Monday, May 31, 2010

Week #38 Haitian

The only thing most people hear about Haiti these days has to do with the recent earthquake. But this country's food is kinfolk of Southern American cuisine, most notably that of New Orleans. It's Creole, a blend of Caribbean with French, Spanish and African influences.

TiGeorge's in Echo Park is a mainstay of the neighborhood, and its offerings are as authentic as Haitian food can get. Himself and I went with a group from the Culinary Historians of Southern California for a good meal and a full measure of TiGeorge's hospitality. TiGeorge is an affable fellow who is proud of his country, his culture and his food, and it was a treat not only to eat there, but to talk to him and learn about his homeland and its cuisine.

I had a plate lunch that featured cabrit fricasee, or goat meat; Himself had the same basic plate lunch, but with chicken. The goat was wonderfully tender from its long, slow braise with green peppers, onions and an assortment of spices. Alongside were pikliz, a spicy, vinegary coleslaw, some battered and fried plantains and beans and rice, the national dish of Haiti. (More about the beans and rice later...)

Ti malis (named for a trickster voodoo spirit!) is a sauce of peppers, onion and garlic that packs some serious heat--although not enough to interfere with the flavor of the food. It was good on everything, with a citrus tang that helped tame the goat.

Normally I wouldn't bother including a photo of a cup of coffee, but this is a special case. The cup says Haitian brewed, but it's produced in Haiti as well. TiGeorge's family grows it on their plantation, and he roasts and sells it in his restaurant. In fact, the smell of coffee roasting in the giant roaster in the front room vies with the aroma of the great eats for your attention when you walk in. It makes a really good cuppa to finish. We carried a couple of pounds of freshly roasted coffee beans home, which TiGeorge packed especially for us.

 Since beans and rice is pretty much the national dish of Haiti, this combo was a must to reproduce. Mine wasn't as good as TiGeorge's, but it was still really tasty. After soaking and cooking the beans, you then cook the rice in the bean pot, so the flavor from the juices cooks into the rice. The chicken is packed with flavor and is honey-sweet, spicy and citrusy.

This dessert pain patate, or sweet potato bread, is about the most un-sexy thing I've ever seen, but it tastes good enough to make up for its looks. It certainly would have photographed better with a little whipped cream, but since the recipe calls for butter, eggs and three types of milk--whole, evaporated and coconut--I finally had to put my foot down. But mostly what you taste is sweet potato, banana, raisins and an assortment of spices and flavorings. There's not a speck of flour in it, so its name is a misnomer. Regardless, I didn't think it was going to make it to dessert time--I thought we'd eat it all fresh and hot from the pan before the chicken came out of the oven.

After the most recent earthquake in January, TiGeorge's held several fund raisers and sent home money to help rebuild the country. But one night in February a fire broke out, and the restaurant had to close for repairs. It has been closed for several months now, but as soon as it reopens, we plan to return to support earthquake relief and enjoy more Creole cuisine, Caribbean style.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Separate Tables at the Fennel Blossom Cafe


While checking over the fennel today I noticed two little customers perched close to each other, a honeybee and a ladybug.

I know what the bee is up to--snagging some nectar for the honey making chores. But what about the ladybug? Do insects ever hang out just for the beauty of a particular place and for the sheer enjoyment of being there? Was the ladybug indulging in a little aromatherapy? We once noticed our cat Prima snoozing face down in the rosemary, so I suppose it's possible.

Since I planted the fennel it's grown quite large, well over six feet high. But I haven't harvested much of the actual bulb yet. Strange, since I love fennel. It makes the best summer salad, thinly shaved into a bowl with equally thinly sliced red onion and tossed in a light vinaigrette. Chopped and stirred into a pot of pasta sauce, fresh fennel bulb makes it decidedly richer.

No, I've been too busy enjoying the rest of the plant, snipping the fronds to go into salads and for garnish. And harvesting the seed, which tastes so very fine. I was amazed the first time I brought in some of the seed and used it to cook. We all know that spices in the grocery have been sitting around for who-knows-how-long?, and that they usually aren't the best for the job. But the intensity of those fennel seeds was a wonder. I toasted some in a dry pan, ground them and tossed them into some vegetable beef soup, along with some of the fresh fennel. I could have charged myself for dinner that night! It was fine!

In just a few weeks those dainty little flowers will give way to a new batch of seed...
...which will doll up dishes both sweet and savory. These same seeds that give cookies personality will add richness to sausage. And appeal to tastes as different as those I envision of the honeybee and the ladybug.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Week #37 Peruvian

Peru will not let me off easily. With its Pacific coastline and geography that includes rain forests, mountains and parched plains, not to mention an array of ethnic influences, Peruvian cuisine is no easier to define and categorize in the space of a single blog entry than any other country's has been.

Himself and I convened with a group of friends at Puro Sabor in Van Nuys to try the eats of this land on the Pacific coast of South America. We ordered a number of dishes and passed it all around the table, making for a fun and tasty but discombobulated event. As is the risk of gathering with friends for such enterprises, we were so busy talking that we didn't pay as much attention as we should have to what we were eating. So Himself and I made a return visit a few days later, during which we sampled more dishes and completely fell in love with Peruvian food.

The most apparent thing I noticed is that ceviche is the national dish of Peru, and they serve it there with camote, or sweet potato. I couldn't wrap my mind around that one, but as soon as I tried a bite of ceviche and sweet potato together, I was hooked. It's sweet-n-sour bliss. Most ceviche is cut into tiny cubes, so that it "cooks" in the acid more quickly. But this fish was cut into bite-sized pieces. I'm happy to report that it was super-fresh and cooked adequately, without being so heavily acidic as to make my mouth raw. It was served with an array of accoutrements, including onions, corn on the cob and boiled potato. And take a look at those loose corn kernels. Our server explained that they had been dried in the sun and then toasted in the oven. Their crunch was a nice foil for the smooth texture of the fish and potato.

You might not be able to see it well, but along the bottom edge of the photo, you can just make out the juice on the dish that is produced by the ceviche combination. In Peru they call it leche de tigre, or tiger's milk. Hot, salty, sweet, sour and attitudinous. Makes sense! On our return visit, Himself and I shared an order of ceviche de mariscos, which was loaded with shrimp, squid and octopus. This is the perfect way to prepare seafood that so easily overcooks. With calamari in particular, it's easy to end up with a plate of thick and chewy rubber bands. But that didn't happen--it was delicate and wonderful.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. For an appetizer, Himself ordered a papa rellena, a deep-fried ball of mashed potato stuffed with ground beef, raisins and olives. This may sound like a strange combination, but I recognize it as a culinary touch brought to the New World by Spanish explorers. Old California-style cuisine includes raisins and olives in the enchiladas. It's a great combo, believe it or not!

I began with a pork tamale, which I've had dozens of times, but this one was the best yet. It was made with just a hint of saffron mixed into the masa--another of those Spanish contributions. It was incredibly good. On the return visit we had the chicken tamale, which was equally pleasing.

Ocopa is so popular we had to wait until the return visit to score some. It is sliced boiled potato blanketed in a sauce made of peanuts, aji chilis and huacatay, a South American herb that's known by a variety of names including tagetes minuta, black mint, Mexican marigold and assorted other names including "Stinking Roger!" There's nothing stinky about it. It may look a little like wallpaper paste, but don't let that put you off--it's lightly sweet, lightly salty and altogether good. Since huacatay is difficult to find in North America, you can approximate its flavor with equal parts of basil, mint and cilantro.

Himself got bisteck a lo macho, that is, a thin steak topped with shrimp, octopus and squid. The idea is to get a little seafood and red meat in each bite. This is a sensible way to do the old surf-n-turf combo, since the steak is thin and lean, and the seafood isn't breaded and deep-fried. You get a lot of flavor without the heaviness.

 Carapulcra is a stew of pork and dried potatoes, with peanuts, cinnamon and cloves. The addition of those spices shows that the Spaniards who visited brought with them ingredients they received from the Moors who settled in Spain and Portugal. The name translates as "the stew of hot stones," which comes from the appearance of the potatoes--they look like rocks after they've dried and broken apart.

Ralph just had to be different and order pasta, which turns out to be authentic, too. Italian influences are strong in Peru, as are Chinese and various African. This plate of linguini and shrimp is sautéed simply with tomato and onion and called tallarin saltado de camaron.

Chicha morada is a grapey-looking beverage made from a purple variety of corn that is used only for this purpose--it isn't eaten. Our server said that most places buy it premade, but they make their own here, and it's a labor-intensive job. They boil the dried purple corn for four hours and mix the extract with an assortment of juices, plus cinnamon and cloves. Served without ice, you get a slightly velvety texture that becomes watered down when it's served with ice. So if you find it on the menu, be sure to order it sin hielo, por favor.

Uncooked quinoa: It's tiny and doesn't look like it would amount to much, but it holds a surprise.

The next day I still had Peruvian food on the brain and wanted to make something, so I stirred up a pot of quinoa vegetable soup. For two servings, you put a little vegetable oil into a pot and sauté a carrot, a stalk of celery, half a green bell pepper and some onion, all finely diced, add in two ounces of dry quinoa and a couple of cloves of garlic minced, and continue to cook until you can smell the garlic. Then add a pint of water, two diced tomatoes, and a healthy handful of chopped green cabbage. Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for ten minutes. Season to your liking with salt and black pepper. I was amazed by what happened in that short space of time. The quinoa unfurled and gave the soup some heft, and the veggies made a nice broth.
 See all those tiny O's in there? That's the quinoa.

Himself and I had a bowl of this soup with a piece of garlic bread for dinner. We expected to be hungry by bedtime, but we weren't. And we weren't feeling ravenous when we got up the next morning.

In that tinker-with-it way I have--and that people migrating from place to place have of taking a new food and injecting something familiar--I'm tempted next time I make this soup to toss in a handful of beans or some chicken or beef. And to give it a hearty dash of Tabasco Sauce.

One of the beauties of foods is that it's open to endless interpretation and creativity. As long as we play with our food, how can we ever be bored?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Week #36 Anatolian/Turkish

Himself and I have grown a bit weary of restaurants lately, so we decided to explore Turkish cuisine with a trip to the Anatolian Festival, which is held each spring in Orange County. It presented the perfect opportunity to immerse ourselves in the culture and enjoy not only the food but the dance, music, art and history of Turkey.
 One striking feature of the festival was its inclusion of models of parts of several major cities, including Istanbul. Wandering through what looked rather like movie sets gave us a feel for what it's like to be there. Not as exciting as actually being in Turkey, but more helpful than simply looking at pictures in a book.
Himself's not really in Topkapi Palace, but it sort of looks like he is!

Our pal Charles Perry, who knows enough about Turkish food to write books on it (and he does), urged us to sample the ice cream first, before it sold out. Good advice--the dondurma stand had a line all day long. Dondurma is a curious stretchy ice cream that doesn't change shape when it melts. What gives it this texture and property is the addition of flour made from the orchid plant and mastic, a resin that causes it to hold its shape, regardless of temperature. He said that Baskin Robbins once tried to move into the Turkish market but failed, because the Turks found it odd and undesirable that American-style ice cream didn't hold its shape when it melted. I guess it all depends on what you're accustomed to, eh?
You can't really get the full effect of the ice cream's stretchiness in this photo. Unfortunately, the guy who mans the paddle and does the stretching was suffering a bit of carpal tunnel from all the hard work it takes to stir and pull the ice cream. I'd be surprised if anyone preparing food at this festival managed to make it through the weekend without some repetitive motion aches and pains--most of the food requires a lot of rolling, pulling and manipulation to make.

It was amazing to watch the women who rolled out the super-thin dough for the pastries called gözleme. It was a windy day, and they were rolling the dough so thinly that it billowed in the breeze like a hanky--but never tore! I wonder how many thousands of pieces of dough they rolled. I'm sure they were still rolling it in their sleep that night.
When it came to the gözleme, the woman in line in front of me advised me that the line and the wait were worth it, and that I should take whatever was finished first, regardless of the filling. This way it would be fresh and hot and I wouldn't miss out. Everything's good, she assured me.
She was right. Our gözleme was a pan-fried filo dough--thin but resilient--containing spinach and cheese. In back is the roll, sigara böregi (shaped like a cigar!) filled with feta cheese and green onions. Both were fresh and really tasty.
While a variety of fresh fruit juices flowed from a recreation of the Fountain of Ahmed III, I opted for the yogurt drink called ayran. I'm always amazed by how refreshing this stuff is. Tangy and slightly salty, it helps tame spicy food and is especially good on a hot day.

Cig köfte is raw ground beef hand squeezed with bulgur wheat, hot pepper and onion, rolled in a lettuce leaf and sprinkled with lemon juice. This is some great walking-around food and a nice change of pace from the breaded and fried foods. I wouldn't eat just any raw ground beef, mind you, but when it's prepared by someone who grinds his own and knows what to do with it, then I figure it's okay.

So we've eaten baklava dozens of times, but I have to include it, because according to Charlie, Turkey is the land that actually gave us baklava, so this country has the bragging rights. And he explained that good, well-made baklava should go "kshkkk!" when you bite into it, as each layer breaks cleanly between the teeth. If it's mushy, dense and overly syrupy, well, it's just not good baklava. Every one of these layers went "kshkkk!" when we bit into them, just like they were supposed to. It was simultaneously rich and light. How DO that do that?!

I stopped by a market in the bazaar stalls and picked up a box of Turkish delight to carry home. This comes from an Istanbul sweet shop called Haci Bekir. Recently I was looking through a touring booklet of the city from 1919, back when it was still called Constantinople, and Haci Bekir was one of the advertisers. I discovered that this shop has been in existence since 1777, and that in fact, these are the people who invented what became known as Turkish delight. I've had it quite often over the years, and while I like it, it's usually cloyingly sweet. But this was not--in fact, it's the best Turkish delight I've ever had, filled with pistachios and coated with a slightly grainy powdered sugar. By the way, it was called lokum until the 1800s, an Englishman with an appreciative sweet tooth began shipping it home in bulk under the label "Turkish delight."

We didn't stay long enough to see the whirling dervishes, but I have seen them before, and I find their meditative spinning positively mesmerizing. Maybe next year...

"Civilization Road," the path connecting the ticket booth to the entrance of the festival grounds was itself worth the price of admission. We strolled through a series of gateways representing the major eras in the development of Turkey and were greeted by people dressed in the clothing of each era, including the Ottomans, the Hittites, the Phrygians, the Byzantines and all the rest. I may have to start dressing like this. With a hat as tall as these I'm sure to be admitted to all the rides at Disneyland!

Some parting words...

If you'd like to get a glimpse of the festival, check it out at and watch the introductory video.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Week #35 Russian

In my search for international cuisines around Los Angeles, I look for mom-n-pop style restaurants, where I know I'll find authenticity and warmth. But as I focus my spotlight on Russian cuisine, I've made an interesting discovery: the mom-n-pops are difficult to find. In fact, it was explained to me that Russians tend to eat at home and that dining out is reserved for special occasions. And for a special occasion, you can expect to drop some major bucks.

Finally I discovered Kalinka, a Russian teahouse in Encino, that serves breakfast and lunch as well as dinner. Affordably. I also wanted to step back from the Armenian influence and focus more on those regions further north. Kalinka fit the bill on this score as well, so I popped in for lunch.
I started with Olivye Salad, a tremendously popular Russian-style potato salad that includes green peas, green beans, onions, pickles, hard-boiled eggs and sour cream. This refined version of potato salad was created by a chef by the name of Olivier who jealously guarded his secret recipe, even taking it to the grave with him. However, it seems enough people nosed around the kitchen while he was making it that it has been endlessly analyzed, copied and tweaked over the years. The dainty macédoine cut gives it a more refined look than your average potato salad filled with chunks of this and that in varying sizes. In fact, eating it made me want to drink something in a stemmed glass.

The beverage of the day was Kvas, which is sort of a near-beer kind of thing that doesn't belong in stemware. It tastes like a partially flat beer with almost no alcohol, about one percent. It is made through a fermentation process involving rye bread, and in addition to being a beverage, kvas is often used for cooking. I didn't care for it much, but I'm betting it's one of those things that if you drank it often, you'd develop a taste for it. And it's easy enough to make at home, so you can tweak it to suit your individual taste.

My entrée was blinchiki, a crepe that's filled with cooked ground meat (mine was chicken) and then fried. It was good, in a hearty, basic sort of way, but I wish I'd noticed that for a couple of dollars more I could have gotten it with sour cream and red caviar. The further you move from the equator, the more mildly your food is seasoned. I know this, but still I yearn for something zingier or at least a little more complex.

Since dining at home is the norm, I figured I'd best do the same. I crossed Ventura Boulevard and checked out Rasputin Market to see what I could discover. Hearty breads, meats and lots of pickled herring--lots of pickled everything, in fact.
I picked up a package of frozen pelmeni filled with potato and onion. They cook up just like any dumpling from any other country, whether it's freshly or frozen--boil and then sauté in butter. I've seen pelmeni referred to as Siberian ravioli, but this truly is one of those foods that you can find almost anywhere on the planet. Only the fillings and sauces change.

Deviled eggs seem to be popular throughout Russia, for I found several different regional recipes for them. Jajka Minsky, or Minsk-style eggs, are popular at Christmas and Easter in particular. Cream the yolks together with butter, mayo and heavy cream, and mix in chopped dill and parsley, along with paprika, salt and pepper--and some finely chopped egg whites, which I pressed through a mesh strainer for a super-fine texture. I piped them into the egg white halves, then topped them with a mixture of bread crumbs and grated Gruyere and an X of anchovies sliced long ways. They go into the oven for a few minutes, just to warm them up and toast the tops. Sheer decadence!

All of the "borscht belt" references I've heard over the years made me assume that borscht was strictly a kosher item. But then I found a Ukrainian borscht recipe that calls for pork sausage... porcht? I made an enormous pot of it and froze the bulk in pint-sized containers. It's really fine stuff, rich and flavorful:
  Crumble a pound of sausage into a large skillet and cook, stirring until the pink is gone. Drain, blot and set aside. Bring two quarts of water to a boil in a really large pot (you'll be adding in a lot of food, and you'll need to be able to stir it), add four peeled and shredded beets and cook for about 20 minutes. Then add three peeled and shredded carrots and three medium baking potatoes, peeled and small diced, and cook until the potatoes are tender. Core and chop half a head of cabbage and add that in, along with an 8-oz. can of diced tomatoes, juice and all. While the pot regains its heat and starts to simmer again, put a tablespoon of vegetable oil into a medium skillet and sauté one medium onion, diced, until tender. Stir in a 6-oz. can of tomato paste and about a cup of water with the onion and mix well. Add this mixture to the pot, along with three minced cloves of garlic, and kill the heat. Let the pot stand for about five minutes--the ambient heat will cook the garlic. Add salt and black pepper to taste, and serve it up with a dollop of sour cream.

What would a Russian entry be without mentioning vodka? I found a recipe for honey vodka, which is popular in the Baltic States, particularly in Lithuania. It's akin to mead, except that it's far stronger than any honeyed wine, with more flavorings--this version has vanilla bean, nutmeg, lemon peel, cinnamon, cloves and honey. I've never been able to endure a medicinal hot toddy--and I've always preferred gin to vodka--but this I can certainly sip and enjoy. And after a hearty Russian meal, this makes a good combination dessert and digestiv. Or maybe one glass for dessert and another for digestiv.

And then we sleep!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Week #34 Dim Sum

I'm convinced that "dim sum" is Chinese for "mealtime free-for-all." It would certainly seem that way, at least if you do it right. To have dim sum by yourself would be about as pointless as watching Rocky Horror Picture Show at home all alone. Some things are just made to be enjoyed in a group, and dim sum is one of them. The more people at the table the more fun it is, even if you do end up in a chopstick duel over the last dumpling.
They're all goners...tasty, tasty goners...

Frankly, it's difficult to discuss dim sum as a cuisine like you would other cuisines, because its primary distinguishing characteristic is that it's essentially communal small-plate dining, Chinese style. Dim sum originated as a snack in the tea houses of southern China several centuries ago, but it has since evolved into a full blown meal that comprises cooking styles from across this vast country.

Himself and I were among a party a dozen strong that went to East Gourmet Seafood Restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley to indulge in one of those free-for-alls. Our friends Bob and Grace, who treated us to Chinese hot pot back in the winter, organized this food fest. While Grace is nowhere near grannydom yet, she's already in serious training. This is important, because what's crucial is to find the best dim sum possible for the least amount of money. If you've selected such a place you'll know by the sheer numbers of Chinese grannies you find there. If you don't spot any--particularly if you're there on a Sunday morning--do a rapid U-turn and keep looking. Grace's radar is especially attuned to good seafood, so we were in capable hands for this feast.
This dish, with its abundance of really good lobster and a tiny, tiny price tag, is the main reason she suggested this particular restaurant. But I pushed the lobster aside in favor of the noodles. They were freshly made and divine, flavored with everything that's sitting atop them--noodles bathed in the essence of all that lobster. (Well, okay, I had a couple of bites of lobster, and yes, it was fine stuff, too.)
The eggplant was stuffed with seafood and topped with black beans, peppers, onions and sesame seeds. It's difficult to tell, but there are four servings here. This was a strong contender for "Best Dish of the Meal," even in the face of unfair competition from an obscene amount of lobster.
And this is fried tofu stuffed with seafood. Are we noticing a theme here? Well, yes, it is a seafood restaurant. I've never had both seafood and tofu in the same bite, but it works, it really does.
This small plate looks pretty modest, with a bite of a half-dozen different things. But when you eat it all, and then more comes out and you eat that, and then more comes out and you eat realize at some point that you shouldn't have had that last go-round. But it was all so gooood... By the way, that rather ghostly looking little pink dumpling to the right was filled with the fattest, juiciest shrimp I've ever had. And the pork bun in the foreground would have made a good dessert, with its sweet barbecue sauce. Note those sad little green beans nestled in there, trying to make up for everything else we were eating. They were no match for all that deep-fried, saucy goodness.
This photo doesn't adequately display the onslaught, for as soon as a steamer or plate was emptied, it was quickly whisked away. But you can tell that by this point, we were all starting to slow down and sink deeper into our seats.
Bringing order out of chaos: SOMEBODY'S gotta do it! (I did finally eat those green beans, by the way.)

"Dim sum" more or less translates as "touch the heart," which originally had to do with the business of having a light snack to tide you over. But I prefer to think of the heart touching aspect of sitting down to eat with a group, with the conviviality, abundance and happy confusion involved in spinning the lazy susan and trying to grab a bite of something before it goes whizzing past. Of gloating over having scored that final piece. And of sharing a bite of it with someone else who was after it, too.

By the end of the meal Himself and I were almost in a coma, thick of head and slow of gait. As we staggered toward our car, we agreed: Too much dim sum will make you dim and then some. But in a good way. ;)