I’m seeing a backlash these days against the bacon-in-the-chocolate trend, but I think maybe it’s more of a backlash against food fads in general. Most fads are annoying and entirely disposable. They barely make a blip on the radar screen of Time. But trends that are worth their salt stand the test of time and transcend their trend status. That’s how classics are born.
Will bacon-in-the-chocolate stick around to become a classic? Who knows? Quiche is so 70s, pasta salad so 80s, stacked anything so 90s and bacon-in-the-chocolate so aught-years. But we still eat quiche and pasta salad. They're not such relics that we'll never eat them again, not that I'd call either of them classics.
But consider that anyone who has ever eaten pork in mole sauce in a Oaxacan restaurant has already discovered that pork and chocolate are natural friends. Like chicken—but with more flavor and better texture—pork truly shines in sweet applications, which is why you find it nestled under a layer of pineapple slices in Hawaii, topped with sweet and sour sauce in China and slathered with sweet or perhaps sweet-salty-hot-sour sauces most everywhere else.
But don’t eat bacon and chocolate together because it's The In Thing. Eat it because you like it. And if you don’t like it, find something you do like, and eat that instead. Maybe you'll start a trend.
I'll continue eating bacon with chocolate and pork with mole. And I'll carry on with my experiments to see what other concoctions I can devise to delight my taste buds. If the trends catch up with me, so be it.
Bacon Walnut Maple Fudge
This is not fudge in its strictest sense, but a liberation from the candy thermometer, one that yields tiny cubes of heaven in just a few easy steps.
First, a word about bacon: A good smoked bacon is what you want to use. Applewood smoked works well and is often the only smoky bacon you can find outside the South. (Watch out for "smoke-flavored bacon." That stuff is nasty.) Most regular grocery store bacon is unworthy of the poor hogs who gave their lives for its production. Use the best tasting bacon you can find for the best tasting fudge you can produce. If you don't live in the South, consider investing in a membership in one of the bacon of the month clubs.
16 oz. semi-sweet chocolate (or bittersweet or some combination of different chocolates—whatever makes you happy)
14 oz. sweetened, condensed milk (do not use fat-free—the consistency will be off)
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. maple extract or maple flavoring (maple syrup won’t work)
1 c. walnuts, lightly toasted & coarsely chopped
6 slices of smoked bacon, cut into ¼-inch lardons, cooked well, drained & cooled
coarse sea salt, to taste
Lightly coat an 8- or 9-inch square pan or baking dish with non-stick spray and line with baking parchment or waxed paper.
Heat milk and chocolate in bain marie (or double boiler) over medium heat and stir to blend. Add extracts and stir to completely incorporate. Then stir in nuts and bacon.
Pour mixture into prepared pan and smooth to even thickness with a spatula. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt.
Let cool for a few minutes and then refrigerate, uncovered, until fudge is set, about 2 hours. Cut into desired size pieces. Store any remaining fudge uncovered, as sealing it causes moisture to melt the salt.
Enjoy a piece with a big ol' glass of milk. Or if you're just too sophisticated for that, ruby port will do nicely.
Some years Thanksgiving involves a big ol' celebration with loads of people, but this has been such a busy autumn for us, with too much out-of-towning, that Himself and I decided on a quiet meal at home alone this time. Since I'm not a traditionalist when it comes to Thanksgiving, I refuse to succumb to the pressure most everyone else feels to have turkey. Himself is just fine with this stance, so instead we celebrated with one of our favorite dishes, duck confit and fingerling potatoes roasted in duck fat. That not only satisfied the desire for something rich and tasty for Thanksgiving, but it also provided the month's self-assigned blog entry on a type of game or exotic meat.
Duck confit and duck fat--where miracles begin!
Rather than roast a whole duck, we opted to break into a cache of duck legs cooked and stored in their own fat, the traditional Gascon way of preserving meat. As with last month's pheasant, we didn't have to contend with buckshot, because we did our hunting in a local French import warehouse that opens its doors to the civilian population a few times a year, usually the weekend before a holiday or special occasion. There we loaded up on confit, cheeses, olives, olive oil and a few other treats. It's great getting to pick up a package of six duck legs for what we'd typically pay to order a modest portion in a restaurant. While the package of confit contained a good deal of fat, we grabbed a jar of duck fat, too, which should keep us in rich, tasty meals long after we've polished off the last of the duck legs.
Three duck legs on a bed of roasted potatoes: one for Himself, one for me & one to fight over!
Since the duck is cooked during the confit process, it was essentially ready to eat right out of the package--but so much better when we applied some serious heat to it in a ripping hot pan with the melted fat. This not only warmed the meat but gave it a nice, crispy skin to crunch into.
With all that fat and dark meat, we decided on a pair of accompanying dishes that would be healthy companions to the oh-my-gawd richness of the duck and potatoes. So we double-cooked some kale, first boiling it first and then giving it a light sauté with red onion and garlic, and sassing it up with red wine vinegar and some red pepper flakes.
And we tossed slices of oranges and roasted beets with slivers of onion and shallot, olive oil and red wine vinegar to make an amazing salad that just kept getting better and better--and more and more neon!--every time we pulled the leftovers out of the fridge. It was practically dessert, and that was a good thing, because we didn't actually plan a dessert for this meal.
I wish I could regale you with stories of a grand Thanksgiving dessert to cap the meal, but we were so full that we just didn't want one. Pumpkin pie? Frankly, it's never been a favorite around here. Pecan pie? Love it, but it just wasn't in the cards this time. So we went for a few drops each of The Good Stuff, which is both a lovely treat and a fine digestif: extra vecchio balsamico from our last trip to Italy. It's truly amazing how satisfying that can be, how the tang cleanses the mouth and the earthy sweetness satisfies the urge for a dessert finish to the meal.
So I'm thankful:
♦ for the bounty of the farmers' market that provided the seasonal beets, kale and potatoes.
♦ that we didn't feel we had to tie ourselves to tradition and cook someone else's version of the perfect Thanksgiving feast. The tradition we DID embrace this time was the Gascon tradition of preserving duck so that it can be quickly and easily prepared and enjoyed--and I'm thankful for that, too.
♦ for the luxury of the balsamico, which was a treat indeed; and
♦ for Himself, who understands and appreciates my enthusiasm for bucking traditions and doing things differently. This has enabled us to enjoy past Thanksgivings shared with friends as we celebrated the holiday with menus as varied as last year's Croatian feast and the previous year's spread of comfort foods from our home turf of Tennessee.
Later in the evening, too close to bedtime to eat another meal but far away from breakfast not to eat a little something, we settled on a simple dessert to cap off the day, vanilla ice cream with a drizzling of the balsamico. Then with nothing more on our minds at bedtime than mulling over the possibilities for how we wanted to prepare those remaining three duck legs, we purred ourselves to sleep. A nice cassoulet perhaps?...
It's time to treat your sweet tooth while doing a good deed for the hungry of the Los Angeles area. Eat My Blog is holding its third bakesale, where more than 50 baking food bloggers will be ready to tempt you with more than 2,000 baked goodies.
These aren't your run-of-the mill bakesale offerings, but the creations of people who are serious about their sweets. Goodies this time will include smoked salt toffee, chocolate whoopie pies, coconut cranberry chews, bacon brownies with bourbon caramel sauce, curry macarons, bacon caramel popcorn and marshmallows in at least three flavors, candy cane, bubblegum and eggnog (I'm making those last two myself). So what if you're on a diet? These treats will make spectacular holiday gifts!
This time we'll even have homemade catnip cookies and doggie biscuits for the four-legged friends in your life. All items will be priced between $1 to $4. Visit us in front of Tender Greens at 8759 Melrose Boulevard in West Hollywood, Saturday, December 4 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Bring a friend. In fact, bring as many friends as you can fit in your car.
Our previous two bakesales raised more than $8,000 for the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. Mark your calendar, bring your wallet and let's do it all again!
The California Institute of Technology, a.k.a. Caltech, has a lovely canopy of mature olive trees shading a central corridor of its tony, ivied campus. But only in the last few years have they made an effort to collect the olives that create a monounsaturated mess every autumn. Nowadays the school, which is better known for its affiliation with NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratories than for olive production, holds an annual harvest that is open both to students and staff and to the outside as well. Since I'd never picked olives before, I figured it was high time I gave it a try.
These are mission olives, which Franciscan monks from Spain planted at the missions they established up and down the Pacific coastline in the late 1700s.
The first thing I learned is that, despite their diminutive size, olives hurt like the dickens when they pop off the tree and hit you on the head, cheekbone or some other prominent part of your body!
Teams of volunteers tackled each tree, with one person climbing the ladder to comb the olives off the branches with what essentially looked like a leaf rake, while the others remained below to collect the fallen fruit. Check out these amazing ladders, with a single support post and rungs that taper from an extra wide stance to quite narrow at the top. (By the way, note the cannon in the background--it appears to be aimed squarely in the direction of Pasadena Community College, just a couple of blocks away. Coincidence...?)
Most of the olives raked from the trees landed on the burlap tarps, but quite a few bounced off our heads and either landed in the grass or skipped across the pavement. A number of volunteers brought their small children with them, little sprouts who chased the errant olives and flung them happily into the tarps and waiting buckets. It was a real Tom Sawyer kind of day--we had so much fun we kind of forgot we were working. Of course, I'm sure we'd view it quite differently if this was our job in and day out.
At noon we recessed to enjoy a lavish buffet of olive-based Mediterranean fare, including moussaka, hummus, tabbouleh, tapenade, gyros and kalamata bread. There were also large pans of assorted olives (I was wishing I'd brought a zipper bag with me!), an array of olive oils to sample and escargot cooked up on the spot and served to us on rounds of baguette. I should have photographed the layers as I piled them onto my plate. I wanted a taste of everything, and I got it! For the most part it was incredibly healthy stuff, and it was all quite good.
Lunchtime brought a little messy recreation as students with hands coated in olive oil engaged in a tug-o-war in the center of the sun-dappled grove. A woman bearing a large tin of olive oil gave each student's hands a liberal glug-glug-glug before the tugging commenced. The winning team (pictured) chanted "meat truck! meat truck! meat truck!" in between battles. Nothing against my vegetable-loving brethren, but I'm not surprised by who won. My guess is the victors got to pick which food truck was going to be visiting campus. The carnivores carried the day.
The event featured an olive-pressing demonstration, a job that seems pretty low-tech, considering that it was taking place on a campus where students train to work in space exploration, among other extraordinary engineering pursuits. This is a more modern version of the ancient screw press, not as quaint as the giant stone wheels you still find doing the job throughout the Mediterranean. It takes about 11 pounds of olives to yield a liter of oil, so rather than pressing all the olives this way, our harvest will be shipped to Santa Barbara for oil production. As for learning the technique of brining olives, our brining expert was sick that day, so this lesson will have to wait for next year's harvest.
Two down--a gazillion to go!
It was instructive learning through hands-on experience what autumn brings for those who live amongst the olive groves that cover the Mediterranean. Olive harvesting combines long hours of what is essentially tedious labor with a great social opportunity. When you pitch in with a group to do this job, you find that you have a lot of time to talk as you work. And you come to understand how a collective effort like this can be so central to the life of a community.
Caltech's students may be preparing themselves for the most high-tech jobs on this planet and possibly a few others, but I appreciate their cheerful embrace of one of the oldest and humblest chores on Earth.
It's funny how a feature of one cuisine can jump out at you and remind you of a cuisine on the far side of the world from that one. This happened when Himself and I noshed at Lotería, a Mexican restaurant in Hollywood this past weekend. To drink, he ordered a michelada de mango, a combination of beer with fruit juices. One sip and I was ordering my own.
This one was a mixture of Cerveza Sol with mango and lime juices. While the combo of beer and fruit juices was appealing, what really won me over was the rim, which was coated with a mixture of salt and crushed chili peppers. It reminded me of Thailand's prik kab kleua, a dry mix of salt, sugar and crushed hot chilis that you dip slices of fresh fruit into. Most every meal I've had in Thailand has ended with a platter of fresh fruit and a bowl of this sweet-salty-spicy mixture.
fresh watermelon, pineapple and papaya with a dish of prik kab kleua
prik kab kleua with star fruit
As you can see, the first mixture is much lighter than the one just above. No two batches will be exactly the same--it's all up to the individual taste of the person preparing it. And if the fruit isn't quite in season, a little extra sugar helps balance out the blend.
While the coating on the rim of the glass of michelada didn't contain sugar, the aim was essentially the same--to mix the sweetness of fruit with saltiness and spicy heat. It's refreshing, hydrating and cooling on a hot day. Even if it's not especially hot, it's still a winning combination.
The recent couscous festival was a bang, with an abundance of wonderful North African food and music and a great positive vibe. But I've heard several people--people who weren't there--comment, "I like couscous, but why would you devote an entire festival to it?"
It's like this: What rice is to Asians and what corn is to Native Americans, couscous is to North Africans. It is such an integral part of the culture that it transcends being a mere ingredient in a dish. It's elemental--in fact, I've found that the words in several North African dialects for "couscous" are interchangeable with the word "food." It's THE food of the Maghreb, that is, a good portion of the Sahara and what's above it.
chicken and beef cheeks braised in tagines and served with couscous
We're not talking about that five-minute instant stuff you mix with boiling water. Authentically prepared couscous is steamed for three hours, over either broth or water; every 30 minutes it is fluffed and massaged with a bit of oil, and put back in to steam until 30 minutes later, when the process begins all over again. The result is couscous that is perfectly hydrated--light and fluffy, not soggy and leaden. And amazingly flavorful.
Couscous is good in either savory or sweet dishes, so you might have a bed of couscous soaked with the juices of braised lamb and a generous serving of lamb perched on top for dinner, followed by more couscous mixed with honey, spices, fresh fruit, rosewater--you name it--for dessert. It has great versatility.
Yeah, I know this photo is out of focus, but it expresses so well the character of authentic couscous, which looks like it could just fly right off your plate--it DOES, actually!
I assumed that couscous was a pasta, but it turns out that it's not. Rather, it's a grain, semolina wheat, that has been rolled by hand in what is quite a labor-intensive process. Couscous first showed up in 13th century Spanish and Syrian writings and is thought to have originated with the Berbers, North Africa's indigenous people. It didn't take long to spread from there, to become a staple of cuisines throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. Couscous is high-gluten and low-moisture, so it keeps well in harsh environments, perfect for the desert.
Tagines are earthenware vessels used for cooking meat until it is succulent and juicy, perfect for topping a plate of couscous. Vegetables cook up nicely in them, too.
Couscous made a good point of departure for sampling more North African cuisine and exploring different styles of cooking. The rabbit with currants and pine nuts was cooked in tagines, while the lamb was smoked whole in a giant smoker. Traditionally it would have been spit roasted, but the sheer volume required for the festival necessitated stationing a large smoker in the parking lot. The point was to present slow cooked lamb, so I'd say mission accomplished!
Rabbit and lamb on corn tortillas (a concession to the Southwest!) with a generous dollop of harissa, a condiment made of pounded chili peppers.
Assembling a briq (by the way, while the expression goes, "Never trust a skinny chef," I frankly don't think I'd trust one without some serious tatts!)
Also on the menu was the briq, a thin crepe-like pastry of durum wheat filled with bites of food (shrimp in this case), a dollop of harissa and a raw egg...
...and folded into a tidy package before cooking. It is placed in the shallow side of a pan tilted over a fire with hot grease. You spoon the grease over the briq as it cooks so that it cooks quickly but without becoming soggy.
Confession time: Between you and me, I adore couscous made the proper way, but I can't devote three hours of cooking every time I want some. So I'll have to get by on the quick stuff, until I can make it out to a Moroccan restaurant--or back to next year's couscous festival. I'll be there, and I'll be sure to be hungry when I get there.
Hey-ho, told you we're not finished with these cuisines! The world is a huuuuuge place and its foods and flavors, practically unlimited.
This month we set our sights on the cuisine of the Basque country, the region of southwestern France and northwestern Spain that loves bullfighting, gourmet club and Basque autonomy. The least volatile of these three things to talk about is gourmet club, so we're in safe waters here. The Basque not only love to eat and drink, but they enjoy doing all the planning, gathering, cooking and cleaning together as well.
For our anniversary earlier this month, Himself and I decided to stay in and cook a feast, sort of our own private Basque gourmet club. I've been toying with the idea of visiting Harmony Farms in La Crescenta once a month to pick up some sort of wild game or exotic meat that I can't find in the local market, something I don't often cook--perhaps some meats I've yet to try cooking. This looked like a good time to begin that enterprise while indulging in the next cuisine. So we toddled on up to Harmony Farms to peruse our options. In addition to hormone-, pesticide- and radiation-free meats and soy products, they carry a dizzying array of meats that you don't find just anywhere. It's a great place to rummage and plot and scheme over your next special dinner menu.
We've fixed pheasant a few times before, always with the extra ingredient of buckshot. It's so nice not to have that component this time. Dinner should never be capable of setting off a metal detector!
The mélange of flavors in the Basque pheasant recipe I found in a book called Dressing and Cooking Wild Game blends the zing of green olives and capers with the rich sweetness of prunes and brown sugar. Sounds odd, but this combination works. I cut up the pheasant and gave it an all-day soak in a marinade of white wine, white wine vinegar, olive oil, brown sugar, prunes, green olives, capers, garlic, bay leaf and basil. This combination of flavors reminds me of what is known as "Old California" cuisine with its Spanish influences, in which a single dish might include olives, onion, raisins and oregano, giving the dish a happy intensity of aromatics, umami, saltiness, sourness and sweetness. Essentially, all parts of the tongue get something to excite them.
While pheasant is more or less the same size and shape as a chicken, cutting and eating it is more of a challenge, because pheasant is much leaner and more muscular. Its flesh clings more tenaciously to the bone, even after it has been cooked sufficiently. It was quite tasty, and our sofa lions all paraded in, trilling, leg-rubbing and kneecap smooching, eager to convince us they hadn't eaten in many days. There was plenty of pheasant for everyone, and the pusses didn't seem to mind the bits of caper and herbs clinging to their allotment.
The cuisine of the Basque territory contains a lot of potato dishes and features a dish called pipérade, a blend of cooked sweet peppers and tomatoes (by the way, the three primary ingredients in this dish show just how ingrained the foods of the Americas are in this region). The potatoes are baked in a pipérade of red and yellow bell peppers, shallots and lots of fresh herbs, which season the creamy fingerlings and give them a glorious aroma as well. It's a good idea to make this dish in a generous quantity so you can enjoy it for several days. Himself suggested using the leftover potatoes the next morning in a frittata. That would have been a grand idea if we hadn't gobbled them all up with total abandon. Next time we'll make more than we can eat in a single sitting.
We topped our salad of baby spinach greens with a creamy and intensely garlicky dressing and some chopped hard-cooked egg. I want to try some of the leftover dressing over cooked spinach sometime. It should be quite good. You can fine tune the amount of garlic you use--this recipe calls for both fresh garlic and garlic powder. But the Basque way is to use a heavy hand when adding garlic to the mix. I have no problem with that!
A favorite meal finisher is some fresh fruit with a local cheese, such as idiazabal. If I hadn't been too lazy to go to the cheese store, that's what we'd have had (and then there's the fact that to save my life I can't leave a fromagerie with only one cheese). While the Basques aren't huge on dessert, they do have a fondness for custard and custard-filled tarts. So for dessert we made Basque crème, a.k.a. natillas. It is essentially a cooked crème anglaise, made with generous use of cinnamon. The resulting crème is quite thick, and the instructions say to thin it out at service by stirring in more heavy crème. Considering how much heavy crème, along with eggs and sugar, is already in there, I choked. I just couldn't do it. Probably a good thing. Himself and I have enjoyed a spoonful each after meals the past couple of days. It's so rich that that's all we really want or need. Natillas is certainly made to savor, it's so rich and flavorful.
The nice thing about all these dishes is that they can be enjoyed as part of a regular meal. It's not like you have to announce that you're having a specially-planned Basque dinner to enjoy them.
Following is the recipe for Basque pheasant. If you can't lay your hands on a pheasant, chicken works just fine, too. You'll still get the distinctive blend of flavors that speak of this region:
Cut up one bird, arrange it in a single layer in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, and pour over it the following marinade: In a medium-sized bowl stir together 3 Tbsp. brown sugar, 3 oz. white wine, 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup white wine vinegar. Then stir in 2 minced cloves of garlic, 1 bay leaf, 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, 2 Tbsp. dried basil leaves, 1/2 cup pitted medium prunes and 1/2 cup pitted medium green olives. Pour this mixture over pheasant pieces and cover the dish with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight--or all day--turning the pieces a couple of times.
Preheat oven to 350°F, remove plastic wrap and bake bird uncovered until it is tender, turning once. Baking should take about one hour, depending on the size of the bird. Remove bird, olives and prunes to a serving dish and, if desired, spoon pan juices over it before serving.
Himself, a.k.a. Hungry Passport's husband, a.k.a. Andrew Penn Romine is taking on a new challenge in his blog. Each Friday he plans to write about a different cocktail--not your run-o-the-mill stuff (and no, rum & Coke is NOT a cocktail. Neither is 7 & 7. Neither is anything made with jug mix--all of which are liquid versions of fast food). It's about hearkening back to the classics, the first entry being the cognac sazerac. I'll let him fill you in on the details. So please visit Ink Gorilla to find out what you should be mixing and drinking each weekend.
And if you're encouraged to start some serious cocktail mixing beyond each Friday's offering, I suggest you pick up a copy of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, by Ted Haigh, a.k.a. Dr. Cocktail. It's history in a glass, tasty tasty history.
Yesterday I pulled a container of bigos out of the freezer and moved it into the fridge so I could have it for lunch today. Now it's lunchtime, and I'm in heaven.
In case you don't recall, while reporting on Polish cuisine during week #49 of my "52 Cuisines in 52 Weeks" adventure, I made a big pot of bigos filled with beef, Polish sausage, sauerkraut and mushrooms. It's addictive stuff, and I love it cold. I just put it into a pretty bowl today so it would photograph better than in the deli cup I froze it in--and out of which I was eating it while standing in the open refrigerator door when it occurred to me I should tap out a blog entry about it. If it weren't in the 90s today, I'd heat it and have it with some mashed potatoes. But it's good to know that Poland's classic "hunter stew" is not only edible straight out of the fridge, but PRIMO served cold.
And here's something I already knew but that was reinforced for me today: When you make a big batch of something with the intent of freezing part of it, and it's something you know tastes better a few days after it's made, then wait a few days after you make it before you freeze it. This way it will be at the peak of flavor when you're ready to eat it, whenever that might be.
I neglected to include a recipe in the Polish cuisine blog entry, so I'll do it now. I apologize for the oversight. While there are many ways to make bigos--and as a hunter's stew it accommodates most any sort of meat you want to chuck into it--what follows is a good basic way to make it.
Soak 4 ounces of dried mushrooms in warm water for between 30 minutes and an hour, until they're completely hydrated. Squeeze water out of mushrooms and set them aside (strain any remaining grit from this mushroom broth and keep the broth to make soup another time).
While the mushrooms are hydrating, dice one large onion and set aside. Cut a pound of meat(s) of your choice into bite-sized pieces, along with two Polish sausages and 6 ounces of bacon.
Melt a tablespoon of lard (I used bacon drippings, but you can use canola or vegetable oil if you must) in a large, thick pot and brown the meat, sausage and bacon. Then add in the diced onion and cook until transparent. Add the mushrooms and a pound of strained sauerkraut to the pot and enough beef broth to cover it all. Sprinkle in some caraway seeds and a tiny bit of sugar. And a splash of red wine. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let simmer for about 30 minutes.
Taste to see if it might need a bit more salt (the kraut and sausages may give you as much as you want) and season with salt and black pepper as desired.
The healthiest plant in my garden these days--and for quite some time now--is what is known as a curry plant. This frosty-green perennial is available for purchase at the gardening center alongside herbs like oregano, thyme, parsley, tarragon and sage. While, I've never known what to do with it, I've been happy to let it coexist with all the other herbs that regularly make their way into whatever I happen to be cooking.
While the aroma of the curry plant is vaguely similar to that of a generic curry of some sort, no curry seasoning blends actually contain this plant. Recipes for curry are innumerable, with each cook possessing the secrets to family favorites. Different spice blends lend themselves to particular dishes, whether based on chicken, fish, vegetables or tofu, and to different seasons as well. Some curry blends make you sweat and cool you off in summer, while others help keep you warm in winter. Most curries include some combination of cinnamon, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, fennel seed, cardamom, fenugreek, turmeric, saffron, tamarind and quite a number of other spices and flavorings. But no curry plant.
Yesterday I finally became curious enough to do a little research and find out what this plant really is and how to use it. I discovered that we have an imposter in our midst. It turns out that this plant has neither culinary nor medicinal qualities. Except for its use in potpourris and wreaths, it does nothing to merit the space it takes up in the garden. I realized that I've been had by a plant! How sad is that? I fumed about this at dinner.
"I'm going to rip that plant out of the ground and throw it into the dumpster tomorrow," I told Himself. "I feel like going out there with a flashlight and pulling it up right NOW!"
"Feeling just a bit vengeful, are we?" he chuckled.
So I picked a frond of the pretender and nibbled a bit of it. Not much flavor, really, just enough chlorophyll to let me know I was chewing on a plant. Then I slept on it (on my decision, not on the plant. Sheesh, you readers!). In spite of its dishonest ways, it is greenery, and it does smell nice. It's pretty, too and one of the few things thriving in my deserty backyard.
I've perused the writings of my fellow attendees of the Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier during the past few days. Their reflections are comprehensive, coherent and helpful, while I still don't know what to say. I'm not inclined to merely parrot their observations or roll out a series of photos of everything we ate, since the focus was on food writing and publishing, not simply on food. In fact, I was leery of paying too much attention to the food itself for fear I'd miss out on the meat (so to speak) of the Symposium.
Instead of blathering on about it, I'll let three photos speak for me:
The attention to detail was striking, all the way down to the chocolates on our tables in our meeting room. Notice how each one is arranged just so, with the wrappers placed facing outward? No detail was too small to escape their attention. On my bed were four pillows: a soft one for stomach sleepers, a medium one for back sleepers, a firm one for side sleepers and a feather pillow for me! I built a fort out of them, burrowed in each night and slept the sleep of the happily overwhelmed.
Speaking of happily overwhelmed, breakfast on the final morning featured this knock-your-socks-off presentation of pork, a chunky and succulent homemade sausage wrapped in a perfect latticework of bacon. The ungenerous, antisocial part of me wanted to snatch it away and sit in the corner alone and eat it all.
I didn't do that, you'll be happy to know. The company was too good and the conversation too rich, to do such a thing. I have more friends and professional associates than I had before I went, people whose talent, work and opinions I value. People I can turn to for advice, and for whom I'll gladly provide the same. We writers do not exist in a bubble. We need each other's insights, generously given. At the Symposium, I hit the mother lode.
I love this painting of a drooling pig, hung just outside the entrance to the main dining room at the Greenbrier. It pretty much sums up the way I feel about my experience there, both personally and professionally--happy, but hungry for more.
Okay, guys and gals. I have a problem with self promotion, but this competition requires a little of that, as well as a finely-turned phrase. I promise not to use the three little words with you very often, but I'm going to do it now. And those three little words are:
According to the Symposium's website, the Apicius Scholarship is "awarded to a professional food writer whose prose rings with a clear voice and reflects the delicious joys of the table. In the spirit of Apicius, the first Roman to write cookbooks, the goal is to grant this award to that writer whose work will stand the test of time."
This profoundly gratifies and humbles me. I won for writing "Not Your Granny's Aspic," which appeared in the spring 2010 issue of Edible Memphis. As is often the case with my assignments, I had so much fun doing the work that I forgot it was supposed to be work! So this is icing on a really yummy cake.
The timing of the award is propitious, since I've just completed my "52 Cuisines in 52 Weeks" blogging project and begun work on a book proposal based on it. The Symposium is the perfect place to carry my ideas.
I just wanted to share this news with you. Tomorrow I head to West Virginia to the Greenbrier, a stunning estate set in the Allegeny Mountains. I look forward to hobnobbing with other professional food writers and with publishers, editors and agents. Who knows what will happen? I feel like this is the next step up the ladder of my career as a food writer.
...at least sometimes I do. And it's for your own good.
There are lots of ingredients out there that you'd never want to eat on their own, or with them simply perched on top of your food. These things get mixed in--ingredients like baking soda, raw eggs (usually), dried chili peppers and worchestershire sauce.
You wouldn't eat beef or chicken bouillon cubes on their own (unless you're a freak!). So why would anyone set a whole anchovy on top of a pizza and eat it just like that? It needs to be chopped finely and mixed into the sauce or distributed judiciously, with other ingredients layered to accompany it. I've met few people who like anchovies, but I think it's because they don't know to do with them. Anchovies are ingredients and thus to be used, not foods to be consumed whole, unless you're one of those rare people with a sodium deficiency.
I made pissaladière for dinner last night, the primary ingredients being caramelized onions, anchovies and kalamata olives on a flaky pastry, sort of a southern French version of pizza. (As you can see, I cheated and grated a bit of a basque cheese over it.) But the anchovies are minced and dotted throughout--they're an ingredient, not a topping. So rather than getting a mouth full of fishy saltiness (or salty fishiness), the anchovies become a subtle part of the flavor profile, one that helps make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It's all about balance.
The same goes for adding salt to something sweet. Ever wonder why recipes for cakes, pies and cookies call for a touch of salt? It helps balance flavors. Try baking two batches of cookies, one with amount of salt called for in the recipe and one omitting it. Do a taste test. You'll notice the difference, and the more well-rounded flavor will be in the batch containing a smidge of salt. You won't actually taste the salt. You'll just be aware that the flavor is better.
So if you come to my house and I feed you the best spaghetti sauce of your life, it will be because there are ingredients in it that you never thought to put in there yourself. They're probably ingredients you don't even think you like. You'll be surprised by how much you do like them--when they're used properly.
If you happen to be counting, you'll know that I posted the 52nd cuisine of 52 yesterday. This pile of receipts, menus and business cards represents a boatload of research, eating, cooking, thinking and writing--and filing. It was a lot of work, but it was also a tremendous amount of fun. And I learned an awful lot about how people on this planet view food, prepare it and share it. In short, they do it with love.
So what now?
The Hungry Passport blog had a life before this particular project, and it will continue to have one afterward. But I'm not through with my exploration of the world's cuisines, either. I've only just started. Since there are certainly more than 52 out there, I'll keep exploring, but rather than one each week, I'll focus on one each month now while continuing to blog about other food and travel related subjects.
And after a year of delicious and intriguing research, I'm beginning to draw together my ideas for a book based on this tasty escapade. It's too early to say much now, but stay tuned for updates on the book and on the cuisines.
One thing I CAN tell you is that Himself and I have talked about this project a good deal during the past few days. We agree that those meals we recall with the most fondness--and felt were the best meals--were those we had with friends. Not surprisingly, shared experiences make for the most memorable times.
I hope reading these entries has encouraged you to seek out meals you've never had before and to find out how people cook and eat in other countries. And to try your hand at cooking some of their dishes yourself.
Have a great Labor Day weekend, and go eat something you've never had before, okay?!
As Himself and I drag our weary bones across the finish line with cuisine #52, we know we made a good choice to conclude with. Vietnamese is the perfect way to finish, since the soothing broth in a bowl of pho and the fresh veggies in a cool spring roll are both just what our addled tums need to put us to rights.
We didn't make it to Little Saigon in Orange County, but Los Angeles has enough variety scattered throughout that we knew we could feast authentically without having to head for a specific enclave. So we went with our good friends Jeff and Judi to Lemongrass Vietnamese in Eagle Rock, that little jutting of northern Los Angeles that separates the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.
This chemistry lab looking contraption is the set-up for making Ca Phe Sua Da, Vietnamese iced coffee. A vessel containing super strong coffee and hot water sits atop a glass with sweetened, condensed milk. When the coffee has dripped through onto the milk, the result looks rather like a black-n-tan. Then you stir well to dissolve the milk and blend it with the coffee, and then pour the mixture over a glass of ice. This stuff's rich, strong and highly addictive. In fact, we lost count of how many we'd had, at least until the bill showed up.
Here it is, all mixed up and ready to drink, alongside some Vietnamese lemonade, made with lime juice and lemongrass.
We started with an assortment of fresh spring rolls with a ginger dipping sauce. I've grown to love these fresh rolls so much that the fried ones seem too heavy now (not that I'd turn one down). Rice vermicelli, bean sprouts, lettuce, fresh mint leaves and cooked and chilled chicken, shrimp and pork rolled into cool rice wraps are refreshing and healthy. You can eat these all day long without worrying that you've damaged your diet. (After a full year of feasting on the cuisines of the world, it's apparent that we're not too worried about that, though.)
Himself went for the pho, because he's hard pressed to have anything else when he goes out for Vietnamese. (And just in case you didn't know, pho is pronounced fuh, with a short u, as in "What the fu...?!") He opted for fried tofu this time, but thin bite-sized pieces of raw beef make a bigger splash, so to speak, because the broth is so hot that when you drop in the beef, it cooks automatically, right in front of you. The beef broth (he couldn't do completely without the animal!) was delicately seasoned--that is, until Himself dumped in a spoonful of those rippin' hot chilis. Pho is one of the most nourishing soups around, and when you load it up with chilis like this, it's a great way to open up your head when you have a cold or a bout of sinus miseries--or to simply cool yourself down on a hot summer's day.
Accompanying a bowl of pho is a plate of fresh stuff: bean sprouts, Thai basil leaves, slices of fresh jalapeno pepper and wedges of lime for seasoning your soup to suit your personal taste. Call it the fine tuning nob on your meal.
Judi's com tom of charbroiled shrimp over steamed rice was served with a sweet dipping sauce, which played well with the smokiness of the seafood. The salad with ribbons of carrot and daikon radish gave it a fresh kick.
Jeff's bowl of vermicelli noodles topped with barbecued chicken included a couple of fried egg rolls (because some people just can't get enough rolled food, right Jeff?) and the same sweet dipping sauce. This reminded me a bit of having a bowl of soup without the broth. All the components were there.
I opted for banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich. If that looks like French bread to you, that's because it is. Back when Vietnam was known as French Indochina, a good deal of culinary exchange took place. The French may be gone now, but the baguette remains. This one is loaded with charbroiled beef. Strings of carrot and daikon radish and sprigs of cilantro round out the flavors and lend a fresh crispiness to the crunchy bread and smoky beef. It came with a soy sauce-based dipping sauce, but that wasn't really necessary. The flavors and textures were rewarding without sogging up the bread.
Of course we saved room for dessert--this is the last scene of the last act! Chuoi chien, or banana dumplings, are bananas rolled in won tons wraps, deep fried and served in a creamy coconut sauce. This gives you an array of textures as well as flavors. I wouldn't mind having chuoi chien for breakfast sometime.
Reminiscent of those slushy, gelatinous desserts I had in Thailand, Che Ba Mau, or Three Color Dessert, is a glass of red beans, pandan gelatin and coconut milk with a scoop of ice on top. You stir it up and eat it sort of like a chunky slushy, an assortment of colors, flavors and textures bombarding your senses with every bite.
It's time for a nap and some reflection now. After 52 different cuisines in the past 52 weeks, Himself and I agree we're still eager for more. As the defeated often cry at the end of a sporting match, "It's not over!" Except that we're not the losers here...
Mexico is a huge country with a wealth of culinary variety, and so far, I've only managed to explore the food of Oaxaca and Michoacan in this blog. To remedy that, I thought I'd best sample the eats of at least one more region before my 52 Cuisine series ends. So we're feasting on the delights of the Yucatan, the part of eastern Mexico that sticks out rather like a foot into the Caribbean. If you've ever done the obligatory college spring break jaunt to Cancun or the island of Cozumel, that's the territory we're talking about.
La Flor de Yucatan, in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles, is a friendly neighborhood bakery that happens to sell a vast array of savory eats as well pastries and wedding cakes. It's tiny, with no place to sit inside, and only a picnic table in back if you want to park it and dine on the spot. But that was just fine by Himself and me. The casual air made the experience much more personable, and one lady in line urged me to get an extra bottle of the Cristal Negra soda I'd picked up, saying it was very, very good and more economical to buy it that way. She was right--it was good, but I knew better than to buy two.
Here's our welcome, a fresh highly-potent habanero chili atop our container of relleno negro. Hmmm, an invitation or a warning? (It was certainly a warming!)
The relleno negro was a generous serving of beautifully seasoned broth with an abundance of shreds of pork. I don't quite get the "relleno" part, since nothing is stuffed. The "negro" or black has to do with the dark roasted peppers that make the broth black. Those roasted peppers added rich, smoky flavor but curiously little heat. This is great as a soup, but you can also fish out those large pieces of pork and eat them rolled up or sandwiched inside a fresh tortilla. Don't forget to sip the broth, though. It's too good to waste.
You can buy the roasted chilis in paste form, in blocks a little smaller than a deck of cards. Just break off a tiny piece, about a half teaspoonful, dissolve it in your marinade (lime juice is good), smear it on some chicken, pork or beef, you're set to bake or grill. There is a ton of flavor in this tiny package--as soon as I opened the wrapper, the potency of the chilis hit my nose and eyes, so use it judiciously!
Panuchos are crispy fried tacos loaded with shreds of charbroiled turkey and lots of fresh veggies, pickled onions and jalapenos. The panucho provides a full range of flavors in one handy little package. If you get the same item on a soft tortilla that has not been fried first, it's called a salbute.
The tacos contained cochinita pibil, which seems to be the Yucatan's most popular dish. It is pork that is marinated in citrus juice, which helps tenderize it, and annatto seed, which adds both a delicate flavor and an orange color. Then it's wrapped in a banana leaf and slow roasted. While its rather musical name is Mayan for "baby pig roasted underground," it's more commonly made of pork shoulder or loin these days.
Food Trivia Time: Know how some cheddar cheese is creamy white while some is bright orange? It's because the orange cheddar has been colored with annatto. Cows that graze in fresh pasturage produce milk with yellow or orange tinted milk fat. This has led producers of butter and cheese over the years to color pale milk products with either annatto seed (also known as achiote) or beta carotene. Since beta carotene can oxidize and turn food some unflattering colors, annatto is the preferred choice.
Here's a comparison of the two types of tortillas. The taco, on the left, has the usual double layer of thin soft tortillas, while the panucho on the right has the single thick tortilla that's made even thicker by frying. By the way, those pickled red onions seemed to find their way into almost everything we got, not that I'm complaining. (And if you're wondering why none of the tacos that have shown up in these blog entries have crispy tortilla shells, it's because those are a fairly recent invention that occurred right here in Los Angeles, not in Mexico. That story will have to wait for another day, though.)
Because of its location and the way it juts out into the Caribbean, the Yucatan has seen more of an influx of culture and food from Europe and the Middle East than the rest of Mexico has. It shows on the menu. Take kibbeh, for example. This Lebanese-influenced creation is sort of a large felafel, but this type has ground beef mixed in with the chickpea flour and fresh mint leaves. It is fried, split open and slathered with habanero spread and topped with, yes, more pickled red onions. I find this more flavorful and easier to swallow than your basic felafel, which is just too dense with bean protein to eat much of it. (There's nothing like running out of whatever you're drinking just as you've tried to swallow a mouthful of felafel to make you resort to snatching up someone else's beverage!)
We brought home a bag of sweets, including these handmade pastelitos filled with vanilla pudding and an assortment of fruits like guava and pineapple, and crusted with sugar. There's something so very satisfying about a handmade pastry. I'd rather have one of these than a box full of the mass produced stuff.
It turns out that the fresh habanero chili accompanying our lunch is a standard feature of meals in the Yucatan, which is one of the more southern reaches of Mexico. It's pretty warm there, and all the sweating that ensues from chomping on a habanero will certainly cool you down. I'll have to work my way up to that level of heat, though. Our friend Ted once ate a whole fresh habanero on a dare, and while he survived it, it forever changed him--and me, too. Every time I see one now, I think of him. So no, neither of us were brave enough to eat that fresh habanero. But next time? Only if they have at least a case of Cristal Negra on hand for us. A case for each of us!