Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Como agua para chocolate (on mole and melancholia)

The idea that we can use cooking to transmit an intangible thing is not a novel one. I'm thinking of Laura Esquivel's Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate)—the book is practically required reading if you're any kind of Latin American—, in which Tita is cruelly forbidden from marrying the man she loves, Pedro, as part of a family tradition in which the youngest daughter must remain unmarried and commit her life to caring for her mother. In a desperate effort to stay close to Tita, Pedro decides to marry one of her sisters, and as luck would cruelly have it Tita is responsible for baking their wedding cake. This is, as you can imagine, a harrowing experience. Tita's heartache overwhelms her, and in what has become the most memorable passage from the book (and scene from the not terrible film adaptation), her inconsolable tears make their way into the batter, and the wedding guests become impossibly lovesick at their first taste of the cake. This is pure magical realism: it seems possible enough (though still unlikely) that someone's salty tears could spoil raw batter, but could they be charged with sorrow and make us sick with longing? Can grief withstand the heat of an oven, can it be licked off a spoon, can it lead to such collective katabasis as experienced by Pedro's unsuspecting guests?

Mole has hundreds of ingredients, many different chiles and crazy things like fresh epazote leaves which I like to pretend don't exist in the United States to keep the magic going, which is in full disclosure why I have not (yet) attempted to make it myself. But I have learned that if you can get your hands on mole in Mexico (not just from Mexico) it is as good as homemade. In fact, I enjoy this distance between myself and the multitudinously concocted mole. I imagine it being imbued with a kind of unrivaled Aztec wisdom in the same way Tita's cake is teeming with melancholia. 

There are as many stories about mole's origins as the dish has ingredients, and they are not all pre-hispanic. In one of these legends, a cook is asked to prepare a grand banquet for his diocese's visiting archbishop. Nervous at the prospect of a man so close to God sitting at his table, he trips and knocks all the ingredients in his kitchen into the simmering pot: chiles, cacao, spices, and more. This late in the game, he can only resort to the heavens, and kneels down to pray that the meal will turn out somewhat edible. The result of this holy episode in the kitchen is a satisfied archbishop and the birth of mole.

To my relief, I do not regularly summon the divine or weep for love as I cook, but I do believe wholly in the transmission, the role of cook as messenger of a moment or feeling, even if fleeting. Tita was born in the kitchen, and she lives and loves there too. For those of us who cook not just to eat or to feed but to create, to escape, or to become more real, she represents the inevitable way in which we bring our emotions to the kitchen. If "every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter," the same rule applies to food. When we are at our most vulnerable and open as we cook, our sensitivities translate very viscerally to the final dish, like in Esquivel's text. I don't think that's too romantic, is it?

"The moment they took their first bite of the cake, everyone was flooded with a great wave of longing. Even Pedro, usually so proper, was having trouble holding back his tears. Mama Elena, who hadn't shed a single tear over her husband's death, was sobbing silently. But the weeping was just the first symptom of a strange intoxication - an acute attack of pain and frustration - that seized the guests and scattered them across the patio and the grounds and in the bathrooms, all of them wailing over lost love." 
                                            — Laura Esquivel, Like Water For Chocolate

"Una inmensa nostalgia se adueñaba de todos los presentes en cuanto le daban el primer bocado al pastel. Inclusive Pedro, siempre tan propio, hacía un esfuerzo tremendo por contener las lágrimas. Y Mamá Elena, que ni cuando su esposo murió había derramado una infeliz lágrima, lloraba silenciosamente. Y eso no fue todo, el llanto fue el primer síntoma de una intoxicación rara que tenía algo que ver con una gran melancolía y frustración que hizo presa de todos los invitados y los hizo terminar en el patio, los corrales y los baños añorando cada uno al amor de su vida." 
— Laura Esquivel, Como agua para chocolate

Saturday, December 17, 2016

if you love someone, make them parsnip soup

The ethics of blogging seem to be such that one must either overshare, enumerate each dirty or extraneous detail, confide in the reader...or say nothing at all, exercise restraint, an idyllic picture of a self shielded by screen, dotted with catch phrases and hashtags. When it comes to writing about love, that thing that requires a nice expanse of gray area to roam and roll around in so that it can express itself properly, this polarity is especially constraining. Hence my hesitance to address love, much more my personal love, here on this platform that is so unequivocally a blog. I don't want to cheapen anything with banality in the name of the sacred reader's comfort, but I also don't want to turn my soul inside out and make anyone squirm. 

All that said, I could not write about this perfectly tiny bowl of parsnip soup (to be refilled many times over), a deceptively simple, exquisitely delicate dish, without mentioning that it is a food made for love, and that I made it for mine. Not like an aphrodisiac, but I swear - it is heart warming. Carrots and parsnips are both root vegetables, so they share enough that they're interesting to each other, but the gingery spice of parsnips is unlike the carrot's fresh and pure sweetness. In this recipe, they simmer cozily together for an hour in some broth. The final pureed soup takes no cream (although I added a generous glug of olive oil, in the name of love), and is sprinkled with the crispiest parsnip chips, a discovery for the ages. In all its easy lightness, it is sophisticated and feels extravagant even on the weekend. Much like those never ending conversations. 

Also, it would be nice with some focaccia, which gives your lover or friend or in-between something to do (hint hint, if you're reading this?)

Carrot-Parsnip Soup With Parsnip Chips (recipe from NYT

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 ½ cups chopped yellow onion
3 cups coarsely chopped parsnip (about 1 pound)
3 cups water
2 ½ cups coarsely chopped carrot (about 1 pound)
2 (14-ounce) cans fat-free, less-sodium vegetable broth
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup parsnip, cut into 1/8 inch slices
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook 10 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Add chopped parsnip, water, carrot and broth; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 50 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Remove from heat; let stand 5 minutes. Place half of carrot mixture in a blender; process until smooth. Pour pureed carrot mixture in a large bowl. Repeat procedure with remaining carrot mixture. Stir in salt and pepper. Heat remaining 5 teaspoons oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add parsnip slices; cook 5 minutes or until lightly browned, turning occasionally. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle parsnip chips and chives over soup.

Monday, September 5, 2016

guacamole rústico

My stepfather is Mexican, which means that I have long witnessed with equal parts confusion and amusement as traditional Argentine dishes prepared by my mother have been slathered in chipotle or rolled up in corn tortillas (bonus points for the fact that my first name, Valentina, is also the name of a hot sauce.) "Asado"—the word we use for barbecue in Argentina—has always somehow managed to get away with little to no variations, maybe because it's slightly futile, I find, to improve an already majestic piece of properly grilled meat. Although chimichurri, but I digress.

The real exchange of ideas happens around the issue of contorni, or the various combinations of vegetables we stare at as we consume red meat for hours. It is notable how passively everyone accepts anything that goes on the grill (blood sausage is just that, a sausage filled with blood), but the saintliest of leafy dishes incites heated debate: my stepdad hates arugula, my mom can't eat corn (?), my uncle has a theory that cilantro tastes just like these little green stink bugs that buzz around the Pampas on warm nights, and everyone agrees that guacamole, a crowdpleaser, prematurely fills everyone up with chips.

This last point brings me to what we've now coined guacamole rústico, a salad I've devised for our long nights of asado consisting quite simply of the ingredients that make up guacamole coarsely chopped into a salad rather than smashed into the sultry dip we know and love. Here I've sprinkled it with parsley instead of cilantro to accommodate my uncle's totally forgivable caprice—the salad format somehow permits a deviation from the model—and sliced peaches on top, because I'm in denial about summer ending. In essence, this is an absurdly simple and beautiful thing that I love to prepare, probably because it is unconventional, colorful, and well-intentioned like my sometimes particular, largely carnivorous relatives.

ingredients for salad
  • shallots, thinly sliced or finely chopped
  • tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • avocados, sliced 
  • peaches, sliced more or less like the avocados (they don't have to be perfectly ripe)
  • parsley or cilantro, depending on your uncle, finely chopped
  • generous squeezes of many limes, olive oil, fresh pepper, and sea salt (optional: chili flakes, balsamic.)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

the colors of summer

(1) roasted pears, kalamata olives, green beans, and bebe potatoes + shallots, dijon, rosemary
(2) strawberry summer cake, in a pinch, adapted just slightly from smittenkitchen (here.)

Saturday, July 9, 2016

the sexiest things I saw at Smorgasburg this weekend

in the sweltering heat, I put my name on a list and waited twenty minutes for lemonade, had ceviche in a corn tortilla, and photographed all this before getting caught in the rain, stupidly happy. 

1. Takumi Taco; 2. Duck Season (soon to open Handsome Drake's in Red Hook!); 

Friday, July 8, 2016

let's talk about the bread @ Reynard

80 Wythe Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211

A few weekends ago I had the unrivaled pleasure of enjoying brunch across the table from an old friend at Reynard. As Shaw says, there is no sincerer love than the love of food, especially if that food is baked eggs with house cured bacon and shiitake mushrooms (there were cubes of bacon! CUBES!), and even more so if it was ordered by a woman you've known for a decade and admire deeply, who happens to be willing to share.

I love Reynard on a late Sunday morning because it is bright and brunchy without being loud or excessive, in any sense of those words. Aptly surrounded by the habitual visual elements of the Williamsburg brunch scene—beautiful unfussy babies, hexagonal mosaic tile, permanently golden dust-speckled light—we feasted on food that was warm and good and not fastidious. I had a frittata with silky ricotta and hunks of chunky broccoli (update: in an act of seasonal sensitivity the broccoli in this dish has now been replaced with green and gold zucchini summer squash and basil, which I imagine is equally lovely).

But we are not here to talk about baked eggs, frittatas, or magically well-behaved infants in upscale hotel restaurants. We are here to talk about bread, something that Reynard does exceptionally well.

Bread at Reynard is only provided upon request, it is a menu item, and it set us back a whole $4. It arrived awkwardly halfway through our meal, because we ordered it only upon realizing that we desperately needed something to sop up all that smokey bacon juice (proof that this was a pragmatic decision and not just the caprice of two glutenites). Two slices of sprouted spelt bread presented modestly on a porcelain dish, boasting nothing, much less their merit as a separate item on the menu that must be paid for in addition to a meal, are rarely anything but signs of a persnickety kitchen lacking the graciousness of a good host. But these are not that. First of all, the bread was buttered on both sides, an arcane practice that I will now replicate with enthusiasm. Secondly, it was toasted in a wood oven in a cast iron skillet and I don't have to tell you what happens when bread meets animal fat meets velvety cast iron. Lastly and very significantly, it was served alongside more butter.

The bread, I learned, is from She Wolf Bakery,  a wood oven bread experiment turned Greenpoint bakery started in 2009 by Reynard's owner (and general Brooklyn restauranteur) Andrew Tarlow. Years later and to the delight of every hedonistic New Yorker, all of Tarlow's restaurants and many others across the city source their bread from She Wolf. They're revered for their sourdough, another Reynard toast option that, I should mention, was not offered to us. This is more than okay, as we were thrilled with our spelt, and seduced by the mere fact of not having to make a choice at all, another Sunday indulgence.

Friday, February 12, 2016

restaurant review: Martha

184 Dekalb Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11205

Maybe Martha is trying to please everyone - here's to a restaurant that serves microgreens and chicken wings - but it is probably succeeding. Although enamored by this spot long before I decided to leave my teeny Upper East Side studio for a fourth-floor walk-up in Bushwick, my most recent visit as a newcomer to the borough was symbolic. Martha's breezy space on Carlton and Delkab, all but hidden next to a blocky food market nearby hilly Fort Greene Park, felt strangely like home. With its smooth wooden tabletops, cool glass bottles, sturdy chrome stools, and delicate light courtesy of generous windows and a backyard patio, it emanates the sweet freshness and guiltless idle of a nap on a hammock, or an afternoon whiled away with a tall hot French press and a book you've already reread once, even twice before.

The lunch menu reads like a hybrid between street-cart and farm-to-table peppered with sandwich names no less saucy than the fare itself ("rogue sailor!") and numerous welcome appearances of the modifier "fried." Sandwiches are Martha's claim to fame: in its early days, the restaurant was known as the Brooklyn Sandwich Society. Although the repertoire has since expanded, I stuck to the classics—which are, it so happens, far from traditional. The Sloppy Josephine is more like a deconstructed burger than its drippy namesake, with packed ground lamb spiked with five-spice and gingery lime pickles inspired by nimbu adrak ka acchar, an Indian pickling method involving no vinegar or oil. Served open-faced with a big, splashy fried egg on top, Sloppy Josephine is to Joe as croque-madame is to monsieur. The All-American, Asian-spiced reference to a Parisian bistro staple somehow works, perhaps because the bizarre eclecticism of its parts is tempered by a warm, cornmeal-sprinkled village round sandwich roll from Balthazar Bakery, so yeasty and bubbly; still, I was delighted to find that a sandwich this well-traveled could taste so much like comfort food.

There is no quicker way to feel like a culinary genius than to whip up a fabulous omelet with the various, often incongruent odds and ends found in an otherwise understocked fridge; the Roti John sandwich at Martha is like your midnight Sriracha-drenched egg improvisations but cleaned up and fully graduated. The sleek scallion and smokey lap chong omelette on buttery bread gets its heat from sambal (chili peppers, coarsely ground), pickled jalapeños, and smoked paprika; whole cilantro leaves act as an invigorating palate cleanser before the whole thing makes you drowsy. Even then, rapacious eaters like me will have to pace themselves—the bread, plush and toasty, is extravagant in itself, the kind that leaves the tips of your fingers shiny and of which I could probably consume an entire loaf before it became anything more.

Tip: wash it all down with white wine at 3pm on a Sunday; I learned it the easy way. They also have something called hot buttered sake that sounds a lot like getting tipsy at the movies and will be on my tab when I head over for dinner, now that I live only 2.9 miles away. Sake or not, I'll have to make my way back for dessert, for which I had no room this time - the globetrotting combinations of our first courses fully satisfied my wanderlust.

© valentina citadina Maira Gall.