Sunday, April 27, 2008

Basque Baby Eels & Buzzcocks

Zola: When our good friend José sent in his receta from Spain he also sent a picture of the dish that looked like this. Now, I didn't know what gulas or elver were so I looked at the picture and thought, "José sent us a recipe for pasta? Lame. That's not very Spanish." We met José in Barcelona, but he & his family are from the Basque region. First I thought that maybe pasta is more common there? I thought about it some more and it just didn't make sense. It just wasn't José's style to lame out on on us. I set about to doing some research and learned that elver are baby eels (and the gulas are a surimi substitute). Look at me, learning new things. With the help of Swiss and a trip to Boise (the Basque capitol of North America--who knew?), I got myself a good supply of the little guys.

Jose: Important observation. The Dish I'm gonna explain is Elver with garlic and prawls but at the same time it's not exactly that. Let's see, the elver is a really expensive food, and as many of this kind of plates (like cod, for example) there's a substitute which is much cheaper but remains some of the carachteristics of the original. For a really affordable price we can make a dish easy to do and ideal for special occasions as for everyday life as well. The substitute is called "gula", and its most known commercial name is"gula del norte" which could be found in the States. Maybe not very easily but could be found.

Well, we'll need, for 4 people:

16 ounce (400 gr.) of fresh "gulas"
16 ounce (400 gr.) of peeled prawns
2 cloves of garlic
Olive oil

You have to pour the oil over de frying pan, when the oil is hot enough put the garlic (cut in thin pieces) and the prawns. After a minute or a minute and a half, put the "gulas". Then Remove, everything sautéed. After that, you can wet your fingers in cold water and pour that on the "gulas". The best presentation is to put the gulas, garlic and prawls into a earthenware pot.

A good complement is white wine and a salad.

It's a really easy dish to do but at the same time it's not the typical thing you do everyday and it fits perfectly in the punk philosophy, you can do it yourself, in a very short period of time and as a beautiful Buzzcocks song it will leave a big smile in your face because it's really, really tasty. Did I had to make that stupid comparison, my friends? of course not but if it makes you remember that you should prove at least once this north Spain dish I'll have done my duty.


Zola: I also added some Spanish style bread--toasted, rubbed with garlic & tomato, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Add some jamon if you like. Suffice to say, José did his duty!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cape Cod Sandwich

Zola: This story really needs no introduction. But I should at least introduce you to Sharon, who has unwittingly become the Patron Saint of Food Chains--it was through Sharon that we met Whitney and her fine food from Guam; Sharon & her partner Pat have donated BACON bumper stickers (that we'll give to anyone who writes a story for the blog & wants one); Sharon & Pat visited us for a meal & brought about 4 dozen fresh oysters (which, okay, technically it wasn't part of the blog but it was a kick ass meal); and she wrote this awesome story which produced an awesome sandwich.

Sharon: My family has been going to Cape Cod ever since I was born. There is a photo of me at six months old, crawling around the beach. I’ve been a beach person ever since. My parents built a house on the Cape in the early ‘90s, and my dad still lives there today. I try to visit once a year.

During one visit—let’s say it was around 1994—my husband at the time and I cruised around the mid-Cape one day with my folks, with some purpose in mind that I have long forgotten. What I do remember is that after we had built up a healthy sea-air appetite (it makes me ravenous, how about you?), we stopped at what is fondly called a “fish shack” near Yarmouth. The building was classic Cape Cod—unassuming wood building sitting right on the docks, the inevitable lobster buoy and crab pot decorations, sea gulls providing the background music. The restaurant was run by a shy family, and because it was after the lunch rush, we practically had the place to ourselves; therefore, the space had a quiet, almost reverent atmosphere.

Our order was obvious: fish sandwich, french fries, and a Coke. We sipped on our icy Cokes to get our blood sugar leveled and read about lobsters on our paper placemats while waiting for our meals, which came out after not too long of a wait.

More than a dozen years later, I can still recall picking up that sandwich and taking the first bite. Soft yet substantial bun with a crisped, slightly caramelized interior surface. Crunch of iceberg lettuce and the tangy-smooth burst of tartar sauce. Then the fish. We swore that the family must have plucked a sole fish out of the water just after we ordered—it was that fresh. My memory goes a little dim at the exact constitution of the coating—but I can say that it was neither overly breaded nor bare fleshed, nor was there any of that “Cajun seasoning” that often wrecks a fish sandwich. The fish was allowed to speak for itself.

We ate our lunches, oohing and ahhing and “oh my godding” the whole time. It’s not like we hadn’t eaten fish sandwiches before—it is a staple lunch in New England—but we had just experienced the new gold standard. The shy waitress took in our raving with equanimity and provided no effusive response, just the check.

A couple of years later, on another visit, my husband and I were trekking around the Cape when we decided to find that fish shack again. We were getting pretty hungry and weren’t quite sure where the restaurant was located, but we felt that our strong memory of that fish sandwich would guide our way. It was like a beacon. Unfortunately, after going up and down every little side road in the upper and mid-Cape, we realized that we weren’t going to find the place. We gave up and grabbed lunch at some forgettable place, and headed back to my parents. We asked them, “Where is that fish shack where we had those amazing sandwiches?” “Oh, they closed. The family wanted to retire from the business.” Tragedy. I still have not fully recovered from the loss.

I have never found a fish sandwich as good as that time. In fact, they often fall short by epic proportions. My advice to the fish sandwich makers:

1. Use the freshest sole (no salmon or other alternative, please!) –don’t relegate your day-old or previously frozen stuff to the sandwich.
2. Keep it simple. No cayenne or paprika or “blackening”
3. The breading needs to be light, but substantial enough to provide a crisped container for the hot, juicy, tender fish inside.
4. Make your own tartar sauce and make it with high-quality ingredients.
5. Iceberg lettuce is the only lettuce that should go on this (or any other) sandwich. Do not let romaine or Bibb (or, God help me, sprouts) touch a bun.
6. The bun is extremely important. It can’t be airy, mushy, hard, doughy, too big or too small. It should be soft, substantial, and have that toasted interior. No cornmeal or sesame seeds, please.
7. French fries and a Coke are de rigueur, even if you never drink soda.

Zola: So guess what Guy got from my parents for his birthday? Oh hello, deep fryer, you naughty thing!
We went down to Fisherman's Terminal to pick up some sole and saw these tasty little squids. We decided we could substitute them for the french fries and Sharon wouldn't mind too much. Also, when we got the cokes, we thought, "you know what goes with coke? Rum!" Yes, I know it's not strictly in keeping with the story, but when better is there to start drinking hard liquor than when you've got a vat of oil cooking away at 375 degrees?
Guy let the sole soak in buttermilk for a few hours, then dredged the pieces of fish in egg then a mixture of flour, bread crumbs, salt & pepper before popping them in the deep fryer.
1/2c. mayo
1 1/2 tsp. finely chopped onion
1 1/2 tsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. sweet pickle relish
2 tsp. dry mustard powder
2 pinches of white pepper
dash of cayenne
Now we must go astringent our faces.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Argentine Cassoulet: Locro

Zola: Dave is a former colleague of mine; a fellow librarian. Like any good librarian, Dave sent thorough and referenced notes from his food adventures while he and his wife, Karen, visited their son who was studying in Argentina (lucky dog). This is only one passage, and we'll explore more of his adventures later. But this first dish really hammered something home for me: I need to get to Argentina toute de suite, people.

Dave and Tony Maack and Karen Gilles' food experiences in Argentina 2006:


In Buenos Aires we had rented an apartment in Belgrano on the far North side of this city of 12 million people. We had been in and out of the city for a few days but hadn't really found a restaurant we liked in our nice little neighborhood. Around the corner we had seen a small group of shops and a couple restaurants just off a little park and decided to look them over closely. We discovered a hole in the wall restaurant that specialized in empanadas. It might have been called Empanadas Saltena. We were soon to go to Salta so we sat down outside.

Argentinos are very gregarious people and it took no time for the woman proprietor to tell was she was from Salta. We ordered empanadas with her help. Empanadas are similar to what the British (or Cornish) call pasties and are also found in many Latin American countries Empanadas are like hambergers in Argentina. Well liked by all.

She suggested we also try some regional stews. Tony and I had locro and Karen had another stew I can't remember. This was a hearty and very fun lunch.

When we returned from salta, we went back, and ordered a big bunch of empandas. We ended up talking with the owner and a man who I believe was the bookkeeper for the restaurant about politics (you know the Bush, US Gov., Pres Kirchner,etc). This went on for some time and was very animated. The empanadas were GREAT.
Needless to say Tony did most of the talking.

Zola: Now, I guess it would have made sense to make empanadas. But why? I've had empanadas. Last week we had piroshki, so we essentially had empanadas. I wanted to check this mysterious LOCRO. When I researched it a bit, it was occasionally referred to as an Argentine cassoulet. And that just can't be bad.

3 cups corn kernels
2 cups hominy
2 medium onions, sliced
1 large butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 red pepper, diced
5 cups of vegetable broth
1 can white beans
11 ounces of chorizo
11 ounces of beef, cubed
6 ounces of bacon, sliced
2 tsp cayenne
1 tsp coriander powder
salt & pepper to taste
3 tablespoons of oil

I've discovered that I'm really bad at estimating how much food a recipe is going to make. If you suffer from this same affliction, I'll tell you this for nothing: I'm not sure what the laymen's term is but I believe the technical term is SHIT LOAD. This recipe makes a shit load of locro. Guy says it'll serve at least 6 people.

Chop and saute onions and the pepper in oil. Add the squash cubes and cook for about 5 minutes.

Next, add the vegetable broth and turn the heat to low. When the squash is half cooked, add the corn, hominy and the beans. In a different saucepan, brown the bacon, sausage and the beef. Add the meat mixture to the squash mixture and season with spices.

Boil for approximately 30 minutes--until it comes together as a stew. I served it with avocado and tortillas.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Cooking of Strangers: Borscht & Piroshki

Zola: I've just begun reading an amazing autobiography called The Courage of Strangers by Jeri Laber. JL was one of the co-founders of Helsinki Watch, which would become Human Rights Watch. Our bookshelf is littered with similar books: passionate individuals who are driven to make substantive change in the world. I devour these things. But this one is really speaking me. It's partially because she found her "calling" later in life, and that puts me at ease. As someone who didn't even begin her undergraduate studies until the age of 27, I often feel like I'm in a constant struggle to catch up to get where I want to be. The other thing is that it turns out old JL is a bit of a foodie. In fact, it was while she was editing the Fannie Farmer Cookbook that she met then President of Random House, Bob Bernstein, who got her into her first paid position doing human rights work. It's two worlds--food and development work--that sometimes feel completely at odds to me and I enjoyed reading her experiences within both.

She began her career with an interest--an obsession, really--with all things Russian. It's easy to imagine. It was the early 1950's and everything Russian was forbidden and mysterious. Combine that with the fact that her father was Russian and refused to speak about his life there. Much to the chagrin of her father, she ended up studying Russian language and literature, and in 1954 was one of the first American students to get a student visa into the USSR. By the 1960's she had 3 children and was working part-time in the Institute for the Study of the USSR.

Jeri: I looked forward to the office Christmas party each year, which always began with a gala Russian banquet, prepared by staff members and their spouses and spread out on a cloth-covered Ping-Pong table in the office recreation room. Many of the foods were new to me, but the tastes were enticingly familiar and reminded me of meals my grandmothers had made. There was caviar, both red and black; several kinds of pirozhki (light, flaky pastries filled with ground meat, cabbage, or mushrooms); pelmeni (boiled dumplings often served in a delicate broth); beef Stroganoff; hard boiled eggs with anchovies and dill sauce and salad Oliver (made with diced chiken, potatoes, and dill pickles). Vodka flowed freely and there was no end to the toasting. No matter how late I stayed, the party was in full swing when I left, and the sight the next morning of broken bottles and overturned chairs testified to even wilder partying as the night went on.

I got recipes from my colleagues and began preparing Russian food at home. One of my specialties was a meat-filled cabbage and beet borscht that I often served as a main course with mushroom pirozhki on the side. I followed it with thin slices of paskha, the sumptuous Russian Easter dessert made with farmer cheese, butter, cream, sugar, almonds, and other sinful things. My love affair with Russia now extended to its cuisine.

Zola: I've never been crazy about Eastern European food. You may have noticed that my tastes lean toward the spicy. But in honor of Jeri and the amazing work of Human Rights Watch (and learning to cook new food) we're cooking borscht and mushroom piroshki.

Mushroom Piroshki:
1 1/2 c. sifted flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
pinch salt
1/4 c. butter
1 egg, beaten
1/2 c. sour cream
Cut cold butter into flour/baking powder/salt until well mixed. Add sour cream and egg and form into a ball. Let refrigerate for a couple of hours.

Cook 12 oz of mushrooms in butter. Mix in some flat leaf parsley, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Mix in some sour cream and a hard boiled egg.

Roll out dough to 1/8 inch thickness. I cut the dough into squares to conserve dough. Place about 2 tablespoons of filling in center of each square. Using pastry brush, coat edges with beaten egg. Fold dough over and shape into triangles. Press edges firmly together. Place on ungreased cookie sheet and brush tops with beaten egg and sprinkle with . Chill them for another hour then bake at 400 degrees for about 25-30 minutes.

1 pound beef or lamb shank
4 c. water
1/2 chopped onion
2 small bay leaves
1/2 tsp whole allspice
1 tomato peeled & chopped
1/2 small cabbage
1 carrot
1 beet
1 tsp vinegar
fresh ground pepper
chopped parsley and dill

Bring beef/lamb shank, onion, water, bay leaves, and allspice to a boil. Skim as necessary and let simmer for an hour. Chop veggies into a thin chop (apparently if you grate them, your borscht will be cloudy, and who wants that?). Remove meat from pot--if there's enough meat on the bone, cut it off and throw it back in with your veggies. Otherwise, set aside and toss in veggies. Boil uncovered for about 15 minutes or until veggies are cooked through. Before serving, stir in vinegar pepper, parsley and dill. Add sour cream to top.

Note: I think these turned out really well. My one comment would be that there wasn't enough broth to the borscht. If I had to do it again, I'd up the stock part of the recipe.

Oh, the Jeri quote is from her book:
The Courage of Strangers, PublicAffairs, 2002.