Cooking Becky Selengut: Seared scallops with carrot cream

Becky Selengut sears a mean scallop! In her fantastic new cookbook, Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast, she divides the world of fish into shellfish, finfish, and littlefish & eggs, and under shellfish has a whole five-recipe section devoted just to scallops. The recipes proceed from easy to advanced, so I decided to tackle the middle one:  scallops with carrot cream and marjoram. Here’s what Becky’s version looked like. (Becky, don’t ever fire your food stylist (Clare Barboza)!–This is just one of dozens of mouthwatering shots of beautifully prepared seafood.)

The scallops section opens with a two-page spread devoted to tips for searing scallops. (You can also go to the video: www.goodfishbook.com.) I’m scared of high heat, so I really meditated on this tip sheet. Plus, I’ve never cooked a scallop in my (long, long) life!–But we’ll be fine; just listen to Becky.

Let’s take stock here. To cook this dish, we are going to make a carrot cream, we are going to pickle some carrot strips, we are going to make an herb oil, and to top it off we are going to garnish the whole thing with some fresh marjoram leaves. And of course cook our scallops! Becky’s recipe talks about the herb oil last, but (partly to postpone the showdown with the scallops) I’m going to move it up ahead of cooking the shellfish.

Carrot cream

This part is easy. And I can think of a dozen different uses for it–keep this one on hand. Here’s what you need:

  • 1/2 lb. of carrots, peeled and cut into a large dice (about 2 cups)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • freshly ground pepper to taste

Put the carrots and salt into a medium saucepan, cover them with water, bring the pot to a boil, and cook until the carrot pieces are tender (7 or 8 minutes). (I turned the heat down a bit once they began to boil.) Drain them, put them in a blender with the cream and pepper, and blend them until you have a very smooth purée. That’s it! Set them aside until you are ready to plate the scallops.

Pickled carrots

Now on to our pickled carrots. Once again, easy. Here’s what you need:

  • 1 large carrot, sliced into short ribbons using a vegetable peeler (about 1 cup)
  • 1/4 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar

Actually, I tried using a vegetable peeler, but I didn’t get the nice fat shavings that look so great in the photo, so instead I used the slicing option on a box grater; it worked great. (I decided to put off worrying about how they made those cool curls.) The other thing to note is that “seasoned rice wine vinegar” is an off-the-shelf product. After fretting about how to season it, I just went to the store–no problem, there it is on the shelf in the ethnic section. Marinate the carrots for at least 20 minutes, then drain (save the vinegar for another purpose) and set aside until time to assemble the dish. Actually, as you’ll see, I ended up leaving the carrots in the vinegar for several days; still delicious. (These carrots would also be a nice garnish for an antipasto plate or appetizer spread, with pepperoncinis and other vinegary treats.)

Marjoram leaves

This has been a bad summer for my garden (sun? heat? no such luck). But my back deck does better than anyplace else in the garden, so my herb pots are flourishing. Which means I strolled out to the deck and pinched off a generous handful of fresh parsley and marjoram leaves for the herb oil and the garnish. Nice.

Herb oil

On to the herb oil. What you need:

  • 3/4 cup packed fresh Italian parsley leaves
  • 1 tablespoon fresh marjoram leaves
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup neutral vegetable oil, like canola or safflower
  • pinch of salt

In a blender, combine the parsley, marjoram, olive oil, vegetable oil, and salt. Blend until the oil turns a vibrant green color, about 3 minutes. You can strain the oil through a fine-mesh strainer if you’d like, or leave it with some texture. Transfer it to a bowl or squeeze bottle.

My blender isn’t the greatest, so I don’t think I got the mix as completely emulsified as Becky intended. But, because I had a delay of a couple of days in the middle of finishing this recipe, the bright-green oil separated from the chopped leaves, and I was able to spoon some clear oil off the top of the little bowl. (Becky talks about variations on this recipe and explains why she uses the two kinds of oil, but hey, buy the book! You’ll be happy you did, and I’m ready to get on with searing these scallops.)

Seared scallops

What you need:

  • 1 pound sea scallops
  • salt (Becky uses sea salt; I used kosher) and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon high-heat vegetable oil (I used grapeseed oil)

Here we go. Becky’s instructions: “To prepare the scallops, dry them with paper towels. Place them on a plate and season generously with salt and pepper. Heat a heavy skillet over high heat. Add the vegetable oil and, when it is really hot, carefully add the scallops to the pan, being careful not to splatter oil on yourself or crowd the pan with too many scallops. Cook the scallops for 2 minutes on one side without disturbing them, or until they are caramelized, then flip, cooking the other side for only a minute or so more.” Before you get going, watch the video; it helps a lot.

I didn’t (the first time through). Plus, I did exactly what she warns us not to do–I dialed down the heat before I even put the scallops in the pan. So, to get some color on them, I left them in there for oh four minutes or so. Rubber! Say hello to the most expensive erasers you ever saw.

But let’s move on. A few days later (carrot cream, pickled carrots, and herb oil waiting in the fridge) I tried again. The second try was not bad; I still didn’t have the pan hot enough to get a really thorough sear on both sides, but they tasted pretty good. So I went for one more try, this time using grapeseed oil and my heaviest cast-iron skillet. Fire it up to high!–Don’t flinch! (I found it helpful to yell “Gaaaaa!” as my bare fingers placed the scallops into the slightly smoking pan.) Still not as pretty as Becky’s picture, but closer. And they had more crunch and texture, plus I swear they tasted sweeter and brinier for it.

So now to attempt to copy Becky’s fantastic presentation. It turns out that you can make the carrot strips curl by . . . well, curling them up. Once you anchor them in the carrot cream, they don’t uncurl too much, and look very pretty. Spoon on some oil, scatter some marjoram leaves. And then eat!

(Thanks, Becky, for giving me permission to clutz my way through your recipe in public. Everybody, look for Becky’s classes at PCC and elsewhere. You can also follow her link on my blogroll or go straight to her own site.)

A mystery at the famous King’s Inn

When I first moved to Seattle to join the UW faculty (a while back now!), at some reception or other a guy in the Chemical Engineering department asked me where I was from. “Kingsville, Texas,” I answered, braced to provide a complicated explanation of where that was (essentially, the end of the earth). “Oh, sure,” he says, “down near the King’s Inn!”

Lots of people know about the King’s Inn, the iconic seafood restaurant on Baffin Bay south of Corpus Christi and–keep driving!–south of my home town Kingsville too. Every graduation, every anniversary, every reunion is marked by a trip to King’s Inn, and most first dates, family visits, kid’s birthdays, and fishing trips as well. I remember reaching up to hold my daddy’s hand as we walked into King’s Inn! So I was really looking forward to ending my visit to Texas with our traditional King’s Inn dinner.

What happened? We got there just on time at around 7:30. (After what has now become the inevitable drive through the near-by RV park. It’s nice. They maintain it well. Can we go get our fish now?) Here’s my brother Robert heading in the door, and here he is with my sister-in-law Marilyn and my other brother Ron with his friend Silvia.

King’s Inn is a big sprawling informal place right on the bay,  always packed on Saturday night. We always order exactly the same thing. We start with a Bombay salad (a fantastic avocado puree livened up with a lot of garlic and a little bit of curry), with a big side of sliced tomatoes ripened to juicy succulence by the South Texas sun. Then we have fried Gulf shrimp, grilled fish, french fries, and breaded onion rings.

The salad came pretty quickly, and we polished it off just as quickly. Then–? Nothing. Our server filled us up with tea, brought more crackers, and apologized more than once. What was the deal? Well, they had gotten backed up in the kitchen. Surprised by a bigger crowd than they expected. I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it–they’ve been feeding huge Saturday night crowds for over six decades.

Finally, around 9:00, we spotted trays of shrimp beginning to sweep across the room toward the more haggard and slumped occupants of the corner tables. And then, way over by the kitchen door, our server appeared with a big grin and thumbs-up, tray laden with our whole order! I hardly paused to take a picture of the plump shrimp and beautifully grilled fish (it was drum, similar to redfish), served family style as always. Given our state, I had to focus on getting my share! But the fish was great as always, made with maybe only a very thin egg wash (if that) and dredging in scant seasoned flour. The fried shrimp (the three that I could wrestle away from my brothers!) were firm, briny, and wonderful. Sweet breaded fried onion rings, thin light french fries. Great food!

We asked a couple of times but couldn’t get further enlightened about what went wrong. My sister-in-law mentioned the sprawl of coolers out on the bay side of the restaurant; maybe evidence of some kind of last-ditch damage-control action? I don’t know. But I’ll go back next year and update you on how it goes. Everybody gets a second chance, right? And after all, once it arrived, the food was good as ever!

If you are in South Texas, you really should give them a visit:  http://www.baffinbaytx.com/kingsinn.htm

Hu-Dat’s for pho in South Texas

Did I really go to the Texas Gulf Coast to eat pho?–2,500 miles away from Seattle, where you can find a pho restaurant in every square block? Yes, and I’m glad I did. Hu-Dat Oriental Restaurant in Rockport serves a great bowl and tells a distinctively American story as well. (How did I find myself in Rockport?–My brother Ron lives there. That’s him and his friend Silvia under the sign.)

I had the No. 16, pho dac biet. The broth was really flavorful, with an undertone of sweetness; my nephew Beau (a Hu-Dat regular) tells me that they simmer it for over a day. My bowl brimmed with rice noodles, green onion, a bit of chicken, and sliced meatballs, with paper-thin slices of raw beef on the side for us to stir into the hot soup. The accompaniments included shredded cabbage (not the sprouts that I’m used to), basil, lime, and jalapeño pepper. A bit different from pho I’ve eaten in Seattle, but an herby, citrusy, spicy, silky, crunchy, slurpy  pleasure!–My serving was huge, and I came close to finishing it.

Hu-Dat’s is a real family restaurant. The owners, the Nguyens, immigrated to the US in 1975 after the fall of Saigon and ended up in Rockport-Fulton, attracted (like many other Vietnamese families) by the chance to continue their traditional livelihood of shrimping. But by 1983, the hostility and racism that the Vietnamese shrimpers were forced to live with (widespread at that time along the whole stretch of the Gulf Coast) finally led them to sell their boat and go into the restaurant business. In 1993, they launched the sandwich shop that soon morphed into Hu-Dat’s.

But times do change. Their son, Dat Nguyen, born in a refugee camp in Arkansas soon after they arrived here, proved to be a stellar young athlete and ended up recruited by Texas A&M as a linebacker. He improbably became a gridiron star, the first Vietnamese to play in the NFL (for the Dallas Cowboys). He has now returned to A&M to coach. There’s a big poster of him in his college hey-day right by the restaurant’s front door.

And here’s our server. In another sign of the changing times, she is also the grandmother of Beau’s sister Kate’s daughter. (Modern families are complicated.) And, since this post has ended up being about families, here’s another piece of mine:  Ron and Silvia with my nephew Beau and his friend Molly. Hu-Dat regulars all!

Hu-Dat’s doesn’t have a website yet, but if you end up hungry in Rockport, ask anybody–they’ll know where to send you!

 

Seguin’s Chiro Java: Get thoroughly adjusted!

Chiro Java in Seguin, Texas takes attitude adjustment to a whole new level!  There’s a chiropractic office square in the middle of the cafe, and Dr. Frisbie (yes, that’s his name) can fix your spine while the cafe fixes your sandwich. (Please tell me who dreams these things up!) Need to check your email?–Fine, Chiro Java’s an internet cafe as well.

My sister Jacque and I stopped in for lunch on my last day in Seguin (that’s her, stirring her sweet tea).  I had the chicken and olive-tapenade sandwich; moist white meat on fresh house-made sourdough bread, lightly dressed with the tapenade. Tasty!

Chiro Java is the kind of place that feels like home. Another customer comes in to place his order and it’s “hi, Sam” and some chit-chat that seems to take up where it left off a few days ago. A friend swings by our table to invite my sister to a get-together later on at her house. A side cabinet displays work from local artists, and a clutch of flyers keeps you up to date on local events.

In fact, there’s a lot to like in Seguin. The Guadalupe River snakes through town, bordered by spacious well-kept parks with picnic tables, barbeque pits, playing fields, and pathways that invite you to come on in and stay a while. The town boasts six community gardens for a population of about 30,000, and anybody can come by and harvest produce from them without charge; the gardeners just ask that you take care to leave the plants healthy for the next visitor. And the locals take pride in their heritage; after lunch, be sure to step around the corner to take in the mural of Seguin history that stretches along the wall of the building. Chiro Java’s self-proclaimed purpose is to “MAKE YOU FEEL GOOD”–and that seems to sum up the spirit of the town as well!

Learn more about Chiro Java here: http://www.chirojava.com/

A find in the Texas Barbeque Belt: Davila’s BBQ in Seguin

The national food rags have discovered Texas barbeque! Bon Apétit and others have recently sung the praises of Franklin’s in Austin, Mueller’s in Taylor, and any number of more obscure barbeque joints. In Austin, the 107º heat persuaded me that I didn’t want to line up outside Franklin’s and wait two hours or more to order (hoping desperately that they wouldn’t give the guy ahead of me the last nub of brisket). So no Austin barbeque for me!

But I did get lucky in Seguin, the town about 40 miles east of San Antonio where my sister Jacque lives. By bbq-joint standards, Davila’s is upscale–instead of butcher paper, you get an actual paper plate on a tray, and you get to sit in air-conditioned ease in a pleasant dining room. But the meat is the real thing, smoked to a char on the outside and melting with flavor and juice on the inside. My sister and I might as well be the Sprat family; Jac can eat no fat and I can eat (almost) no lean. But we were both happy here; she had the sliced turkey and I went with the nicely marbled slices of brisket. (And our friend Alicia looked pretty pleased with her ham.) I added sides of slaw and borracho beans (“drunk” beans, made with Mexican beer), with the usual garnishes of barbeque sauce, onion and pickle slices, and a jalapeño. I decided against the slice of white sandwich bread (heresy–the slice is iconic bbq fixin’s), but I did go for the styrofoam cup of banana pudding. And of course, a big cup of sweet tea.

Seguin is a friendly town; Coraima Acuña, Alicia’s across-the-street neighbor, was working that night, so of course they had to say hello. The other two folks behind the counter were Ariel Perez (on the left) and Josue Fuentes.

And owner Adrian Davila arrived in time for me to grab a picture of him too. (He’s a busy man; there’s a second Davila’s across town, and I hear there’s a food truck as well.)

Davila’s speaks barbeque with a Spanish accent; you can also get fajitas, tacos, and other dishes that draw on the long traditions of Mexican barbacoa. And if you need a burger or a po-boy or a piece of fried chicken, they can help you out with that as well. American food, jostling through an ethnic and regional crowd of flavors and preparations! Not your typical single-minded bbq joint, but a local fixture of a restaurant offering great barbeque that can hold its own in the crowded Texas Barbeque Belt.

Austin’s Eastside Cafe–From farm to table in one step

Road trip! I’ve been in Texas for the last ten days. On Thursday afternoon when I got into Austin, my friend Nancy and I went off to her neighborhood cafe for dinner. What a treat! Eastside Cafe manages to re-create, in the middle of urban Austin, the farm-to-table experience some of us remember from our grandmother’s garden cooking.  A lush acre or so of densely planted garden plots and a shaded chicken coop yield a harvest that travels only a few feet to the cafe kitchen, and then only a few more steps to our plate.

My grandmother was a very practical woman; she marshaled her flowers and vegetables like a garden militia in straight furrows an acre long. But the Eastside gardeners play!–Look how their plots swing along toward the parking lot, a little tipsy, about to lean on each other’s shoulders or brace each other on a hip.

The menu incorporates the garden produce where it can, but also offers a wider range of beautifully prepared dishes. We started with a gazpacho (did I mention that it was over 100°, even at 7:00 in the evening?–a cold soup was a GREAT idea). The corn muffin that came with it was light and crumbly–perfect.

Nancy had the chicken and spinach crepes with a yellow curry cream sauce, served with apple chutney, broccoli with lemon butter, and mixed greens with a lemon tarragon vinaigrette. (I stole some forks-full; delicious!) Because my body thought it was two hours earlier, I wanted a lighter supper, so I had the grilled Ruby Trout with shiitake mushroom ginger cream sauce. (It also came with the broccoli; plus, notice the mint leaves, straight from the garden.) Moist and flavorful–what a pleasure!

Once we looked at the dessert menu, it turned out that we had room after all–chocolate mousse pie, garnished with a flower from the passion vine growing out back. Our server was great! I made a note of her name, but I haven’t found it just yet; I’ll update this when I do. (This just in!–Courtney, known by the cafe gang as CC.) She was very pleasant and helpful (and knowledgeable about food blogs!). We didn’t stop by the gift shop, but if we had, we could have bought preserves and other products from the cafe’s garden.

I’ve been to the Eastside Cafe several times now over the last decade or so, whenever I’ve found myself in Austin. I’ve never been disappointed, but this time I was especially pleased! And the word seems to be out; later that night, talking to an old friend about where to have lunch the next day, his first thought was “what about the Eastside Cafe?” Great idea!

Find out more about Eastside Cafe here: http://www.eastsidecafeaustin.com/index.html

Osteria La Spiga

Osteria La Spiga lives comfortably at the intersection of Old World and New–the menu, with accents of the authentic culinary traditions of Emilia-Romagna, is presented in a setting that speaks a contemporary Northwest dialect of polished wood, exposed brick, and structural steel. The expansive dining room resolves into more intimate settings defined by beams, glass, textures, booths and “cubicles.” In rustic counterpoint, a weathered Italian sideboard anchors the service area, reminding you that the preparation of your meal actually began many years ago in the old kitchens of Emilia-Romagna.

And the food is as appealing as the setting. Last Sunday, a friend and I had a lovely dinner there. Soon after you are seated, a basket of homemade flat bread arrives: a dense chewy bread, Piadina (the menu tells me) is vegan. You can eat it plain (as we did) or dress it with olive oil (you have a choice of two!), balsamic vinegar, or truffle oil (ordered a la carte).

For the antipasto, we had prosciutto-wrapped figs filled with mascarpone and drizzled with saba (a grape must syrup), served with arugula from the chef’s garden. The plate was dotted with a nice reduction of balsamic vinegar, and the figs were sweet-savory, with a pleasing mix of textures. I love arugula; this version was young enough for only a hint of pepper beneath its smoke, and the dressing was light enough to let the flavors through.

(Last time I ate here, we had the Fritto Misto di Pesce for the starter–fried calamari, shrimp, and sardines; the current menu offers the dish with bay scallops instead of sardines, accompanied by a salsa verde dipping sauce. I would have ordered it again, if we hadn’t managed to snare the very last serving of the beautiful figs.)

Primi

We came hungry!–we ordered two primi. I went with the Tagliatelle Verdi al Cinghiale: green tagliatelle with a wild boar and white wine ragu. It wasn’t an easy choice. On my last visit, a friend had the Tagliatelle al Burro di Tartufo (tagliatelle noodles with white Alba Truffle butter), and I sneaked a taste–a lovely, rich sauce. But I’m glad I tried the boar ragu; the ground meat was delicate but added a distinctive earthy note to the wine sauce. You want to pay attention to this pasta! It is hand-made daily on-site. (You can watch; the pasta room, behind the sideboard, has glass walls.)  If you are like me, you usually cook with dried commercial pasta, which has a uniform texture and thickness and bland taste. Say hello to pasta with character!–This pasta has a rustic shape and texture that holds the sauce in a very different and satisfying way.

For the other “first,” my friend had the Gnocchi al Pomodoro: potato dumplings tossed in the house tomato sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano. I had this dish last time and loved it. The gnocchi are very light, and the tomato sauce is absolutely to die for–delicate, aromatic, flavorful.

Secondi

We shared a single order of the porchetta (slow roasted pork shoulder with rosemary, sage and fennel seed served with fennel alla Parmigiana). The plating under-sells this wonderful dish; even a sprig of parsley would have brightened the presentation. But don’t be deceived; you are about to taste a dish that is anything but bland. The first clue was that it was served with a spoon. After having roasted low and slow over-night, the meat fell apart into moist chunks at the first touch. I would have told you that fennel wasn’t among my favorites, but the fennel seed and mild braised fennel worked like a wonder with the flavor of the pork. (I couldn’t get enough! Unfortunately, it is bad manners to stab your table-mate’s hand, so I had to make do with my half.) We rounded out our meal with a serving of Polenta Fritta:  fried polenta wedges with a thin crisp skin over a light creamy interior. Classic!

As it happens, my stepson Ezra works at La Spiga, and in his typical top form, he brought us each a taste of vin santo to end our meal. He explains: “the drink I brought you was a vin santo from Tuscany (as all vin santos are) made from the
left-overs of grapes used to produce chianti.  It’s called ‘ Occhio di Pernice,’ which means ‘eye of the partridge.'”

Here’s Darliene, who was maitre ‘d this evening (vamping for the camera–you go, Darliene!) And here’s my stepson Ezra, the floor manager, who was bartending on Sunday. (I couldn’t get a money shot of him–he wouldn’t stay still!) For some reason (because I was totally focused on my plate?) I didn’t take a picture of our server Miranda. She did a very good job for us–unobtrusive but somehow there when we look around with a question.

I’ve had dinner at La Spiga several times now, with various of my opinionated and outspoken foodie friends (you know who you are). The consensus is: great food and very good service. Does it help that Ezra is my stepson? Probably!–but get acquainted with him and Darliene and the rest of the staff–they’ll take good care of you too. That’s the fun of having a place that draws you back again and again, where they welcome you every time.

La Spiga, owned by Sabrina Tinsley and Pietro Borghesi, is on Capitol Hill in Seattle, on 12th Ave. between Pike and Union.  http://www.laspiga,com.

Locally grown meats–Get to know your rancher

I got the word late last week that Paulette Lefever Holbrook was making another run to deliver her meat products in Seattle last Saturday, so I signed up fast and scored my third community-supported-agriculture order this year from her ranch in Goldendale (about four hours east of the mountains and down near the Columbia River).

Paulette and her kids take service seriously! They wheeled my order not just to my door but to my open freezer. Here are Conor (thirteen years old now) and Madison (fifteen), about to lug the cooler up my front steps. (I introduced you to Conor a while back in a post about Lefever Holbrook Ranch lamb riblets.)

After we got the meat in the freezer, I got a family shot of Paulette, Madison, and Conor in my kitchen. This time, they brought me country ribs, baby back ribs, bacon, pork shoulder roast, and lamb shanks. Here’s my new stash in the basement freezer (with a few items left from before as well). And just to be nice, they brought me some cherries and a bag of gooseberries!

These people know how to work hard. In addition to the pork, lamb, duck, beef, and bison that I’ve bought from them so far, they raise turkeys and have just added rabbits. They raise all these animals, manage the slaughtering, and bring the meats to market. Not busy enough? They’ve added The Little Sheep Bakery, turning out artisan breads, cakes and cookies. They have garden beds with horseradish, shallots, garlic, and French string beans ready for harvest now. And lots of raspberries! Oh, and the catering business. (I think I’ve left out a few things.)

We sat out back and chatted for a little bit, and the conversation turned to leaf lard (fat from around the pig’s kidneys; remember my rendering exercise?). Paulette tells me that they are harvesting another pig this week; she will talk to the butcher about cutting me some of this “gold standard” lard.

I still haven’t been over to visit the ranch, but we talked about my coming over in September. (By then I should be able to pick up my next lamb order.) Stay tuned.

If you live in this region, look into participating in the CSA program that Paulette, Conor, and Madison offer. Don’t picture a side of beef hanging in your basement!–You can scale your participation to your family’s needs, and the meats arrive either paper-wrapped or vacuum-sealed in plastic. You will love the products and enjoy getting to know these great folks. Here’s how to get in touch with them:

  • Lefever Holbrook Ranch, 1098 Hwy 97, Goldendale, WA 98620, 509-773-3443
  • papa_pklh@yahoo.com

Tilth’s demo garden: Life in the sustainable garden

Standing in a garden on a warm sunny day, watching cream-colored butterflies flutter among the tidy plots of vegetables, listening to the buzz and whir of hover-flies and bees, I wasn’t really thinking of Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw.” But I was touring Seattle Tilth’s demonstration garden, and tour leader Amy Ockerlander was just then telling us about watching a centipede cut up a cabbage worm and eat it. How can you raise the odds that you’ll have a hungry centipede patrolling your garden patch? We were there to see how Tilth harnesses natural processes to grow healthy vegetables in sustainable ways.

Big message number one was start with mulch. (That’s Amy by the huge pile of it.) Especially in a climate like ours, where it rains all winter long and then in summer (usually!) rains hardly at all, mulch soaks up moisture, keeps nutrients from being washed away, and suppresses weeds that fight your veg for nutrients. Plus it provides a happy home for critters like centipedes, spiders, and other helpful killers. You can also protect your soil by putting down a layer of feed bags (especially effective over the winter here to keep soil dry-ish). This is Seattle, so of course we go for coffee-bean bags!

Mulch was only one “layer” strategy we talked about. Those cream-colored butterflies?–As they flutter prettily from plant to plant they are laying hundreds of dot-sized eggs on your cabbage-family plants that hatch into voracious bright green cabbage worms. One way to mess them up is to put in a physical barrier–cover the plants with row cover, a light cloth sheet that keeps the butterflies from sticking their eggs to the leaves.

In following the “layer” strategy, you don’t always have to put the layer on top. In “hugelkultur,” the raised garden bed starts with a layer of rotting wood (chips, twigs, sticks, branches . . .) at the bottom. Then you mound the soil on top. Think of the wood as a “nurse log” for your plant, sponging up water and nutrients that otherwise would leach away.

To thrive, your garden also needs pollinator insects like mason bees. The Tilth gardeners have constructed mason bee “blocks,” little bee condominiums, under the eaves of the building, so that the bees can over-winter and re-populate year after year. And to attract pollinators, the garden has flowering ornamentals planted among the vegetables.

Some plants naturally thrive when planted together, like the “three sisters” in Mexican farming: corn, squash, and beans. (Normally, the corn would be close to eight feet tall!–but here in Seattle, it’s lucky to hit five feet.) The corn provides a trellis for the beans to climb up, and the squash shades the roots of the other “sisters.”

Big message number two was keep your resources where you use them. They use a rain garden to manage the rainfall runoff from the building–about 20,000 gallons of it in a typical year! (This is water that isn‘t going into the sewer system, to be processed and then bought back from the city to water the garden. That’s a long round trip to water that veg patch over there!) Pipes capture the water and feed it to a narrow trickle of rock-lined stream bed that delivers it to a  bowl-shaped depression about five feet across. The thick plantings hold it there until it soaks out to the surrounding area. They also use compost “digesters” to break down plant trimmings into nutrients that leak out of the bottom into the surrounding soil to be taken up by the next-door-neighbor plants.

Amy described the whole sustainable gardening endeavor as “bringing life into the garden.” I loved to hear how cleverly these master gardeners wove together and managed the thrust of life in soil, plants, insects, light, and water to make a healthy, bountiful harvest. But for me, it is also a sustaining pleasure to see the order and grace of their well-tended garden–to sit on a lovely trellis bench and gaze at the garden, to admire a fragrant stand of basil corralled by an artful soldiering of bamboo stakes, to imagine beans scrambling up the string trellis behind the lettuces in their hoop pergolas. I love these minutely tended plots that speak so eloquently about the diligence and hopes of the people who built them!

Grilled pork loin with Bittman glaze and broiled tomatoes

Clear skies, temperatures finally above the 60’s!–Tonight I just had to grill! But grill what?

When I stopped at Rain Shadow Meats last week, in addition to my pork fat I also got a pork tenderloin (from the same provider, Carlton Farms in Oregon). And last Monday when I was up at La Conner Flats in Skagit Valley, I got four beautiful early tomatoes and a nice head of lettuce. Plus, think back–do you remember Mark Bittman’s glazed lamb ribs?–I made more glaze than I needed, so I had a tiny bit stashed in the freezer (I’m cheap).

So let’s pull something together! This morning I nuked the glaze, then brushed the pork loin with it and put it in the fridge to marinate. Come dinner time, I cut the almost over-ripe tomatoes in half across the equator and salted and peppered them. Then I went out to my herb pot on the deck and cut a big sprig of “spicy hot” oregano, chopped up the leaves, and sprinkled them on the tomatoes. Finally, I drizzled the tomato halves with my Portuguese olive oil. Ready to broil.

Next, I oiled my gas grill and fired it up to the max. I slapped on the pork loin and grilled it on its four sides about three minutes a side, then pulled it off and tented it with foil while I broiled the tomatoes. (It had nice color but needed to continue cooking under the foil for just a few minutes. I like pork pink in the middle; otherwise, it gets dry.) Taste?–The glaze had a sweet note from the honey, and the spicier flavors (coriander, fennel, vinegar) worked really well with the smoke of the grill.

So then I broiled the tomatoes for a few minutes, watching the whole time and pulling them out as soon as the oregano crisped up and they got some color (I didn’t grill them because I was afraid that they would lose structure and fall into the fire. They were ripe!)

Then I put down a crisp leaf of La Conner Flats lettuce, topped it with some tomatoes, and added some big curls of Parmesano-Reggiano cheese. I added a few slices of the pork tenderloin, and done!–I had a very nice dinner.

On a day like today when the evening news is absolutely soul-killing, it is comforting to enjoy a simple meal made from beautiful ingredients that are the products of intelligence and labor and care. Bon appetit!

Los Reyes Tienda Mexicana–for Mexican ingredients, go see Mario!

I’m on a mission to make home-made tamales! And one of my biggest challenges has been finding fresh, traditional ingredients. Problem solved!–I’ve discovered Los Reyes Tienda Mexicana!

If you read my “Mex auténtica” post, you know that I recently took a class in Mexican cooking from chef Suzanne Hunter. Suzanne steered us toward a couple of resources for authentic ingredients, including the Los Reyes store, so I headed off to Bothell to check it out. What a find! Not only did I get the fresh masa, corn husks, and banana leaves I needed for my tamales, I also scored some Mexican brown sugar (called “piloncillo” for its cone shape) and Mexican cinnamon (canela). And (if I’d had sense enough to bring my list of ingredients) I’m betting that, among the store’s extensive collection, I would have found all the chiles and other ingredients called for in our mole negro recipe. Did I mention the wall of Mexican salsas and hot sauces? It was like being back in Oaxaca again!

Owner Mario Reyes helped me pull all this stuff together–banana leaves from the chest freezer, masa from the cold case–all the while chatting with me. He tells me that the shop has been around for twelve years!–I wish I’d found it sooner. He also put up gracefully with my fractured Spanish, and even encouraged me to come out there to practice on him. (He’ll be sorry; I’m going to take him up on it.)

Mario tells me that his daughter is working on the store’s new website. But for now, you can find the store here: http://bothell.komonews.com/business-directory/food-dining/647594/los-reyes-mexican-store. And go see Mario! The city is working on the street right in front of the shop; he has put a sign out there close to the roadway, but it’s kind of over-powered by the road equipment. So keep an eye out for the driveway–you can turn in and park right in front.

Los Reyes Tienda Mexicana (Los Reyes Mexican Store), (425) 415-0922, 17208 Bothell Way NE, Bothell, WA.

Taylor Shellfish Grand Opening and other action at Melrose Market!

Melrose Market was hoppin’ yesterday when I went by to buy my pork fat! The big event was the Grand Opening of Taylor Shellfish Farms‘ new Seattle store. The grills were cranked up and covered with oysters on the half-shell, and at the other end of the booth, paper boats of curried mussels on rice were sailing quickly into the crowd’s hands. You had to move fast to get a serving, but it wasn’t hard to tell who the go-to guy was! (He looked like he was having a great time, but seriously, how do they get people to do these things?)

Both oysters and mussels were delicious! (I’m guessing that at least one of you out there is saying, but Judy, I thought you didn’t eat bi-valves . . .? Well, that was then! It turns out that there’s pretty much nothing that I can’t eat.)

So, I actually got through the crowd into the store and bought some beautiful frozen scallops. More cheerful people in there! Taylor Shellfish Farms is headquartered south of Seattle in Shelton, Washington, and they also have a store up north near Samish Bay in the Skagit Valley, which is one of the most beautiful places on the globe. (Stay tuned for more on that!) But it will be super to have them here in town too.

I don’t go to Melrose Market without making time to hang around and visit my other favorite shops. I told you a little bit about Rain Shadow Meats yesterday. Proprietor Russell Flint, known locally as a chef but also with ten years’ experience in butchery, opened up about a year ago. He offers beautiful meats and meat products from local farmers, labeled with the name and locale of the provider. And the staff can answer any question you can think of (and the people who shop here can think of a lot of them!).

Across the way, The Calf and Kid owner Sheri LaVigne was heading out the door, but Erin Burgess got me up to speed on their new cheeses. After tasting pretty much everything she mentioned (probably not a great idea to offer me samples), I ended up getting two. The first is a chevre from Yarmouth Farms up in Darrington (I told you about one of their other cheeses in my very first post!)  I also got a raw sheep’s-milk cheese called Queso de Oreja from Adna, also in Washington. This one is a hard cheese similar to a manchego. How do I know that?–Because Erin explained it to me! That’s why I stick with shops like these, staffed by people who love what they are selling. You get a great product, you get an education, you feel like you’ve been chatting with a friend. What a great experience! (Visit Sheri’s blog for a running account of her sixteen months or so ramping up the business–also great stories!)

Rendering lard (or making chicharones!)

On the road to making home-made tamales, I stumbled across a very tasty little bonus. Real tamales are made with lard; but store-bought lard is hydrogenated and otherwise unappealing (the brand sold at my grocery store has “BHA, propyl gallate, and citric acid added to help protect flavor”–and still tasted rancid).  So I ended up home-rendering some. (Are you cringing? So did I, at first. But stay with me here.) Surprise: when you render lard from cut-up pork fat, you end up with mouth-watering little “left-overs”–fried bits that are called in various traditions cracklings, pork rinds, chitlins, or in Spanish-speaking regions, chicharones. (These terms can also mean fried pork skin, but I’m talking about the “fat husks” that are a by-product of making lard.)

Here’s how I made the lard, and in the process discovered these little goodies. First I went off to Rain Shadow Meats in the Melrose Market to buy about a pound of pork back fat. (“Leaf lard,” the fat from around the pig’s kidneys, is supposed to make higher quality lard, but they didn’t have any on hand and I was ready to get going.) By the way, Rain Shadow tells you where everything they sell comes from; this hunk of frozen fat arrived in Seattle from Carlton Farms in Oregon.

The experts out in Blogville laid out the process for me: cut up the fat into small pieces (half-inch cubes), put about a half-cup of water in a heavy pot, add the fat, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently. How hard could that be? So I got the pot going. (I gather that the water keeps the fat bits from sticking or burning until the fat begins to melt; it evaporates off after a while.) It took about 45 minutes for the fat to start melting, and there were some pretty impressive pops and sizzles as the water trapped in the fat cooked off.

But here came the surprise!–Fat doesn’t melt like say a pat of butter does; it leaves behind a “skeleton.” Fat has structure! Why this blew me away I don’t know; fat is a body tissue, after all, and anyway I’ve certainly fried my share of bacon. But I didn’t know that the fat would leave behind these little fried cubes. At first, they float to the surface, but when they sink to the bottom of the pan, they tell me, your lard is rendered. (I used a big stock pot for my pound of fat, so the liquid was pretty shallow!–It became a judgment call to say when they “sank.”)

After all the fat has melted and the fried bits have sunk (it took about an hour and a half), you let the pot cool slightly. Then you line a strainer with cheesecloth and pour the lard through it into a glass jar.  (A pound of fat yields about a pint of lard.) The liquid lard is straw-colored. Put it in the refrigerator; after it solidifies, it turns almost white. (They tell me that leaf lard is almost perfectly white, but mine looks pretty good to me!) The word is that lard will keep in the refrigerator for three months, or frozen for up to a year.

And now about those succulent little morsels left behind in the cheesecloth! They taste like the most delicate bacon you ever fried! So now I’ve gone from a reluctant lard-maker to an enthusiastic chicharones-maker. I’m going to eat them with anything that tastes good with bacon! In fact, last night I had them with poached eggs and chard.

Poached eggs with chard and chicharones

Chicharones–the little crispy pieces that are left after you render pork fat into lard. I had no idea how good they could be! When you make them at home, they taste like the lightest possible bits of crunchy bacon fat! So I wanted to come up with a way to use them the same way we might use bacon bits, but in a simple supper dish.

I decided to have poached eggs with chard, garnished with chicharones.

So I went out to my tiny garden and collected about six big leaves of rainbow chard. After washing and drying the leaves, I cut the stems into 1/2″ long pieces, then cut the leaves cross-wise into 1/2″-wide ribbons.

I started two pots, one to steam the chard and one to poach the eggs. (We’ll have all the fat we need from the pork bits!) For the chard, I put a steamer basket into a small pot, added water almost up to the level of the bottom of the steamer, and, once the water started to boil, turned it down to a bare simmer and put the cut chard stems in. I let them steam, covered, for two minutes while I broke two eggs into individual cups and, once the water reached a very low simmer in the second pot, slipped them straight into its hot water. Then, back to the chard pot, I added the chard leaves to the stems and covered the pot again; both the chard and the eggs simmered for about four minutes more.

Done! I used tongs to transfer the chard leaves and stems to the plate, then used a strainer to fish out the poached eggs and pile them on. I added a couple of drops of sherry vinegar to the chard, and kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper over both eggs and chard. Finally, I shaved a cherry tomato and bit of red onion into paper-thin slices and added them. Then I sprinkled the dish with my fresh home-made chicharones. Bacon and eggs! (–Re-thought).

Eat St.–Find the food trucks near you!

I just downloaded Eat St., a free app from the Food Network that helps you find the food trucks near you. (This is going to be hot in Seattle! The City Council just okayed food trucks to park at the curb on public streets rather than just on private lots.)

I checked it out for my neighborhood and found just one mistake–it pinpointed the food carts I know about, but identified one bricks-and-mortar satay restaurant as a street food vendor. (Hmm, maybe I should walk over there and check it out. Is there a satay window?–would that count?)

The app (for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad) also tracks Twitter updates, has a link to the TV show, and recommends food carts based on your current location. For each vendor, there are buttons for tweets, menu, hours, and profile, though the trucks I checked mostly just listed their website or Facebook page.

Looks like a fun one, and the price is right! Download it here:

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/eat-st/id425451799?mt=8

Take a look at the website here:

http://eatst.foodnetwork.ca/

Day of Honey: A memoir of food, love, and war

Annia Ciezodlo, Day of Honey: A memoir of food, love, and war

In 2003, Annia Ciezodlo married a Lebanese Muslim man, and for the next six years divided her time between Baghdad and Beirut, her husband’s home town. As journalists, over these years they spent their work lives witnessing and recording the descent into violence and sectarian conflict in both Iraq and Lebanon. But as she says, “if you want to understand war, you have to understand everyday life first.” In Day of Honey, Ciezodlo tells us the parallel story of finding the heart of her new everyday life in its language, friends and family, and food.

She befriends any number of shopkeepers and restauranteurs, and lets them tell us, eloquently, why food matters so much to them. For instance, after one shattering outbreak of violence in Beirut, when she visited her regular cheese shop she asked the proprietor, “Why did you stay open that Friday, during all the shooting? . . .  ‘Because people want cheese.’ Why? Why, in the middle of a firefight, do people decide that they must have cheese? He smiled with everything he had this time. ‘Because they think they will never be able to taste it again.'”

Her experience of the sectarian passions that fed that firefight was personal in the worst way. Her husband’s last name identified him as Shiite, and one night they were forced to walk home, threading their way through the dark streets to avoid armed gangs of warring Sunni and Shiite men. An encounter with the wrong group could have been the last for her husband. Shortly afterwards, for many reasons, they returned to New York.

In the course of her memoir, Ciezodlo gives us a vivid portrait of the personalities of her new family (especially her formidable mother-in-law, Umm Hassane), of her husband, and of her many friends, but also of herself. She’s warm, difficult, tough-minded, kind of a mess. At one point, a friend warns her, “simplicity is a virtue.” Yes, she says, “but it’s not one of mine.” She longs for home and family, but “home was a moveable feast; you strapped it to your back, stuffed it in a jar, dried it in the sun, dug it from the ground. Home was wherever you broke bread with people you loved.”

Back in New York adjusting to another everyday life, she concludes that “there was no point to staying in Baghdad or even Beirut. No point to being there simply because our friends could not or would not leave. . . But there is something to be said for memory, and for raising what small flag you can, even a tattered one, against forgetting.” When she misses Beirut or Baghdad, she heads to a farmers’ market to buy food and make something good to share with people she loves.

Note: The book ends with a chapter of recipes for the traditional dishes and family favorites that appear and re-appear throughout her story. I’m going to make some of them soon.

Free Press, 2011

Joule’s high-wire energy

Last night, a friend and I had dinner at Joule, the restaurant in my Wallingford neighborhood “curated” by Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang. (You met Rachel back in April–she masterminded one of the menus for the Food Bank Gourmet fundraiser.) Rachel was cooking, so we sat at the counter to watch as she and her two cooks calmly fed dish after  dish into the waiting hands of the bustling servers. The place was packed (those two empty stools at the counter?–we had just vacated them, and two people from the scrum by the door are nanoseconds away from taking them over). The small-plate format makes for lots of action, but the atmosphere somehow stayed relaxed. Our server Nora materialized right when needed to trade full plates for empty ones, answer questions, and generally be pleasant and helpful.

And the food! In the language of physics, a joule is a unit of energy. How do you measure the energy of a restaurant and a menu? Joule excites your palate with unexpected preparations and pairings of ingredients stocked from a global pantry. What at first reading might seem exotic becomes inevitable (and delicious!) on the tongue.

The menu is organized around “Flavors: Abroad,” “Flavors: Native,” and “Flavors: Collected” (a family-style supper of seven dishes). We didn’t travel out to the edgier regions–no grilled beef tongue with Chinese celery pesto and caramelized fish sauce, no seaweed butter or grilled octopus cocktail. Even so, we found plenty to delight us.

The asparagus salad combined shaved raw asparagus with arugula, walnuts, and basil yogurt. The earthiness of the curls of raw asparagus and lightly peppery arugula was balanced by the sweetness of the nuts and the smooth cool yogurt. We followed that with the spicy beef soup with leeks, daikon, and crème fraiche. The beef (chunks, not strands!) was tender and tasty and the broth kicked up a nice tingle. The killer plate for me, though, was the Joule BBQ (short rib steak, sweet chili sausage, and grilled kimchi)–the ribs pink in the center and succulent, the moist sausage balancing sweet chili, char, and spicy sauce in your mouth, and the (low-wattage) kimchi adding a clean touch of sour and crunch.

I couldn’t skip the “Joule box,” tapioca pearls with grapefuit brulee. (If tapioca is on the menu, I order it; there’s just something about the feel of those silky tapioca marbles in my mouth.) This version had Thai notes of lime and coconut milk. We watched the cook blast the grapefruit sections with his blowtorch and wondered what would arrive on our plates; the result was a surprisingly subtle sweet kick to the tartness of the fruit.

Joule works with some pretty high-wire concepts but doesn’t put a foot wrong in offering great food with surprising, delightful flavors, textures, and presentation. This summer they are doing a Sunday series of BBQ, as the menu says, “inspired.” I’ve missed the Backyard, Hawaii, Seatown, Thailand, South, and Korea menus, but I’ve still got a shot at Greece, New England, Vietnam, Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Japan. Stay tuned!

Stuffed tomatoes for arugula lovers

I love big fat juicy heirloom tomatoes, and I love arugula!–So I decided to make a nice lunch combining the two. (The first time I ate a tomato with arugula was on the island of Crete when I was there  . . . how long ago? a decade?–at a professional conference. Do I need to add that attendance at the conference was huge but attendance at the sessions was skimpy?–A couple of earnest souls and the rest indoors to pamper their sunburns.)

Anyway, here’s where we are going: an arugula pesto for the plate, a beautiful tomato (don’t even reach for the salmon-colored golf ball), and a nice filling with chopped arugula, walnuts, bell peppers, red onion, bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, and a few other things. And let’s dress up the plate with tendrils of lemon zest, a scattering of arugula flowers, and (why not, since they are in bloom in pots out on my deck?) a few nasturtium flower petals.

But first things first. Here’s your list of ingredients:

  • 2 large or 4 small heirloom tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 C arugula leaves (divided)
  • A few arugula flowers, if you have them
  • 2 small cloves garlic, minced (divided)
  • 1/4 C plus 1 T mild olive oil
  • A few nasturtium flower petals, if you have them
  • Half of a red bell pepper, diced (or a mix of colors)
  • 1/4 of a small red onion, diced (about 2 T)
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon (zest divided)
  • 1/2 C chopped walnuts (divided)
  • 1/4 C bread crumbs
  • 1/4 C grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (divided)
  • 1/8 tsp red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste

Note that the filling is not cooked! Dice or mince the vegetables small enough for you to stay happy when you bite into the raw pieces.

Make the pesto

(Note: If you don’t have breadcrumbs on hand and are going to make them,  do it before you make the pesto–it makes for an easier cleanup between steps. After I have people over for dinner, I always end up with a quarter of a baguette or some such lying around, so I frequently make breadcrumbs in my food processor and almost always have a bag of them in the freezer. Which I did today, so all I had to do was measure!)

Rinse and dry the arugula leaves.(Option: I used arugula from my garden, so I also pinched off a few of the flowers and put them in a shallow bowl of water to use later for garnish. They are perfectly edible and taste just like the leaves. Also, if you have a nasturtium or other edible flower in your garden, add a few of its petals to the bowl (not the whole flower!–just the petals).

Put one cup of the arugula in a small food processor. (Be sure to save the other 1/2 cup for the filling!) Add half the minced garlic, a pinch of salt, and a grind or two of pepper. Pulse a few times to get a coarse paste.

Then, drizzle in up to 1/4 cup of olive oil, to get a mixture as smooth as you like (I like mine kind of coarse). (Check the lid of your food processor; does it have one or two small holes in it? If so, with the motor running, you can slowly pour the olive oil onto the lid and let it drip down into the bowl. Or, if you are using a blender, stop and add the oil in one-tablespoon increments and run the motor in between.)

Set the pesto aside for use later.

Make the filling

Zest the lemon. (Use a zester/striper if you have one; otherwise, use a regular vegetable peeler and cut the wide strips into skinny ones.) Save about half the strips for garnish and mince the rest. Then cut the naked lemon in half and juice it.

Prepare the peppers by using a sharp knife to skim off the inside membrane (the whitish layer). This gives you a deeply colored, glossy surface that is very pretty.

Dice the pepper (or peppers, if you are using a mix of colors; I used red and orange). Dice the onion. Save about a tablespoon of the diced peppers for garnish. Chop the walnut pieces coarsely and divide into two portions.

Chop up the remaining half-cup of arugula leaves.

Grate the cheese. (Use real parm-reg! The stuff from the green can doesn’t taste good.) Since it costs an arm and a leg, I tend to grate it coarsely so that I can savor its taste separately!

Now make sure that you have put aside the items that we need later for garnish: half of the walnuts and half of the grated cheese for a topping on the tomatoes; and the pesto, a little bit of the diced pepper, half of the lemon zest (the strips), and the flowers for the plate.

In a small bowl, combine all the remaining ingredients for the filling: the breadcrumbs, the remaining half of the minced garlic, the remaining diced pepper and onion, the chopped arugula leaves, the remaining half of the chopped walnuts, the remaining one tablespoon of olive oil, the lemon juice and minced lemon zest, the red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt and grind of pepper (or to taste).

Fill the tomatoes

This amount of filling works for two large or four small heirloom tomatoes. Cut off the top one-fourth (that’s the stem end) of each tomato. Core the tomatoes, being careful not to let the knife cut through the skin. (Especially if you are using very meaty tomatoes, save the top and core!–You can just chop them up and use in a tuna salad or something. These tomatoes taste too good to waste any of the flesh!)

Gently press the filling into the cored tomatoes, ending with a slightly rounded top. If the filling felt dry at all, drizzle each with a small amount of olive oil (about a teaspoon). Then sprinkle the surface with the remaining walnut pieces and cheese.

Turn on the broiler and broil the tomatoes just until the cheese melts and gets a little color. Watch them!–I let mine go a bit too long, and the walnut pieces got darker than I wanted. (They still tasted good though.)

Plate the stuffed tomatoes

It’s fun to play with your food! Make a puddle of the arugula pesto on the plate. (I’m not happy with my pesto; it has separated a bit. I’ll make it a few more times in the next couple of weeks to see if I can figure out what I did wrong.) Place the tomato next to it. Dry the flowers and petals, if you are using them. Sprinkle the plate with the garnishes: bits of pepper, lemon zest, and flower petals. If you like, you can add a slice of crusty bread, and maybe a light dessert like a sherbet. (This is actually a pretty hearty lunch; you won’t need much else.) Even with my beginner’s problems, this was a tasty dish. Serve it and EAT!

Mex auténtica: it’s all about your larder

A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Oaxaca, the Mexican city famous for its mole sauces. Of course, I ate more than my share of them!–and of the seven different traditional Oaxacan moles, mole negro became my favorite. Since then, I’m occasionally tempted to order chicken mole in restaurants, but I never really believe I’m as well fed as I was there.

Enter chef and cooking instructor Suzanne Hunter! (–that’s her in the white chef’s jacket). Last week I attended her Mexican cooking class (offered through Bon Vivant School of Cooking), and unbelievably, chicken with mole negro was just one of five different traditional Mexican dishes that we made. Why “unbelievably?”–traditional mole negro is very complex, and she doesn’t stray far from that path: her version has 27 different ingredients (five different kinds of dried chile!), and just about as many steps. As if that wasn’t enough!–We also made tamales, shrimp with tomatillo sauce, and two flans. But let’s talk about the showpieces!–the mole and tamales.

Authentic Mexican food wraps you up in its fragrances and flavors like a warm serape. I grew up in South Texas eating standard Tex-Mex fare, and I still love it and cook it all the time. But “cooking Mex” with traditional techniques and ingredients takes you to an entirely different world. I can’t walk you through all the details here (it would be a chapter, not a post, and anyway the recipes are Suzanne’s, not mine!), but let’s take a quick tour just to give you a feel for the (laborious!) process.

To make the mole, first you have some prep to do. To start, make about 10 cups of homemade chicken broth. (If you go with a store-bought product here, why not just buy a mole mix and save yourself the rest of the day?) Next, you are going to split your chiles (that’s about 25 separate pieces to work with), take out the seeds, and toast the pods. Then, after soaking the toasted chiles, puree them and press them through a strainer (then repeat). Now toast the seeds and give them the same treatment. Next, you toast your spices and grind them up fine.

Moving on to your aromatics, sauté your onion and garlic. Do the same to the tomatoes, tomatillos, herbs, and raisins, and puree them too. Toast the nuts (four different kinds). Then puree the nuts with the seeds you toasted earlier, and add enough broth to make a paste. Do the same to a banana and some fried bread.

Next you begin to layer your separate pastes and purees into the pot with broth, cooking each before adding the next, until you have a thick, dark sauce. Finally, you add the chocolate and cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Done! We had it over poached chicken–delicious.

I’ve actually left out lots of detail! But I hope you’ve gotten a feel for the meticulous layering of flavors that goes into an authentic mole. If you want to make it, search on “authentic mole“–I found a couple of similar recipes. Or, find the best, most traditional restaurant you can and order it there!

Compared to the mole, the tamales were a slam-dunk! (And there are good recipes out there in blog-ville.) We used fresh masa and freshly rendered lard to make the dough. To assemble, you spread a small amount of the dough on a banana leaf or corn husk, add a bit of shredded pork and a dollop of mole, and fold them up! Then you steam them for say an hour and a half. You can make homemade tamales easily; invite a couple of friends over, maybe whip up a batch of margaritas, and get an assembly line going! Make sure to make enough to eat now, with more to freeze for next time.

So, finally getting back to the title for this post, I’m guessing that by now you have a pretty good idea why I say that cooking authentic Mexican cuisine is all about your larder. Let’s review. For whole chiles, we had Pasilla Negros, Guajillos, Chilhuacles, Mulattos, and Chipotles. We had Mexican cinnamon (true canela, not cassia bark), Mexican oregano, and Mexican unsweetened  chocolate (Ibarra is one brand). The broth recipe called for adding the chicken’s feet. The flan recipe asked for Mexican brown sugar, called “piloncillo” for its cone shape, but also known as panela or panocha. The tamales called for fresh masa (although masa harina works), plus banana leaves or corn husks.

And lard.

Wait!–Don’t click yet! Let’s talk. Lard is rendered pork fat. It has less cholesterol than butter (and a higher ratio of good cholesterol), and it has the same good fatty acid as olive oil. Suzanne completely convinced me that lard is a good ingredient, but don’t believe us!–Google it yourself. The tub of lard (I know, I know) that you buy at the grocery store is hydrogenated, so it is better to home-render some.  (Suzanne home-rendered the lard that we used to make the tamales.) I haven’t tried to do it yet, but I will soon and write it up for you. Unless lard is a dietary taboo for you, I hope you’ll give it a try; it also does magic things for re-fried beans and (my baker friends tell me) for pastries and pie-crusts.

Suzanne gave us some leads on Mexican grocers in this area; it may take some research, but I bet you can find at least one in your area too. If not, a quick search will turn up a range of mail-order suppliers.

And if you are really lucky, you’ll find a great cooking instructor with the same total respect for ethnic culinary traditions that we’ve got in Suzanne!

A great crêpe place in Baltimore

This Sunday I found myself with a day to kill in Baltimore before catching my flight back home, so as usual I started off by scouting out a good restaurant or two. And I found a little gem just at the bottom of the hill in the Mount Washington neighborhood where I was staying! Crêpe Du Jour (www.crepedujour.com) is a cozy place with a lightly French ambiance, pleasant  decor, and (judging by my waiter) low-key but knowledgeable staff. And crêpes!–both savory and sweet (as well as a small survey of other bistro fare).

I went with the Crêpe Lorraine, a nice combination of (thin!) asparagus spears, brie, and prosciutto, with flecks of onion to balance the earthy flavors. It arrived at the table scribbled with an aromatic balsamic reduction; each ingredient had enough presence to say hello to you on its own before blending back into the crowd. A very nice dish!

(My plate was decorated with a drawing of the Eiffel Tower. Would it be too completely obsessive to wish that the bottom of the crêpe had been planted at the bottom of the Tower? Instead, the packet appeared to be standing on its head. Or, the Tower appeared to be stabbed into the ground!)