Friday, November 27, 2009

Week #13: Uzbeki

One of the -stans in Stanland, Uzbekistan is nestled in between Kazakhstan & Turkmenistan.
Uzbeki restaurants are in short supply around Los Angeles, and the only one I could find mention of has closed. Fortunately, I have a pal who: 1. has been to Uzbekistan; 2. has spent a lot of time over the years in that part of the world; 3. is conversant in the region's languages; and 4. holds a passion for the region's food and culture. It doesn't hurt that he has written enough books and newspaper copy on the area's cuisines to fill at least one bookshelf.

So when Charles Perry, late of the Los Angeles Times food section, volunteered to cook an Uzbeki meal at our house, Himself and I couldn't say "YES!" fast enough. We set a date and invited guests, while Charlie proposed a menu to showcase the country's staples and flavors.

 Charlie discusses the menu while Chuck mixes herbal champagne cocktails he designed to complement the evening's fare.
Chuck Taggart, my cocktailian pal, brought the mixings for pre-dinner cocktails. We were his happy guinea pigs as he concocted an intriguing blend of champagne, Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka, bitters and various tinctures he'd made from things like lemongrass, black pepper, allspice and clove. And as he carved long, golden twists from a couple of voluptuous lemons, a citrusy mist burst forth and perfumed the entire house with its bright essence.

...with a twist. And check out that assortment of tincture bottles.

Two of our guests, Grace and Bob, popped into Silver Lake Wine to get a couple of bottles of vino for the meal. When they told the guy behind the counter they were having Uzbeki food, he rattled off a number of Uzbeki dishes, most of which were on our menu, and knew precisely which wines would pair best with them. What a pro! He sent them out the door with two wines, one from Bosnia and one from France, both of which worked quite nicely.

  Чалоб or Chalob, a cold yogurt soup
 Our starter was chalob, a cold yogurt soup, a combination of full-fat plain yogurt with chopped onions, radishes, celery, green onions, cilantro and mint, and diluted with just enough water to give it the consistency of a stew, albeit a cool, fresh one. I think I'll be making chalob in large quantities next summer. It's healthy and satisfying. I'd say go ahead and indulge in the full-fat yogurt--the texture is so much better. And all those raw veggies help mitigate the effects of the full fat.

Уй Нони or Ui Noni, a flatbread

Accompanying the soup--and everything else--was ui noni, a flatbread that's similar to the Indian naan (you can tell from the name if not from the shape). It's a basic lean bread that's typically slapped onto the inside wall of a tandir to bake. But having no such earthen baking vessel, Charlie had to make do with a sheet pan and a regular old kitchen oven. The results were a good, hearty bread with a peculiar design stamped into them.

 Ui Noni and a couple of chekiches
In Uzbekistan, bakeries identify their bread by stamping each piece with an instrument that produces a distinctive pattern. The chekich is a carved handle with metal pins or nails set into it that is used for this chore. Charlie noted that these instruments, when used for a long time, eventually degrade as the pins get driven back into the handle and sometimes bend in different angles. Interestingly, the gradual changes in the design on the bread that are the result of an aging chekich bring a sense of trust to regular customers, who would become suspicious of a piece of bread bearing the old familiar design if it was made by a new punch--proof that brand loyalty extends beyond packaging!

Charlie brought a handful of chekiches to show us, each with its own distinctive pattern of pins.
Ошковок Манти or Oshqowoq Manti, steamed pumpkin dumplings
These scarab-shaped dumplings were amazing to look at and of course, seriously tasty. The stuffing is a mixture of cooked pumpkin (you can use acorn squash) and browned onion, seasoned with salt, black pepper, cinnamon and turmeric. A spoonful of this mixture is placed in the center of a square of homemade pasta, which is then folded into this distinctive shape. Then the dumplings are buttered and steamed. You can see how large these are by comparing them to the size of my hand on the edge of the plate.
detail of a dumpling topped with sour cream

 Ковурма Лалов or Qowurma Palow (fried pilaf)

The main dish was a palow or pilaf with rice, beef, onions and carrots. If he'd been making this dish in Uzbekistan, Charlie would have fried the meat in lamb's tail fat and added in some barberries, a couple of items you just can't pick up at Trader Joe's (although if you can find a Persian market, they might carry the barberries, which are also known as zereshk). Still, the palow was good stuff, touched with red pepper and redolent of cumin.

Анор ва Лиёз Салатаси or Anor wa Piyoz Salatasi, a pomegranate & onion salad
The pomegranate and onion salad was one of those dishes you really have to taste to believe. Essentially, it's just those two items tossed in a bowl (Oops! Those bits of green are chopped green onions that I accidentally dropped into it. We left some in there, since the contrasting colors looked so nice.). What makes this salad work is that the onions are sliced really thinly, which opens up the maximum number of the cells filled with tear-inducing enzymes, and then rinsed thoroughly. This washes away what makes onions so difficult to eat raw in large quantity. You're left with some pretty sweet tasting stuff. The pomegranate seeds add a little more sweetness, while perking up the salad with a jolt of tartness and astringency.

Тулоб or gulob, a fruit drink
We drank our dessert of gulob, a purée of apricots, apples, grapes, berries--essentially any fruit you have on hand--diluted with water to drinkability, with a little sugar and some vanilla or saffron to enrich the flavor. It was a refreshing end to our Uzbeki meal.

I love this photo Himself made in the course of the evening, a detail of the table, which shows our fondness for mixing it up: along with the Uzbeki chekiches and the wine from Bosnia are a pitcher from Italy and crystal from Ireland. Around us but not in the photo were decorative items from places as diverse as Uganda, Indonesia and Memphis. It doesn't bother us that not much in our house matches. We pick things up in our perambulations based on their cultural significance and how they strike our sensibilities, from the sober to the silly. (I also have a pair of salt and pepper shakers shaped like tiny toilets!)

There's a story in every item I collect along the way, a world in every bite of food I try. Not that I'll ever weary of travel, but it's good to know I can have these experiences even when I'm sitting at my own kitchen table. Thanks, Charlie!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

For Sale: Sweet Treats & Good Feelings

On Saturday, December 5, food bloggers from around the Los Angeles area will be selling our goodies to benefit the LA Regional Foodbank.

We'll be at Zeke's Smokehouse in West Hollywood, at Santa Monica and La Brea, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

While my contributions will be bubblegum marshmallows and bacon fudge, there will also be whoopie pies, black sesame cupcakes with matcha frosting, bacon apple pie...and that's just the beginning. At last count more than 600 baked goodies had been pledged by some of the most creative bakers in town.

Please come and bring your sweet tooth and your wallet. You can feel good about contributing to an important cause, and you'll have something yummy to enjoy! It's a Win-Win!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Week #12 Hungarian

Sometimes you start out to write one thing, and something entirely different presents itself. This entry is about Hungarian food, but it's also a remembrance of a fixture on the food scene here in Burbank for 40 years. Otto Huber died a few weeks ago. So beloved was this Hungarian immigrant and deli owner that the kids from the high school down the street dedicated a Facebook page to him.

I first visited Otto's Hungarian Import Store and Deli when I was in culinary school and making goulash, a staple of Hungarian cuisine. I needed paprika for the job and figured that since I was making a Hungarian dish, I might as well go to a Hungarian store to buy a more authentic paprika than what they carry at the chain grocery. When I was growing up, I thought paprika was just something you sprinkled on the devilled eggs to give them a little color. But when I went to Otto's, I discovered a world of paprika that's actually used for flavoring foods in varying degrees of sweet and hot.

That's when I met Otto, a chatty, gregarious man who kept his store open six days a week, except for August, when he locked up the business and went home to Hungary for an entire month to collect hugs from several hundred extended family members. I'm sorry I was never in the shop on one of those occasions when he whipped out his accordion to serenade his clientele with Hungarian folk tunes. (I'm linking the Burbank Leader article about his passing, because it includes a wonderful photo of him brandishing that accordion.)

My stash of Otto's sweet paprika is about the largest container in my cabinet of spices. When the goulash & paprikás turn out THAT good, you want an ample supply of the key ingredient on hand.
The last time I saw Otto was not in his deli but at the post office. He cut quite a figure--a 77-year-old in his usual attire of white shorts, white shirt and white butcher's apron, with the little paper hat perched on his head. He was a local celebrity, and everyone in line and behind the counter was tickled to see him. And he was tickled right back.

The door of Otto's is still closed, some six weeks since his death. It will eventually open under the care of his son, Tom. No doubt it will still sell more paprika than you ever imagined you'd see in one place, along with csalamade, those yummy Hungarian pickled white bell peppers, and spaetzle makers and chestnut purée presses and all the rest. I believe the good memories Otto created there will linger in the minds of his patrons and his son, who will carry on in his spirit and continue providing imported goods for homesick Hungarians and fantastic sandwiches for the next generation of high school kids on break between classes.

This is the spirit of goodwill I experienced last week in the expression of the owner of Duna Csárda (which means Danube Tavern), who wrapped up a couple of brioches and pressed them into our hands before we left his restaurant, along with a copy of the Hungarian language newspaper he publishes.

Duna Csárda on Melrose, a couple of blocks from Paramount Studios, demonstrated what I'm discovering with just about every country whose cuisine we've sampled so far: that Hungary has a wealth of foods in common with those of other countries. In this case France, Germany, Turkey and Austria--in fact, they don't call it Austro-Hungarian for nothing. The borders and names might change, but people cling to their favorite foods even as they absorb new ones. I don't think anyone ever completely forsakes one cuisine for another. But I digress...

We began with a Duna cocktail, a mixture of champagne and tokaji, a sweet wine the Magyars hold near and dear to their hearts. The dryness of the champagne and the sweetness of the tokaji balanced out to provide a refreshing aperitif and prepare our tums for the meal ahead.

Crescent roll called "kifli," a non-crescent-shaped roll & my tokaji cocktail; and check out those durable Soviet-era salt & pepper shakers! First shakers I've ever wanted to swipe from a restaurant (don't worry--I didn't.)
Our bread included kifli, what we know as crescent rolls--and what the French took and made with puffed pastry, to great effect. (Austria has the "kipfel," which dates back to the 13th century.) The breads were rather basic, and that's just fine. Some breads are stars all on their own, while others are good supporting players. These breads were the latter.

The appetizer plate included korozott & a couple of Hungarian sausages
 Korozott (in the middle) is a mousse made by whipping together sheep's cheese, creamy butter and sweet paprika. We shmeared it on that supporting player bread. Hungary has a great sausage-making tradition, and we sampled two types. The one in the foreground reminded me of a blood sausage filled with rice. The texture was smooth and the flavor mild. The one at the top of the photo was spicier and made me really happy--as spice tends to do. An assortment of fresh vegetables and some Swiss cheese rounded out the plate, the veggies ensuring that we didn't succumb to the richness of the sausages, korozott and cheese.

My Night Owl Soup, a.k.a.  Korhely Leves
I yearn to visit Eastern Europe and explore its rich history and culture, but I have a feeling the languages there will give me serious problems. If I remember "korhely leves" though, I should stay well fed. The menu calls it Night Owl Soup. I love this name, which conjures images of huddling over a hot bowl in a small café, the gales of a harsh Hungarian winter night blowing outside. It's a hearty sauerkraut and dill soup with onions, chunks of smoked veal and a dollop of sour cream. I could have been satisfied with a bowl of this soup and a piece of that "supporting player bread."

 Veal Gulyás with homemade potato dumplings
Himself had the veal gulyás, a delicately flavored stew. Those dumplings look just like scrambled eggs, but one bite lets you know they're potato based. Gulyás and paprikas are probably what people think of first when Hungarian food is mentioned. These two dishes are quite similar--both are basically meat braises seasoned with paprika, but paprikás has either sweet or sour cream stirred into it at the end. The veal also had a good deal of fat in it. Hungarians aren't as squeamish about fat as Americans are--it's part of the animal, and it goes into the mix. Period.

Dobos Torte
The pride of the Hungarian dessert case is the Dobos torte, created by a famous Hungarian chef in the 19th century. It is made of five thin layers of sponge cake separated by layers of chocolate buttercream, with a sheet of caramelized sugar on top. It's easy to view such desserts and think the pastry chef was just messing about to see what he could concoct, but this dessert was quite practically constructed. Chef Jozsef Dobos wanted to create a cake that wouldn't dry out as quickly as other desserts of the day tended to. So he developed a specific cake batter and buttercream for the job, both of which held moisture better than the batters and cooked pastry creams in use at the time, and topped the cake with caramel to seal in more of the moisture. I haven't had this cake since I learned to make it in culinary school, so it was a nice reunion. It also reminds me of why I don't make things like this very often--too rich and too much for the two of us to have in our house! This is a dessert to make only if you can share it.

Our host gave us a couple of brioche to take home, egg washed and shiny and filled with currants. They made a good breakfast the next morning with cheese and honey.

Something about this meal makes me want to dust off my passport and head to Hungary--more so than any of my meals in this blogging project so far have made me want to set out to their corresponding countries. Perhaps I feel a truer sense of the culture after my experiences at both Otto's and Duna Csárda. Perhaps it was being reacquainted with some of the country's dishes that I'd learned to make and more or less forgotten about in the meantime. I'm not sure, but it's something I continue thinking about. Every experience in this 52 cuisines exercise so far has struck different parts of my sensibilities in different ways.

I'm finding value in this blogging exercise that reaches far beyond the food itself.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Week #11 German

Okay, so German food isn't going to win any awards as the world's sexiest cuisine. There's meat, potatoes, meat, cabbage, meat, fish, meat, bread. And more meat. And more bread. And strudels and noodles and bier, oh my! Yeah, I know Germany makes some fine wines, but they're just not the first thing you think of when someone says, "Hey, let's go get some German food."

This assessment is not fair. But it's easy--stereotypes always are (hah! Look at that. I just stereotyped stereotypes--and it was easy!). Germany is made up of 16 states that cover an area that's somewhere between the size of California and Nevada, so a truly representative sampling involves a lot more than one trip to one restaurant in Los Angeles. That's all I have to work with right now, so it's a point of departure, not the whole shebanginenerinenen.

Himself had other plans that night, so I hooked up with our friends Brian and Kevin and went to The Red Lion in Silver Lake. Brian spent his junior year of college in Germany, and this place takes him back to those salad days (although I'm betting salad didn't figure into them very much!). I've also found that a lot of the area's German residents love The Red Lion for the food as well as for the brews and the atmosphere, so I figured we'd get a decent representation of German chow there.

I tend not to like beer I can read through, so I ordered their schwarzbier, which quite literally means "black beer." It's dark like my favorite, Guinness, but slightly sweet. I prefer the Irish stout, but this black lager was still a good accompaniment to the meat, er, the meal. (It's helpful when writing about German food that meal and meat are only one letter off!)

sausage platter: three kinds of sausages with German mustard, pickles & peppers
We started with a trio of sausages, sweet-and-sour pickles, surprisingly hot peppers and a good sturdy mustard. The German sausage most people seem familiar with is the bratwurst, on the right, which is a standard of tailgate parties and backyard events. It's larger and not as dense as its companions, the rich and smoky bockwurst in front, and the knockwurst, the smaller, spicier one to the left. I'm thinking that someday a sausage tour of Germany is in order. Each region has at least a few sausages that are distinct from all the rest, and I wouldn't mind trying them all.
detail: This basic white bread was really satisfying. I could have eaten at least two platters of those sausages with a basket of  bread and maybe an additional schwarzbier.

I love highly seasoned food, bordering on herb-and-spice chaos, so the sausages were my favorite item of the evening. I've certainly had more aggressively seasoned food than German sausages, but compared to the entrées, the sausages were spice-happy. As satisfied as we would have been to just order a few more platters of sausage, we knew we had to wade further into the menu.

Beef Rouladen
Kevin's beef rouladen involved two rolls of boiled beef stuffed with onions, pickles and bacon. The generous blanket of gravy helped moisten the boiled meat, which dries out when you cook it in water because all the fat stays behind in the water. The rouladen was dense but flavorful. It was served with potatoes and red sauerkraut, rounding out a hearty meal to eat before you put in a day's physical labor.

"Brauten" essentially means to braise, that is, to cook a piece of meat slowly on a low temperature. It's the best way to make a tough piece of meat tender. To my mind, tough meat that's been treated well is more agreeable in flavor and texture than some tender cut you don't have to work with (I'm sure there are parallels to be drawn here with human beings!). Brian and I delved into two different types. My schweinebrauten was two generous slabs of roast pork loin that were blanketed in what seemed to be the same gravy as that on Kevin's beef roulade. Mine too was served with mashed potatoes and a kraut that was only mildly tangy. I always steel my tonsils for sauerkraut, so they and I were surprised--and a little disappointed--not to get that acidy jolt we anticipated.

 Sauerbrauten with Spätzle
Typically, sauerbrauten is parked in a strong, vinegary marinade for three to four days before cooking. That didn't seem to be the case here, as Brian's had almost no detectable acidic flavor to it. Maybe they were making concessions to the non-German patrons? I don't know, but the meat was really, really mild. The spätzle, though, was wonderful. Brian said that those delicate little noodles were his own personal German comfort food. I can see why--they're soft and warm and inviting.

Spätzle was devised in southern Germany, which is the closest part to Italy, from whence all those lovely noodles come. So this is the German take on the noodle (some Germans attribute this particular food to ancient Roman occupation). Spätzle, though, is very eggy and made from a batter, not from a dough, which makes for a softer, more luscious noodle. This is making me want to go mix up some spätzle batter for dinner tonight. Or for right now. It's great tossed with browned butter and garnished with fried fresh sage leaves.   

 Schwarzwalder Kirchetorte: Black Forest Cherry Cake
For dessert we shared a piece of schwarzwalder kirchetorte. It's one of the first desserts I learned to make in culinary school. In fact, I can make it more easily than I can pronounce it. This one was not heavily imbibed with kirchwasser or any other liquor that we could detect, probably because in the United States people tend to frown on their children getting twirly on dessert. Still, chocolate, cherries and whipped cream.....mmmmm..... What's not to love about that combo?

When you think about it, if you grew up on the East Coast, in the Midwest, in the South--actually, most anywhere in the United States--chances are your standard meal included meat, potato, a veg or two and some bread. That's very German, very English. Growing up in the rural South, I ate a lot deep-fried this and that. "Spaghetti" was ground beef and tomato sauce poured over noodles that had been broken up before cooking, for ease of eating. No seasonings beyond salt and pepper. And I didn't have pizza until I was in college. So while the fare we had on this outing was good, it wasn't some new and exciting combination of flavors. While I'm not of German stock, this food had a familiarity to it.

There's one thing to be said for these less glamorous foods--they're more likely to be your comfort food than something pretty and fussy and exotic. While the version of spaghetti I grew up with was in no way authentic--and really quite bland--I can envision times when it would be quite pleasurable to shovel in a bowlful during a time of stress or loss. The same can be said for a plate of spätzle or a slice of schweinebrauten and a mound of mashed potatoes. Sometimes this is really all we need.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Week #10 Chilean

When I think of Chilean comestibles, what comes to mind first is Chile's burgeoning wine industry. One look at the map and you can see why wine has become a staple of the economy--there's all that vino-riffic geography sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean where they've been creating wine since the era of the Spanish conquistadors. But what about the food? Time to find out!

Rincon Chileno on Melrose (close to L.A. City College) is one of those mom-n-pop places that local Chileans flock to, so I figured it would be a good place for us to sample the native fare. Himself and I walked in and essentially fell facedown on the buffet. It looked like the locals were doing the same, so we didn't feel out of place at all. However we did stand out, because we were the only people there who, with our blue eyes and fair features, were obviously not from the neighborhood. It's a good sign that you're in an authentic restaurant when you don't look like you could blend in.

I apologize for this unglamorous photo of a rather beastly looking pile of "a little bit of everything," but when you want to get a feel for--and a taste of--a country's cuisine, a buffet is a helpful thing, visual appeal be damned!

A big ol' mmmmessy buffet plate, complete with three presentations of potatoes.
I'll take this clockwise-ish and point out some items of note: At 12:00 is the potato patty, which was filled with scallions and fried. It reminded me a lot of Irish boxty. At 1:00 are camarons, shrimp. At 3:00 is pastel de papas, a ground beef and potato pie that looks like the Chilean take on the English shepherd's pie; at 4:00 is pastel de choclo, a ground beef and corn pie with egg and black olives; at 8:00 are beef and mushrooms in a brown sauce. All three of these were rich and satisfying. At 10-11:00, providing a fresh, bright counterpoint to all the richness was the standard Chilean salad of tomatoes and green beans. In the middle are mussels topped with cheese and a pastry filled with ham and cheese. While everything was flavorful, nothing was spicy at all. Even though we encountered this a few weeks ago with Colombian food, it's still a surprise to me. Silly, but my tummy-mind still believes that if it's a food from south of the US, it must be spicy.

What was NO surprise was finding potatoes in three forms on my plate. Honestly, I thought there would be even more, since this is the part of the world that gifted us with the potato.

 This potato and scallion fried patty reminds me of Irish boxty.

Himself's plate: Some repeats, but I wanted to show you that big ol' generous portion of whiting fish stretched across the center of the plate. This was actually one of the smaller pieces!
Also surprising was the casualness with which the fish and seafood were tossed in with everything else. Typically buffets showcase seafood, treat it like royalty and set it off on its own, sometimes even providing a plate specifically for it. I found it rather refreshing that it was included so easily, as if they're saying, "Yes we have meat and veg, but our coastline is so expansive that we have plenty of seafood to share." The bounty was certainly evident in those honkin' big pieces of whiting fish, called merluza frita. It's a meaty fish with a clean taste, rather like halibut, but just a bit lighter.

pan amasado, in the attached bakery next door
Accompanying our meal was pan amasado, a Chilean bread made with lard. It has a smooth exterior and an inside that is flaky like a biscuit. The texture and flavor are biscuity as well. Their size and shape make them the perfect Chilean sandwich bread.

All this and a robust glass of sangria, and you'd think we'd be set for the day. But no, there's always dessert to be reckoned with...
 Flan & Brazo de Reina--"Arm of the Queen"

 Some desserts to sample later.
Most of the desserts were heavy on caramelized sugar and sweetened, condensed milk. Flan is the best known example of this--it's a pretty standard dessert throughout the Latin regions. The Brazo de Reina, or "arm of the queen" looked like a jelly roll, but it was filled with sweetened, condensed milk that had been cooked down to a thick creamy caramelized paste. Alfajor, the sandwich cookie to the left, is made of melt-in-your-mouth cookies with dulce de leche inside; the other two (I didn't catch their names) are puff pastries such as you'd find in any European bakery. The one in front was topped with jelly. The roll of pastry to the right was filled with dulce de leche, too, similar to the "queen's arm" except that it was made of puffed pastry leaves rather than cake. All were good in that tooth-achy sort of way that sends you scrambling to the dentist!

tres empanadas with pebre

We also carried away an array of empanadas, which made excellent lunches this past week. All were baked, rather than fried, and all were savory, no sweets in the bunch. To the right is a spinach and cheese empanada; at the bottom, chicken (my personal fav); and at the left, beef and egg. The substantial crust around them--especially on the beef empanada--reminds me of those on England's Cornish pasties, nifty handles for eating your meal without making a mess. For both flavor and ease of consumption, these put the American fast food and frozen food versions to shame. Every crinkle, every fold was made by hand. Machines just can't put into them what the human touch does. The pebre, a salsa verde, is pretty warm stuff, the only truly spicy element in the entire meal. Our server set a large bowl of it on the table when she brought the sangria and pan amasado. It essentially goes well on anything, except maybe dessert. When the owner boxed up our empanadas-to-go, he gave us a generous supply as well.

I found an item in the news just this week about the spat between Chile and Peru in which both claim to be the birthplace of the potato. My blog entry from the previous week mentioned the Malaysian and Indonesian quarrel over food, so I guess everyone needs bragging rights to something. (I'm from Memphis, and while I know barbecue wasn't invented there, I do think ours is the best!) But when food is such an important vehicle for peace, for sitting at table and breaking bread together, it's a shame to get into a snit over where it came from. If there's going to be a food fight, how about executing it in a much more fun way, perhaps in the style of Animal House?