what the American flag stands for?" We all stared and blinked. We stammered things like:

"Um, the stars represent, y'know, the fifty states."
"Red symbolizes blood. Like, in honor of the blood shed by soldiers and stuff...?"
"The thirteen stripes symbolize the thirteen original colonies..."

Followed by an awkward silence. Now, I'm not telling this story because I think the Irish flag is better than ours (although it may be). The point is that we, as Americans, do not have the national identity and patriotism like we often pretend to. We like to sing songs about how we're "Proud to Be an American," and wave Old Glory in front of every bank, school, and post office...

But how proud are we?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Summer Lunches

Once I knew I was going to be working at the library again this summer, I knew I had to make some changes. Last summer, the utter misery of that place took me to a pretty awful mental state. But this summer, I was determined to enjoy myself. One of the ways I was going to try to keep a positive attitude was with food. My hope was that being able to look forward to awesome lunches would keep me in a positive mood all morning. :)

I suppose I was highly inspired by Mrs. Q. She posts photos of her son's lunches, as well as her own lunches, every week. I loved seeing how she could pull together such enticing, well-balanced meals to send in a lunchbox. I wanted to do the same thing.

So I purchased my BPA-free Laptop Lunch bento boxes. And I got creative. Well, sometimes. By the end of the summer, I was getting pretty redundant. And I didn't take photos every day. In fact, despite working five days a week for nearly four months, I ended the summer with a total of ELEVEN pictures. Fail? Well...eleven is more than zero. :)

Items are listed clockwise from the top left corner.

  • half a (very ripe) banana and trail mix (for mid-morning snack)
  • watermelon cubes
  • mashed sweet potatoes
  • PB&J&banana sandwich
And you're probably thinking, what's exciting about PB&J? Um...have you had a PB&J&banana sandwich? If you haven't...don't judge. Because it's fantastic. You will quickly notice in these pictures that I'm obsessed.

  • Oven-roasted cauliflower
  • orange
  • seasoned sweet potato puree for dipping the cauliflower
  • PB&J sandwich (no banana...but still wonderful)

  • Broccoli and rice
  • Trail mix (mid-morning snack)
  • Diced mango
  • Organic yellow carrots; hard-boiled egg

Falafel day!

  • Spinach, mozzarella cheese, and julienned yellow carrots for stuffing in my pitas!
  • Diced mango
  • Baked falafel
  • Pita pockets
Enough materials to make two falafel pitas.

I would just like to say that these waffles ROCK. Whenever I make them, my apartment smells like banana bread. It's an absolutely divine recipe.

  • Broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and hard-boiled egg
  • Trail mix (mid-morning snack)
  • Diced mango
  • PB&J&banana :)

  • Diced mango (again)
  • Trail mix (mid-morning snack)
  • Yellow carrots (again)
  • Tuna noodle casserole with broccoli
Yes, that's tuna noodle. I used angel hair pasta (because it was all I had on hand), and the thickness of the casserole made the pasta break up into rice-sized pieces. I make this from scratch, using this concoction to replace the traditional Cream of Chicken/Mushroom monstrosity.

  • Vegan quinoa and pinto bean salad (which I chose to eat warm, not cold)
  • Trail mix (mid-morning snack)
  • Yellow carrots (I got SO sick of these frickin' carrots! I've barely touched a carrot since.)
  • Apple and peanut butter

  • Baked kale chips
  • Trail mix (mid-morning snack)
  • Hard-boiled egg
  • Pizza on pita bread with homemade pizza sauce, broccoli, and chickpeas

  • Cantaloupe and raspberries from the farmers market :)
  • Leftover Hawaiian pizza

  • Sweet corn from the farmers market; grilled brussel sprouts
  • Cantaloupe and raspberries
  • Pinto beans with homemade taco seasoning
  • Whole wheat tortilla with spinach, avocado, and cheese
I heated up the bean mixture separately, then added it to the tortilla.

And that's it. And I'm a little disappointed in myself, because I know I had some cooler lunches that I just didn't have the ambition to take a picture of. ;) But that's a glimpse of what I was eating this summer.

Buon appetito!

Why Twitter rocks my world.

Okay. So this is what I came home to last night:

Yep, Jamie Oliver--THE Jamie Oliver--is following me. Is this real life?

Few people have made such an impact on my life like Mr. Oliver. His show started airing right when I most needed it. My diet changed from processed "diet" food (Lean Cuinine, ugh!) to actual fruits and vegetables. He got me to try raw broccoli for the first time. He got me to switch to whole grains. He got me interested in cooking, as opposed to microwaving. The list goes on and on.

Twitter is just fantastic...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Eat Chili in the Summer

Does anything really beat a bowl of chili? Okay, yes. Lots of things. But I just love a good bowl of chili. Especially if it's vegetarian. Because then I can eat it and still feel good about myself. :)

Some days, I wander the kitchen aimlessly, ransacking the cupboards, pushing items around in the fridge, scratching my head, and trying to figure out what in the world I'm actually in the mood for. Other days, I plan ahead, and all day I dream of making this perfectly thought-out meal, and I can barely wait until dinner time to prepare it.

And then there are days like today. It started out looking like I would have another I-don't-know-what-the-heck-I-want kind of days, but then suddenly a Dutch oven full of inspiration splashed me across the face, and I realized I had everything necessary to throw it together, and within twenty minutes, I'm sitting at the table, delivering spoonfuls of satisfaction to my taste buds.

Tonight's inspiration was chili. Yes, chili. I don't care if it's 80 degrees outside. When Lauren wants chili, Lauren eats chili. Which is pretty phenomenal, considering I had never even eaten the spicy stew less than a year ago.

Yes, it's true. I tried chili for the first time just last autumn. I have a slight obsession with soups, so I asked a coworker at the library what her favorite kind was. To my horror (at the time), she responded, "chili." After seeing my look of repulsion, she asked why I didn't like it. (Actually, it was more like, "How could you NOT like chili?!?!?!"

...I had no answer. I realized that I had always avoided it simply because I never used to like beans. But I had never actually tried it, so how could I say I didn't like it?

Luckily for me, my school makes some gosh darn fantastic chili. I tried it the next time I ate on campus, and let's just say my life has never been the same. In fact, falling in love with chili was the first step for me to fall in love with beans. Now I'm a total bean addict.

But when it comes to making chili at home, I always opt for meatless. I've tried replacements: rice? No. Carrots? No. Sweet potato? No. Tofu? Absolutely not. So typically, I just make a beans-only version. But now, I have found my hero.

That's not ground beef. And it's not ground turkey, either!

And you'll never guess what it is. Lentils. YES! It's those gosh darn lentils! Jennifer Perillo is seriously my savior. Last night, I whipped up an ENORMOUS batch of her lentil burgers to store up in the freezer. Yesterday, I used them to make meatballs. Successful. Today, I crumbled them up and used them like ground beef. Also successful! Can you believe it? The entire time I was "browning" them, I was laughing to myself for thinking this would actually work. I was pleasantly surprised at how well they stayed together, and how nicely the taste blended in with the chili (unlike other replacements I tried...yes, tofu, I'm looking at you!). It even LOOKS like ground meat!

It was for sure the most satisfying bowl of chili that has ever come out of my kitchen. Buon appetito!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Homemade pasta to celebrate my half-birthday

Can you believe I've been 21 for six months already? I never thought I'd actually care about being 21, since I was never one of those teenagers that drank all the time and couldn't wait to hit the bars. In fact, my first taste of anything besides wine was on my 21st birthday. Since then, I've really enjoyed getting to try new things, like all the different kinds of wine, homemade strawberry daiquiris, and CIDER.

I always celebrate my half-birthday. I just love any reason to make a day special. :) So to celebrate, I decided to finally try my hand at homemade, whole wheat pasta. What a treat! I spent quite a while in the kitchen, but it turned out beautifully. And I took pictures!

I used my brother's pizza cutter to cut the dough into fettuccine-sized strips. :D

Isn't it precious?? Gosh, I feel so accomplished.

And of course, what celebration would be complete without my beloved Fox Barrel Pear Cider? I love this stuff. Its website describes it like so:
America’s first, truly pure pear-juice based cider line, Fox Barrel makes Pear Ciders that are naturally fermented using 100% pear juice, not from pear juice concentrate, or flavored hard apple cider. Our ciders are filtered cold for extra purity and our Blackberry Pear and Apricot Pear Ciders are infused with natural blackberry or apricot juice.  Fox Barrel contains no added colorants, sugar, sorbate or benzoate preservatives.  No added malt, spirit, grape or apple alcohols, Fox Barrel ciders are smoothed with pure pear juice.
 And this stuff is delicious. Almost as good as Bulmers Pear Cider in Ireland.

For my pasta, I made a homemade tomato sauce with meatballs. But wait! These aren't just any meatballs. Nope. They're vegetarian lentil "meat"balls! I used my leftover lentil patties from yesterday and reshaped them into balls. I added sage and fennel to give them a more sausage-like flavor. The tomato sauce is my own concoction that I always use--some combination of tomatoes (pureed with my immersion blender), olive oil, Italian seasoning, a touch of sugar, black pepper, and salt. Sends me to heaven every time. I haven't used pasta sauce from the jar for almost an entire year! Yay me.

So I knew that fresh pasta only took a minute or two to cook, but dang! I could have sworn they were only in for thirty seconds before they popped up to the top.

The finished product. The verdict = happy half-birthday to me!

The surprise of the meal was definitely the lentil "meatballs." No joke, these almost tasted like meat. I've tried making vegetarian meatballs before, and they were dreadful; the flavors clashed with the flavors of the tomato sauce, and the "meatballs" turned to mush almost as soon as I added the sauce to the pan. But these were just delightful. They stayed crispy on the outside, even after simmering with the sauce. Plus, the lentil pseudo-meatballs had such a neutral flavor that they just blended perfectly with the tomatoes. Heaven. Have I mentioned how much I love lentils?

As for the pasta? They could have been a little thinner, but they were still enjoyable. The entire dish was almost tear-inducing.

More, please? :)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lentil Burgers (and thoughts on flexitarianism)

My New Year's resolution this year was to take up part-time vegetarianism (aka flexitarianism), which I would achieve by setting a goal to not consume meat more than one meal per day. I had been eating much less meat since moving into my own place, simply because of financial purposes. After reading a few of Michael Pollan's incredible books (and learning: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."), I decided to focus more on fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. I quickly realized how this new diet affected me; I simply felt better when I wasn't eating meat. So I decided to make it official with my flexitarianism resolution.

This turned out to be surprisingly easy, as long as I was at my apartment cooking for myself. The challenge was when I was at my parents' house for holidays or weekends. I would have to remind my mom to have vegetarian sides for me to eat, or have pasta and keep the meat as a separate add-in for herself. Or, I would simply have to cook for myself, which I was willing to do.

In the end, I was able to last seven months without ever having meat more than one meal per day. In fact, I went a couple weeks entirely vegetarian, without ever missing meat. So why did I break my resolution?

The night before leaving for Ireland, I thought about the food I would be having. Sure, Europe in general is more vegetarian-friendly than South Dakota, and I'd be able to find some good vegetarian dishes. But I thought about all the traditional dishes of Ireland--very meat-focused. I realized how central to the culture it was. I mean, what is a traditional Irish breakfast without blood pudding and rashers?

An unsure smile after my first bite of blood pudding.

I made the difficult decision to forgo my once-a-day rule while in Ireland, so I could freely experience the culture without restraining myself. I do not regret that decision! Worrying about avoiding meat the whole trip would have certainly stressed me out and taken away from the experience. I had enough to think about.

Unfortunately, I found it difficult to get back to my routine when I returned home. So I've decided to go vegetarian for the month of September, to make up for all the cheating I've done in August. This last week of August will be spent snarfing down all my meat-related leftovers so I can get them out of the fridge for September.

To prepare, I decided to try out another veggie burger recipe. I used to eat these often, but I never truly found one I genuinely loved. Until now! I tried Jennifer Perillo's lentil burger recipe today, and it was a hit. It's a very basic recipe, and I can imagine adding herbs and spices for variety (sage and fennel? garlic? cayenne pepper? The possibilities are infinite).

I've never had lentils before. When I went to buy them, I quickly realized my store does not carry a canned version, which meant I would finally have to tackle my fear of preparing dry beans. This is something I have always planned on doing (eventually) out of financial and health concerns (so much sodium in the canned versions!), but it's one of those things that I simply "never got around to." Well, I had to get around to it. 

Luckily, lentils are a great bean to start with. Unlike the other beans, they require no soaking. As a bonus, they have a nice, neutral flavor. They possibly just became my new favorite meat alternative, which pinto beans previously held the title for.

So anyway...

I changed Jennifer's recipe only slightly, switching oat bran for the breadcrumbs, to boost fiber. It worked perfectly.

I placed my burger on a toasted whole grain sprouted bun, and topped it with slices of avocado and spinach. I served it with a side of peppery, oven-roasted broccoli florets. The verdict? Let's just say, if every vegetarian meal I make is this good, September will be a good month.

Ireland: Food & Drink

Whenever people ask me about my trip to Ireland, I respond, "It was amazing." If they ask for more details, I mention how the people are incredible, the scenery is breathtaking, pubs are unbeatable, and the food is fantastic.

Hawaiian Panini at the Strand House Cafe in Dingle
Let me put this into perspective for you. I live in a college town in South Dakota. 95% of the restaurants here are either chains or locally owned sports bars and pizza places. To be in a country that valued fresh, organic ingredients from local sources was surreal. I cherished each plate set in front of me.

In America, restaurants give you giant platters of grease, cheese, fat, and salt, and their business relies almost solely on the human weakness for junk food. In Ireland, restaurants prepare creative dishes from delightfully fresh ingredients, and they give you a satisfying amount that treats your taste buds with interesting combinations of textures and flavors.

When I ordered the Hawaiian Panini at the Strand House Cafe, a pile of greens accompanied the sandwich on my plate. I love salad, but I balked a little when I saw the bell pepper strips, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and small heap of potato salad at the top. Peppers and tomatoes still sit on the list of foods I'm working to acquire a taste for, and, well, potato salad has never even been on that list. Yuck.

However, I tried it. And you know what? I liked it. This potato salad tasted worlds better than any of the bright yellow monstrosities I had tried back home. I took a second bite--still no gagging. I finished the entire thing, and wanted more. The flavors were subtle, light, and pleasing. It wasn't overly salty or soaking in vinegar or mayonnaise. It was divine.

Then I tried the peppers, even though I knew thought I hated them. And I liked those, too! I ate the entire salad. And the panini. And then I teared up.

No, seriously.

Organic peppers at the market in Howth
Some of the other foods I tried and ended up loving were brussel sprouts, glazed turnips, mutton, chutney, pesto mayonnaise, muesli, soda bread, quiche, and brie (chicken-cranberry-brie panini? YES PLEASE!).

As for what I didn't like? Guinness. Sorry, Arthur, but your beloved brew did not hit the spot with me.

Free samples of Guinness at the St. James Brewery in Dublin
At one point in the St. James Brewery, the words "There's poetry in every pint of Guinness" were written on the wall. I liked that line, even though the sample they gave me during the tour was terribly unpleasant. I still understand the meaning behind it, though. The poetry is in the deep flavors of barley and hops, and the smoothness of the drink. I could appreciate that; I just couldn't appreciate the aftertaste. In fact, I turned down the free pint they gave us when we reached the top floor (a glass room giving a 360-degree view of Dublin). 

The 360-degree viewing room at the brewery

I will also add that the insane popularity of Guinness surprised me. Some people assume Minnesotans just sit around eating lutefisk all day, but I can assure you that I have never even seen lutefisk, and I've only met one person who has actually tasted it. I wondered if Guinness in Ireland was a similar misconception. Well, I'm here to tell you that it's not. Guinness was everywhere--on t-shirts in every store, on neon signs on every pub, on every bar counter, and in the hands of tourists and locals alike. The Irish love their Guinness. This is a mystery to me, but I find it endearing nevertheless.