Cooking Outside the Box

I am in complete agreement with Sybarite Sauvage who recently remarked that it was just “too darn hot” to mess around with elaborate stories. Hot weather makes creative juices dry up, and one needs an extra effort and a reason to get excited about writing and cooking. So, why not use a little trick, and challenge yourself by using fun new ingredients?

1. Cucuzza squash

During a recent trip to the farmer’s market, I was delighted to see an old friend, – gargantuan-sized Italian squash that goes by the name of “cucuzza”. When we were hiking on the Amalfi coast last September, we saw cucuzzi hanging down from the trellis like some alien baseball bats:

So, I quickly bought the smallest specimen I could find, and spent a good part of my yoga practice thinking about what I was going to do with the darn things. All-in-all, they could be used like other types of summer squash; but they tend to be more flavorful and nutty, plus they keep their shape very well during cooking.

Once I started thinking Italy, squash, zucchini,…the next thing I was remembering was the fabulous zucchini pizza from Forno Campo de’ Fiori in Rome:

Thus, it was decided: it is going to be quasi-pizza, with WholeFood’s tandoori bread as the base:

The first creation was “pizza bianca” with cucuzzi, mountain oregano (indigenous to Amalfi), whole-milk ricotta blobs, a little drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice, freshly ground pepper, and shredded Pecorino (salty and sharp sheep’s milk cheese). Before serving, I sprinkled it with finely julienned mint.

It was followed by “pizza rossa”, built with a very thin layer of arrabiata, cucuzzi, Pecorino, pepper, and combination opal & Italian basil. Here is what it looked like just before I put it in the oven for 5 minutes at 400F:

Ok, now I have used up half of the smaller squash…the question is, what in the world am I going to do with the rest???

2. Tamarind

My must-have dish at any good Vietnamese restaurant is Hot and Sour Soup (Canh Chua), the current favorite being from Saigon Café (located across from Eden Center in Virginia). It is, essentially, a shrimp, tomato, and pineapple soup in tamarind broth. My goal was not to recreate anybody’s version, – I was not following any particular recipe, nor did I have all the ingredients that traditionally go into the soup (such as the wonderfully spongy elephant ear). However, I wanted to make sure it maintained its distinctive taste.

This type of soup epitomizes everything that I love about Vietnamese food, such as the use of fresh ingredients (a variety of herbs and vegetables) to provide different textures and flavors within one dish.  The goal is to create perfect balance of hot (from the chili paste or chili flakes), sweet (from the pineapple), and sour (from the tamarind and lime juice) components.

So, first, you must make your stock using vegetable broth (or shrimp stock), water, tamarind paste,  fish sauce, lemongrass, chili flakes, or chili paste (such as the Pantai paste I used, complete with chilis, garlic, shallots, spices, shrimp paste, etc.). Strain it, and if you can, let it sit in the fridge overnight, in order for all the flavors to marry. The rest takes no more than 10 minutes, as you throw in the pineapple, okra (my approximation for elephant ear), and tomatoes.

A symphony of flavors and colors

At the last possible moment, add shrimp, lime juice, and aromatic herbs (I happened to have opal basil and cilantro on hand). Serve with additional basil and cilantro, if you wish.

In order to push things just a bit further, try a Txakoli (pronounced “Chacoli”) from the Basque region of Spain with your makeshift pizza and soup. In general, it can range from a simple, undemanding quaffer to a wine of extreme focus and character. Getariako Txakolina from Mokoroa certainly has enough acidity, minerality and freshness to bring out the most harmonious chorus from the crazy symphony of textures and flavors of the hot & sour soup.

Singing flavors *are* the best remedy for heat-induced sloth!

Chicago: The Future Is Now

A mere two hours away from home, I have hit upon a place of confluence of futuristic trends. Architecture, cocktails, food, coffee, art, you name it. I am an impressionable type, and this was my first time in Chicago 🙂

 

 

 

Let’s face it: Chicago is home to some of the most exciting restaurants in this country, including Next, Schwa, Alinea, El Ideas, etc… Unfortunately I did not manage to get into all the restos I wanted to visit, – Chicago proved to be the hardest city for reservations that I have ever encountered. Silly me – I had thought reserving a month and a half in advance would get me everything I desire…

Still, I was pretty pleased with my weekend line-up: Topolobampo, the Art Institute of Chicago, L2O, Intelligentsia, futuristic landscapes of the city, the Girl and the Goat, the whimsical Aviary/The Office, Avec, Sable… I was fortunate to explore and experience the efforts of such restaurant moguls and weather-makers as Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, and Paul Kahan.

 

 

Many of those experiences were light-years beyond your average resto experience. I could certainly delve into the imperfections of each place, but I think this time (for the most part), I will focus on their refreshing originality, innovation, and playfulness.

Chicago clearly packs a ton of food knowledge and passion, most of which is delivered with a very flat Midwestern accent. The general theme is subtlety and purity of ingredients (with the exception of Girl and the Goat, who made it their calling to cater to the American palate with in-your-face flavors, while encouraging their patrons to eat and drink more through use of loud music). Here are some comments on just a few places we visited:

Avec: Ironically enough, the decor makes it look like a sauna, except that it is actually quite chilly inside. If you show up in early afternoon, before the hordes descend upon the restaurant, you can enjoy delectable dishes such as their chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo-pepper tomato sauce in peace, and drink fun obscure stuff like the grassy, assertive biancolello from the island of Ischia and a mouthwatering pecorino from Abruzzo.

Aviary/the Office. One word: molecular mixology. I have heard it aptly described as one-fourth chemistry lab, one-fourth theatrics,  one-fourth “How the… and WTF?”, and one-fourth blur. The theatrics are certainly hokey, but all-in-all, this crazy cocktail is pretty balanced. If you have an occasional need to feel important (I do!), perhaps you can score an invitation to the Office, a VIP-style underground speakeasy, inaccessible to the uninitiated. There, one can quietly enjoy a well-crafted pre-Prohibition-style cocktail, such as a rum, green tea, blood orange, pu-erh, and lime concoction. Accoding to Chef Achatz, they have about 30 different syrups, 165 different tinctures, eight different fresh juices, and five different fresh herbs to complement their drinks, as well as house-made custom ice that is hand chipped and/or molded in Japanese press molds. Pretty cool stuff…

I will venture a few random personal predictions about the future (hopefully, this will catch on in the rest of the country):

  • stuffed morels are in; they are tasty little devils.
  • succulent and pure seafood (this time of the year, ceviche from Topo alone will make anyone happy, with choices like Ceviche Fronterizo (lime-marinated Hawaiian albacore with tomatoes, olives, cilantro, green chile), Ceviche Yucateco (steamed Mexican blue shrimp & calamari, lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jcama & cilantro), or Coctel de Atun Tropical (sashimi-grade Hawaiian yellowfin tuna, avocado-tomatillo guacamole, tangy mango-grapefruit).
  • cubed food is in 🙂
  • in the coffee realm, stunning springtime centrals have arrived. It is all about seasonal coffees, such as the gorgeous El Machete from Panama, or La Tortuga from Honduras. Another favorite: Ngogomo Burundi – funky and floral, bursting with flavors of cola, pecans, and dates; perfect as cafe solo.

I yet have to find a shop that would match Intelligentsia’s quality and skill level. They meticulously select the perfect method (V60 pour-over, cafe solo, chemex, espresso, etc.) for the best quality beans money can buy.

Lest anyone think of me as a person who only eats cube-shaped food, I wanted to mention that one of our culinary highlights in Chicago was lunch at Spoon Thai (we ordered from the unpriced Thai menu at the back, of course). Rustic and inelegant in its presentation, the food was to die for: Isaan-style lightly fermented rice and pork sausage, shrimp and lemongrass salad with scallion and lime juice, preserved egg salad with garlic, peanuts, ginger, and lime juice; and lightly sour fish soup with lime leaves and lemongrass (tom khlong plaa chawn).

And finally, our architectural tour on our last day in Chicago confirmed something for me that I already knew: I am a child of the postmodernist era.

The movement of Postmodernism began as a response to the perceived blandness and the perfectionism of the Modern movement, which was focused on the pursuit of an ideal, and attempted harmony of form and function, through dismissal of “frivolous ornament”.

My idea of postmodernist contextualism (check out the earrings purchased at the Art Institute of Chicago!)

Postmodernism openly challenged Modernism as antiquated and “totalitarian”, favoring personal preferences and variety over objective, ultimate truths or principles. This is how the modernist “Less is More” is replaced with the postmodernist “Less is a bore”, and I hope this trend really does catch on…

Day 1: Butter, Bells, and Stolen Glass

We arrived in Paris on Sunday morning, at the very cold and quiet hour of 8am. First things first, and after dropping off the luggage at the hotel, we headed to Eric Kayser’s shop for breakfast. Even though the concept of the best Parisian baguette is heavily debated, and there are annual contests to that effect, Eric Kayser is considered by many to be the best artisanal baker in Paris. Proximity to his shop, as well as two markets, three artisanal cheese shops, etc, and several parks to eat those goodies in, is just one reason to stay in the Latin quarter (5th arrondissement). We already knew coffee in France was going to be unexciting, so our main focus of the breakfast was on the pastries and bread. Traditionally the French just have a croissant (or possibly pain au chocolat, brioche, etc.), or tartine (slice of a baguette with butter and jam). A tartine or any pastry at Eric Kayser is a very luxurious experience, although the weak, milky coffee did little to wake us up. But, since we were not planning on doing any differential equations that morning, we felt like we were off to a good start!

Sunday was a market day at Place Monge, and quite gingerly, we started getting our bearings for market shopping. We had a long first day of eating ahead of us, so there was no reason to get greedy. I drooled over the fresh spring peas, purple artichokes, radishes, sausages, oysters…but stopped myself, and only bought one basil-specked fresh and very, very goaty cheese. We also picked up a small rustic olive bread (fougasse), and had breakfast number 2 in a sunny spot nearby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Paris started waking up slowly after the debaucheries of Saturday night, we were making our way down the narrow, windy streets of St. Germain du Pres neighborhood, on our way to Musee D’Orsay. Upon arrival, we saw lines that we eyeballed to be a 2 hour wait just to get in. I did know about the fabulous Degas Nudes exhibition, however, I misjudged the effect of the free entry to the museum on the first Sunday of the month. We thought we would come back another day, and instead went for a long preprandial walk on the Right Bank, passing by what was easily a 4-hour line to get into the Louvre for free. We had been to the Louvre, and instead went to Mariage Freres, arguably the best tea purveyer and shop in the world. No pictures were allowed, so please feel free to visit their website: http://www.mariagefreres.com/

We walked through the upstairs Tea Museum, and afterwards picked up a blue tea from Formosa for us (a tea category that is tricky to find in this country), and a couple of special requests from my mother who had been anxious to try the famous Mariage Freres stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our lunch plans involved true Breton galettes (buckwheat crepes) at the Breizh café in the Marais. We arrived early, and were lucky to snag an outside table, even though we did not make a reservation (a major faux pas, but I was duly apologetic). They have a long, long list of organic artisanal ciders, so we settled on a bottle of a very dry and perfumy Francois Sehedic cider, traditionally served in a bowl, with our crepe complet au jambon cru de Savoie (filled with nutty, melted gruyère and topped with an egg and top-quality ham). For dessert, we chose a simple crepe with sugar and Bordier butter.

A word about Jean-Yves Bordier, an artisanal butter maker from Brittany who over the years has developed a cult-like following.  To achieve the quality of his butter, Bordier uses very traditional techniques and the best possible cream from select herds of Holstein and Norman cows that graze in pastures not far from Rennes, in Brittany. In an interview with France Magazine he said that the last part of the process (the slow, careful kneading) takes the wonderful butter “to a new level of suppleness that industrial butter makers cannot afford to achieve”.

Our next stop took us to La Chocolaterie de Jacques Genin. Monsieur Genin is an incredible pastry chef, chocolatier and food stylist who is responsible for inspiring a new culinary obsession: caramels. His phenomenally luscious caramels made nightly cost 100 euros a kilo (which comes out to about 1 euro per caramel), and come in nature flavor (“plain”, or sea salt butter-flavored), and a variety of infusions, such as mango, ginger, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

In case you are curious about all the chocolate bells, the French happen to believe that on Easter, the chocolate is brought not by a bunny, but by a big bell that flies in from Rome (which I first found out from my favorite David Sedaris story Jesus Shaves a few years back. Here is a link to this hilarious and short piece, in case you are curious: http://scottduncan.free.fr/blog/jesus_shaves.pdf

Groggy from all the butter and caramels, we took a quick nap, and woke up in the late afternoon, at the perfect time to skip the lines and casually walk into the wonderfully quirky Centre Pompidou, a great modern art museum conveniently located on our way to dinner:

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is important to note that few good restaurants are open on Sundays, therefore you have to manage your experience through careful planning. Prior to leaving for France, I had scored a reservation at Le Verre Vole (The Stolen Glass), a wonderful tiny wine bar (cave a manger) in the Marais, with a small, hand-picked selection of bio (organic) wines and a delicious menu.

We shared an amazing spring vegetable salad, and each had an entree (mine was a wonderfully comforting boudin noir).

 

 

 

 

The aromatic and food-friendly Cote-Rotie from Domaine Jean-Michel Stephan perfectly guided us from course to course. A country-style apple tart brought our first day in Paris to a satisfying close…

France: Sweet and Savory Memories

This afternoon we returned from the whirlwind of our Provencal and Parisian travels, but in even in my post-travel delirium, I could not wait to start sharing at least a few of the visceral reactions and memories from the trip.

I am glad to be back, but am also wistful because we easily took to the life of indolence, of daily hiking, Provencal market visits, and copious, fantastic FOOD and WINE. I will miss the fantastic raw milk (unpasteurized) goat cheeses so fresh you practically have to eat them with a spoon. I am sad that my pee will very soon stop smelling funny from all the early spring green and white asparagus I have eaten (which happens to be a Provencal specialty).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our experiences ranged from the defining food-porn moments at 2-Michelin star restaurants (Le Cinq in Paris, and L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles), to very humble, simple pleasures of a butter-drenched artisanal croissant dunked in café crème first thing in the morning,

 

to roasted potatoes basted in the drippings from the spit-roasted chickens at the marketplace, to a perfect Nicoise salad and a pitcher of white wine served on a sunlit terrace overlooking the mountains after a nice, long hike.

 

 

Among others, our hikes/walks included the incredible Colorado Provencal, with its surreal colors of ochre deposits and quarries, the beautiful landscapes that inspired Cezanne and other painters in Aix-en-Provence, “winelist” walks in Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the joyous spring walk across the Luberon valley, from the picture-perfect village of Bonnieux to Lacoste, right up to the castle of Marquis de Sade…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the next month, I invite you to follow along a series of stories and pictures, in order to see that wonderful world through our eyes in more detail. Allons-y!