Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday dinner at home, always an adventure!

My grandmother was an amazing cook. She made people happy with her food, be it something as simple as rice or as involved as a full banquet. My earliest memories include making tamales in her kitchen, the smell of masa fresca and chicken stewed in an unequaled red sauce. She would let me make tiny little tamales that were all masa, and it filled me with pride to unwrap and eat them, the product of my own five year old hands, at the dinner table that night. I remember the embroidered dresses she would wear when she cooked, the practiced movements she used to fold the tamales…just the smell of steamed corn husks and fresh masa will always remind me of those moments.
And I assure you, tamales were far from the only thing in which she was without rival. Today, in remembering her, I made a salpicon de pollo for dinner. The whole family helped, and the salpicon itself turned out rather good, if I may. Salpicon is a salad type dish made with shredded beef or chicken, fresh peas, carrots, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, green onions and cilantro…plus whatever else you might feel like adding. The mixture is dressed with olive oil, white vinegar, salt and pepper, is wonderfully light and refreshing, and is healthy to boot. Traditionally, it is served on tostadas (crisp fried corn tortillas) with a thin layer of refried beans, guacamole and queso fresco. And salsa, of course. I planned to make fresh corn tortillas to accompany my efforts, plus pico de gallo, guacamole, and the cheese.
My friends were set up to help me, we mixed up the masa as per my Abuelita’s instructions, and were ready to start putting the tortillas on the comal when I realized something potentially (ok, totally) disastrous. As I hadn’t been the one mixing the masa, I hadn’t been paying much attention. But I finally noticed the texture was all wrong, the tortillas weren’t holding together despite doing everything right…so I tasted the masa. It turns out the lovely woman at the market sold me mixed wheat and “” flour instead of corn flour. We’re talking nutty, rich, almost sweet whole wheat flour. Completely distinct and not even a little interchangeable with ground dried corn.
My helpful friends and I could only laugh. No wonder the tortillas weren’t working. Wheat flour takes a whole different approach and never in my right mind would I make tortillas out of it, especially not for a dish as light as salpicon. Needless to say, we needed a culinary rescue.
One was provided…we ended up eating salpicon with crepes. My savior added egg, butter, milk, more water…the result was something like buckwheat pancakes. They will be utterly delicious with honey and banana tomorrow morning, and nutella and strawberries would be amazing…even a good Swiss and some ham would be delectable. To tell the truth, they weren’t half bad with the salpicon, just rather odd.
Still, everyone seemed to enjoy the food and I think the salpicon was delicious. I know the salsa and the guacamole were top notch, and the caldo de pollo that resulted from the chicken has already been substantially depleted. I count the whole thing as a success. After all, cooking is not without its trials and tribulations and from those come the most entertaining and occasionally innovative and delicious moments.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Nostalgia for the Home Territory

One of my best friends is in the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend, and since (to my great frustration) I can’t be there to do the gastronomic and touristic adventure I would have wished, I’ve compiled a list of my current favorites to guide him in my absence. May you never be without a panoply of delectable options.
First, the Classics:
Truly Mediterranean on 16th right near Valencia St. The best falafel and shawarma (lamb except Tuesdays and Fridays when they have an equally tasty chicken option). Order it deluxe, which includes potato and grilled eggplant, get a six pack at the corner store and go to Dolores Park to enjoy a nice fog tan. Seriously one of my favorite places to eat, it never gets old.

La Taqueria on 25th and Mission Sts. For some dank burrito action, go with the carnitas con todo (chile, cheese, sour cream, guacamole). The carne asada is also excellent. San Franciscans tend to have strong opinions about this, and mine is that this is the best burrito in town. They even do you the great favor of not putting rice in there, so you know you’re getting delicious meat instead of filler. (Phew, two loaded statements…I’m going to get in trouble).

Bake Sale Betty’s on Telegraph and 51st in Oakland. Stand in line for a fried chicken sandwich with jalapeno slaw that easily makes it onto the top three sandwiches on earth list (along with La Lucha’s lechon in Lima and lampredotto in Florence…lofty company). Get there early, because when they sell out…which happens…you will be that sad person watching everyone else eat their scrumptious prize at the ironing board tables on the sidewalk outside. Who wants to be that person, really?

Full House Cafe on 35th and MacArthur Blvd in Oakland. Breakfast here is enough to keep you going for days, especially since you never want to stop. They make every kind of hash you might want: traditional corned beef, smoked chicken, red flannel…I don’t ever remember more. Plus, this is the home of the most awesome biscuits with smoked chicken and sausage gravy you could possibly get outside of someone’s grandma’s house. However, this is a breakfast spot, and as such I believe they close in the early afternoon. I tend to consider that kind of behavior a grave offense, but I make an exception for Full House because among breakfasts, biscuits and gravy and hash are the undisputed rulers.

Foreign Cinema on Mission St. For an elegant California dinner or a relaxed and beautiful brunch, this place always delivers. They do an excellent oyster and raw bar, have top notch seasonal menus that always have pleasing surprises, the wine list is good and the cocktails are delicious. The space is beautiful too, and during dinner they screen foreign films in the patio (hence the name). They also have a bar next door, I believe also run by them and so with equally tasty drinks.

Thirsty Bear Brewing Co. on Harrison between 3rd and Hawthorne Sts. Excellent tapas, occasional live music, and a great selection of beers. They source their ingredients locally and always provide delicious twists on the traditional Spanish tapas. Did I mention the all organic, hand crafted beers?

Some newer options:

Nopalitos on Broderick between Fell and Oak Sts. This newish spot serves carefully executed, delicious and authentic Mexican food in the unbeatable high style of Mexico City (a place where I could happily eat all day for the rest of my days), They also have a small but well curated selection of beers, tequilas and cocktails, including a michelada. For those of you who know what this is, you also know how rare it is to see it in a restaurant (especially one of this caliber). For those of you that don’t, just go try one with some quesadillas or totopos.

Piqueos on Cortland St in Bernal Heights. The best of the recent craze for Peruvian food. I say this with a much more informed perspective these days, and while it isn’t quite the same as eating it in Lima, Piqueos does a remarkably delicious job of preserving authenticity while still adding that California touch. Also, the space is elegant and manages to preserve that congenial neighborhood vibe. The chef has another venture down the coast that focuses (or so I’m told) on scandalously fresh seafood…something to check out, because let me tell you, Peruvians know what to do with a piece of fish. I believe it is called La Costanera and is in Montara on the Cabrillo highway.

Little Star Pizza on Valencia and 15th Sts. The best deep dish pizza. Yes I know, this is a scandalous claim…especially for a Chicago resident. However, the pure quality of the ingredients shines, from the piquant tomato sauce to the light, flavorful cornmeal crust. The thin crust is top notch too. Their toppings are excellent, don’t miss the fresh sausage. As if that weren’t enough, their salads are delectably fresh and the Goddess dressing is addictive, I hear the spicy chicken wings are chronically good, and they have a great selection of beer on tap and wines. What is not to love about this place?

Some places I would like to try:

Flour and Water on Harrison at 20th Sts. Potentially impossible to get in due to this year’s James Beard Award finalist status, I nonetheless know people who have managed it and report back some tempting details. Fresh made pastas, meat butchered in house, wood fired pizza. The purity of great Italian food cannot be beat, and here they aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, just transmit the tradition with the best execution and ingredients (as it should be).

Domo Sushi on Laguna and Hayes Sts. Good sushi speaks for itself. And it speaks deliciously.
That is all that I can think of at the moment, apologies to the bajillions of amazing places I know I left out. If you can’t eat well in SF with that list, I can’t possibly help you…you need treatment.

Oh wait…oh my god, I almost forgot something incredibly critical:

Dim Sum! Ton Kiang on Geary and 22nd Ave. Utterly delicious dumplings served all day. This is the best, really. Particular favorites are the shrimp and pea tip, scallop and shrimp and scallion and shrimp dumplings. The roast duck is also delicious, and they make what may the best steamed pork bun ever. It is worth the excursion, trust me.

I will have to do a separate entry on Asian food in the bay…I would never finish if I started now and frankly, I’ve made myself quite hungry.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sacsayhuamán, August 18

The walls are made up of huge stones, taller and wider than me, fitted together perfectly and with every edge rounded to fit the curvature of the structure. Doorways are over 3 meters high, with lintels that dwarf me completely. Their size and architectural perfection laugh at our modern notions of the possible; I find it difficult to conceive of the labor that went into building these massive walls. I wonder at the sheer brutality of these structures, how blunt and aggressive each curved stone face is despite its almost seamless integration into the hills. The walls appear almost natural from a distance, rock faces rising from the hillside and surrounding an immense open space like sentinels. But as you move closer, you realize how absolutely artificial this giant vertical puzzle is. What a majestic monument to the extent of human domination of the natural world…and in the context of its conquest and subsequent human subjugation, what a monument to empire and hegemony brought low by yet another hegemonic order. It really makes you think about how society and culture is subject to the whims of power, and how easily the kind of power valued by emperors changes hands. Somehow, though, those of us who don’t seek it always end up subject to the same abuses, the same corruptions and contortions of those attempting to hold tightly to a transient and illusory gem.
I think that was rather cliché…but sometimes you stop being able to find fresh ways to describe what is somewhat beyond your comprehension (and better that it remains that way).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Huancarani and Cuzco, August 17

Today I ate a truly beautiful salad for lunch. It included dark leafy greens, roasted golden and purple beets, sweet red onion, small white beans and carrots, all cut into ribbons and tossed. The flavors were so refreshing and bright that I didn’t miss a dressing at all (though a little olive oil and lime would have been ideal in retrospect), and the visual effect was like summer in a bowl. To accompany the greens, there were potatoes roasted in a traditional Andean adobe oven, peeled and sprinkled with a little salt while still hot. All this while sitting in the adobe kitchen house of a family in one of the many indigenous comunidades in the mountains surrounding Cuzco, having conversations in Spanish, Quechua and Italian and feeding the potato peelings to the many cuy (guinea pigs) running around the floor.
I spent the day visiting some of Centro Yanapanakusun’s projects in the comunidades in Huancarani district, about 60km outside Cuzco proper. They are particularly involved in promoting education, so a large part of the day was spent at schools that the center has helped build and provides academic support to and at the Salas de Cultura that the center has or is building as spaces for workshops, activities and afterschool programs. The poverty is extreme out in the Sierra, but it seems that at least in the schools that Yanapakusun works with, there is some effort to maintain a certain level of instruction. The lack of materials, usable space, food and everything else you can imagine is debilitating, but children are going to school and learning, and according to the director of one school, are continuing on to secondary school. A big difficulty, also according to the director, is convincing parents that school is a better use of a child’s time than work (though something tells me that this is far from the most pressing problem the schools face). But they push on, and the kids learn and get the chance to be children and not small adults. I will get more into depth regarding Centro Yanapanakusun and its work at another time, suffice to say that it is an NGO that actually manages to reach its target population with useful and deeply contextualized services and that you should check out the website for more details. And definitely consider staying there if you happen to come to Cuzco.
On another note, I want to discuss the woman who sells tamales in the Plaza de Armas here in Cuzco. They are 80 centavos a piece, she has both dulces and salados (sweet or savory), and they are so good that I cannot walk by her without buying one. The masa (corn dough) is so light and fluffy it practically disintegrates in your mouth. The Peruvian style tamal is a little different that the Mexican version many of us are accustomed to, in that it isn’t really stuffed with meat. Instead the meat and other contents are sort of dispersed throughout the tamal, and there tends to be a low meat to dough ratio. It becomes more of a snack instead of the main dish of a meal, and a pretty ideal snack at that since you can walk and eat one at the same time (it comes in its corn husk wrapper, of course). I haven’t tried the sweet version yet because I’m too addicted to the savory, but I promise I will soon. I have no doubt that it will be just as delicious and crave-inducing. So you know, she is located just outside Gato’s Market every day, all day until she sells out. Try one, you will not be disappointed.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Saturday, August 7th

On Saturdays in the Plaza Tupac Amaru in Cuzco, Peru, the municipality organizes a Feria Gastronómica, or open air food festival. Something like 35 different vendors participate, all making the food fresh to order right there in the plaza. It is all comida típica: regional, home cooked style dishes prepared by women who call you, “linda” and “mamita” as if they were your aunts. Needless to say, we were the only tourists there and as such were regarded as a bit of an oddity as we wandered around asking questions and eating a bite here and a bite there. Everyone was pleasant and patient and willing to let us look and even taste things before sitting down to eat at the long tables each stall provided (complete with silverware, flowered tablecloths and condiments).
After doing the full tour, we decided on a couple of must try items with chicharron de calamares (fried calamari) first on the list. The calamares were tender and the batter was light and crisp. With some salsa criolla, fresh lime juice and a little ají they started the day off on a delicious note. We washed the chicharron down with some chicha morada, a refreshing purple drink made from boiling dark purple corn with spices and citrus, from one of the five or six ladies selling homemade drinks.
Our next stop after refilling our cups with chicha morada and chicha de quinoa (a white, almost malty version of the drink made with the Andean grain quinoa) was at a stand selling anticuchos, or kebabs. We shared an anticucho de puro corazón, or beef heart, the most popular and traditional. Fresh off the grill and topped with a crisp grilled potato, the meat was rich and well spiced and very tender. The ají provided to drizzle on top was a salty and mild green version that was somewhat unnecessary because the meat had such intense, delicious flavor. I would have preferred a spicier sauce in general, but it turned out to be perfect on the potato.
We couldn’t leave without trying the piece de resistance: trucha a la parrilla con escabeche de verduras, choclo hervido y papa fria, or grilled trout with pickled vegetables, steamed white corn and cold potatoes. I’m literally delighted at the prospect of eating this again…and trying the fried version. The escabeche is refreshing and tart, the corn is sweet and plump (I love it covered in salt, lime and chili…ají). The fresh trout is crisp and perfectly seasoned with an adobo-like blend of spices.
I’ll leave you with that until I go again.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Machu Picchu: August 4th, 2010

The best way to describe Machu Picchu is as a sacred place. Not because it was a temple complex or ceremonial center when it was in use, but rather because it was an entire city; a living and growing community where people lived out their lives amidst the splendor of the mountains and the awesomeness of the architecture. So much blood and sweat must have been given to build that place, its entirety constructed of unforgiving granite carefully carved by hand and lifted into place in a miracle of urban planning and what might be called a passion of execution. Slave labor, of course, but even more poignant for that element of compulsion because each rock in that citadel is shaped and positioned with ultimate care and artistry.

From every window and street, plaza and temple, you are aware of the mountains surrounding the city, sheer peaks of rock and greenery that inescapably draw the eye. You can’t help but want to fly, and you are always aware how easy it would be to fall. Perhaps this awareness is part of what makes Machu Picchu a sacred place: the constant awareness of death, of being six inches away from flight and then endless union with the mountains themselves…it is difficult to imagine a space more given to contemplation and ultimately peace.

The city is architecturally incredible, built surrounding a quarry and incorporating the mountain in such a way that allows the rigorous urban plan to seem natural and not imposed. The sixteen bathing fountains are all sourced along the same channel, but instead of simply allowing the people living lower down the mountain to use the dirty water of those living above, the Incas used a charcoal and sand filtration process in the channel after each bathing pool. That is basically a Brita filter on a large scale in the 1400s, and it wasn’t just for the elite but rather was a necessary part of a successful community. When I think of the filth and squalor of the European Middle Ages…

The temples of the Sun and the Condor incorporate natural outcroppings of rock in beautiful sculpture. The Sun temple actually rests upon a huge curving foundation stone that surges up from the terraces and allowed them to build a curved stone building from and on this rock…though it does not appear seamless, it looks like the building and the jutting rock where meant to be together always. In the temple of the Condor, that mystical great bird of the Andean peaks and valleys, there is the sculpted head of the bird on the ground, ready to receive sacrifices. Above it rise majestic wings, found art that becomes indelibly a part of the bird. The meeting of human and nature is effortless here, a union for which artists and thinkers alike have fought to even approach.

To inhabit this place, even for a few hours, is an awe-inspiring, and inspiring, experience.