Seasonal I: Local Flavors

Several months ago, I vowed to eat more foods in their prime.  I will eat more from our garden. I will seek out the best of  farmers’ markets. I will search for fruit and vegetables most in season and most recently picked.

Since then, the woodchucks ate all our zucchini, the squirrels made off with our tomatoes, and rabbits have gradually nibbled away at all the rest. “Nothing like gardening to turn mild, pacific folk into ravening, blood-lusting murders,” my colleague insists, but Ann, God love her, continues to approach pest control organically. She constructs magical wards from dog hair, garlic pellets, and even coyote urine.  Sadly, our suburban squirrels have never seen a coyote before, so they don’t seem put out by it. They continue to roll the still green tomatoes across the yard where they can eat them in peace.  I even found a half-eaten one on the picnic table. Are they borrowing our lawn furniture as well?

“At least the woodchuck is keeping its distance,” Ann said.

“So are the neighbor kids,” I add. And it’s true.  Last year they continually leapt over the chain-link fence, looking to play catch on a wider expanse of green.  Now they just pace back and forth on their lot, looking feral.

I’ve also been somewhat frustrated with the range of cookbooks that genuinely help me with my newfound quest.  Publishers, it seems, have discovered that people like farmers’ markets. They know we read Michael Pollan and we’re willing to pay 40 or 50$ for a book that will bolster our belief that locally sourced, organic vegetables are noble.  Ann, who grew up on a farm in Northeast Pennsylvania, insists that this is just called “food,” but I remind her that when she was growing up, her organic sweet potatoes came with marshmallows.  Today’s organic and locally sourced food is not about picking your dinner up off the ground or out of a spiral-bound junior-league cookbook. Locally sourced food is sophisticated, elegant, and politically subversive.  It does not come with marshmallows.

But here’s the problem.  As much as one may want to get behind simple, local and seasonal aesthetic of someone like Alice Waters, it seems that it’s actually difficult to capture that effectively in a cookbook.   I remember the disappointment I felt the first time I looked at a Chez Panisse cookbook.  Really?  This is what the fuss is all about?  Chez Panisse’s reputation was built on the quality of its ingredients and the skills of its chefs. Without these, the cookbooks were simply spartan recipes for Caprese salads.

More recent cookbooks have tried to address this trend.  They’re as much about procuring ingredients as they are about preparing them.  The more a writer gets into talking about local sources and markets, however, the more one realizes that his or her locale isn’t mine or yours.  I’m also somewhat impatient with cookbooks that are organized by season.  It’s hard to accept that during the summer, I’m can only use summer recipes, or when I have a summer like this one, the cucumber recipes. Meanwhile there are all these pages of sour cherries, fiddle-head ferns, blood oranges and quinces that are either out of place or out of time.

The first book to wrestle with these issues seriously, I think, was Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating for America’s Farmers’ Markets.  This book was useful several years ago when Ann and I joined our first CSA, the Red Hills Farms west of Philadelphia.  Like most new CSA members we had questions like, “Is Kohlrabi food?” and “No seriously, do people actually eat this?”  There is a whole range of alternate dimension vegetables, like garlic scapes.  They grow exactly as plants shouldn’t, in stiff curling stalks like crazy straws; if left to their own devices they will flower in a colorful globe.  Yes, they are part of the garlic plant that everyone loves, but we don’t see them in grocery stores any more than we tend to see heads on chickens.  Scapes are too mild to use as an aromatic and too tough to sprinkle on as an afterthought, like chopped scallions. So what do you do with them?  You look in a book like Local Flavors.

And you don’t find them.

Don’t get me wrong.  Madison gets most of it right. Kohlrabi is there, along with fiddle-head ferns, quinces and blood oranges.  But there’s no scapes, and this bothered me because that’s what I needed, a quick DYI reference for dealing with scapes.  Instead, I’m leafing through alluring pictures of citrus that only grow in Southern climates.

Madison’s admits to spending most of her time in Santa Fe markets, so perhaps that’s part of the problem.  But she says she’s writing a book for all America’s Farmers’ Markets.  Is that even possible?  Is it desirable? If one could cover all that territory, wouldn’t the book end up focusing on the most common things in markets — which would miss the point — or it would have to become encyclopedic — which also would seem to miss the point.  There are actually more recipes for Kohlrabi in her previous, utilitarian opus, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but it’s about as much fun to read as a phone book.  That sense of place, that sense of cooking in the moment that I’m looking for, isn’t here either.

I have a growing suspicion that blogs may actually be better for this kind of thing than cookbooks.  Local blogs can tip me off to when the sour cherries hit the market and explain what to do with them. But this is a cookbook blog, so I have to give books the benefit of the doubt.  Over the last two months, I have  experimented with the newest crop of books with mixed results.  I worked my way through the in-season part of Andrea Reusing’s Cooking in the Moment, which emphasizes not only cooking by seasons, but by the month and even week. I worked my way through Nigel Slater’s Tender, with its ultra-local emphasis on terraforming urban backyards. I also tried to overcome my prejudice against Chez Panisse style cookbooks and bought David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs, and The Heart of the Artichoke.   I’ll break these reviews into separate posts to make them easier to digest, but to ease the suspense a little, I’ll tell you advance.  None of them say anything about garlic scapes.

Nor do they have recipes for woodchucks.

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Better II: The Pleasures of Eating

(This is the second section of a three part essay) Part I / Part II / Part III

By winter, my obsessions with eating were starting to get the best of me.  Eating healthily isn’t usually a problem for me. Cooking is always about making do with what’s available. If it’s December, you don’t spend your time dreaming of asparagus; you think of new things that you can do with Kobacha or with beets and bulgar wheat. If your doctor tells you to cut back on sugar, or fat, or sodium, than that further limits you, but limits can be generative, like the edges of a poem.  They push you to be creative.

At least that’s what I’ve always told myself.  This winter, my usual platitudes failed me.  I simply didn’t know where the limits were.  I didn’t know what I could or could not eat. I’d go through long periods of resignation.  Then I’d get some new lead, advice from a friend, a medical journal, and I’d be convinced that a cure was just around the corner. Fructose malabsorption—Eureka! I’d read labels and frenziedly try to extract every last bit of fructose from my diet.  This is a dangerous path. Fructose is in everything.  You start with high fructose corn syrup and fruit, but by the end you’re finding it hidden in wheat, brown rice, ginger or dill.

Even when I was tested I had doubts. I spent several hours in a hospital, blowing up balloons, until they called to tell me that this was a dead end too.  But could I trust them?  The balloon test has only 60% accuracy.  I might as well have flipped a coin.

I tried diets for things no one suggested.  I ate steel-cut oat for breakfast thinking the fiber might help.  I cut back on wheat-gluten thinking I might have celiac.  I thought I might have illnesses that I didn’t even have the symptoms for. Why not?  When I thought I had an earache, it turned out to be meningitis.  When I thought I was having back pains in college, it turned out to be pneumonia.  A nurse actually diagnosed me with heartburn and sent me home with Tums; the next day I was coughing up blood.  It’s all about deferred pain, right?  My nerves must be wired wrong.  My stomach pains have nothing to do with my stomach.  Maybe it’s bunions.

Not surprisingly, all this gradually chipped away at my appetite.  The only time I felt at my best was when I was fasting for a test.  Did I even like food anymore?  Did I still like to cook?

By March it was clear how far down the rabbit hole I had gone.  I thought of food almost entirely in terms of what I shouldn’t eat, rather than what I should.  I read labels for saturated fats, wheat-glutens, and sugars.  I was thinking only in terms of consequences, never in terms of the pleasures of anticipation, the sizzle of the pan, the curves of a pepper, the smell of fried ginger.

Spring Risotto with Asparagus and Peas (Fields of Greens Cookbook)

As the first asparagus or field peas showed up at the farmer’s market, I tried to elevate my spirits.  Maybe I couldn’t fix what was broken, but I could eat to make the rest of me happy.  I could try to eat in the moment, rather than thinking about what I might feel like an hour  later. I could for my overall health and well-being, rather than the health of my stomach.  I turned to simple foods, focusing on what was local and seasonal. I went with Ann to Pete’s Produce in West Chester to pick out vegetables for the garden.  Ann was willing to forgo planting flowers this year, so we could devote most of our four beds to heirloom tomatoes, zucchinis, peppers, cucumbers and a miniature forest worth of herbs.

That said, eating simply did not come easy for me.  For the last decade, my guiding principle has been, “That’s delicious! How can I make it more complicated?”  Cooking is an art.  It’s about transforming raw ingredients into something else—a gift for our appetites, a meal for family or friends, a visceral part of our culture and identity.  As such, it takes a little effort, skill, and creativity. Pulling greens and eating them with olive oil and vinegar isn’t cooking; it’s grazing.  Adding Roquefort or truffle oil to your salad is just a snootier form of grazing.  I still don’t understand why David Chang got into so much trouble for his condemnation of post-Chez Panisse restaurants in California.  “Fuckin’ every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate.  Do something with your food.”  Wasn’t he just saying what everyone else was thinking?

Yet here I was, eating simple, natural, earthy things that would make Wendell Berry wax poetic. I didn’t dig around in the dirt much myself.  For the most part I sat at the kitchen table, sipped tea and watched Ann work with her trowel through the sunroom windows.  But sometimes, I put on slippers and pad around in the backyard, pretending that I’m attending to the garden’s progress. I admired the bell peppers, which really did look like bells on the vine. I watched the great leafy squash and the creeping cucumbers with their star-shaped flowers. I planned for their future with cookbooks such as Nigel Slater’s Tender, Andrea Reusnig’s Eating in the Moment, and yes, even David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs.

Perhaps we invested so much in the garden this year because vegetables were the only thing that didn’t remind us of the big bad.  We only planted a few tomatoes the year before, and they withered and died.  So while pollen, humidity, and rising temperatures reminded me of rehab, the garden just seemed healthy.  Azaleas creeped me out a little.  All that color, all at once. But cucumbers were just cucumbers.  Voracious climbers. They had tendrils reaching out in all directions. All you had to do was put a stake in the ground and they’d find it, coil around, and hold tight.

Growing stuff, it turns out is doing something with your food.  It takes time, technique, and a little creativity. If Ann and I are standing over squash blossoms, thinking about whether we should fry them, make soup out of them now or wait until all the zucchini fully developed, then we were involved with those zucchini in ways we wouldn’t be otherwise. When the woodchuck nibbled on them, I didn’t even think.  I just grabbed one of Ann’s shoes by the door, ran out and winged it at the chubby demon as he shawshanked his way under the fence. Why?  I was never fond of zucchini.  Many of our zucchini have gone straight from our crisper to the compost heap. But I would defend these with every one of Ann’s shoes if I had to. And Ann owns a lot of shoes.

zucchini blossoms

I find a partial answer in Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Pleasures of Eating.”  I used to feel as indifferent to Berry as I did to zucchini.  Most of what he says is right, I’m sure, but the delivery was always a little bland.  Even when he writes about pleasure, he sermonizes, devoting the bulk of his essay to the sins of industry and consumerism. But pleasure appears eventually:

The pleasure of eating should be an extensive pleasure, not that of the mere gourmet. People who know the garden in which their vegetables have grown and know that the garden is healthy and remember the beauty of the growing plants, perhaps in the dewy first light of morning when gardens are at their best. Such a memory involves itself with the food and is one of the pleasures of eating. The knowledge of the good health of the garden relieves and frees and comforts the eater.

I cling to this passage now.  I’ve always thought of eating locally only in terms of the quality of the food, and not the quality of the locale.  I know that tomatoes picked from the backyard taste better than ones from the store. Michael Pollan tells us why:  store-bought tomatoes often travel long distances; they are picked before their time, and ripened with ethylene gas.  This means the natural sugars in the tomatoes were never allowed to develop properly. But this is still about the way that tomatoes taste, not the associations that go with them. These are the concerns of a gourmet, and these are the pleasures of eating that are most easily worn down by a sour stomach. The “extensive” pleasures of eating, however, are all about process. They intimately coil around the communal spaces of a garden, a market, a kitchen, a dining room. They are about being part of something larger than oneself, and this is what keeps me cooking, keeps me eating, even if it hurts.

So the first thing I do in the morning is walk into the sunroom and see the tomatoes peeking out over the windowsill. I’ve watched those tomatoes grow from tender little plants to bushy, leafy things barely contained by their cages. They will taste better because I know the effort that’s been put into them, and because it was Ann’s efforts.  They’ll taste better because when the green globes finally mature, we get to decide who to share them with and how.  We’ll get to decide whether we eat them right off the vine, whether we slow roast them overnight, or whether we blanch, seed, dice, and otherwise torture them into a Heston Blumenthal Bolognese.  And they will be glorious.

Unless the f*cking woodchucks get them first.

(To Be Continued)


Better

(This is the first section of a three part essay) Part I / Part II / Part III

This time last year, I was making my first forays out of the house.  Even under “home care,” I took a daily constitutional, a walk to the curb or to the corner.  Ann or a PT supervised while I hobbled on my cane.  Spring turned into summer while I was in hospital, so everything looked sharp and bright.  This was the best part of recovery. Each day, I walked a little farther than the day before.  Progress could be measured in feet and yards.

Better is a bit of word magic that summons up positive thinking.  When I was still in the hospital, no one talked about normal. They talked about better. From the moment I woke up, they had me pushing my legs against the end of the bed to avoid blood clots and breathing into an “incentive spirometer” to help increase lung capacity. They had me doing exercises in bed, against a wall, with a walker, with a cane; they gave me a home therapist, individual sessions with an out-patient therapist, and a Pilates class where little old ladies with hip replacements outperformed me on every sidekick and stomach crunch.  They estimated that it would be a year before I really would be able to assess the damages, and it’s hard to spend all that time thinking that you’re doing all this work just to get back to may-or-may-not-be-normal. So you focus on better.

Better is whistling past the graveyard. I was actually excited by surgery.  Doctors said the gallbladder was probably just a casualty of septic shock, but they acknowledged that the “pre-gangrenous” nub of an organ, might have contributed to my current problems, and the stomach issues before it.   Long before the big bad, there was the little bad—stomach pain that lead to a string of hospitalizations.  After the third incident, they ran a string of tests but they were inclusive.  The best diagnosis that I could get was ulcers combined with diabetic gastroparesis.   That never sat well with me. I’ve been a type I diabetic for most of my life, so I would understand if I developed some form of neuropathy.  But this is supposed to start at the periphery.  Why would it skip the hands and feet and go straight for my stomach? A swollen gallbladder on the other hand, made sense.  It was a simple, concrete, diagnosis.  It was a ring of bright pebbles around it on the X-ray. So cut it out.  Take it away.  I’ll be better.  Better than I was before.

“You’re not supposed to be happy that they found something,” the doctor insisted.  I knew it was a long shot, but I figured I wouldn’t have to cope with the disappointment for a month or even a year, and I’d be in a much better position to cope with it then.

The day I left hospital, I threw up breakfast along with my Percocet.  I had a tummy pillow which I was supposed to clutch whenever I felt like I was going to sneeze;  it helped support my stomach and the incisions. I clutched it in the car all the way home.  We were terrified but it was really the best choice.  I’d have more control over what I ate. The only real dietary restriction I had been given was to avoid fats, but the gallbladder was really only one issue.  I was eating for recovery.  All those changes in your endocrine system and metabolism are a lot like grief.  You want to eat little or not at all.   So I turned mostly to congee.   The last time I had been a lively and energetic eater was in China.

Ann was teaching a course abroad through Saint Joseph’s University, and I tagged along.  Even then I was nervous about my stomach, and worried about how it would hold up.

When traveling, I have an almost uncontrollable desire to eat my way through every town and city, and our hosts eagerly fed that desire. We dined around large tables as our hosts gorged us on plant pollen, 1000-year old eggs, chickens with their heads and feet still on them, and enough baijiu to fell a water buffalo. We were told it was impolite not to drink when anyone made a toast, and that it was impolite not to make toasts. If you’re seated at a table for twenty-four that takes its toll.  After we had already drunk to our hosts, to international relations, to education, I once found myself toasting the free-range chickens, pecking the ground outside the window. But for all that, I never felt sick.

So I returned to life with Chinese food in general and congee in particular.  Congee, also known as Jook or Zhou is basically just boiled rice.  It sounds like the blandest most impoverished food in the world, but like Risotto—every grandmother seems to have their own recipe.  The simplest, used for medicinal purposes is just a few grains of rice boiled in water, but the actual quantity of rice used, how soupy it is, or how well cooked the rice is varies tremendously.  Congee actually served for meals is often garnished with peanuts, scallions, and ginger, along with any form of meat or vegetable.  The first congee I ever had was at the Congee Noodle House  in Vancouver, and it was served with Ostrich, so it goes without saying: congee is more flexible than most American comfort foods like chicken-noodle soup. It’s varied enough to merit its own cookbook, The Book of Jook: Chinese Medicinal Porridges.  It’s fed to children with sick stomachs, and equally important, it’s eaten during times of grief.  In Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, congee is all she can eat after the death of her husband. In Nicole Moyes The Last Chinese Chef, the protagonist eats congee with a family grieving for the loss of an esteemed elder cook.

She mixed her congee with her spoon and tasted it.   Oh, so good.  She shivered.  The salty and piquant flavors against the delicate fragrance of rice, the crispy fish against the tofu and the soft gruel. Sheer goodness.  She caught Sam’s eye and said one word, “Wonderful.”

The uncles agreed. “I would come back from the dead for this,” said Jiang. “What is that poem? The one that calls back the soul to the table?”

“Oh! From the Zhou Dynasty,” said Tan.

To their surprise, it was Liang Yeh who started to intone, in English.

“O Soul, come back!! Why should you go far away?

All kinds of good foods are ready:

Rice, broom-corn, early wheat, mixed with yellow millet –

Ribs of the fatted ox, tender and succulent;

Sour and bitter blended in the soup of Wu.

O soul, come back and do not be afraid.”

Okay, so “ribs of fatted ox” wasn’t exactly on my diet, but I’m fond of ginger in all it’s varieties, shredded, pickled, or fried.  As I recouped, I graduated to roast chicken and salmon. As long as Ann did all the crouching, pulling pots out for under the counter or vegetables from the crisper, I was okay.  I could slice thin bits of salmon and pour the congee over it to cook.

As my tastes grew more adventurous, Ann supplemented meals by picking up an order of xialongbao from Sang-kee Bistro in Wynnewood. These soup dumplings were one of the highlights of our China trip. They’re like traditional steamed dumplings, only they’re filled with broth as well as the obligatory ball of pork and chicken.


Soup dumplings are tricky to make yourself, and they are emphatically not the kind of thing you should learn to cook from a book.  But since I never found anyone in Xi’an to teach me, and since I had a lot of free time on my hands, I turned to  Brian Yarvin’s, A World of Dumplings.  This probably isn’t the most authentic source, but it taught me the two key things I needed to know. 1) Do not, under any circumstances, use store-bought wrappers.  Home made ones are far more pliable, far easier to seal than store bought wrappers, and that’s important if you’re going to be filling them with soup.  Besides, the dough is fun to work with.  You start with a simple mixture of flour and water that you endlessly stretch by hand. You form a ring of dough, and you gradually pull it through your hands like prayer beads. The loop of dough gets longer and longer, until it brushes the floor, at which point, for sanitary reasons, you stop and section the dough for rolling. 2)  You do not actually wrap soup in your dumplings.  I feel like a magician revealing a secret here.  You probably think that for centuries, Chinese chefs have been deftly injecting soup directly into premade dumplings with diminutive turkey basters. I hate to dispel that fantasy. But the trick is simple.  They use a stock that is so rich in collagen that it is solid at room temperature. It’s like jello and only melts into soup when the dumplings are steamed.

I was happy enough with the results, but Yarvin’s recipe convinced me that Xiaolongbao was best left up to the professionals.  It’s just too much work.  I could even put up with Sang-Kee’s vaguely obscene translation “steamed juicy buns,” if it meant not having to spend a whole afternoon rolling out dough.  That said, cooking was clearly a uniquely pleasurable form of occupational therapy.  If my home OT had taught me to make Xialongbao rather than giving me remedial lessons on buttoning my shirt, I probably wouldn’t have kicked her out the door.

My stomach and mood did not recover as deftly as the rest of me.  Long after my daily constitutional reached the grocery store and back, my stomach started to kick.  At first, I was just one of the 40% of patients that brochures say will have difficulty with digestion for up to a month or six weeks after surgery.  My doctor was not at all surprised that my adjustment might be slower than that due to my diabetes and everything else I had been through. He was more concerned with the rolling headaches and monitoring my Warfarin dosages.  But my stomach didn’t get better.  It got worse. It vibrated with a low voltage current, like a car battery was clipped to either end.  Whenever I ate, it fibrillated. Mornings were the worst. Breakfast led to cramps and other unmentionables. For at least a few hours out of each day, I felt clammy and depleted, as if I had motion sickness.

By the fall, I returned to my GI.  His first thought was that my gastroparesis had deteriorated.  This was unacceptable.  I had worked hard to get him to concede that I might not have gastroparesis at all. My stomach problems were supposed to disappear along with my gallbladder into a jar of formaldehyde somewhere, right?  So why was he insisting on this diagnosis now? I accepted diagnosis number two: bile salts.    Gallbladders don’t do very much. They moderate the flow of bile into the digestive tract, which aids in digesting fats.  Without it, bile keeps on flowing but haphazardly.  A small percentage of patients have ongoing problems with excess bile and bile salts after their surgery. That seemed appropriate somehow. I’m bile-impaired.  Doctors from Hippocrates through the middle ages associated an excess of yellow bile with sleeplessness and irritability.  Even today, “biliousness,” refers less to projectile vomiting than to those who are petty, snappish, ill-humored, or given to grumbling.  Now that I think about it, I’ve probably been bile-impaired since the age of four.  Can I get a disability card for that?  It would probably come in handy at work.

The problem is permanent, but easily treatable. All you need is a daily packet of orange resin, called Cholestyramine.  It looks and even tastes a little like Tang.  Sadly, that loose association with astronauts was the treatments only positive result. After a few weeks, I was back to square one. I supplemented my Protonix with new medications, started to eat steel-cut oats for breakfast, and things just seemed to get worse. Ann bought me a Vitamix for Christmas, hoping that if I couldn’t eat raw vegetables, at least I might be able to drink them. I was ecstatic to have a shiny new toy, but my first vibrantly green smoothie made me sick for days. I almost sent it right back to the store, but that was too much to bear.

I avoided milk for several weeks, then wheat-gluten, then fructose.  Each time I tried a new diet, I felt certain I was on to something. But a few days would pass, and the engine in my stomach would slip out of gear and grind.

Better is a lie.  We want to tell stories that lead from cause to effect, from conflict to resolution.  This is what makes stories coherent.  This is what makes us coherent.  I want to say that illness is an “out there,” kind of problem, and I want to tell a story about how I solve that problem.  By this reasoning, becoming better and becoming a better person were one and the same thing.  But chronic pain doesn’t submit easily to our expectations for narrative form.  There’s no beginning, middle and end, no peak action, no resolution. It’s about as likely to make a good story as watching waves break on the Jersey shore.

(To be continued).

Jose Garces Giveaway: Get a Free Copy of Latin Evolution.

The Garces giveaway is officially over.  Congratulations to Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars.

Guajillo sauce ingredients

A year ago, I promised I’d cook dishes from Jose Garces’s Latin Evolution, and a year ago I did.  Most of this was written in April of 2010, just before the big bad.  The above flower of guajillo sauce ingredients sits in a blender I no longer use; the camera has been replaced; the store I bought the chiles from no longer carries them. But thanks to my long hiatus and some over-zealous gifting, I now have two copies of Latin Evolution, one to give away to a lucky reader.  If you’re interested, post a response below with a link or address for your favorite Latin recipe.

As noted in my first Garces post, the term “Latin” covers many different culinary traditions, as does the aptly titled Latin Evolution.  It’s not what you’d call authentically Spanish, but a celebration of Latin influences across the globe, principally from Spain, South America and Mexico.  It’s pretty much just like Garces himself.  He may be steeped in the Ecuadorian traditions of his family, and he may have trained with a few Spanish chefs, but he’s also just a guy from Chicago, and to my mind at least, his recipes have more in common with Charlie Trotter than they do with Simon and Inez Ortega.  This is a good thing if you’re eating out, but it’s going to be tough on the interests of the home cook.

Sadly, the contemporary American side of the cookbook means that it has may of the traits I tend to avoid.

  • Architectural” elements. Garces likes to stack food on top of other food.  Recipes are composed out of a lot of little recipes.  Expect to use a lot of those little post-it flag bookmarks.
  • Lots of directions, no reflection.  I’ve made this point many times before.  I’ll follow any instructions, as long as the explanation is sufficient.  You want me to brunoise a shallot while wearing a PVC bondage hood?  Fine, but you damn well better explain how this improves the soup.
  • Foam or Air. I don’t mind foam in my cappuccino, but when foam or air appear in a compound noun, you know it’s time to run.  Foam and air are invariably terms for innovative ways to put bubbles where bubbles don’t belong. Think “lemon air” or “beet juice foam”.

As I struggled through a couple of dishes, however, I realize these concerns don’t really run deep. Yes, in the interest of full disclosure, the cookbook is difficult.  It’s probably best suited for professionals and diehard fans who want to gain a better appreciation of their favorite chefs and restaurants.  Working through recipes helps you to understand the processes and ingredients that go into “restaurant food,” even if it is impractical to make at home.

That said, Garces’s team seems to have worked hard to keep the recipes just this side of possible for home cooking. Yes, Garces uses food additives like soy lecithin, xanthum gum, and agar powder, but only rarely, and I was pleased to find that these ingredients are all baking supplies, available through companies like Bob’s Red Mill.  You don’t need an expensive Ferran Adria chemistry kit to make lemon foam. As such, Latin Evolution saves you the pain and disappointment that comes from someone like Michel Richard, who wanted me to spend more than three hundred dollars on flexipan molds just so I could make faux hard boiled eggs, or that Momofuku-r David Chang, who tantalized me for pages with stories of Frankenmeats before I realized that transglutaminase meat glue (TMG) costs about a hundred dollars a bag.

While the recipes were possible, they certainly stretched the limits of my kitchen and my abilities.

Roast chicken breast with poblano cornbread, charred pineapple and red chile sauce.

Jose Garces cornbread, grilled pineapple, and red chile

Let’s face it, if you work your way through these recipes, you want bragging rights.  So I knew that if I was going to cook out of Latin Evolution, I was going to need discerning dinner guests. Jason and Dee went with us on out first visit to Amada, so I knew they would understand what I was shooting for and why.  I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to be able to recreate some of that?

I let them choose which recipe I should make, because they’re the only people I know who have more dietary restrictions than me. This means we eat a lot of chicken, but when it comes down to it, chickens are surprisingly versatile creatures.  They can be made to do all sorts of tasty things and this recipe was no exception.

Garces assures us that the recipe takes its influences from all over Mexico, from the Yucatan flavors of achiote, orange and garlic, to the “chile spiced cornbread” whose inspiration he attributes to “Zarella Martinez”.  But I think anyone reading the title will know that this familiar gestalt of chicken, cornbread, and chile is probably a tip of the hat to North-of-the-Border Latin. Hell, it may even be North-of-the-Canadian-Border Latin, because I always assume the quantity of sugar in cornbread is directly proportional to how far you travel away from the Mexican border.

The “chile” is a paste made out of guajillos. This is time consuming, but I felt like I was up to the task because I’ve always been a fan of Rick Bayless’s early cookbooks. Bayless calls guajillos his “workhorse” chiles, and speaks of them with considerably more poetry than Garces:

“A puree of roasted, rehydrated guajillo sings with a chorus of bright flavors that combine spiciness, tanginess (like cranberry), a slight smokiness and the warm flavor of ripe, juicy sweet tomato; the flavors go on and on. The puree is a deep, rich, red-orange—the color of good tomato paste”.

I prefer Rick Bayless when it comes to making chile pastes. Even his most uncompromising books, Authentic Mexican and Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, are still more practical than Garces. Both are big on roasting every ingredient, but Bayless uses a cast-iron pan for just about everything.  Garces on the other hand wants you to deep fry the peppers individually. He wants the garlic to be roasted in the oven, with tomatoes, and he calls for the onion to be cooked on a grill.  After it’s all pureed it goes back into the skillet for frying, which, oh wait, hasn’t actually been used yet. There’s no denying that it makes for an amazing rich, red sauce, but in the end, it’s all going to be used for painting a decorative circle on your plate.  How many dishes do I have to clean now, just get this little undercoat of guajillo?

The second “level” of the dish surprised me. The cornbread called for unusual ingredients in unusual quantities: 1 cup of butter + ½ pound of sugar + 4 eggs + 2 cups rice flour.  Who makes cornbread without any cornmeal?  Who weighs the sugar but doesn’t weigh the flour?  Most importantly, who uses that much sugar? Southern cooks sneer at sugar in cornbread in any quantities, protesting that it is an unwelcome Yankee encroachment on their sovereign cuisine.  I had to imagine that Mexico felt similarly—but since neither Rick Bayless nor Diana Kennedy even mention cornbread in their cookbooks, I’m guessing that they are richly and deservedly indifferent.

I double-checked the Garces recipe on-line against other recipes.  I was disturbed to find that “Zarella” is really “Zarela” with one L, a Mexican born cook who currently works in New York.  Her cornbread recipe was quite similar to Garces’s right down to the poblanos, rice flour, and fresh corn, but she only calls for two tablespoons of sugar. On the other hand, I found another Garces recipe on-line for 3 chile cornbread, which called for 8 oz of butter and 8 oz of sugar.  The ratios were the same, so I decided he must really mean it. Yes, it was a much lighter and much sweeter cornbread than I’m accustomed to, but the rice-flour confection, studded with poblanos and fresh-cut corn, ended up tasting surprisingly like, well, cornbread. Served by itself, I would prefer less sugar, but in the end, I think this was deliberate because the sweetness helped as a contrast to the earthy guajillo sauce and the sour-edge of the chicken and grilled pineapple to come.

Jose garces cornbread

The cornbread is the pedestal to show off the achiote marinated chicken. The dish seems to play on our expectations here, because the color of the marinade for the chicken is very similar to the chile paste but with nothing else in common. Achiote comes in bricks, and its primary ingredient is annatto, the seeds of the achiote trees, also called “lipstick trees”.  Annatto has a very mild peppery flavor, but it’s mostly used for the color.  Achiote gets most of its flavor from the orange juice added in making the bricks. Garces ups the acidity with freshly squeezed naval orange.  So the end result is tangy rather than hot.

Garces call for “4 (6 ounce) skin-on chicken breasts”.  This gave me pause, because it was clear from the weight and the quick pan frying of the breasts that they should be deboned. But have you ever noticed that you can’t BUY deboned chicken breasts with the skin still on them?  It didn’t actually instruct readers to debone the chicken, but I decided it was better safe than sorry, and the results were good, perhaps even a revelation. The breasts are just quickly seared in the pan, and the marinade helped to make a well-marked skin. How is it that I never thought of using chicken breasts this way?  Ann said it was the best, most tender chicken breast she’d ever had.

With all this there’s also a side of roasted pineapple.  It’s the simplest part of the dish, and the one I’m most likely to combine with other dishes. All you do is mark the pineapple on a hot grill—about a minute for each side. Chop the pineapple in ½ inch chunks, add olive oil, shallot, and cilantro. Aside from the tenderness of the chicken, it was the only part of the dish to get singled out for comment from my guests. Dee: “I just have to say . . . pineapple and cilantro?  Yum.”

Sous-vide truffled chicken with fried eggs, rosemary fingerling potatoes, and truffled chicken jus.

Garces Sous-Vide Chicken

Given the range of recipes in Latin Evolution, I wanted to try at least one other recipe before passing judgment. The recipe appealed to me because it basically followed the spirit of Sous-vide cooking without actually requiring a cryovac or an immersion circulator. Sous-vide is French for “causes food poisoning” and it sometimes compared to boil-in-a-bag, but I find this can be a bit confusing because it doesn’t really get at why people are so interested in risking life and limb to produce good food.  If you make boil-in-a-bag rice, you’re not cooking; you’re just warming up precooked food at a high temperature. In Sous-vide you’re actually cooking the food, and you’re doing so by choosing the target temperature that you want, usually one which is well below the simmering point, so the temperature needs to be carefully monitored. In Garces’s recipe, you seal boneless chicken breasts in plastic with cream, and then cook them in a water bath at 155 degrees.  That’s a low temperature for chicken, but you’re cooking it for two hours, so the chicken is not only reaching that temperature all the way through, but hanging there for a while.  This does apparently, guarantee the death of microbes, but only just barely.

Why do you do this?  Sealing the meat in means that it will cook only in its own juice, or in this case, cream.  Cooking at 155 is important, because as soon as you hit 158, proteins start to contract, and juices get squeezed out.  Really, I think no one should recommend Sous-vide cooking at home under any circumstances.  Even if you have a Foodsaver device for sealing food into packets, and a candy thermometer to measure the temperature, you’re still taking chances.  And when someone like me discovers that his Foodsaver machine is broken, and decides to continue on with the cooking anyway, that’s just stupid. I ended up using a standard zip lock bag, which I dangled in the water with twine and an alligator clip to keep the mouth of the bag just out of the water. This had the added advantage of keeping the bag off the bottom of the pot, so I could regulate the temperature a little more evenly.

The downside of course is that the meat doesn’t brown, but it’s easy enough to remedy that after the fact.  Since you dutifully leave the skin on, and the chicken has absorbed some of that cream, a few moments in the pan makes for an amazing sear. The final product was tender and very, very rich.

Otherwise, the recipe is fairly conventional, but it is layered much like the last dish. You start with a Jus on the plate, then the fingerling potatoes, and then the chicken.  It’s all topped off with an egg yolk.  It’s just a regular fried egg, though most of the white is cut off with a three-inch ring mold, or, if you’re me, a slender water glass.  The dish as a whole still seemed to be missing something on the vegetable front, so I threw in some broiled white asparagus on the side.

Even with the extra improvising, I was pleased with the end results.  I always worry that recipes like this will require inordinate time and effort and still leave me with something that looks like Juan Miro threw up on a plate.  But the dishes came through as advertised. Admittedly, I will probably not make these dishes again.  I may only harvest ideas like the grilled pineapple or those tidy egg yolks for other applications, but going through the recipes was worth it. What I hope to get out of a cookbook like this is simply a better sense of how a chef’s mind works and a greater appreciation for the foods I can order in their restaurants, even if, in the end, I feel like the restaurant is where they should stay.  Most of what Garces does well is not about the parts, but about the whole palette he comes up with—and nowhere is that more evident than in the tasting menus at Amada or Tinto.  Imagine, if you have to do all this just to make chicken, what would it be like to put together twelve dishes for a tasting menu?  To cook for a full house?

While fandom requires that I own an autographed copy of Latin Evolution, however, I do not need two. So I’m more than happy to give one away.  I’ll choose randomly among people who respond to my questions in last week’s post or this one. For this post, interested readers should include a link to their favorite Latin recipe on-line.  For last week, interested readers should name their favorite examples of food writing.  I’ll announce the final winner in the next post.

Spain III: A Meal of Appetizers. Pintxos by Gerald Hirigoyen

I love tapas. They’re like appetizers for a meal that never comes. – Marge Simpson

Spain left me aching to recreate Basque and Catalan dishes at home, but tapas were far from my mind. I don’t think we had any tapas in Spain, and if we did, they were probably just called “snacks”.  In Spain, tapas are for the most part, bar food, sometimes served free with drinks.  They aren’t really the stuff of meals.  According to at least one history, “La Tapa so as to be meaningful has to be eaten between main meals as food that allows the body to survive until lunch or dinnertime.”   While there are plenty of tapas cookbooks, most of them seemed to rely heavily on imported ingredients like Ventresca tuna rather than on preparation.  That to me seems more like creative shopping than cooking. Tapas are also social food.  They involve multiple dishes served to guests simultaneously.  I don’t have milling guests.  I have Ann and two cats.  And it’s hard to get the energy to make several complicated little dishes just for second breakfasts, elevenses, or a pre-dinner snack.

After the doctors told me that I needed to focus on smaller and more frequent meals, however, I started giving Tapas serious consideration.  I also tried to revive the Anglo-Australian tradition of Afternoon Tea, but I was afraid people might think I was starting a political movement and camp out on our lawn.  So Tapas it was.  Turns out, tapas may well have started as a curative in its own right.  As one history suggests:

Some authors assert that the tapa was born when, due to an illness, the Spanish king Alfonso the 10th, the Wise, had to take small bites of food with some wine between meals. Once recovered from the disease, the wise king decreed that no wine was to be served in any of the inns in the land of Castile, unless accompanied by something to eat. This was a wise precaution to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on those people who, through lack of money to buy a nourishing meal, drank alcohol on an empty stomach.

True, other accounts suggest that Alphonse El Sabio was just looking to keep sand or flies out of his drink, including Gerald Hirigoyen’s: “Tapa means ‘lid’ and is derived from the word tapar, ‘to cover,’ so the commonsense theory is that tavern owners would drape a slice of ham or cheese or place a small plate of olives or almonds on top of a glass to create a barrier against bugs.” But I prefer the first story, because in addition to being a good buffer against alcohol, it turns out that smaller more frequent meals makes good dietary sense.  So I gave tapas a second look.

The book I was first attracted to was Gerald Hirigoyen’s Pintxos (The first 40 pages are available on google books).   Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas.  Tapas have always seemed a bit too trendy to me.  The romance has been thoroughly washed away by the fern and wine-bar set. But calling these little dishes “pintxos” returns some of the mystery, if only because they’re harder to pronounce.  It has to be spelled pintxos rather than pinchos, too.  All the duende is in the X.  Perhaps though, we should all resign ourselves to the fact that tapas in the U.S. have pretty much become what they are in Spain.  Snacks served with wine.  Not an expression of emotion and authenticity.  Not a romantic evening full of flamenco and tener duende.  Bar food.

Although Hirigoyen lives in California, runs two restaurants in San Francisco, and has written his cookbook for American audiences, he uses more uniquely Spanish ingredients in his 168 recipes than in all of Simon and Inez Ortega’s 1080 Recipes combined. I haven’t managed to find a Spanish specialty store in Philadelphia that makes one stop shopping for Spain possible.  Even the new Jose Garces Trading Co. mostly focuses on cheese, charcuterie and wine—not raw ingredients for cooking.  But I have managed to cobble together some ingredients from different locations.

Trader Joe’s: Piquillo Peppers, Guindilla Peppers, and Saffron.  Not great quality, but about a third or even a quarter of the price of ingredients at La Tienda.com.  Harvested from the stigma of crocus flowers, Saffron is the most expensive spice by weight available on the market–so any little bit helps.  Tapas are casual food, so they shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Delis: Spanish cheeses, olives and Boquerones.  Boquerones are white anchovies, usually available in a tub. True, anchovies remind me of the days I spent working at Round Table Pizza.  They were oily, sticky things that people only ordered on the side so that they could take them into the parking lot and throw at cars. But Ann is crazy for anchovies, and these critters are far more palatable. Our farmer’s market deli also has a discount on Manchego when bought by the pound, and it has become a regular fridge staple.  Makes great grilled cheese sandwiches.

H-mart:  Really? Yes, H-mart is a Korean chain that carries all things Chinese, Japanese, South-East Asian, but they also carry Hispanic produce and ingredients, too. Someone will have to tell me how H-Mart managed to corner this market.

Web-sites: If you absolutely must, you can resort to La Tienda.com or The Spanish Table.  I’ve only seen choricero peppers and ventresca tuna there, but the cost soon undermines the possibility of making tapas regular, casual fare.

Pintxos means “spike,” but Hirigoyen only offers a handful of recipes with toothpicks or skewers.  The rest are fairly elaborate tapas, or even raciones–larger dishes that you actually can serve as a meal for two.  Like Jose Garces, Hirigoyen seems to approach cooking with the attitude that Spanish food is about colonial conquest. Unsurprisingly, his time living abroad has informed his dishes.  His training in France is evident in “Duck Breast with Oranges and Green Olives” and his work in the U.S. shows up bluntly in “Black-eyed Pea Salad with Calarmari”.  The former is pretty much just duck l’orange with a few sliced olives thrown in.  I used Catalan, jalapeno-marinated olives to spice things up a little, but it still tasted far more of France than Spain.  The black-eyed peas were a more welcome inspiration, and Hirigoyen’s thirty second boil and ice cooking method does a remarkably good job of keeping the calamari rings from turning into plumber’s gaskets. It should be clear though that this book is even less “authentic” than the Ortegas’ 1080 Recipes reviewed in my last post. But unless you consider serving a bowl of olives “cooking,” you’re probably better off with a cookbook that emphasizes modern tapas in their all their cultural promiscuity.  I just recommend drawing the line at “Scallops with Lychee Gazpacho“.  I had never worked with fresh lychees before, which are colorful and fun to shuck, but about as appropriate in a gazpacho as orange marmalade.

My favorite section of the Pintxos book specializes on beans, and the ingredients there tend to be cheaper and more readily available.  I do recommend cooking dried beans rather than using canned, but some recipes lend themselves to shortcuts.  “White Bean Salad with Manchego, Avacado, Apple and Meyer Lemon”  involves no cooking other than the beans.  It’s just beans, avocado and a granny smith apple reduced to corner inch dice, so throw in a can of beans and make a lemon vinaigrette and you’re good to go.  It’s definitely worth going the extra mile though on the “Lentil Gratin with Braised Serrano Ham” though and using lentils du puy.  They don’t take much time to cook.  Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to use a whole half pound of serrano ham in a lentils dish, so I used a little ham from our local farm.

These were simple dishes, but they were good enough to make me try most of the rest of the section. Pipérade Braised Beans with Baked Eggs. gave me the chance to finally break in those single-serving cast iron skillets that Ann’s sister and brother-in-law gave me for Christmas.  Along with the “Black-eyed Pea Salad with Calamari,” Hirigoyen throws in a little southern flavor with his beans and eggs dish.  Or maybe it was just the skillets that gives it the tex-mex/campfire feel.  The “Gigante Beans with Boquerones” may be offputting for some.  But as long as you can get good boquerones (see above), Trader Joe’s actually sells precooked  gigante beans with a light tomato sauce and pequillo peppers.  So that’s another salad that can be thrown together without actual any prep work.

If you’re too squeamish for calamari or anchovies, you can get over it with  “Monkfish in Olive Oil, Tomato, and Saffron”.  Monkfish is quite possibly the ugliest fish available. It’s called “poor man’s lobster,” probably because of its texture and the lumpy, tail-like shape of its filets. But that’s where the similarities end. If you look at the Morimoto video below, you’ll see how monkfish earned its reputation as a junk fish. Who wouldn’t want to throw that thing back? And the ugly isn’t just skin deep, it goes all the way through.  The white filets in the store look ordinary enough, but when cooked, the flesh tends to develop purple veins.  Now that people have discovered that looks aren’t everything, the price of monkfish has gone up.  It’s a good deal cheaper than sea bass or halibut, but if you want to find a good under-priced oddity, I recommend looking for skate.

I’ve tried recipes from most other sections in the book except for the chapter on organs.  The “Watermelon and Tomato Salad” is now part of my usual rotation (I often forgo the tomato and the vinaigrette and just serve watermelon with a little feta as a side salad for sandwiches).  The “Griddled Ham and Cheese Bocadillos,” are really just ham and cheese sandwiches with a little tomato thrown in–but they taste better because they’re called “bocadillos”.  I’m not that fond of tomato on ham and cheese, but I do like the idea of adding something a little sweet into the mix like spiced pears (ala ‘Wichcraft) or fig jam (ala Tria). The seared tuna with onion marmalade, chicken thighs with Spicy basque “ketchup,” and chicken skewers with yoghurt dipping sauce were all good if not particularly Spanish.   In the end though, whatever small reservations I may have had about the book, I have to recommend it–particularly those who are looking to make a diet of small meals.  The fact that I keep inviting Hirigoyen back to my kitchen for one dish after another, speaks well of the book, its inventiveness and its flavors.

Spain II: Cooking in Translation. Simon and Inez Oretga’s 1080 Recipes.

In 2006, Ann and I signed up for a ‘pilgrimage’ through Spain and Italy sponsored by Saint Joseph’s University. The school encouraged faculty to follow in the footsteps of Saint Ignatius, learning as they went about the Ignatian ideals of Catholic education.  While Ann went and learned about cura personalis, or care of the whole person, I snuck along to study cura porcinalis, the curing of the whole pig.  Secretly, stealthily, the only feet I wanted to follow were the little trotters of the famed Iberian black pig.

Much to my surprise, a pilgrimage turns out to be a great way to see a country.  Turns out, most people go to Spain to see churches and drink wine anyway.  So going with Jesuits is like getting back stage passes to the show.  You get to see the big churches like the Gaudi, and you also get to see the little dark places with their bone-filled ossuaries. You get to cut through lines, and if you stay in Montserrat, you get to stay at the monastery that is usually off limits to tourists at night.

Monserrat is a surreal “serrated” geological formation.  Driving from the countryside, you really understand why it had spiritual significance for so many people.  You drive for hours by bus across the flatlands, hot and hung over from last night’s wine. You can only imagine what it might have been like to cross by horse or foot.  Then, all of the sudden, this knife of otherworldly pink conglomerate juts up, precisely where a mountain range shouldn’t be. So naturally, ones first impulse is to build a church on it, or a monastery, or a chapel, or a shack to meditate in. And while the first monks to climb that slope must have been armed with pitons and crampons, the whole surreal image is now made complete with a funicular railway sliding up and down the middle of it.  It’s like some sort of Disneyland theme park for Benedictines.

Yet while most of the tourists had to slink back to Barcelona for the night, we got to spend the night in Santa Maria de Montserrat, one of the trips more memorable moments. Ann and I bought cheese off the back of a cart to share with our fellow travelers.  Some other composition specialists were on the trip—including Patricia Bizzell and Cinthia Gannett—but I was an adjunct at the time, and a bit tentative about starting up conversation, particularly with Pat since she was on my graduate exams reading list.  But that night, Pat asked me, “And Ted . . . What do you do?”  I thought for what must have seen an unreasonably long time, and said, “I roast chickens.”  The whole table suddenly became engaged in a discussion of brines, high-roasting, and trussing, and I suddenly felt comfortably at home. After dinner, we took wine out to the courtyard of the giant church, home of the Black Madonna and drank beneath the stars while giant, feral pigs roamed quietly back and forth. That’s right, black, bristly, boars just routing around for God knows what in the shrubberies. After that evening, Spain made a lot more sense to me. So did Spanish wine. So did Salvador Dali.

What did I learn about Saint Ignatius? Born of a wealthy family, he was injured as a soldier and retired to a cave in order to contemplate his rapidly growing beard and fingernails.  Deciding that this life was a kind of vanity in its own right, he returned to the world and committed himself to the fight for social justice. We were all asked what the saint’s retreat from the world meant to us.  Catholics said catholic things. Non-Catholics said Non-catholic things.  Others related the experience to Jungian archetypes. All I could think of was that Saint Ignatius had a lot in common with Batman.

What did I learn about food? More, at least more that stayed with me and has sparked further spiritual inquiry.  Most of St. Ignatius’s travels seemed to go from Bilbao to Bacelona, Basque country and Catalonia, so the food we ate was French influenced but quite distinct in its own right.  I gather there’s a certain amount of struggle for Basque and Catalan cuisines to keep their identity unique.  Look at on-line at reviews for Gerald Hirigoyen’s Pintxos for example, and you’ll see users savagely criticize him for being too French, going to French culinary school, or only representing the more Northern Basque traditions, an argument which seems to resolve almost entirely around his use of butter—The horror!  Butter or not, the Basque and Catalan food was a revelation, and I have been trying to recreate it at home ever since. This has become a trend for all of Ann and my trips, but I’ve become a better note taker over time.  Every year we go somewhere–Spain, Italy, China, or Sweden—we immerse ourselves in books before and after. Ann will immerse herself in six months worth of books set in or about the country, while I make the same journey through cookbooks, shoring up my memories with the tastes, textures, and aromas of the country.

A lot gets lost in translation however.  So I can only speak guardedly and at times despairingly, about my efforts.  There are three reasons for this, though it’ll take me two posts to explain them fully.  First, there seems to be a paucity of really good cookbooks.  Second, in spite of Spain’s copious export industry, some ingredients are still hard to find without a website.  Last but not least, the fun stuff like tapas and pintxos aren’t really the kind of thing that’s easy to make for two.

The Cookbook Problem

I only own six Spanish cookbooks, but ironically, when it comes to recipes for Romesco or other Spanish classics, I might as well go to my old standbys like Judy Rogers’s The Zuni Café Cookbook. People don’t even really think of them as being Spanish dishes.  Doesn’t Romesco come from Rome?  Well, there you go.  Like many French and Italian dishes it’s all been absorbed by the mainstream, and there are a lot more good mainstream cookbooks out there than there are good Spanish cookbooks. But what I wanted after coming home from Spain, was something thoroughly Spanish, something like Julia Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or Marcella Hazan’s’s, well . . . pretty much anything written by Marcella Hazan.  I wanted a book that sought to explain authentic Spanish cooking to outsiders.

I thought I’d found this with Simone and Ortega Inez’s 1080 Recipes.  This is one of those fat Phaidon books, which have been showing up lately.  Phaidon, best known for its books on art and architecture, ironically seems to be trying to corner the market on dated, rustic cookbooks with mostly hand-drawn illustrations.  These are not overly dressy, coffee-table books.  They’re repackaged popular cookbooks from different countries, some 30-50 years old, but never before published in English. All of them claim to be the “bible” of something. Look at the Phaidon website. The Silver Spoon is “the Bible of traditional Italian cooking”.  I Know How to Cook is “the Bible of traditional French home cooking”. Vefa’s Kitchen is “the Bible of Traditional Greek Cooking”.  And 1080 Recipes is “The Bible of Authentic Spanish Cookery.”

This sounds promising, but there are many ways to define “authentic.”  In this case, the book is authentic in that it was written thirty years ago and was popular in Spain. But it’s a general cookbook, and really makes no claim to reveal regional secrets.  It’s more like The Joy of Cooking for Spanish audiences. There’s no pretense here of explaining mysteries to outsiders.  The recipes are simple, appropriate for a family meal, and many of them aren’t Spanish.  Curiously too, there are very few recipes calling for uniquely Spanish ingredients beyond saffron.  For all its 1080 recipes, there are fewer calls for Guindilla, Padron, Choricero, or Piquillo peppers than there are in much shorter American cookbooks by Hirigoyen, Barrenchea or Garces.

Phaidon books are also spare on instruction. A recipe for suckling pig, for example, basically just says to cut the pig in half and roast it.  It hails back to an era where a relatively high level of competency or familiarity with cooking seems to be assumed.  And while there may be some interesting subtleties or nuances to Spanish cooking, it doesn’t make it onto the page.

Consider the onion.  Most cuisines have some combination of aromatics that they cook in fat or oil at the start of a dish. People like to buy fancy bottles of oil with all manner of herbs and peppers in them because this is what fat is good at: it holds aromas.  But it doesn’t really matter if those peppers have been swimming in oil for six months, or whether you’re cooking in the pan for six minutes at the beginning of a meal.  It has the same effect.  By cooking aromatics first, you can cook them just right to activate the aromas, and let the flavors permeate all the other ingredients as you go. But it seems to me that every cuisine has its own unique combination of aromatics, as well as their own very particular ways of cooking them. The French have mirepoix. The Italians have Soffritto that usually includes garlic. India has its own concoctions of onion, garlic and dried chile. Onion is common in all, but it seems that French books usually insist on sweating onions, cooking them slowly so that they turn soft and translucent, but never brown. Indian food in contrast, seems to find it desirable to brown onions over relatively high heat. Marcella Hazan’s books, however, always use the term arrosolate, as if there were some sort of rosy in-between state of cooking onions.  It’s a fiction, of course.  There is no rose colored onion. But it’s a workable fiction. I keep looking for that arrosolate state and while I’m never sure if I’ve got it right, it makes a relatively mundane part of cooking seem new again.

I’m assuming these preferences are not simply an arbitrary decision born out of prejudice.  Presumably, the stronger, slightly singed flavors of onions better match spicy foods.  The fats and even cooking fuels may play a role here as well. Whatever the reasons for these changing conventions, however, I want to know them. I want a cookbook that can explain something like inspiratore and arrosolate, and the Phaidon books don’t do that. Whether you’re in France, Italy, or Spain, they all pretty much just say, “cook onions”.

There’s also something ironic about the Phaidon artwork.  After decades of producing art and architecture porn for your coffee table, Phaidon is now turning to cookbooks that are subdued enough to border on the plain. This is probably deliberate, and in some cases there’s a nice contrast between the modern design of the books and the simple, hand-drawn images, such as in Pork & Sons by Stephane Reynaud.   Pork & Sons has decidedly unglossy photographs matched with charming sketches of pigs in various compromising positions and S&M outfits.  In 1080, the hand-drawn artwork is appropriately rustic, but the photos are universally taken from above, without regard for depth of focus or field or even really color.  It’s a lot of brown food all photographed on a brown table.

Perhaps this is out of deference for the original, but I haven’t been able to find a copy as a source of comparison.  So out of spite, I’ve included a close-up here, of my own effort to make the Ortegas’ chicken with lemons look tasty.

And it was tasty.

When all is said and done, the book has the advantage that it actually works.  Like most old cookbooks, you have to fill in a lot, but so far the recipes have served me well.  I say, guardedly, that it is the best Spanish cookbook that I have yet to find. The chicken with lemons was delicious, if not uniquely Spanish, and I’ve liked other recipes well enough to pre-order Simone and Ortega Inez’s The Book of Tapas. But I’m still searching for the book that will bring back my memories of Spain. Perhaps all I really need is an explanation for why the Café con leche and churros in Spain seemed so much better than in the U.S.  Is that really so much to ask?

Spain I: Jose Garces and Latin Evolution

(Skip to March 31, 2011 post for a possible free copy of Latin Evolution)

The people have spoken, and the people say Spain. No surprise there. In Philadelphia, Jose Garces has given Spain and its colonial stepchildren much deserved praise through his ever-expanding fleet of restaurants.  I ate at Amada, with Ann and friends a few years back.  It was the first time I ever shelled out the money for a full tasting menu, and I made an oath then and there to try the tasting menu at every restaurant Garces opens.    It’s been hard keeping up though.  In spite of a recession closing doors on many local restaurants, Garces has opened five since 2005.  Amada is the Andalusian flagship, a tapas restaurant with its own charcuterie bar. I hope this becomes a trend in other restaurants, and maybe even home kitchens. Who wouldn’t want to come home to a haunch of Jamon Iberica hanging over the kitchen counter?  Tinto is the Basque version of Amada, a dark cellar of wall to wine-rack, decorated in Spanish Inquisition style. Distrito, just a few blocks from my place of work is dedicated to Mexico City.  It looks like a pink 50s diner decorated with wrestling masks and a marquee advertising today’s tacos and tequilas.  All three have wonderful tasting menus. I’ve yet to try Chifa, named after the Chinese population in Peru or Village Whisky named after, well . . . whisky, but I hope to soon. The only real obstacle will be Marcat ala Planxa, a Catalan restaurant in Chicago.  I made the trip to Chicago for Rick Bayless, though, so I’m sure I can make another round for Garces.  Obsessive?  You bet.   My facebook word cloud shows that I’ve posted the name “Garces” more than I’ve posted the name “Ann” in the last year. This is mostly because I rooted for him through every episode of America’s Next Iron Chef while everyone else was bemoaning the Eagles performance in the playoffs.

Then Garces did the unforgiveable.

He won.

Now he’s trendy.  He has a line of ingredients with his face on it, like Bobby Flay.  Now, how can I take friends to his restaurants and pretend that they are a well-kept secret?  I can’t pretend it’s cool to own an autographed copy of Latin Evolution.  I just look like some sort of trend-following lap-dog. Worse yet, Iron Chef really seems to have jumped the shark this season. Jeffrey Steingarten—one of my favorite curmudgeonly food writers—has disappeared, and every episode seems to have some special gimmick, like “battle twins” judged by the actresses from “Sister, Sister”.

But no, I can put aside my pride and say I’m happy for his success.  I think this, like Rick Bayless winning Top Chef Masters, is a good thing so long as it brings more attention to Spanish food, often hidden in the shadows of its neighbors France and Italy. Growing up, I too frequently associated Spanish food with desultory, bland rice dishes.  It was Mexican food without the spice or the wrappers.  My school cafeteria sold glutinous “Spanish Rice” and “Arroz con Pollo,” leaving me thinking that Spanish food came in two flavors, red and yellow.  True, saffron is one of Spain’s big exports, and I’ve never been that fond of saffron. Saffron is made from the female reproductive organ of crocus flowers, which seems like a lot of work—and frustration for the crocuses—just to turn food yellow.  True too, if you try and make Spanish recipes with nothing but the Goya section of your local supermarket to line your larder, you’re not going to be easily impressed.  But you shouldn’t judge Spanish food by these offerings, any more than you’d want Spain judging American food based on what’s available at McDonalds.  Life is elsewhere.

A brief trip to Spain a few years ago convinced me that even the most traditional Spanish dishes could be wonderful if prepared properly.  It’s often fairly simple fare, but when you’re in the Northern mountains of Spain, the food is usually right from the farm and perfectly fresh. (Yes, those are Spanish chickens above). There’s also a highly experimental side of Spanish cooking, which includes Ferran Adria’s El Bulli.  (See here for Anthony Bourdain’s visit).  For Adria, cooking is an experimental art; he closed up shop at El Bulli each year for months at a time in order to turn his kitchen into a laboratory in search of new flavors and techniques. He’s now closing the restaurant all together and replacing it with a school for advanced culinary study.  And why not?  Given how much of the flavor industry is currently governed by chemical corporations, why not have someone out there who is tampering with cooking on a scientific level who is actually one of the world’s best chefs? (Raffi Khatchadourian on the food additive industry).

Garces, who is from Ecuador, lies somewhere in between the traditional and experimental. While his recipes don’t require any of the custom made hardware and expensive additives that put Adria’s recipes forever out of my reach, they are similarly composite recipes—built up on a variety of smaller, but still difficult ones.   They are brutally complicated, modern in their use of ingredients like lecithin to make foams, and exotic in the reach for Spanish imports. While each dish is inspired by a particular region or Latin influence, none of them are really “authentic”.  For Garces, the experimental side is all about permutations that come about when culinary influences collide.

As every child learns in history class, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs and portions of what is now Mexico for Spain in 1519.  What those history classes don’t always teach: Cortes conquered a people, but not their cuisine.  Before the conquest, the Aztec diet was rich in corn, beans, chiles, and complex sauces, made from seeds.  In the 1520s, under Spanish Rule, the same crops grew in abundance—and they still do.  The Spaniards struggled to tame the land and the palate, growing wheat wherever possible throughout Mexico and Central America and raising grazing animals once foreign to this part of the world.  They brought the cow and the pig—the beef, the pork, the lard—but they couldn’t impose their tastes or recreate the Spanish diet in this new world.  Instead, the Aztec appetite adapted to this Spanish influence, incorporating these newly available foods into an already rich cuisine. Throughout the 16th century that story repeated itself throughout the New World—in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rica.

The same might be said about the British Empire’s influence on countries along the spice trail, but keep this in mind:  Spain had a relatively well-established and tasty tradition of cookery prior to setting out to conquer the world.  Britain had roast beef and soggy vegetables.  Whatever we may say about the evils of colonization, we should be thankful for the culinary cross-pollination that has taken place.  It has kept things lively, and, like the poetry of Lorca, just a little bit strange.

My hope is that Garces’s recent success will not only help people to see that Spain’s influence is equal to that of French or Italy, but more importantly, that there’s a market for Spanish ingredients in the U.S.  Because let’s face it, it’s effing difficult to find authentic ingredients.  Until fairly recently, Jamon Iberico, a cured ham from Spain was illegal to import to the U.S. because Spanish slaughterhouses hadn’t been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Spanish cheeses like Manchego and Idiazabal weren’t regularly available until the 90s.  But there are still many Spanish imports that are only available on websites like La Tienda, and I can’t find Choricero peppers anywhere. Hirigoyen’s book Pinxtos asks for them regularly, but Barrenechea’s The Basque Table says that they are simply unavailable in the U.S.  Adriana’s Spice Caravan in Ardmore claimed to have every pepper in the world, but when I asked them for Guindillas or Choricero they looked at me like I had grown a second head.  They insisted that I was just mispronouncing Guajillos.  Now that they’ve closed up shop, I’m sorry I spent so many years calling Adriana the “Spice Nazi,” after the affable villain of the Seinfeld series.  They did have piquillos, Piment D’Espellett, and L’Estornell sherry vinegar, which I love. Piquillo peppers look a lot like regular red bell peppers with a “little beak” at the bottom, hence the name.  They taste like most jarred roasted peppers, but have a smokier flavor that goes well not only with Spanish food but just about every sandwich or salad I can think of. I was glad to see that Thomas Keller makes liberal use of them in Ad Hoc at Home as well. Recently, Trader Joe’s has started carrying them.  Their piquillos aren’t as good as Adriana’s or La Tienda’s, but they’re so cheap they’re hard to pass up.

Fortunately, Garces’s most recent Philly offering is the Garces Trading Company, a market at 1111 Locust street. (Click for Madame Fromage’s review). Perhaps this will give me the ingredients I need to make even one recipe in Latin Evolution.  But even with the right ingredients, this book looks to be ruthlessly difficult. Even a tapas style flatbread snack involves four sub-recipes, “Cocas with marinated duck, cabrales béchamel, and cherry-fig marmalade.” In addition to having to make all that, the recipe calls for foie gras mousse, a “basic” ingredient, which turns out to have its own recipe listed in the back of the book. Good luck making this snack during half time.

That said, the people have spoken, and the people say Spain. So I will in the coming month make an effort to make at least one authentic Garces recipe from this slender volume.  It will probably be humiliating.  So stay tuned.  Humiliation is fun.