Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September 29: Devil Spit Day

Happy Devil Spit Day, everyone! I hope you've eaten all the blackberries you wanted by now.

September 29, also known as St. Michaelmas Day, is said to be the day on which St. Michael expelled the devil from heaven, sending him tumbling to earth, where legend has it that he landed in a blackberry bramble (so I guess he's Old Scratched, rather than Old Scratch). Some versions of the story say he cursed the blackberries as he landed in them, while other say he spat on them. Whatever the legend, any blackberries left on the vine after this point are likely to be moldy and disgusting anyway, since they'll be damaged by the early frosts. (This makes me wonder what happens in the southern hemisphere. I guess in places like Chile, Australia and South Africa the devil lands on their blackberries in March.)

I find these stories so much more appealing than the scientific explanations. Seeing moldy old berries on the vine and knowing I shouldn't eat them because the devil spat on them is a lot more fun for my imagination than dodging them simply because they're past their prime.

Mmm, devil spit... Cobbler, anyone?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Week #4 Colombian

My tiny hometown in rural Tennessee has never been a mecca for international exchange, but when I was 13, Blanca arrived from Colombia to spend a year living with my minister's family. The main thing I remember about her is the speed and joy with which she motored around the kitchen, making the most delectable food with no recipes and seemingly, on autopilot. I remember that it was exotic and really tasty, but I don't recall any details beyond that. At the time I was more concerned with boys and music than international culinary experiences. But Blanca was happy to share dishes from home with the rest of us. Having the opportunity to cook what she missed must have helped ease the disconnection I'm sure she felt. I'm sorry I didn't have the presence of mind to ask her to show me how to make any of those foods.

Those good memories came back to me recently when I discovered Café Colombia, which is close to our house here in Los Angeles. This past week Himself and I, along with his parents, went there to check it out. We met Reinaldo and Gabriela, who have been serving the Colombian community--and the rest of LA--with really good Colombian food for about 10 years now.
tres arepas
We started with arepas, which are considered by many to be the national food of Colombia. Our sampler plate of three included one made of a fine white corn flour, topped with queso fresco and served cold, and two made of yellow cornmeal and filled with cheese--one was sweet and the other, savory. The arepa is a good walking-around food, tasty and filling. If you don't have time to sit down and eat, this cross between a pancake and a tortilla is the way to go. Himself said the yellow corn arepas reminded him of the cornbread his West Virginia grandmother used to make, crispy and thin and cooked on the stovetop.

 a beef-filled empanada, topped with a bit of ají

The empanadas were small and dense, filled with flavorful beef and served with ají, a general-purpose dipping sauce of cilantro, green onions, chilis, lemon juice and vinegar. Déjà vu alert! The sambosas I had in the Afghan restaurant recently were fried pastries filled with beef, dipped in a cilantro-jalapeno-vinegar chutney. Curious how people on different sides of the globe can come up with practically the same dishes, sauces and cooking procedures independently of each other.

Ajiaco Santafereño, the "official soup" of Bogotá
Ajiaco is my new favorite soup. It's essentially a really good chicken-potato soup with a big have-it-your-way component. Along with the soup comes an array of ingredients you can add or leave out: capers, rice, avocado and sweet cream (of course, I wanted it all in there). I bought a bottle of dried guascas, the essential herb in ajiaco, so that I can start making it at home. Guascas has its own unique flavor--I can't think of another herb you could substitute for it. This soup calls for three different types of potatoes, a couple of waxy ones that hold their shape, and a russet-styled potato that breaks down in the soup to thicken it and give it body.
accoutrements for the Ajiaco Santafereño: I'll have some of everything, please!

 Plato de Patacón
It was difficult to see the patacón in the Plato de Patacón for all that was on top of it--pinto beans and chicharróns topped with Colombian salad, a fresh garnish of cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, onions and cilantro. The base in this dish is a patacón, a green plantain that is mashed flat and then fried. The maduro, the ripe fried plantains on the side, were much sweeter and easier to eat. A sprinkling of ají  rounded out the dish, for a nice balance of rich and heavy with light, fresh and zingy.
A close-up of those yummy chicharróns
The chicharróns were strips of fried pork belly soaked in a garlic sauce, sheer, porky goodness. It would have been a real shame to let any bit of it go to waste, so after nibbling off the lean bits, we chewed on the rinds until our teeth said "enough already!"

For a light finish we shared obleas, which look like a couple of communion wafers sandwiching a layer of caramel, or arequipe. And yes, we had some Colombian coffee (the richest kind, as Mrs. Olsen always told us). Café Colombian, café Americain style. It has been so long since I've ordered a plain ol' cuppa coffee in a restaurant (as opposed to those ubiquitous coffee drinks) that I'd forgotten that a good cup of coffee doesn't need all the frills and add-ins to satisfy.

I've always assumed that food from south of the United States is spicy as a matter of course. This would be a logical assumption, considering that these countries are closer to the equator, where spices and peppers are indigenous. But the only spicy component in any of our Colombian dishes was the ají sauce served on the side. Everything was wonderfully flavorful and rich but not at all hot or what you'd call spicy. That's a revelation for me.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Week #3: Northern Thai

If I were forced to select one cuisine to see me through for the rest of my days, I’d likely choose Thai. I find in the interplay of its flavors—a balance of the five tastes of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy-hot—a harmony that is endlessly intriguing and completely satisfying. It’s just really good food. Period.

What I didn’t realize until I started this “52 cuisines” project, however, is that Thailand’s regional cuisines are as diverse as those of countries many times its size. As subsequent waves of migrants and armies passed through, they brought their cultures, traditions and ingredients to this geographically diverse country that stretches north-to-south for more than 1,000 miles and reaches about 500 miles across at its widest point. Buddhist vegetarianism and Islam’s halal diet have exerted their influence here as well.

Heavily shaped by the cuisines of Laos, Myanmar and the southern reaches of China, Northern Thai is milder and sweeter than the hot and spicy dishes of the south. It’s one you won’t often find on the menu, so when we discovered that Los Angeles has at least one restaurant specializing in it, Himself and I decided we’d best check it out. We went with a group of friends to a mom-and-pop Thai restaurant called Spicy BBQ, where we discovered that the Thai food we’d been eating for many years was exclusively southern.

Khâo Soi for the soul...

Along with Nancy, Morris, Rudy, Suzi and Barbara we ordered about a dozen different dishes to share. I’ve always assumed that the quintessential Thai dish was Pad Thai, but it’s actually Khâo Soi, at least in the north. Some say it was brought to the area from Myanmar, while others claim is was carried by Yunnanese Muslims passing through. Regardless of who brought it or where they brought it from, Khâo Soi seems to be to northern Thais what chicken noodle soup is to Americans. This ubiquitous street food is a creamy chicken and peanut soup topped with a handful of flat egg noodles, which give it a nice variety of texture between the crunchy bits floating on top and the chewy bits immersed in the soup.

Northern Thai Sausage

I think I could have confined myself to Khâo Soi and Northern Thai Sausage and been quite happy. Northern Thai Sausage officially gets the award as my personal favorite item in this meal. The recipe for this sausage is probably as long as my arm—the flavors were varied but well balanced and harmonious, with none overpowering any other. I can’t wait to hit Bangkok Market to see if I can find some to take home.

Sticky Rice: forget the chopsticks and the fork--this is finger food. 

Morris lingered over the bowl of jasmine rice and inhaled deeply before passing it my way. “Is there a more wonderful aroma?” he mused. It did indeed smell heavenly—fragrant and seductive. But more interesting to me were the small cylindrical baskets of sticky rice, a feature of the Northern Thai menu that comes by way of Laos. Sticky rice is THE rice of Northern Thailand. This isn’t just a rice that sort of clumps together like your average medium- to short-grain rice. No, sticky rice clings to itself for dear life. The idea is to reach into the basket, or kawng khâo, and pinch off a bit of rice, which you press into a ball and then dip into a curry or sauce and eat. I didn’t know this at the time but ended up eating it with my fingers this way, because it clung so tenaciously to itself that I couldn’t manage it with my chopsticks.

Northern Thai Curry

The Northern Thai Curry was a particularly flavorful bowl of pork belly and noodles that was soupier than a traditional curry from India or some other region of Thailand. That’s the way they make it in the north. Stir in a heaping spoon of jasmine rice and you’d have a great meal for a chilly evening.

As for the Pad Thai, this is the one dish that anyone who has ever eaten Thai food has had. I felt a little bit like a cheater eating it here, in the same way that it would be cheating to order a California Roll in a serious sushi restaurant. But still, it was quite good, light and delicate with well balanced flavors.

 Papaya Salad

We finished with the fresh and spicy zing! of Papaya Salad. I guess the idea is to save the coolest-hottest dish for last, to wake you up after you’ve eaten too much, so you can drive home before falling asleep. It was a great way to finish the meal. In Thailand, papaya salad is considered a snack food, something you walk around and eat the way people in the States munch on fries or chips. Too bad we don’t have papaya salad readily available. It’s much tastier and much healthier.

Chef Jet Tila
This restaurant was recommended to us by Thai chef extraordinaire Jet Tila, who has, of course, unerring judgment in these matters. We took a walking tour of L.A.'s Thai Town a couple of years ago, during which Jet demonstrated how to make pork larb, one of the culinary treasures of northern Thailand. It comes by way of Laos, where it is more or less the national dish. The perfect balance of salty, sweet, hot and sour makes for a happy set of tastebuds.

pork larb
We may have better photos of this dish, but I like this one for the blur of Jet's hand as he dusts the larb with toasted and ground jasmine rice, to add an extra depth of flavor to an already remarkable dish (some of ground rice was also added to the meat as it was mixed to bind it).

Just as most Thai restaurants I’ve been to offer the cuisine of the country’s southern region, similarly, most books on Thai cuisine focus almost exclusively on the food of the south. For some reason, the north is considered a poorer, less desirable area. It is mountainous, so farming is a serious challenge. And much of the region remains tribal, with each groups’ own dialects, customs and foods firmly ingrained. I guess it’s a difficult place to get to know well. But now that I know about Northern Thai, I’ll be watching for it in the future. Every now and then I envision being drawn out in search of a good bowl of Khâo Soi. I’ll probably find Morris there, saving me a seat.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rocky Soil & the Angels' Share

Recently I took a road trip with my sommelier/wine writer chum Lisa up to Lompoc's "wine ghetto." Situated in a part of Santa Barbara County that you pretty much have to go looking for to find, Lompoc possesses an industrial park that is chockablock with producers of central California vintages. One of those is Palmina Winery, which creates a generous array of wines that are glorious on their own and that pair well with good food.

While I shot pictures and sampled wines, Lisa gathered information and impressions for her magazine article (don’t worry—she got to try everything, too). We spent the day discussing wine with Chrystal and Steve, owners and winemakers, who bring genuine passion to their work. Even with all the sip-swish-spit action (try saying THAT three times really fast!), it was difficult not to get a little twirly. Fortunately, my camera has auto focus, even if my brain does not.

The tasting room was a warm and inviting reminder of those intimate Italian dining rooms where you’re handed a glass of wine and a breadstick or a bite of salumi or cheese, and made to feel like you really belong. But what drew my attention most was a collection of canning jars on a shelf. Filled with the rocky soils of the various vineyards in which their wine grapes are grown, these jars reveal a curious paradox of wine: that the best wine grapes spring from the rattiest, most depleted and unlikely of soils. It makes me wonder how they receive their nourishment, because those rocks just don't look like they'd have anything at all to give. If the angels take their share in the production process, then perhaps they're breathing it back into the roots during the vines’ growth.

When most people think of California wines, they immediately focus on Napa and Sonoma valleys. But this state has more than 1,200 wineries whose vineyards embrace scores of microclimates and produce an array of wines. California’s rolling hills and pockets of land permit a curious meeting of the coastal fog that descends on them from the Pacific Ocean and the heat that pushes in from the desert. Somehow in this climatic shoving match over rough and rocky soil, viticultural magic is made.

This is where the logic of ancient myths comes into play for me. They may not be factual, but the truth they allow is much more appealing to me than the scientific explanation. Elements like intuition and passion are inherently more interesting than brix measurings and temperature ranges.

And the angels’ share becomes the angels’ breath. Yeah, I like it. This explanation works just fine for me.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Week #2: Afghan

This week Himself and I went with our food adventure-loving friends, Wes and Chuck, to Azeen's Afghani Restaurant in Old Town Pasadena. As soon as we hit the door, the aroma of a bazaar’s worth of spices wafted over and led us by our noses toward a menu full of temptations and an evening of déjà vu. I’d never had Afghan food before, but every dish on our table reminded me of something I’d eaten before.

For our appetizers we ordered things-inside-of-things (also known as things-with-things-inside-of-them). Many cultures have their own versions of filled dumplings—like ravioli and tortellini in Italy—and the filled pastries we most commonly associate with Spain’s empanada, Poland’s pierogi and Italy’s calzone (I just don’t think the American pre-fab Hot Pocket is worthy of comparison). Manti are steamed dumplings, and ours were filled with chopped beef, onion and herbs, topped with yogurt and a mixture of sautéed veggies.

The sambosas (their equivalent is the simbusak in Iraq and samosa in India and Pakistan) were fried pastries stuffed with ground beef and chickpeas, and the bulanee-e-katchalu, a delicate turnover with ground beef, potatoes and herbs tucked inside. All three appetizers were rich and flavorful but delicately seasoned.
bulanee-e-katchalu (left) & sambosa (right), with a yogurt & mint dip and a chutney

 For my entrée I ordered aushak, a plate of leek and shallot dumplings covered with a meat and tomato sauce. It looked like ravioli and meat sauce, but seasoned with cinnamon, cardamom and mint, it was an entirely different take on its Italian cousin.
Aushak, Afghanistan's answer to ravioli with meat sauce

Wes’ beef and chicken kabobs reflected standard fare throughout the Middle East. They were quite good, but what distinguished the plate was the pallaw, basmati rice cooked in butter with an array of aromatic spices.
beef & chicken kabobs with pallaw & Afghan bread

Andy’s Quabili Pallaw at first glance looked like a lovely orange mound of shredded cooked carrots and raisins, but beneath that sweet exterior was a layer of pallaw, and underneath it all, chunks of savory lamb. Chuck’s Smarooq Pallaw was the same dish, with chicken instead of lamb. Sweet and savory is one of those combinations you don’t find as often in Western cuisine, but the spices pulled the elements together and made it all work.
Quabili Pallaw or Smarooq Pallaw? You'll only know by digging in.

While everything was well seasoned, none of these dishes were spicy hot, as I had anticipated. Rather, the heat was an add-on, provided by a bowl of chutney. While Indian chutneys are thicker or chunkier, this one was vinegar based and almost like a dressing. It was made of chopped cilantro and jalapenos mixed with white vinegar and provided a nice balance of fresh flavor, heat and tang.

Afghan bread

The bread reminded me a little of the bread in the Muslim Chinese restaurants, in texture. It was a very plain white yeast bread, adequate but an accompaniment only. The Afghan tea was a basic tea laced with cardamom. Since I love cardamom in most anything, this was rich and flavorful, a welcome treat. In between the appetizers and entrées, we had a simple garden salad drizzled with a thinned plain yogurt and sprinkled with dried crushed mint leaves. In fact, a layer of plain yogurt and a generous sprinkling of mint accompanied almost everything on the table. The tangy yogurt layer reminds me of the sour cream that often shows up in dishes from Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia.

We shared a dessert called firnee, a delicately flavored milk custard topped with ground pistachios and  drizzled with rosewater. It was oddly both light and filling, so I’m glad we asked for one serving and four spoons. The rosewater was an especially nice touch. It was the fragrance and the flavor that I carried with me when we departed and walked back to our metro stop, imbuing the cool evening air with a heady, exotic quality.

What sticks with me most about our Afghan feast, aside from the fact that it was really tasty, is how much it reminded me of a number of other cuisines. Considering that Afghanistan has for centuries been a crossroad of people traveling between East and West, this is unsurprising. Places like this have traditionally mixed it up with foods and ingredients moving through. "Here have some of this and I'll sample some of that" is the method of food and ingredient exchange that enriches cuisines and experiences.

The murals around us reflected what I’m sure were scenes of home, a life and a terrain that may be foreign to many of us who dine there, but that surely provide comforting images of a missed country and a missed culture. Those who served us were warm, friendly and helpful. Visiting Azeen’s, I felt like we were in yet another crossroads, intersecting one of LA’s party districts with a thoughtful presentation of a cuisine from a part of the world we in the West just don’t connect with gettin’ down.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ginsu Pride

Recently a friend of ours was surprised to learn that, not only did I know what a ginsu knife was (he thought I was much younger than I actually am--thanks, Jeff!), but that I actually owned one.

While I possess several hundred dollars worth of professional-quality knives, that gnarly little ginsu still holds a place of honor in my knife block and in my heart (figuratively speaking, of course). It was the first knife I ever owned that I had respect for because, well, it could hurt me really badly if I wasn't careful. Most every other blade I had was by comparison in the "won't cut melted butter" category.

Everyone has their own story of a ginsu used for non-food-cutting-up purposes. Mine involves my mom killing two birds with one, er, knife. One December day she decided that rather than hire someone to get rid of the juniper tree that was growing out from under the edge of her house, she'd just take care of it herself. So she grabbed her trusty ginsu knife and sawed it down. When she realized that it was about six feet tall, she knew it would serve quite nicely as a Christmas tree. So she brought it into the house, put a tree stand on it and decorated it.

Perhaps for a food professional to own a ginsu is akin to a horticulturist owning a chia pet or a manicurist having a set of Lee press-on nails. But there are tasks I tear into gustily with that knife that I'd not want to chance damaging a Wüsthof or a Messermeister on. For example, it's great for opening things the scissors can't cut--like the packaging of computer cables, cell phone accessories and the like. (Perhaps they should contain nuclear waste in that kind of packaging. It's darned near impossible to get into unless you have a ginsu.)

Since my culinary training, I've replaced most of those old happy homemaker kitchen utensils and pieces of equipment with much more efficient and professional-quality items. But in spite of its somewhat low-rent status in the rest of the world, the ginsu stays. Call it my own personal Kitchen Thug.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Week #1: Ethiopian

... So as I was saying a couple of days ago, I'm spending the next year eating my way around the world without leaving home, or at least without pulling out my passport. I don't have to, because immigrants have brought with them one of their greatest treasures--the foods they miss. Being an immigrant from Tennessee, I certainly understand this need for a taste of home: I've had my share of dry-rubbed pork ribs FedEx'd from Memphis; I've lovingly collected a coffee can full of bacon drippings for the flavor they bring to all kinds of foods, including the cornbread I make in the well-seasoned iron skillet that's older than Himself and me combined; and every trip home I crowd my luggage with hog jowls, bacon, ham and cracklins, as you've no doubt read about in this blog.

It's intriguing to discover the cuisines that are available in your own town, whether the population is 1,000, 10,000, 100,000, 1 million or more. Food comes with stories, history, human drama, religion, geography...you name it.

I'm starting in Ethiopia, where the food traditions are strong in spite of the scarcity there of food itself. Himself and I headed to Nyala in Los Angeles' Little Ethiopia to satisfy our craving for some wonderfully savory fare.
We ordered a combination of vegetarian and meat platters, so we could try a bit of everything. Ethiopia has large populations of Coptic Christians and Muslims, along with some Jews, so there is no pork in their culinary repertoire. And with the many fasting days dictated by the Coptic Church, the cuisine features a lot of vegetarian dishes. I appreciate that they serve both--I don't mind vegetarian entrées if I know meat is still available. And when the veggies are so creatively and aggressively seasoned, I don't miss the meat at all. But we weren't going to turn our noses up at the beef, chicken and lamb. The vegetarian platter included collards (yes, my Southern brethren and sistren, those gnarly greens came from Africa), a mixture of vegetables and three types of lentils, along with a bit of salad (was that a holdover from Italian colonialism, I wonder?).

The lentils and meats were each made into a rich stew known as wot. They were spicy and flavorful, with varying degrees of heat. All the lentil stews were cooked with garlic and ginger, with the yellow lentils being mildest. The red lentils were seasoned with a sauce called berbere, a combination of spices and several varieties of reallllly hot chilis. The meats were cooked in butter and seasoned with onion, garlic, ginger, the chicken with lemon juice and the lamb and beef with red wine. And goosed with enough berbere to keep them interesting.
All of this food was served on top of a large crepe-like bread called injera, a staple of Ethiopian cuisine. It's made of teff, a minuscule grain that produces a thin, spongy bread with a sourdough flavor. Injera is the great multitasker of the Ethiopian meal, serving as the plate, the utensil and the bread. In some cases, the entire table is covered with injera in place of a tablecloth (just not in L.A., where the health department would no doubt have something to say about it!). I love eating with injera: it's so satisfying to experience food this way, much more tactile and intimate than when it moves between plate and mouth on a fork or between a pair of chopsticks.

The best injera was the piece lining the tray. By the time we polished off our basket of injera and most of the food on the tray, what was left was the layer of injera into which the juices of our meal had soaked, messy but oh-so satisfying.

Our end-of-the meal Ethiopian coffee tray arrived with a piece of red-hot charcoal bearing a lump of frankincense, which created a warm and heady aroma (it's probably a good thing we opted for water over Ethiopian wine or beer, or we might have fallen asleep right where we sat). The coffee, brewed in this small pot called a jabana, was rich and commanding.

The restaurant was resplendent with its colorful artwork and artifacts. The music and incense helped complete the illusion that we were on the Horn of Africa, not a stone's throw away from the Beverly Center.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

52 Cuisines in 52 Weeks

A few years ago Himself and I made a new year’s resolution (yeah, I know, they’re made to be broken) to do three things each month: 1. See a play 2. Take a hike somewhere outside of L.A. 3. Try a cuisine we’d never had before. While we didn’t succeed with all three, sampling new cuisines became a passion.

Since I’ve spent so much of my life in school, to me the new year begins in the fall (in fact, every morning when the bell rings at the elementary school a block from our house, I jump, thinking, “Oh no, I’m late!”). So this seems like a good time for a new year’s resolution, and here it is: Each week for the next year (and possibly beyond) I will sample a different international cuisine and report on it in this blog. I already do this fairly regularly, but I want to be more intentional and systematic about it.

Most of these adventures will be in cafes and restaurants, but some will involve cooking at home and seeing what we can duplicate. I’ll still be reporting on wine adventures, cooking experiments—both the successes and the fiascoes—trying new ingredients, and I-found-this-growing-in-the-yard-let’s-see-what-it-tastes-like. But a major feature of this blog in the coming year will be the concerted effort to explore international cuisines while the passport is tucked away and awaiting a stronger economy.

Living in one of the largest and most international cities on the planet makes this challenge easier than it would be in a lot of places. But you know how inertia is—you find your favorite cuisine, your favorite restaurant, your favorite dish on the menu, and it’s difficult to climb out of the rut and try something new. As you know, I’m certainly not afraid of trying new and different foods. But I’m taking you along this time. Intentionally. Systematically. Starting now.