Friday, January 29, 2010

Week #22 British

These days I recall with more amusement than annoyance the meals I ate in the refectory of London's King's College in my graduate school days. A plate of food there typically contained at least three starches, usually potato, rice and pasta. Plus bread. And room temperature milk to wash it all down. While it was essentially kid chow, still it was fairly representative of the meals I ate off-campus during my tenure in the British Isles.

While the dining scene there has come a long way since then (never you mind how long ago that was!), I find that the meals I remember most fondly are hearty victuals, such as roast beef with a little Branston Pickle on the side. So the occasional trek to Buchanan Arms in Burbank helps me reconnect with those days. This stronghold of comfort for the community's British expats features plates of basic grub (mushy peas, anyone?) and a nice array of ales and stouts on tap. The place is fairly dripping in plaid and proudly bears a framed portrait of the queen. Adjacent to the restaurant is the Piccadilly Shop, where you can pop 'round and buy many of those foods that Brits miss when they move to L.A.--packages of Darjeeling, jars of Marmite, pots of Devonshire clotted cream, tins of mushy peas and all manner of prepared frozen foods. It carries souvenirs and gifts, too, in case you need a Union Jack or a tea cozy.
Himself and I decided to stop in for a proper British dinner and got that--and more. I started the meal with a bowl of cockaleekie, a nourishing Scottish soup. The name reveals the essential ingredients, chicken and leeks, although this rendition contained rice, too. The leeks give the soup a great, velvety mouth feel. In my opinion, most any soup is more satisfying if you add leeks to it. I like to make cockaleekie and take it to church potlucks, just to hear people walking around saying "cockaleekie." Different words activate the giggle mechanism for different people, you know? Cockaleekie does it for me. (By the way, Himself ordered tortilla soup for a starter. Maybe if it had been mulligatawny, I'd have included a photo and description. Seeing as how the British didn't colonize Mexico, there was just no adequate tie-in.)
However, he hit it dead on with his dinner of shepherd's pie: ground beef topped with brown sauce, mashed potatoes and cheddar cheese (as in that particular cheese from England's southwest), carrots and English peas--although I've never gotten a solid answer as to just what makes them English. This is one of my favorite meals to order here, but it always makes me want to go plow the back forty when I leave. Not an office worker's meal, to be sure.
I had the steak and kidney pie, a lovely, golden puff pastry covering a bowl of stew featuring, as its name suggests, chunks of steak and veal kidneys bathed in a rich broth, and served with English peas and chips. Veal kidneys are rich and delicate, with a clean taste, certainly one of the easier organ meats to love. Buchanan generously hands out stacks of plain white sliced bread, which is handy for sopping up the extra broth. I might have done that if I'd been planning to plow the back forty.

We noticed a lot of bustle during our meal, as a dozen or so men trekked through in kilts and carrying musical instruments. Then more people, both men and women, arrived wearing kilts and plaids. We finally learned that it was the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns (dang! We didn't even bring a gift!), and everyone was getting ready for a grand party scheduled for about an hour after we arrived (they graciously seated us for dinner, even though they were booked for the evening.) And we discovered that haggis had been prepared for the occasion. We knew we had to sample that bastion of the Scottish table, or as Burns so eloquently pronounced it in his poem "Address to a Haggis," the "great chieftain o' the puddin-race."

So we asked sweetly if we could have a taste. Our server generously brought us a dish of this both venerated and highly suspect food. Our sample of haggis arrived in its full glory, flanked by neeps (a.k.a. turnips) at 10:00 in this photo and taties (spuds, of course) at high noon, and seated in a pool of gravy.
Is there any more maligned and trembled at food on Earth than haggis? Possibly so, but I'd have to review a few episodes of Andrew Zimmern's television show, Bizarre Foods, to name any. Essentially, haggis is a mixture of a sheep's internal organs that are ground, mixed with onions, oatmeal and seasonings, stuffed into the critter's stomach and simmered for a few hours. This makes it essentially a type of sausage, a remarkably earthy tasting one (since the cook-it-in-the-stomach part is illegal in the States, they used sausage casing, so yes, it is a type of sausage!). Honestly, it's better than I'd expected, and I'd actually eat it again. I just wouldn't put it at the top of my must-have list. But I'll mark my calendar, and next year when Bobby Burns' birthday rolls around, I'll return and have it in his honor.

"Most Scottish cuisine is based on a dare," says Mike Myers' character in So I Married An Axe Murderer. He may have a point, but if you dare sample haggis, you'll find it's really not so diabolical. I'd imagine that if it were seasoned more aggressively, it wouldn't seem any stranger than most any meat dish you'd have anywhere.

British food has taken it on the chin for ages. But when you think about it, most cuisines in the far northern reaches don't naturally offer big bold flavors (pickling excepted). Only after the Age of Exploration did Europeans begin introducing spices and peppers into their cuisines. And the exchange of foods went both ways: Can you even imagine Asian food without peppers, Hungarian without paprika, Italian without tomatoes or Irish without potatoes?

Or England without curry, which is said to be its national dish?! Not only did they bring home chutneys, curries and spices from India, but the British introduced those flavor principles as well, resulting in such umami-rich condiments as Worcestershire sauce and all sorts of brown sauces to liven up their standard plate of meat-and-potato-with-a-couple-of-veg (or meat-starch-starch-starch!).

The English make some of the most satisfying comfort food around. You can get a hearty, nourishing meal with a little personality, thanks to their willingness to incorporate into their cuisine those exotic elements they picked up in their travels.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Wicked, Wicked Good...

I have a special affection for my coffee can filled with bacon drippings. I love it for the endless possibilities it represents for creating something tasty. I cook with them, infuse bourbon with them. I've considered using them for lip balm, but I haven't gone that far. Not yet.

Tonight I used them to make mayonnaise. I'm blaming Ari Weinzweig for this. He reveals the recipe in his book, Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon. It takes but a few minutes and no fancy, esoteric ingredients. The results are fit for schmearing on just about anything--an omelette, a baked potato, a piece of fish. It's also good eaten right off the spoon--or your finger. If you happen to have food to put it on, that's great, but if you don't, it shouldn't stop you from enjoying a taste.

As Himself shot this picture we agreed that the bacon mayo looked like hummus, which led me to conclude that a Southern version of hummus is in order, one that calls for blackeyed peas instead of garbanzo beans and bacon fat instead of olive oil. 

I probably should leave this idea alone, but I do love playing with my food. I think I'll sleep on it. And if I do decide to make Southern hummus, you'll be the first to know.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Week #21 Southern Thai

Back in the fall I discovered Northern Thai cuisine, which is quite different from what you find in your average Thai restaurant. Now it's time to head south, to where the flavors are bolder and the peppers hotter. Southern Thai includes more seafood, which is natural, since so much of the southern reaches of the country are surrounded by water. In contrast, the north is landlocked and so serves up more beef, chicken and pork. But in both the north and the south, the balance of sweet, salty, sour, hot and bitter is still the guiding principle behind every dish.

Himself and I went to Rainbow Thai Cuisine in North Hollywood, which our pal Chef Jet Tila places high on his list of the Top Ten Thai Restaurants in Los Angeles. North Hollywood is sort of a "Thai Town North" these days, and it's loaded with Thai restaurants, groceries and bakeries. Since Thai is our favorite cuisine, we love it that our main problem at mealtime is deciding which Thai restaurant to go to. Oh, the sweet agony...!

We started with a fresh spring roll, Rainbow-Thai styled. Just because it has the word "roll" in its name, that doesn't mean you can just pick it up and pop it into your mouth with your fingers. This thing is shaggy and messy, but oh so good. If you order it all by yourself, you really don't need anything else but a glass of Thai iced tea or Thai iced coffee (it's difficult to pick one, so we got one of each to share). This version is actually rolled in a sheet of pastry, and it's topped with a wonderfully bright sweet-n-sour tamarind sauce, a few delicate shrimp and a handful of salad fixings. It looks like the chef got cute with the hot mustard--or perhaps he wanted us to be sure to remember the restaurant's name change.

The menu includes a few curious and evocatively named meals: The Three Friends Salad has chicken, pork and shrimp, and Four Kings Fried Rice contains pork, beef, shrimp and chicken. But we couldn't figure out why the grilled sirloin goes by the name of Crying Tiger, so we spent a portion of the meal coming up with silly explanations. (No, I won't tell you what any of them are--you'll just have to make up your own!)

Although this particular blog entry is Southern Thai, I just had to order Sai Oua, Thai sausage, a staple of the north, which is one of my most favorite foods in the world. Well, it's pork, so what's not to love? Not only that, but the flavor is superb--seasoned with galangal, lemongrass, lime, garlic, shallot and coriander, it is intensely flavored but not at all hot. You can add the type and degree of heat yourself with fresh ginger slivers, onions and green Thai chiles. Just below the chiles in this photo are some tiny bits of lime that you eat along with the sausage, peel and all. It adds a fresh burst that cuts through the richness of the sausage.
They gave us a generous portion of Hurricane Seafood Soup, which means plenty for lunch today AND tomorrow. The broth, laced with galangal, lemongrass, lime juice and chiles, would have been great all by itself, but it was loaded with fresh, fresh mussels, squid, shrimp and hunks of white fish, all of which were cooked perfectly--not a hunk of rubber anywhere!
I just love these dainty bites of squid--not just tasty, but looking like delicately carved little treasures.

Cha-Po is a trio steamed duck, barbecued pork and crispy, deep-fried pork belly served over rice with a sweet gravy. Once again, fresh veggies and cilantro leaves lightened the richness of this meat-heavy dish.

As if that weren't enough meat, we succumbed to the Waterfall Beef, which was grilled and tossed with onions, chiles, coriander and lime juice. There's a consistency to this dish that you also find with larb (see Week #3 Northern Thai) that comes from the addition of toasted and ground jasmine rice. It thickens the dish so that all those yummy juices don't just slide away. It carries a moderate amount of heat from the chilies, and a nice zing from the lime juice. That generous wedge of raw cabbage on the side provides a little refreshment and relief when your tongue decides it's had enough heat.

We waddled home positively drunk on the fragrances and flavors of this amazingly diverse cuisine, carrying enough to-go boxes to feed us through most of the following week. I stashed everything in the fridge and then curled up with an atlas and studied the map of Thailand. Then I checked out what Lonely Planet had to say about it: "To truly appreciate Thai culture you must understand and appreciate the food. If you become comfortable with both, perhaps you will become a kin jai (eat heart)... Finally you may come to understand what Thais mean when they say they are im jai (full heart), an expression that fuses culinary satisfaction with general contentment."

What a lovely idea!

*If your travels take you to Las Vegas, I recommend you stop in at Wazuzu at the Encore, where Jet serves as executive chef. He's a first rate Thai chef, but with a firm grounding in pan-Asian cuisine.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Week #20 Islamic Chinese

Did the name of this blog entry make you do a double-take? We did one the first time we found mention of Islamic Chinese food. Himself and I were amazed when we discovered this cuisine a few years ago, but I'm not sure why. There's a good size contingent of Muslim Uyghurs and other Hui in western China, so it makes sense that they'd have their own Halal cuisine. As you can imagine, there's no pork on the menu, and no alcohol.

Our friend Pat joined us at China Islamic Restaurant in San Gabriel to re-explore this cuisine. As a chef, a vegetarian and a kosher Jew, she was keen to know what they'd serve.

The main thing we remembered from our first experience was being bowled over by the bread. I'd never had anything like it before. And once again, it was my favorite thing on the table. Nang is a huge round of bread topped with lots of sesame seeds, which are there for flavor, not just for decoration. The seeds toast during the baking, which brings out their rich, nutty flavor. (Some nang I've seen looks just like the noni we had in the Uzbek meal, right down to the identifying imprints made on it with a chekich. Since Xinjiang is just a few exits east of Uzbekistan on the Transasia Silk Road Expressway, this should come as no surprise.)

Nang with scallions
The bread has a thick, crackly crust and is delicate and moist on the inside. This size nang fed the three of us with plenty to carry home.

A serving of nang: you can see in this cross-section the layers of bread with scallions and that super-crusty top.
The standard nang has sesame seeds, but we ordered one with green onions lacing throughout. They were especially good with the toasted seeds.

Lamb Stew
Himself was enticed by the lamb stew, which showed up still simmering in a huge, rippin'-hot clay vessel. Between the ladle and chopsticks, our server manipulated cellophane noodles and succulent hunks of lamb into three soup bowls for us. Those fresh cilantro leaves lightened the richness of the stew and gave it a nice depth of flavor. The stew was a hearty meal all by itself. We left with several days' worth of leftovers. (I certainly don't have a problem with this--every extra meal I get from leftovers cuts the bill in half.)

Cellophane noodles
 The cellophane noodles in the lamb stew were lovely and iridescent--I didn't know whether to eat them or wear them!

Beef with Dough-Slice Noodles
I ordered the beef with dough-slice noodles. Called "dao xiao mian" in Chinese, they're carved (or peeled) from a ball of dough by hand with a knife. They're broad and irregular, almost shaggy in appearance, and really satisfying to eat. The noodles are broader than fettuccine, so you get a nice mouthful, but not as broad as lasagna, so that your mouth is blanketed in a single noodle. This dish gave us just the right proportion of velvety, lush noodles with spicy beef slices.
Tofu in Brown Sauce
Pat ordered tofu and eggplant dishes, both served in a brown sauce. This is probably the best tofu I've ever had, meaty and dense, as were the accompanying mushrooms. In fact, I think those thick beefy mushrooms probably could have been chopped with the tofu and made into a loaf, and most people would never have been the wiser. Pat has written a couple of books on tofu cookery, and she was impressed with this dish, and that in turn impressed me. Just as a good wine never tastes like grapes, to me, tofu should never taste like soybeans. Tofu badly done is a flavor vacuum. This tofu was imbued with the umami of the sauce and the full, meaty flavor of the mushrooms.
 Eggplant in Brown Sauce
While both the eggplant and the tofu were in the same brown sauce, I didn't have the feeling that we'd been given the same dish with only the main ingredient switched. The attendant sauce seemed to sing a different tune in each case, working in tandem with the tofu while providing a secondary flavor to the eggplant.

When you have a well-rounded, varied, flavorful meal in a place that observes dietary restrictions, you feel no sense of deprivation. I think that any diet that says no meat or no this-or-that or only this type of this-or-that would do well do be sure that it does a crack job of providing a really tasty meal of what it does permit. I've had vegetarian meals in a particular Indian restaurant that were so varied and tasty that I didn't miss the meat. That's a smart way to do it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Week #19 Cuban

I think Cuban food is destined to become another of my favorite cuisines (How many times have you heard me say that about a food in the course of this 52 Cuisines project?!). Himself and I visited Mambos, a little Cuban restaurant in that part of Glendale where you think you're still in Burbank. Or maybe it's in that part of Burbank where you think you're still Glendale. Anyway, it's an easy walk from Griffith Park, in case you forget your picnic. Lest you think we completely blew it out, this blog entry features food from three trips we've made to Mambo in the last few months. It's getting to be quite a habit...
It's tempting to fill up on the Cuban bread that hits the table first thing. This bread comes in long, squarish loaves and is soft and lush on the inside (mmmm, made with lard) and crackly on the outside. It's advisable to eat your Cuban bread the day it is baked, so as not to break your teeth on it. (I visited Key West a few months ago, which has a strong Cuban presence, and found that the weapon of choice in this self-declared "Conch Republic" is a stale loaf of Cuban bread!) It's great dipped in this house-made sauce. Our server either didn't know what was in the peppery red sauce or didn't want to reveal the secret (I suspect the later). It has a decent amount of heat that neither overpowers the food it accompanies nor fades into the background. We dunked our pork and beef into it, too. Next time I'm asking for extra.

I ordered a mamey milkshake (pronounced mah-MAY), in spite of my concern that it might be too heavy for the meal. I was surprised to find that it was not terribly sweet, certainly not cloying like milkshakes made in the States usually are. It had a delicate tropical fruit flavor but one I couldn't quite put my finger on. I want to see if I can find the fruit itself in one of the ethnic groceries around town and try it fresh. From what I hear, it's divine eaten out of hand.

The deep-fried yuca was oddly both light and dense, with a pleasant starchiness--not as heavy as I expected. It came with an aggressive but wonderful garlic dipping sauce that I'm sure will protect us both from vampires for at least a week.
As if it weren't tempting enough to fill up on bread and yuca, a platter showed up on our table loaded with empanadillas, croquetas, pappa rellena, chorizo and tostones, that is, twice-cooked plantains. The plantains are cut into rounds and fried. After they cool, they're smashed and fried again, which makes them firm and chewy.
Here are the appetizers with a bite taken out of each, so you can see what's inside. The empanadilla contains ground beef; the pappa rellena in the foreground is a potato ball filled with more ground beef (are you detecting a theme here?); the croqueta is a mixture of mashed potatoes, onions and still more ground beef, coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried. Stop looking for the veggies--there aren't any in there!
This petite tamale was filled with pork and green onions. It was delicately flavored and quite seductive. I like my tamales to have those telltale signs that someone has lovingly folded the corn husks around them by hand. Those indentations down the center I'd call furrows of love.
 The Cuban sandwich is made with two types of swine, both roast pork and ham (can you really have too many? Maybe they should have included bacon as well!) and Swiss cheese, all tucked into one of those Cuban-style baguettes, pressed and cut on a bias, for easy handling.

 While I enjoyed the roast pork, being a Southern gal, I always expect it to be smoky, and this was not. Still it was moist and flavorful. On the far right side are maduros, sliced and fried plantains. Unlike the tostones, maduros are cooked only once and are soft. Tostones are much more toothsome.

Taking a steak and pounding it thin, breading it and frying it is not my favorite way to handle a piece of beef, but the flavor was good, and I'm sure it didn't take long to cook, which might be why it's prepared in this fashion. Using less time and cooking fuel is much more economical.
 I enjoyed the black beans and thought they were quite good. From what my Cuban hair stylist tells me, though, the most authentically Cuban black beans have a balance of flavors, of sweet, sour and garlic. These didn't really have that balance. I'd still order them again, but it won't keep me from seeking out black beans at another Cuban restaurant around town.

Aguacate Fernando is a cool, fresh salad of avocado, tomatoes, onions, garlic and cilantro, a nice foil for the richness of the fried foods and meats. It was as much a necessity as it was a nicety.

We have yet to save room for dessert. I just dug out the Old Havana Cookbook I bought in Key West and started perusing the dessert recipes. I'm tempted to go in search of some fresh mamey so I can make a pudding. Each recipe in this book is printed in both English and Spanish--it might be fun to see how successfully I can make a dish following the directions in a language that's not my native tongue. Of course, the results might be inedible. I probably should think that idea through a little more carefully...

From what I've read about Cuban cuisine, the food from the west side is more Criollo, or Creole, strongly influenced by European cuisines. On the eastern side of the island, though, the influence is decidedly African. I suppose that's from the slave trade throughout the islands that lie to the east of Cuba. A country doesn't have to be an enormous land mass to host an array of culinary styles. I'm eager to learn more about Cuban food. It's a party on a plate.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Week #18 Israeli

Another Mediterranean cuisine? Well, yes and no. One blog entry could never do justice to what is considered Israeli cuisine. While Israel is seated on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, generations of Jews scattered across the globe and returning home again have brought back layer upon layer of culinary influence.

Itzik Hagadol in Encino is a sister restaurant to one by the same name located in Tel Aviv, so we didn't question its authenticity (the only difference in the two menus is that the restaurant in Israel offers more selections of offal). The menu is decidedly Mediterranean and strongly Sephardic (lots of ground meat), with the occasional Ashkenazi touch (they serve potatoes instead of rice). Himself and I strolled in, ordered an appetizer and a couple of entrées and ended up with a table full of dishes. (It reminded us a bit of our first visit to a Korean restaurant, when we ordered two entrées and ended up with 21 tiny dishes on our table!). The spread was generous and flavorful.

 Laffa is a flatbread baked in a taboon, a tandoor-like oven in use since Biblical times. The larger piece was topped with sesame seeds. The smaller one looked more like a pita with a round cut out and seasoned with copious amounts of za'atar, an Arabic spice blend that includes thyme, oregano and savory--a seasoning combo that is as essential to the Israeli kitchen as it is to the Arabic. Laffa is great all on its own, but it is a multi-purpose bread: you can wrap it around meats and veggies for impromptu sandwiches, tear off a piece for dipping into the various puréed dishes and mop up the juices with it after you've polished off the grilled meats and vegetables.

portobellos with tomatoes and onions: mmmm, lovely, tasty char....

These portobello mushrooms were marinated before hitting the grill alongside the tomatoes and pearl onions. They're the most luscious mushrooms I've ever savored. They looked just like slices of fatty meat and were smoky yet creamy smooth.

Along with the grilled veggie appetizer, our server trotted out this array of "salads."

The red purée at the top left is matbucha, a.k.a. Turkish salad, a tomato and roasted red pepper dip that is similar to muhammara but without the walnuts. We tore off pieces of our laffa and dredged them in this one and in the one at the top right, a grilled eggplant salad called salat ḥatzilim. Both dips were incredibly rich and loaded with smoky, spicy flavors. In the middle is a roasted potato; the other dishes contain pickled cabbage (zingy), red cabbage mixed with mayonnaise (mild), and a house-made salsa, a concession to our Southern California locale, I suppose. This assortment of salads ran the gamut of flavors and was a great accompaniments to our kababs.

House kabab
I ordered the house kabab, a combination of ground veal and lamb. The meat was creamy smooth and delicately flavored. It was served with hummus and Israeli salad or salat aravi, a mixture of just about every vegetable you can name, tossed with olive oil and lemon juice. That pool in the middle of the hummus is tahini mixed with olive oil and finely chopped parsley. Yes, we did a lot of laffa dredging.

Romanian kabab 
Himself settled on the Romanian kabab, ground beef mixed with lots of chopped garlic. It had some serious personality going--really flavorful but not garlicky-hot. As you can see, there's no filler in this meal--no heaps of fries and baskets of heavy breads. It's all grilled lean meats, vegetables and protein-rich dips and spreads. Our wine was a cabernet sauvignon made of grapes grown in the Golan Heights. It was full bodied and ready-made for those grilled meats.

Rosewater is one of the best things to ever happen to food, and malabi showcases it beautifully. For dessert we shared this vanilla custard topped with rosewater, ground pistachios, coconut and cardamom, a combination that was curiously both rich and light. I must figure out how to make this. It's a dessert I could definitely cozy up to.

I know that the next Israeli meal we run across could look absolutely nothing like the one we just had. But that's part of the fun of exploring the world's cuisines. Nothing is as cut-and-dried, as easily definable as we'd like to make it. There's always something new to sample and learn, and I get a kick out of seeing history in action as people carry their foods and cooking methods with them--and how they adopt new foods and cooking methods and bring them back home.

To resolve or not to resolve?

These are all books I began reading last year--the ones I haven't finished yet. They perch perilously next to my pillow. I live in danger of a wee-hours earthquake bringing them down on my head. The stacks of books on Himself's side of the bed are even bigger, but this is about my resolution, not his. I'm just glad I married a fellow reader. It makes for stimulating company.

Here's my New Year's resolution for 2010: To finish the books I begin reading (and that includes re-reading). No fair saying to myself, "I've read Moby-Dick before. It's no big deal if I don't finish it." Because the me who rereads Moby-Dick now is an entirely different person from the me who read it for the first time as a 20-year old English major in college. I'll get more out of it this time around, now that I'm not simply reading it with an eye toward being tested on it.

Good luck to all with their New Year's resolutions. May 2010 treat you well.