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A Very Polish Review

Several weeks ago Lindz found a Groupon for Nye’s Polonaise, the premier Polish restaurant here in the Cities.  Which is located in the Nordeast section of Minneapolis (you know, where the Polacks have lived for generations).  I’ve been itching to go there for years.  The urge gets worse when I’m working out in the western ‘burbs because I drive right by Nye’s on the way home.  Anyway, the Groupon was getting close to expiration, so we made plans to make a date night out of it.  After the usual bit of “What time do you want to go?”/”I don’t know, what time where you thinking of going?” we decided that sooner was better.  This turned out to be a good idea.  There weren’t many table filled when we got there at a quarter to five, but when we left around 6:30, there were people waiting at the door for their turn to be seated.

Based on the recommendation of my boss, Steve-O (also a Polack), we started the meal off with a Polonaise Martini each (Chopin vodka, dry vermouth, and olives).  As much as I secretly yearn to be James Bond, I really need to come to accept the fact that I’m not a martini drinker.  I can appreciate the quality of the drink, but it’s just not my cup of tea, so to speak.  After the round of martinis, Lindz switched to her standard Bombay Sapphire G&T (gin and tonic) and I tried a Polish beer that I haven’t had before.  Okocim O.K. Beer is a full bodied pale ale that is really good.  Not too light and crisp, but also not too dark and heavy.  All in all, a very nice beer for all occasions.

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Yup. Brace yourselves. I’m going to go there.
It’s more than just O.K.!

For our appetizers, I ordered the pickled herring.  Hey, I’m a Polish kid in a Polish restaurant in the Polish section of town, what did you expect?  Lindz got the Cheese and Potato Pierogi.  The herring was very good, if a bit overpriced.  I do consider it a worthwhile purchase because it was emotionally comforting to be eating herring in that atmosphere.  Herring always reminds me of my Grandparents, Nick and Bert (really it’s Enoch and Bertha, but we’re all about brevity and nicknames).  Grandpa and Grandma have both made and purchased an obscene quantity of the pickled fish over the years.  Combine that with the mid-20th century decor of Nye’s (it’s not retro, they just haven’t changed it in 50 years) that I’ve seen in countless places with my Grandparents and you’ve got yourself a very nostalgic Polack on your hands.

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The individually wrapped crackers did throw me for a bit of a loop, but they did add some needed color to the plate.

Lindz and I both thought the pierogi were good.  Though she prefers the ones at Longfellow’s Grill (which I haven’t had yet).  I really liked the fried onions that came with the dish.  I thought they added a nice savory/sweet taste to the pierogi.

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A plate load of fried carbs, starch, and fat. What’s not to love?

For our entrees, Lindz ordered the special of the evening, creamy pesto shrimp linguini.  Even though the shrimp were a bit overdone, Lindz did like the dish.  Sorry, I didn’t get a picture of it.  I’m trying to find that delicate balance of doing a decent job of documenting these dishes in public without being that annoying prick of a food blogger at the next table who does a full photo shoot with the flash going off like a thunder storm.

Lindz and I both opted for the house salad over the soup with our entrees.  That was a mistake.  The veggies were fresh and the dressing was good, but the salad consisted of lettuce and a wedge of tomato.  Soup would have been better.

I was having a hard time deciding what I wanted to eat until I saw one item on the menu that was an answer to all of my prayers.  The Polonaise Platter (sensing a theme yet?) under the section labeled Polish Specialties.  It came out on a small serving platter (the kind that you put a full roast on).  I just want to say that again to emphasize the amount of food that was placed before me.  It came out on a small serving platter.  It comes with a link of kielbasa (sausage), golabki (cabbage roll), three pierogi (filled dumplings), kluski (potato dumpling), zederka duszone (braised spare ribs), and of course kapusta kizona (our beloved sauerkraut, i.e. fermented cabbage).  I’ve got a lot of ground to cover here, so I’m just going to take one item on the plate at a time.

First up is the Polish sausage.  I’m heavily biased with quite a few foods because my family has been perfecting certain items over generations.  At the head of that list is sausages.  Grandpa Nick would make his own every year and I’ve had very few that comes as close to the perfection of his version.  The ones served at Nye’s are good, but not outstanding, even though they come from the Kramarczuk’s, a well known and well regarded deli in town.

My family rarely made cabbage rolls, so Nye’s is fighting a fair fight here.  In fact, Nye’s stands out quite proudly.  This was by far the best item on whole platter.  It was meaty with a nice flavor of caraway and garlic.  The cabbage leaf cover added a sweet note to each bite.

As far as I can remember, no one in my family has made pierogi, so once again Nye’s has the edge here.  At this point I had already tried the cheese and potato pierogi appetizer, and those were good, but not great.  The ones that I had on my platter were much better.  The one with sauerkraut was okay.  The one with mushrooms was quite tasty.  But the standout one was the one with a cranberry filling.

Kluski is a vague term that can apply to anything between a solid dough dumpling to noodles.  The kluski served at Nye’s was a flour and potato dough made into a dumpling slightly smaller than a baseball.  It was good, but like all the kluski that I’ve had, it is a really dense dough, so the bigger the dumpling, the harder it is to cut and eat.  Which is why I prefer the kluski Mom makes (around the size of the top two sections of your pinkie finger).  Flavor-wise, there really wasn’t any difference between Nye’s and Mom’s.  In short, it was a good dumpling, even if it was a bit large.

Growing up on the farm, I’ve eaten a lot of ribs over the years.  My desire and taste for them have grown and ebbed many times over the years.  Currently I’m in a pro-rib phase, so I really enjoyed the ones at Nye’s.  There was no dominant spice flavor which leads me to suspect that they were boiled with the kraut that it was served with.  Which isn’t a bad option if the kraut is good.

Which leaves me with the kraut.  I’ve never really appreciated kraut until I was in my twenties.  Now I crave it on a regular basis.  I’m not talking about the weird overly processed stuff you find at the grocery store (although Frank’s is pretty decent).  I’m talking about the stuff that is made in 30 gallon crock jars sitting in the basement of your grandmother’s house.  The kraut at Nye’s is arguably better then the stuff I grew up on.  It is less sour (less fermentation) and heavier on the caraway seeds, which I’m a fan of.  This was the other stand out item on the platter.

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Under that pint sized jar worth of kraut lies a half rack of ribs. You can see part of the kielbasa sticking up on top of the photo. The cabbage roll (upper) and kluski (lower) are wedged into the right hand side of the mound of kraut. The three pierogi look miniscule and a bit lost way off on the right.

As I was explaining to Lindz earlier today.  I had a great time at Nye’s.  Even though I had never been there before, I felt totally at home.  A super casual atmosphere and a lot of dear-to-my-heart comfort food is available.  Plus our waitress was super awesome.  I really look forward to making more stops here.

I’m going to leave with a saying that I saw on the menu: Jedzcie pijcie i popuszczajcie pas (Eat, Drink, and Loosen Your Belt).

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Yup. Fell asleep on the couch on date night. I’m such a romantic guy.

P.S. For those of you going “This place sounds really familiar, where have I heard of it before?”, the answer you’re looking for is that it was featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives with Guy Fieri.

Christmas Fruit and a Citrus Kick in the Ol’ Boxers

I had forgotten about a particular tradition until Lindz visited one of her professors before Christmas.  Her professor receives a box of citrus from one of his former students every year during Advent.  When Lindz showed up to visit, he had just gotten his yearly present and he realized that he couldn’t eat it all before it went bad.  So, Lindz ended up with a box of fruit.

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The Red Navel oranges (in the red tissue) were by far the best ones. Sweet, but with a prominent citrus tang.

The tradition that I forgot about was the giving of a certain bag of “goodies” at Christmas time.  This bag consists of an orange (maybe an apple too), nuts in the shell (usually peanuts), and some form of candy (candy canes, old fashioned ribbon candy, chocolate coins, etc).  With a bit of research on the good ol’ internet, I found that a lot of people used to get these in their stocking from their parents.  Personally, I received it from our priest every year as a youngster.  I’ve heard of this custom off and on over the years, but never knew the origin.  I’ve always assumed that it was a “healthy” and/or “inexpensive” gift.  But the more that I heard about it, it slowly dawned on me that this wasn’t just a local Catholic thing, it was far more widespread phenomenon.  This year I finally took the time to do the research.  It turns out that the actual origins are pretty murky.  Frustrating, but not surprising.  On the web, a lot of people remember this as a kid, and many continue it with their own children.  Most people are comfortable with the answer of “I don’t know.  It was just something that grandma (or whomever) always did.”  They assume that it either came from the old country, (Italy, Poland, England, etc) or it dates back to the time when oranges were a rarity and hence an actual treat, or some combination of these two factors.  While I can see these two reasons being factors, it just didn’t feel right for how widespread and long lasting this experience is.

Wiki to the rescue!

In his (St. Nicholas) most famous exploit, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes . Hearing of the poor man’s plight, Nicholas decided to help him . . . and drops the third bag down the chimney (where) the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

Ok, but how do we get from a bag of gold to an orange?  Here is where symbolism comes into effect.  The best explanation is that an orange is a similar color to gold and that oranges are similar in shape to bags of the shiny stuff.  Also, in some European countries, oranges have symbolized Jesus’ love for the world.  I’ve listed a bunch of the more interesting links that I’ve found at the end of this post.

Now that the history lesson is over, on to the food!

We weren’t eating the box of oranges as fast as we should have and they were in real danger of going bad.  So I had to come up with something to use a whole bunch of oranges at once.  I’ve had a venison loin sitting in the freezer since last fall and it seemed like it would be a perfect pairing for an orange pan sauce that I had in mind.

Since the sauce was going to be the star of the show, I simply cut the loin into medallions and pan fried them in a bit of oil.

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I’m not sure why I keep posting pics of frying meat, but it always look so good.  Well, that I love to see my cast irons being used.

As a side, I went with roasted potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic all mashed up together.

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I really love roasted root veggies and mashing them up makes for a nice variation. Especially if you plan on putting some kind of sauce on them.

Once the venison was fried off and resting, I made the pan sauce.  The recipe that I borrowed quite heavily from is the Orange Pan Sauce with Middle Eastern Spices from the Cook’s Illustrated cookbook.  I really wanted the sauce to be a “Friday-night-drunken-barroom-brawl” explosion in your mouth, so I went very heavy on the OJ and zest.

Ingredients:

  • 2 Shallots, minced
  • 2 tsp Sugar
  • 1 tsp Ground Cumin
  • 1/4 tsp Pepper
  • 1/4 tsp Ground Cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp Ground Cardamom
  • 1/8 tsp Cayenne Pepper
  • 1/4 C Orange Zest
  • 3 Tbs Red Wine Vinegar
  • 2 C Orange Juice
  • Salt

Pour off all but 1 1/2 Tbs fat from the skillet (of whatever meat you are making).  Place skillet over medium heat.  Add shallots and cook until softened, about 1 minute.  Stir in sugar, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and cayenne; cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Stir in vinegar, scraping bottom of pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the fond.  Add the orange juice, increase heat to medium-high and simmer until reduced to about 3/4 C, about 10 to 15 minutes.  Off heat, season with salt to taste.  Spoon over meat and serve.

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Yes, it tasted even better than it looks.

I managed to create the citrus barrage that I was intending.  Plus, the other spices weren’t lost in all of the citric acid.  They were a nice background note in the sauce.  What is even better, is that the sauce worked equally well on both the meat and the roasted veggie mash.  All in all, I was quite pleased with this meal.  In fact, I am hoping the bag of lemons that we have in the fridge right now linger around a bit so I have an excuse to try this with a different citrus.

p.s.  Sorry if there is less snark in this post than usual.  Lindz has been hoarding our household’s share of it lately.

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An informative page, with emphasis on the Canadian Prairies.

A well-researched page (much more effort than I put into mine) that is a nice narrative.

This page looks at this Christmas tradition with regard to its English origin.

A sugar- and food-centric page that emphasizes the sweet and preservative aspect of fruit.

An interesting audio story from Minnesota Public Radio about the impact of a couple from Minnesota and their influence on the Christmas orange tradition here.

A not very helpful page with regards to Christmas oranges, but a still very interesting read.

A wonderful page full of Polish Christmas time traditions.

Pate and Disillusionment

The more I experiment with trying the stereotypical “high society” food, the more I laugh at that whole cuisine.  So far it’s mostly been stuff that I’ve already had before, or really similar to something I’ve already had.  Polenta, for example, is the same as the “mush” that Mom made when I was growing up.  The difference is that Mom would chill hers after it cooked to set it, and then slice it and fry it.  Served up with butter and syrup.  This is as near to breakfast perfection as one can get in my opinion.  Well, served with bacon.  Everything is better with bacon.  Like I posted previously, bone marrow reminds me of dipping your bread in bacon fat.  Venison?  Grew up on the stuff.  Gnocci? Terrines?  Fancy words for potato dumplings and headcheese, both were regular items growing up.  I could go on, but I want to get to my latest addition to this list of peasant food that was stolen and given highfalutin names.  Pate.  Very tasty, but really nothing more than liverwurst.  And I’m sure you’re tired of me saying this, but grew up on that stuff too.

One quick aside before I get to the recipe.  A while back Lindz and I went to Andrew Zimmern’s book signing here in the Cities.  When he was signing it, I told him that I grew up on a lot of traditional Polish foods and most of what he showed on Bizarre Foods wasn’t all that different from what I ate.  He agreed with me and said that as you travel the world you discover that food basically isn’t all different.  I’m beginning to understand this.  You start to learn to appreciate the nuances in the seasoning and the quality of the cook.  And an aside to the aside, if you ever get the chance to meet Zimmern, do it!  He’s a great speaker and a genuinely nice guy.  We had a blast at the book signing.

Now, onto the pate!

This whole little adventure started with a trip up to Mom and Dad’s.  I was rummaging through the deep freeze looking for meat to swipe.  Mom was down in the basement with me and asked if I wanted a package of liver.  I hesitated for about a half a second and then said yes.  At that point, I was just planing on pan frying it with some onions because that’s what you do.  After I got home, it occurred to me that I could make some pate.  After a bit of digging, I found a really basic recipe that sounded good, also it was one of the very few that called for beef liver instead of chicken.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb Beef Liver, cut into pieces
  • 1 small Onion, chopped
  • 1/2 C Red Wine (did not use)
  • 2 cloves Garlic, crushed (used something like 8)
  • 1/2 tsp Dijon Mustard
  • 1 sprig fresh Rosemary (used about 1 Tbs dried)
  • 1 sprig fresh Thyme (used about 1 Tbs dried)
  • 1 Tbs Lemon Juice
  • 1/2 C Butter
  • Salt and Pepper

The lovely basis for any good meal.

Saute the liver and onions in a couple of tablespoons of the butter until the livers are browned and the onions are tender.

Good enough to eat right now!

Add wine, garlic, mustard, herbs and lemon juice and cook uncovered until most of the liquid has gone.

I’ve always wondered what could possibly make liver any better? Oh, butter! That’ll do the trick!

Cool and blend to a smooth paste in the food processor (or a stick blender like I did)  along with the rest of the butter.  This is easier if the butter is not fridge cold.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Check the consistency of the pate. If it seems dry and crumbly rather than smooth and creamy, add more butter.

Yeah, I know it look like cheap cat food. But it is earthy / minerally goodness.

Like I said earlier, very, very good, but it tastes just like the liverwurst I grew up on.  Good memories.

Canned Venison

When people hear the phrase “canned meat,” their first thought is usually Spam.  Honestly, that’s not fair to all the canned meat that I’ve eaten my lifetime.  Granted, most of that has been homemade, so it really is like comparing apples to penguins.  But since most people associate canned meat with Spam, it is really hard to get them to try it (I actually like Spam, but it seems like I’m in the minority, as usual).  I’ve tried several times with Lindz, but I haven’t been able to trick her into it.  Yet.

I don’t know why people won’t try this. It looks delicious!

What I think people fail to realize is what the canning process does to the meat.  You take the meat and put it in a jar with about a teaspoon of salt, put a lid on it and put it in the pressure cooker.  You then cook it for an hour or so under pressure (I can’t remember how long Mom told me she cooks it for, but with her cooker it was at 10 psi).  The pressure does two things, first it vacuum seals the contents of the jar so that it is shelf stable for quite some time (I’ve eaten canned stuff that was close to two years old).  But more importantly, it does the equivalent of several hours worth of slow cooking in a fraction of the time.  That is why you see them use it all the time on Iron Chef and other shows.  The slow cooking / pressure cooking process breaks down all of the connective tissue and the resulting meat is even more tender than “fork-tender.”  Because the juices have no where to escape, the meat is succulent beyond belief.  If you don’t believe me, try some canned chicken breast.  It is one of those notorious cuts that always seem dry and flavorless.  The canned version is so unbelievably juicy and tender you will swear off any other way of preparing it.  Yeah, it may look a bit nasty in the jar, but heat it up and turn that juice into a gravy and no one will be any the wiser.

So Lindz had the late shift at work one night and I needed something fairly low stress to make for supper.  I had already used the canned chicken that I stole from Mom, but I did have the canned venison left!

Just so that you’re not confused by the mystery meat inside.

I have yet to find a better preparation of canned meat other than heating it up and making a gravy to go with it.  I did however mix it up a little bit this time.  I did a variation of chipped beef but did a brown gravy and served it on mashed potatoes instead of toast.  When the meat was heating up, I broke it apart with the spatula and added a cube of chicken bouillon, a heaping tablespoon of flour, and about 4 ounces of water.  I then let this reduce and thicken to a “proper gravy consistency.”  For me, that means that when you scrape the pan, it stays clear for a very brief second before filling back in.

A perfect consistency for gravy.

By this point, my potatoes were done.  So I mashed them, added a couple of tablespoons of butter, and mixed to a nice creamy consistency.  If you are a meat and potatoes type of eater, this is a perfect supper anytime.

At this point it’s impossible to tell that it ever looked scary in a jar, so just eat it!

The Italian version of Kluski

Potato dumplings or kluski or gnocchi, depending on where you are, can be very airy or denser than lead.  I’ve had both, unfortunately it’s been mostly the latter.  Sorry Mom, they taste great, but they are little rocks.  So when I found a recipe for “Light-as-Air Potato Gnocchi” in the Sept-Oct issue of Cook’s Illustrated, I was intrigued.  The ones that my mom makes uses raw potatoes and the CI recipe that I found uses cooked potatoes which may be one of the reasons.  They are actually many variables that can cause denseness in this whole process.  Which is remarkable considering how few ingredients are present.  Basically it all depends on technique and choosing the right version of an ingredient.  The average moisture content of different potatoes will affect how it reacts with the flour.  The type of flour will affect the final taste, as I found out.  The amount of kneading will also affect the texture.  Even how you cook and mash the potatoes is a factor.  The ratio of potato and flour is the biggest, and most important, component.  Like I said, a lot of variables.  Just in the interest of full disclosure, I learned most of this by reading the article before the recipe and not through personal experimentation.  Someday I’ll get to that point.

Like always, I’m typing the recipe as I did it.  Which, as always, pretty closely follows the original recipe.

Potato Gnocchi with Browned Butter and Sage

Gnocchi

  • 2 lbs russet potatoes
  • 1 lg egg, lightly beaten
  • 4 oz AP unbleached flour, plus some for the counter
  • 1tsp plus 1 Tbs salt

Sauce

  • 4 Tbs butter, cut into 4 pieces
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 1 tsp dried rubbed sage
  • 1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Adjust the oven rack to middle position and heat to 450 degrees.  Poke each potato several times with a paring knife.  Microwave the potatoes on high until the ends are slightly soft.  About 10 to 13 minutes.  Flip the ‘taters about halfway through.  Transfer the potatoes directly to the oven and bake until a knife glides easily through.  Around 20 minutes.  After the potatoes are done, hold it in a towel and peel the skins off with a paring knife.  Mash the potatoes immediately (preferably through a ricer), and place them onto a baking sheet.  Gently spread into an even layer and let cool for 5 minutes.

Hot potato!

Transfer 16 oz of the potatoes to a mixing bowl and gently mix in the egg.

Pretty visually boring step.

Sprinkle the flour and 1 teaspoon of salt onto the mixture and gently combine with a fork until no pockets of dry flour are left.  Press the mixture into a rough ball and transfer to a lightly floured counter.

Big ball of dumpling dough.

Gently knead until it is smooth, but slightly sticky, about 1 minute.  Line 2 baking sheets with wax paper and dust with flour.  Cut the dough into 8 pieces and gently roll each one out into a 1/2″ rope on a floured counter.  Cut each rope into 3/4″ pieces.

Fast, but not too consistent cutting.

Roll each piece across the back of a fork to get the traditional grooves in the gnocchi.  If the dough sticks at any point in this whole process add some flour to the various surfaces.

Getting those grooves is a bit of a pain.

To make the sauce, melt the butter in a 12″ skillet over med-hi heat, swirling occasionally, until the butter is browned and emits a nutty aroma.  About 1 1/2 minutes.  Off the heat, add the shallot and sage stirring until the shallot is fragrant, about 1 minute.  Stir in the lemon juice and the salt.  Cover to keep warm.

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot and add 1 Tbs of salt.  Using the wax paper as a sling, gently lower the gnocchi from one pan into the water and cook until firm and just cooked through.  About 90 seconds.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked gnocchi to the the sauce.  Repeat with the remaining gnocchi.  Gently toss the dumplings with the sauce and serve.

Cooked and sauced!

For this supper, I was using the gnocchi as a side dish for the walleye that my family and I caught on Lake of the Woods this last August.  I know.  It’s okay to be jealous.  I just did a cornmeal crust on the fish and fried it in a little olive oil.  Nothing fancy, just tasty.  Since we haven’t had brussel sprouts in quite  a while, I figured that would be a nice veg to throw into the mix.  These I just steamed and dressed with some butter, salt, and pepper.

I'm quite pleased with this meal.

There is only one minor thing I would change for this whole meal.  I would use bleached AP flour instead of the unbleached because the unbleached masked the potato flavor a little by adding a distinct wheat taste.  It wasn’t a bad combination, I just would prefer a stronger potato flavor in potato dumplings.

Another Birthday Meal

Last week we went out for our friend Martha’s birthday.  Her chosen destination was Mario’s Bar at Gasthof Zur Gemutlichkeit in Minneapolis.  Gasthof’s is a German beer hall with everything that you would associate with the idea.  Loud people, lots of drinking, drinking songs, beer, wandering accordions, boots full of beer, waitresses that looked like they just came from the set of The Sound of Music (I know that it’s set in Austria, but that’s close enough for this Polack), beer, cabbage, schnitzel, oh, did I mention beer?  Our schedule got messed up that day and we were both very hungry by the time both of us got home, so we decided to head over there early and get some food in the dining room before heading down into the bar.  Despite having some Germanic blood in her, Lindz isn’t too fond of German cuisine.  I, on  the other hand, revel in it.  I mean what’s not to love?  They have all sorts of sausages, cabbage with nearly everything, dumplings, bacon, mushrooms, and really that is just the tip of the iceberg!  Lindsay ended up getting some chicken soup with homemade noodles and the shrimp appetizer plate.  I got the Halbe Gebratene Ente, or in English, the half roast duck.  It came with a dinner salad (pretty boring), red cabbage (cabbage and beets, which I found surprisingly good considering that I don’t like beets), cranberry sauce for the duck (num!) and I chose the german potato salad (take out the mustard and add dill pickles, bacon and warm it up, which is truly divine).  Here, this might give you a better idea of what I ate:

It tasted even better than it looks!

It’s not in the picture, but I had a Hacker Pschorr Alt beer with my meal.  It is a dark beer from Munich, but it is nice and smooth.  Not bitter at all.  I was only able to make it two-thirds of the way through the plate before I had to call it quits.  Also by that time, we were technically running late for the party in the bar.

Downstairs was great.  They had a Polka band playing, people dancing, and apparently a Bad Christmas Sweater party going on.  Here I got myself a Paulaner Hefe-Weizen.  A nice Hefe-Weizen with a little bit of “chew” to the consistancy, just the way I like it.  It was a fun and relaxing get together.  I’ll leave you with a sign that I saw in the bar:

This is why Germans entertain me.