Monday, December 28, 2009

A Peaty Epiphany

Remember the scene in Ratatouille when curmudgeonly food critic Anton Ego takes a bite of the title dish and is instantly transported back to his youth? A similar thing happened to me recently with a peat-laden scotch. Well, it didn't take me back to my childhood, thankfully, but it carried me to a warm, comfy cottage perched on the edge of Galway Bay in western Ireland.

I've never been one for amber spirits. Whiskey, rye, bourbon, rum....gah! Something about them triggers my gag reflex. They always have. Even the smell is enough to roil my cookies. I'm sure that growing up in sour mash country didn't help. Irish whiskey, because it's triple distilled, is a bit easier, and I've even managed to enjoy a splash of calvados on occasion. But still, I much prefer the clean crispness and bright herbal qualities of a good gin.

Then a few days ago Himself came in with a bottle of Laphroaig, a 10-year-old single malt scotch. He poured a wee dram of the stuff, set it on the arm of the sofa and went off in search of a book, safe in the knowledge that I'd never pinch his drink. I leaned over and took a sniff. The rich peaty aroma reminded me of the fires in all those cozy living rooms and bedrooms and sitting rooms I've enjoyed on trips to Ireland and Scotland. So I ventured a sip--and my senses and memory merged to catapult me from my living room in Los Angeles and plant me next to a peat fire in the Connemara. I could see that kitchy living room in front of me, and I actually teared up from the remembering. It was as if I were breathing in the essence of the fire our dear hostess Mamie had laid for us before she headed out to a wedding, singing a sweet, "Don't wait up for me, dearies!" as she closed the door behind her.

I've never had an experience like that. Himself knows how I am about ambers, so he long ago quit offering me a sip. He walked back into the room and found me holding his glass.

"Wow! I love this!" I said, and I thought he was going to keel over. A look came across his face that said, "Who are you and what have you done with my wife?!"

So what do I call this? Molecular memory? Whatever it is, I'm glad to have discovered the peaty stuff. It's like enjoying a cigar without the smoke.

I'm eager to try some of the other peaty Scotches. Himself has his favorites, of which this is one, his others being Caol Ila and Ardbeg. I look forward to trying them after we polish off this bottle. But it's not a whisky to knock back. It's to be sipped, savored and enjoyed. I can wait for the pleasure of trying the others.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Week #17 Southern Italian: The Feast of the Seven Fishes

La Vigilia, The Feast of the Seven Fishes, is a Christmas Eve meal featuring, you guessed it, fish. While communities throughout Italy celebrate La Vigilia, this meal is more a feature of southern Italian and Sicilian tradition, one carried to the United States by immigrants and popularized here. Even if they've forgotten why, even if they're not Catholic, many people still observe the custom of eating fish on Christmas Eve--at least one type, and in some households, as many as a dozen or more.

I snapped this photo in a Tuscan fish market. Most of Tuscany is landlocked, but that doesn't prevent its citizenry from adoring a good piece of frutti di mare fresh from the Mediterranean or Adriatic.
Traditionally, Catholics ate no meat on sacred days, of which Christmas Eve is one--in this case, in honor of the birth of the baby Jesus. Since we're Christian but not Catholic, it was still a learning experience for us. We enjoyed this feast with our friends Patricia and Aaron. They included us in their family Seder during Passover earlier this year, so it was a fine symmetry sharing this Christian feast with them. We convened at Angeli Caffe in West Hollywood, where they served The Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve-Eve-Eve. Two days early is close enough for me.

Why seven types of fish? Stories explaining this number are as plentiful as, well, fish in the sea. Most of them are numerological in origin: seven is thought to be the number of perfection, since God rested on the seventh day. Then there are the seven sacraments, the Seven Hills of Rome, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the seven utterances of Christ on the cross. Seven shows up a lot in the book of Revelations, too. Practically speaking, though, the number of fish people eat on Christmas Eve seems to have more to do with availability and wealth than any other factor.

Traditionally the seven fish include baccalà, dried, salted cod. It is so prevalent in Italy that I think it must be the national fish. But we didn't have baccalà, and frankly, I'm not sorry, because it is stout and aggressively fishy, without the delicate texture and flavor of most fresh fish. I once knew a man who broke up with a beautiful Italian woman because she served him meal after meal of baccalà, until he'd finally had enough. We all have our limits, I guess.

Our antipasti plate got us off to a good start: a piece of seared tuna dressed with a saffron and red wine vinaigrette--I could have stopped right there and just ordered another six or eight pieces; seared sardines--my favorite part of that was the fried Meyer lemon slice with which it was topped--sweetly zingy!; and an Insalata di Mare alla Griglia, that is, grilled seafood salad that included shrimp, mussels and calamari. It was like having a high-quality sampler platter.

Next was a slice of pizza alla puttanesca with anchovies, which were cooked into the sauce, not just slapped on top and left to scorch in the oven. Notice that nice hunk of garlic in there? That made me happy, as did the capers and kalamata olives. And Angeli's pizza crust (and their bread in general) is a sublime thing. Take a good look at this slice, just in case you've never seen a real pizza crust before. This is not of the mass-produced, thick-n-chewy chain restaurant/delivery outlet/cardboard box/meat-lover's/cheese-lover's/manly-man ilk. It is crispy on the outside with a bit of chew inside. It's perfectly balanced and every bit as flavorful as what's on top of it--not just merely a carrier for the toppings. When eating lesser pizzas, I toss out or give away the "bones" (a.k.a. "the pizza handles"), but a well made pizza crust is good all by itself. I didn't leave a crumb on that plate. (It's time to stand up for your right for decent pizza, but that blog is for another day.)

For our paste we had trofie, a homemade pasta cooked perfectly al dente and served with shrimp and fennel. Alongside it were cannelloni al mare (in this case stuffed with salmon), an eggplant parmesan roll and a large mushroom stuffed with veggies. Since Pat and Aaron keep kosher, they passed on the shellfish and got extra helpings of the cannelloni and mushrooms.

We had homemade cannoli for dessert. No fish in this one, thankfully, but really good freshly made cannoli that balanced lightness and heft. If you can fry a pastry in such a way that it is neither greasy nor heavy, and fill it with a mixture of lightly sweetened ricotta and chocolate so that it doesn't weigh a ton, give up your day job and do this for a living. A well-crafted cannoli is a delight. Clemenza must have had this in mind when he told Rocco in The Godfather, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." Even if it does mean you do have to leave the scene of the crime a couple of seconds late!

So we got our seven fish in there--I counted eight. Well, fish and seafood, if we must split hairs. And I won't. I'll just say...

Belated Happy Hanukkah!
Buon Natale! Merry Christmas!
Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Week #16 South African

South Africa. Now here's a place with some amazing culinary influences: various African tribes, numerous waves of European settlers including the English, Portuguese, French, German and Dutch contingents, and a healthy representation of Indian, Malaysian, Filipino and others from around Southeast Asia. As for the terrain, this country is capable of producing most anything you'd care to eat or drink. The land sustains a veritable smorgasbord.

Himself and I trekked to Springbok, a combo restaurant and sports bar in the Sepulveda Basin area. We were a little concerned about making one of our culinary expeditions into what we feared would be just another sports bar with generic pub grub. Not to worry, though--this place is owned and run by four Afrikaners who miss the vibe, the sports and the food of their home turf.
Chicken Livers in Peri-Peri Sauce
We started with an appetizer of chicken livers in peri-peri sauce. This sauce is made of tiny birdseye chile peppers. It's hot enough to get your attention but not so hot that it detracts from the flavor of the dish. Aside from tasting great, the sauce lightened the density of the livers--no mean feat. While liver isn't my favorite thing to eat, I do find myself craving chicken livers (no other type!) about once a year. This was a good opportunity to satisfy the annual craving while having livers that hadn't been breaded and deep fried. I like this combination a lot, and I'd certainly order it again.

Boerewors Roll with "Train Smash"
 I had the Boerewors roll for my entrée. It's a traditional South African sausage ("boerewors" means "farmer sausage" in Afrikaans) served on a homemade bun. With its dry texture and rather un-tame flavor (although I wouldn't exactly call it "gamey"), I assumed this sausage was made of some sort of wild game. It was a tremendous surprise to discover that Boerewors is actually made of beef in a beef casing. I guess so much sausage is made of swine that I'm accustomed to the fattiness and more luxurious mouth feel. (Boer, of course, has nothing in common with pork, but rather is a person of Dutch descent in South Africa, also known as an Afrikaner. I knew this, but when I heard of a sausage with what sounded like "boar" in the name...).

The Boerewors was served with what they amusingly call "train smash," a stew of sautéed onions in a tomato sauce with some peppers added in. Perhaps more peri-peri? I think I was supposed to pour it onto the Boerewors, but I dipped in a few of the fries and ate the rest with my fork. Instead I poured peach chutney onto the sausage.

Durban Lamb Curry: I love the way they rolled the pappadum and used it for garnish.
Himself had the Durban lamb curry over rice with sambals and pappadum whirled into a nice little garnish. The curry was pretty mild, but good, and the lamb, delicate. The sambals, shredded coconut, chopped tomato and grated carrot with cilantro added sweetness, freshness and variety to the curry. Durban is in southeastern South Africa, along the Indian Ocean coastline. Indian curries are prevalent here, hence the name.

While Springbok (named for the South African rugby team, which named itself for the antelope) typically carries beers and ales they import from home, the taps were dry when we were there, an aberration, we were assured. I hope so. We both want to return, and it will be good to try the local brew with the local food. As they say, if it grows together, it goes together.

When Aid Africa held its fundraiser a few weeks ago, I won the raffle for the basket of goodies assembled from all over the continent. Three of the items are from South Africa and were perfect for my breakfast the morning after our South African dinner.

 Rooibos tea with oatmeal & fig jam
 Himself watched in a combination of amusement and disbelief as I ripped open the packet of instant oatmeal, poured it into a bowl, added hot water, stirred it and then took a picture.

"It's instant oatmeal. What are you going to say about it?"

"Not much, I don't imagine," I replied. The most interesting feature is that the oatmeal is "Jungle" brand and has a tiger on the package. That amuses me. To sweeten it I stirred in a generous spoonful of South African fig jam, and it turned out to be the best fig jam I've ever had. The occasional length of citrus peel added a nice texture and contrasting flavor. It turns out that figs grown in the Cape area are some of the world's most delicate and flavorful. I hope to find that out someday by actually traveling there, but for now, I'd have to say they make a pretty fine jam.

Speaking of amusing brands, the name of the jam was "Something." As in, "I brought you Something from my trip to South Africa." Something turns out to be a company that scopes out those foods it thinks most adequately represent the flavors of South Africa and imports them into the U.S., things like spice rubs, marinades, teas and the like. Turns out the peach chutney I had on the Boerewors roll came from these guys.

As for the Rooibos tea, dang, it's red! And mildly flavored, more floral than herbal. Delicately sweet, so I didn't feel the need to add sugar or honey. Rooibos (Afrikaans for "red bush") is a tea grown in the Cedarberg Mountains in the central part of South Africa, just north of the Cape of Good Hope. It produces a tea that is a deep mahogany color. Rooibos has no caffeine, since it is an herb and not a tea, so I enjoyed a cup of it before putting on a pot of coffee. A little quick Internet research tells me that rooibos has a rather iconic place in the South African heart and is something that Afrikaners often carry with them when they leave home. That's certainly easier--and more legal--than developing an attachment to the ham or cheese you miss from home.

We enjoyed our foray to Springbok enough to return (just not on karaoke night). There were several other menu items I'd like to try, like the braai, the South African take on barbecue. Coming from barbecue country myself, I'm interested in seeing what they do with it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Week #15 Michoacan (Mexican)

Well into the fourth month of this 52 Cuisines project, I still haven't featured any Mexican cuisines. It's time to remedy that. When you're considering a country as vast as Mexico, though, you really can't get away with a quickie generic view of its food. This country has so many regions and such a variety of land- and seascapes that the foods here are as varied as they'd be across any continent. Mexican aficionado Chef Rick Bayless divides culinary Mexico into six regions, while Mexicans themselves divide it into many, many more. So this project will send me scrambling in a lot of directions if I want to do it justice.

I've heard Michoacan, the central Pacific Coast region, referred to as the California of Mexico. Essentially, it's considered the country's breadbasket. Himself and I set out to find a Michoacan restaurant, and we discovered that it's like trying to find a California restaurant. Michoacan refers more to a style of cooking rather than to a particular list of foods indigenous to the region. What I'm finding in the search for a Michoacan restaurant is that a lot of places around LA include the words "Michoacan" and "carnitas" in their names. Apparently what they refer to is the way carnitas are cooked in Michoacan. I guess it's a little like finding Memphis-style pork ribs or New England-style clam chowder far from their place of origin.

Himself and I stopped off at a little mamá y papá establishment in North Hollywood alternately called Super Tacos Michoacan and Calimex Restaurant, depending on which signage you observe.

Well, this signage was amusing...

 Carnitas Michoacan with the fixin's
I ordered the Carnitas Michoacan, served with the sautéed onions and a really fine red salsa. They were porky and luscious (that's a more veiled way of saying "fatty"--don't you like it?!). Essentially the meat is cooked twice, once to render it done and once to crisp it up. While the region may or may not have been the originator of carnitas (there's some question about that), there seems to be little disagreement that this is where the cooking method was perfected.

tres tacos
Himself got a trio of tacos: carnitas, al pastor and lingua. These were really good tacos but pretty much what you'd find in a taqueria in Mexico City. Of course, capital cities--and other large cities--tend to be repositories of the foods of the hinterlands around them, because people tend to carry their beloved foods and preparation techniques with them when they migrate to the big city. While al pastor is said to have been devised in the DF, "al pastor" indicates that it's made in the style of the shepherd, which means, in the country, not the city. So I don't think this issue is completely resolved for me yet.

 Lingua Taco
This is some of the best lingua I've ever had, with a good, beefy flavor and a great texture--I appreciate tongue that doesn't put up a fight. As you can imagine, even if you've never eaten tongue, the texture is going to be entirely different from that of any other cut of beef. This lingua had great body--it wasn't overcooked and chewy. I enjoyed the bites I took of it without any salsa or accompaniment.

We had a fine meal at this Mexican-place-with-two-names, and we'll certainly return there, but Himself and I didn't feel we'd really gotten the Michoacan experience. So I searched for some recipes to expand our knowledge and palette. Here's what I made:

Sopa Tarasca
Sopa Tarasca: Himself pronounced it bean chili. I guess that's essentially what it is--puréed pinto beans made into a soup with onion, garlic, ancho chile and tomato. It was certainly good enough to make again, but next time, instead of sautéing with canola or vegetable oil, I'll use some bacon drippings for extra flavor and richer mouth feel. I'm sure that's how they do it in Mexico, too, or at least they use manteca. (It's not too difficult to see that I'd make one extraordinarily cranky vegetarian.)

Puerco Estilo Apatzingan: ready for the oven
Puerco Estilo Apatzingan: This is a pork roast slathered with a paste made of guajillo chiles, tomatoes, garlic, orange juice and peppercorns, then covered in orange and onion slices and given a good braise. The recipe said to top it all with a good slosh of white wine and a fresh sprig of either oregano or marjoram. Being a smarty-pants with a great herb garden, I included one of each.

Puerco Estilo Apatzingan: out of the oven & ready for the plate

Puerco Estilo Apatzingan: on the plate
The puerco was muy delicioso, not surprising, because pork is such an amazingly versatile meat. The addition of oranges, peel and all, was really nice. The braise smoothed the bitterness of the oranges' pith, so it played nicely with the pork, onions and peppers. Still, I could taste a little of the bitterness, which was surprisingly pleasant against the sweet, salt and fat in the pork. We Westerners are still working to acquire a taste for bitter, something Asian cuisines have known how to work with for ages.

We still had a boatload o' pork left over after this meal, so I've varied its preparation for each meal since. I pulled some pieces off the roast and gave them a quick recharge in a skillet with some bacon drippings, which crisped them--carnitas style--and gave them a little smoky flavor. We steamed some tortillas and piled the re-porked pork into them and topped them with a little green salsa and crumbled cotija. I think you could probably take a hunk of well-prepared meat like this and enjoy the leftovers in as many different ways as there remains meat to eat, without ever duplicating a preparation method.

Salsa de Chile Pasilla de Michoacan: I roasted pasillas, tomatillos and garlic for the green salsa, then pulverized them with some raw white onion and a little sea salt.

Salsa de Chile Pasilla de Michoacan
The result is a good multi-purpose salsa to put in or on top of any number of dishes. It jazzed up the sopa tarasca and was good on some of the interior of the pork roast that didn't receive as much flavor from its braising as the exterior did. We've also enjoyed it over rice and cheese. I like the basic idea for this salsa, but I think I'll tinker with the proportions, add more garlic and tomatillos, perhaps leave out the pasilla seeds.

I cheated and used the food processor rather than a molcajete y tejolote, a mortar and pestle made of lava stone, a standard in Mexican kitchens. I do have a couple of mortars and pestles, and I don't mind the time and energy involved in using them, but somehow it seems to be cheating as much to use one of those as to use a food processor, when I should be finding myself a proper molcajete. But then to live so close to Mexico and buy a molcajete on this side of the border also seems like cheating. I should get one there. Or at least at a real mercado somewhere around town. I don't want to just order one online or pick one up at some chain kitchen supply store.

So have we experienced Michoacan cuisine yet? I'm not sure we have. This is one of those illusive cuisines that requires further research, and probably not just here locally. I feel a road trip coming on...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Week #14 Croatian

Croatian for Thanksgiving? I'm not much of a traditionalist, so I say, "Why not?" [Check last Thanksgiving's blog entry and you'll find that we enjoyed a Southern feast of pork ribs smoked in the backyard, with collard greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, ambrosia....the whole shebang....with some Australian friends who'd never had the food of our home territory.]

Once again Himself and I invited over some friends who, like us, are transplants to Los Angeles and don't have family here to celebrate with. Since I couldn't find any Croatian restaurants around town while planning my 52 Cuisines project, I knew this cuisine would be a good one to cook at home. Plus I have a couple of good Croatian cookbooks, one of which was written by a colleague who lived in Croatia for a year and learned everything she could about its food while she was there. She has the on-the-ground experience I crave and hope to gain someday. Croatia is pretty close to the top of the list that Himself and I keep of the places we'd like to visit.

This cuisine has some diverse influences. Because Croatia lies just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, the landscape, architecture and food are quite similar. But because it was a part of the Eastern Bloc for a few decades, things developed differently for there. The food may be Mediterranean, but quite a few of the cooking techniques and touches are Hungarian. Prowling through these Croatian cookbooks I see a lot of dishes I recognize from our recent Hungarian foray, including goulash, paprikas and strudel.

Pogacha topped with rosemary

It's not difficult to envision that leap across the Adriatic with this bread. Pogacha in Croatia is focaccia in Italy. Essentially it's a flat, leavened bread that you can split for making sandwiches, dip in olive oil or schmear with a spread. We did the latter.

The fish paté we had for an appetizer was really creamy, thanks to a combo of butter and cream cheese. You can use most any kind of fish for this--a white fish would be nice--but tuna is what I had on hand, so tuna is what I used. I also added a dash of colatura, which is sort of like liquefied anchovies, but that will just be our little secret, okay? To tame the fishiness I tossed some green olives, cornichons and sun-dried tomatoes into the processor with all the rest.

Tarana, Croatian pasta
This Croatian-style pasta is called tarana. Essentially, you make a really stiff pasta dough, grate it roughly on a box grater, spread it over a clean towel and set it out to dry for a few hours. Then you brown it in butter and cook it in some broth. Whereas the Italians love to roll and cut their pastas, the Eastern European tendency is to take the basic dough--or batter, in the case of spätzle--and employ some other means of achieving tiny noodles.

Here's the finished product. I cooked it in tomato broth with a little added tomato sauce to boost the flavor. You could make this with any broth you choose and toss in some onions while you're browning the pasta. Or you could treat it like rice and load it with meat and veggies and easily make a meal. The possibilities for this dish are limitless--and it makes it possible for you to turn out some fresh pasta even if you don't own a pasta machine.

Pasticada: No, not THAT kind of Dalmatian!

Pasticada, or Dalmatian pot roast, is a specialty of Dalmatia, the southernmost region of Croatia. It's a beef roast that's larded with smoked bacon and garlic and braised in wine with onions, carrots and celery, which is usual for boeuf bourguignon. But this includes figs and dates, which transports the dish much further east from Burgundy. It takes a little time and effort, but it's really good stuff--and it made enough for several meals to have the week after. Beef just gets better and better each time you heat it (unlike pork and chicken, but that's another blog). And while a large portion of Croatia hugs the coastline--its menu reflects a considerable amount of fish and seafood--pasticada is so beloved there that even the fishermen crave it.

The beef braised on this bed of veggies and dried fruits in a bath of well-seasoned wine. I didn't want to let a drop of that braising liquid go to waste. It's some of the richest and most flavorful I've ever made. We decided that pasticada is a dish for "the rotation," what Himself and I call our collection of favorites dishes that get made frequently at our house.

I made the accompaniments the day before, so they could benefit from an overnight stay in the fridge. Then I set them on the counter about two hours before we ate to knock off the chill. This combo of techniques helped bring some nicely developed flavor to both dishes. The Brussels sprouts bathed in a dressing that included red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, honey and garlic. The bean and bacon salad joined two staple foods of Croatia with a few basic ingredients--garlic, onion, red bell pepper, green onions, lemon juice and olive oil--to create a dish in which whole was greater than the sum of its parts. I could have made a meal on this item alone. I suspect that it's going into the rotation as well. However, Himself still considers Brussels sprouts a waste of space on a plate or in a tummy, so that recipe may have to languish in the book and wait for another special occasion to shine.
For dessert we had kiflice od badema, or almond crescents. These little butter and almond meal cookies are popular throughout Eastern Europe (kiflice in Croatia becomes kifli in Hungary and kipferl in Austria). To go with them I made cherry ice cream with dried, tart cherries and using Marasca, the maraschino cherry liqueur that is imported from Croatia in tall, straw-covered bottles that remind me of the Chianti bottles I used to love making into cheap candle holders (and that's ma-ra-SKEE-no, which is a wonderful cherry, not to be confused with those weird red things you find at the grocery and in the bottom of any of a number of sweet cocktails).

It's instructive to cook some of these cuisines at home, because researching the dishes, finding the ingredients--if there are any unusual ones--and doing the work myself brings a different understanding to the meal. Still, it's valuable to eat in restaurants owned and run by those who grew up with those cuisines and who have brought their food traditions with them. Both ways of exploring a cuisine have value, just in entirely different ways.

And sharing the meal is a great way to enjoy the experience, too. We were grateful that our friends were game for a non-traditional Thanksgiving with us. Anna and Kevin were troopers. So were Chris, Robin and their son Ethan. All came and gave themselves over to the experience. I don't think anyone was scarred for life by the lack of the standard Thanksgiving fare.

Well, maybe six-year-old Ethan wasn't quite up for the challenge, but to his credit, he gave it the ol' college try. He spotted our Mousetrap game as soon as he walked in the door and stashed the knowledge of its presence away for after dinner use. By dessert, while he was picking those frozen cherries out of his ice cream, he'd begun to formulate a plan. Pretty soon we were all gathered around the coffee table, playing Mousetrap and making it a Thanksgiving to remember.

Some people are better at Mousetrap than others. Way to rub it in, Ethan & Robin!
So, a Thanksgiving of Croatian food and Mousetrap rather than turkey and football? Sounds like a winner to me. Hmmm, what to have NEXT Thanksgiving...?