30 March 2010

El Bastardo Soup

We could go on and on about the sad state of Mexican (or, really, a lot of ethnic) food in Paris, but despite our crankiness on this subject, we recently had a very uplifting experience. In fact, we had the best Mexican meal at a restaurant anywhere in Europe.

It was at La Rotisserie Sainte-Marthe: A fantastic little hole in the wall in a not-yet-gentrified part of the 10th arrondisement, whose mission, actually, is to keep its little corner from gentrifying. As such, it serves €5 meals to local immigrants and pensioners and broke-asses at lunch time. At night, it transforms into a restaurant associatif – meaning that non-profit organizations can take it over to serve food for fund raisers. Again, to avoid yuppification and to make it accessible to all, there's a €10 price cap.

When we learned that two Franco-Mexican organizations were having a dinner there, it was a no brainer. A tenner for three courses, and beer or wine at laughably low prices. But we'd probably have paid Pierre Gagnaire prices for the food we had. Proper guacamole, a smokey/spicy salsa verde, several carnitas tacos with nopales (cactus), and a humble dessert of strawberries and cream. A simple meal, but one made with real Mexican authenticity never seen in the public sphere on this side of the Atlantic. Take your Michelin-starred restaurants and give 'em a Dirty Sanchez, homes. This shit is soul food for la raza. (Admission: Neither of us is a vato loco.)

We also managed to pick up a huge stack of real corn tortillas, a rare treat. Even rarer not knowing when the next Mexican night at La Rotisserie will be.

Fast forward to tonight. AKA fridge-clearing night. AKA soup night. We've got some quality ground beef left over from Loco Moco, aforementioned corn tortillas, some avocado, a tomato and a half, a carrot... What sort of soup dish could I bash together on this windy, wet night? Tortilla soup is always a winner. And so is albondigas (meatball) soup.  I know, let's bastardize these fine specimens of Mexican tradition.

And thus, El Bastardo was born.

This tortilla soup has three balls
Unlike myself, it's not at all a fucked up combo. In fact, people have probably done it before. I mean, why not?  They go together so well.  And it's so easy.

1) Make some albondigas. Mix ground beef with finely chopped onion, garlic and carrots. Hit it with ground cumin and a bit of salt. Then add a beaten egg, or it won't hold together. You can cook the meatballs separately and add them to the soup just before serving, or you cook them in the soup. We opted for the previous to make sure they held.

2) Make your soup. Since this was a fridge-clearing operation, we diced up some onion, more garlic, whatever tomato we had left, and coined some carrots. They were sautéed in cumin, salt and powdered dry chili, and once adequately softened, about 600ml of beef stock was added to the pot. (You can use any kind of stock, really...)  A bit of tomato paste was added to redden it. Keep that stuff simmering.

3) Slice your corn tortillas into thin strips, pan-fry them in a bit of oil, allow to dry on a cooling rack. If you don't feel like going through the frying step, you don't have to – especially if you've got stale corn tortillas. They're gonna get all soft in the soup anyway. But it really does taste better fried.

Ladle out some soup into a bowl. Lay in a handful of fried (or stale) tortilla strips. Ladle some more soup. Gently cup the balls and gingerly arrange them nicely in the bowl. Garnish with slices of avocado, roughly chopped cilantro (coriander if you swing that way), and a dollop of sour cream (crème fraiche if you swing that way), and you're set.

It's healthy. It's well balanced. And it'll satisfy you on a chilly night like almost nothing else.

Is it authentic? Well, that's relative. If you're anywhere in North America, hell no, esse.

If you're anywhere in Europe (that includes you, España!) it's better than you'll do at any so-called Mexican restaurant. Es una garantiá.

Quick hit: Schnitzel und Spätzle

Just a quick one before I pass out...

At the local marché's butcher stand yesterday, we came across some fantastic looking veal and asked for two escalopes. Once again, as though thinking in unison, Alannah and I had the same thing in mind: Schnitzel.

Now before you go on about how cruel veal is, there are two kinds of veal. The traditional "white" veal, which is milk or – worse yet – formula fed and kept in tiny pens, and then there's "pink" or rosé veal, which is naturally, normally, humanely raised veal. The calf is allowed to pasture and forage for itself, have – depending on the farm – room to roam, and its existence is no more cruel than that of other animals raised for meat.  (If that in and of itself is a concern for you, there are plenty of wonderful vegetarian and vegan blogs that-a-way --> )

Anyway, back to the food...

Schnitzel mit Spätzle und Pilzen
Schnitzel: A slice of rosé veal breaded in panko and standard bread crumbs, fried for approximately three minutes a side over medium-high heat (for a truly rosé interior).

Sage Spätzle: Standard spätzle dough with eggs, milk, salt and flour, with the addition of finely chopped sage and mustard. Alannah had pressed the dough through a collander with a spatula into a pot of boiling water, and before serving sautéed it in browned butter and more sage.

Mushroom sauce: Sliced and sautéed mushrooms, reduced in Porto Branco (white port wine). Thickened with the cheat addition of leftover brown gravy from last night's Loco Moco.

Mock Sauerkraut: Barely in the picture is my quick mock sauerkraut. Real sauerkraut takes days to make, as the cabbage needs to ferment. So I steamed finely sliced savoy cabbage with salt and cider vinegar, and then put it into a fan of sweet onions softened in a spoonful of... lard. Cinnamon and caraway seeds lent it a bit of that Central European flavor. Simmered in more Porto Branco.

As is a common theme around here, German food, despite being from a neighboring country, is very hard to come by in Paris. Our new favorite place to have a nooner or late afternoon quickie, Tante Emma Laden, isn't open at night, and the only other Teutonic resto/bakery/shop in town, the Austro-Hungarian Stübli, recently closed its doors. And we always crave what we can't get.

Continuing the theme, our dessert was something else you can't regularly get when you go out in Paris: A shot of Fernet-Branca with a ginger ale back. Ok, multiple shots. This particular combination is rather uniquely San Franciscan, but with both Fernet and ginger ale becoming much more common on store shelves in the City of Light, we're going to try to bring this eater's drink into style.

Fernet, being a digestif, is wonderful for its intended effect. It's brilliant after a heavy meal. Taken in chilled shots with gulps of ginger ale, it also has the magical ability to get you fired up and drunk at the same time. *hiccup*

29 March 2010


It's a faux Hawaiian title. Read it out loud. Hur hur. Hur hur.

And this, despite our best efforts, is probably faux Hawaiian food.

Neither of us are Hawaiian. I think Alannah's been there once. I've never even been. But back in California, we have a good number of Hawaiian friends, and one unattainable thing we really crave every once in a while is Hawaiian food.

We were walking through Paris' Chinatown the previous weekend, and like every time, were disappointed when passing by a restaurant called Hawai. Looking at the menu, it's all standard Sino-Vietnamese fare. No loco moco. No kalua pig. Not even a single taro root. In fact, it's probably pronounced "Hah-way" and our fantasies of gravy-slathered beef, pulled pork, and starch overload are just a bout of wishful thinking... At that point, we both thought, "We really need to cook up a Hawaiian feast sometime."

This last weekend we found some more off-the-beaten path ethnic stores (including a handful of tiny Filipino markets in the ritzy 16th arrondissement) and, as it turns out, wound up with what it takes to make an authentic Hawaiian meal. No, not an entire pig to roast in a sandpit under banana leaves, but that other Island staple: Spam.

Spam musubi and Longanisa onigiri
The South Pacific has a longstanding love affair with the canned lunchmeat that's been ridiculed for decades by Johnny Carson and Monty Python. Our friend Arnold over at Inuyaki has an archive of articles on Spam. Frankly, I still find it utterly disgusting. But as soon as we saw the iconic blue can on the shelf of the Marché Manille, Alannah and I turned to each other and said in unison, "Spam musubi!"

Musubi is another term for the Japanese snack onigiri. (Many Hawaiian dishes, I've found, are derived from what I grew up with as Japanese comfort foods.) It's basically a bundle or brick of cold or room-temperature rice stuffed or topped with some sort of non-rice substance. In this case, that non-rice, non-food, non-organic substance is a fried slice of Spam. And it's magical. You can eat it warm. You can eat it cold. You can probably eat it 20 years from now.

NOTE: As conscientious foodies, we try to buy as much organic/locally produced/artisan product as possible. While it's still somewhat inexcusable, we were relieved to learn that this UK-sourced Spam is actually made under license in Denmark using European hog parts. For what it's worth, at least it's all EU.

Of course, with the guy at the Filipino store having hooked us up with some of his buddy's homemade Longanisa, we had to honor his coolness by making some onigiri with said sweet sausage as well. Not to mention it's perfectly fitting, as Filipino foods are as much a part of the Hawaiian melting pot as Japanese, Chinese and mainland. (Or so the menu at the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue chain informs me.)

Despite the setback in bequeathing it with official endangered status, the recent brouhaha over the scarcity of bluefin tuna (which is rarely served or sold in the mainstream marketplace), has seemd to make the price of all tuna go up. Despite the rather ridiculous prices, when I saw some beautiful, deeply-colored, sashimi-grade tuna at our local Sunday market, I had to pony up. All for one dish that'll get hoovered up in two seconds: Poké.

Don't worry, it's not endangered bluefin. We can't afford dat shit, brudda.
Poké is a Polynesian variant on sashimi or ceviche. You take your fresh fish, slice it up into strips or dice it into cubes, and let it marry with a blend of soy sauce, sesame oil, chilis, and sweet onion. Simple but fantastic. Like with many raw fish dishes like ceviche, it goes really well with a contrasting side like guacamole – or simply sliced avocados. But it's good enough to have straight up. I like to think of it as the steak tartare of the sea.

These cucumbers are here for the sake of not dying
of heart failure before the meal is over.
Going by experiences like the aforementioned L&L (or San Francisco's legendary Hawaiian sit-down, Da Hukilau), no platter of Hawaiian food is complete without a rich, mayonnaise-y macaroni salad. Like Spam, mayonnaise is one of those things where it takes an exception for me to like. Those exceptions are Japanese Kewpie-brand mayonnaise and the homemade stuff.

For this salad, while Kewpie would've been perfect, we simply went with making our own, which is easy: Hand-beat the ever-loving crap out of one egg yolk with a touch of vinegar, slowly adding standard salad oil (olive, peanut, etc.) until it gets to the volume and consistency you like. The approximate ratio is around 200ml (just under one cup) per egg yolk. You can use a machine, but everyone knows a good whipping by hand is where it's at.

We used less mayo than we're accustomed to from Hawaiian joints back on the Left Coast, and even lightened it up with some thinly sliced Japanese-style cucumber to give it some freshness.

Heart attack on a plate.
Of course, a cholesterol-heavy side dish needs an even more fat-laden main course to accompany it. And there's no Hawaiian meal easier or more satisfying to make than loco moco. Take a pile of steamed Japanese rice, top it with a hamburger patty, top that with a fried egg, and then smother it all with brown gravy. If you're insane like we are, add a link of longanisa on the side, just to seal your doom.

This was no ordinary loco moco, though. We used top grade Japanese rice made in filtered water, grade "01" eggs (the top French classification for free-range, cage-free, blah blah blah), and freshly ground steak from our local butcher (that I'd mixed with finely diced sweet onion). The result was the most amazing tasting loco moco we've ever had – largely due to the crazy hambagu steak (as they'd say in Japanese) patty. After the musubi and the onigiri and the poké and the macaroni salad, this was all just overkill.

But, well, that's what a Hawaiian feast is all about. Celebrating the abundance of starch, flesh, fat and sugar that can find its way on to an island chain in the Pacific. Or the Ile-de-France region around Paris.

That's kind of sort of an Island, right?

28 March 2010

Sticky Sweet: Cinnamon Rolls

It's just too easy to go overboard with the double entendres for this one. So let's get it out of the way: Sticky. Buns. Brown crevice. Gooey white glaze. Dripping. Moist. Hot. Hot. Hot.

Apply all the terms above. Liberally.
Now that we have that out of our systems... This blog started when we realized that we were enjoying hunting down foods and preparing them at home much more often than we were at restaurants. Much of the time, we're either finding ways to exploit the fantastic local produce, dairy and meat, and the rest of the time we spend fantasizing about things you simply can't get in Paris unless you make it yourself.

For weeks now, Alannah has had her mind on one thing: Cinnamon rolls. (Or buns, as some would call them.) Personally, while I've enjoyed a good set of buns here and there, they've never really been anything I craved. But pull me out of America for a couple of years, and all of a sudden, a factory-processed Cinnabon from the mall – or even one of those nasty Svenhard's sticky buns from your typical roach motel continental breakfast – starts to sound pretty good. If only for the sheer novelty.

Anyway, Friday night, as we were killing off one of those all-made-from-fabulous-fresh-products dinners, Alannah had some dough rising. No big deal. She's always kneading things and making them rise after all. She's the baker. Saturday morning, I woke up from my Bordeaux haze to the scent of cinnamon. Lots of cinnamon.

I ambled downstairs to get caffeinated and what was on the counter? Something you'll never see in even the most daring boulangerie-patisserie in Paris:

Ladurée's got nothin' on this.
And that makes no sense to us. Cinnamon roll dough is nearly identical to brioche dough. It can very easily made in huge batches. And the smell will bring the entire quartier to your storefront like an olfactory siren song. True, many of the locals find it all too strong and overpowering, a brutal dark-hued import from the tropics all too savage for lilywhite gullets... And some just don't like the cinnamon.

22 March 2010

Hot Mother-Daughter Action

After an overdose of my Iranian half of culinary heritage for Norooz, it was time to balance it all out by engaging in some Japanese debauchery. No, not anime featuring demon tentacles, uniformed school girls, and odd forms of penetration. We're simply not into that hentai stuff. But my other ethnic half's perversion doesn't end with used panty vending machines.

In fact, everyday Japanese weirdness isn't so much perversion, but an almost innocent frankness that turns out to be – like all things Japanese – very cute. Naming foods, for example, is subject to this cute-ification. Take the dish known as shirako for example. That would be fish milt. Milt is sperm. Shira is a prefix meaning white. Ko is a suffix meaning child. Sperm is white, and makes children. Hence...

Alas, there will be no eating of sperm this episode. Instead, we're talking about oyako donburi. So donburi is the common term for rice bowl (as in a bowl of rice with food on it, not unlike a teriyaki bowl). You just learned that ko means child. Oya? That means parent. Parent-child rice bowl.

Obviously, this is more of a metaphorical description of the dish. But it's not far from literal. The primary components of oyako donburi are the chicken and the egg.  We're not going to argue over who comes first. (Who cares as long as both do?)  We're going to tell you how this deliciously morbid-sounding familial dish is done.

To top each bowl of steamed Japanese rice (please don't use jasmine rice or Uncle Ben's - that only hurts me), you will need a chicken breast, 2 eggs, half a sweet onion (or three green onions), and a cup of sauce. The cup of sauce is comprised of 180 ml (1 cup) dashi (bonito stock, look it up), 2 tablespoons each of soy sauce and sugar.  Those are your ratios, and the only ingredients you actually need.

Heat up a skillet and pour in your cup of sauce.  Toss in the chicken breast, cut into thin strips manageable enough for chopsticks, not unlike a stir-fry.  Let the chicken simmer in the sauce 5-7 minutes over medium heat, then add your onions. After a few more minutes, when your onions have started to soften, pour in your slightly beaten eggs over the top of the chicken-onion-sauce concoction. Do not mix.

Scoop your hot, steaming rice into your bowls, and while the eggs are still runny (but not totally raw, eww!) use a large serving spoon to ladle it out on top of your rice. Optionally, before scooping it out, you can sprinkle it with strips of yakinori (roasted seaweed in sheet form, like what's wrapped around sushi rolls).

Serve while piping hot. The egg will continue to cook and will be ready by the time you get it to the table. For a touch of color, I added a garnish of aonori (green seaweed flakes), but some argue that over-garnishing a donburi will detract from its purity of flavor.

The Real New Year

Ladies and gentlemen of much of the world: You are party to a sham. While you have been celebrating the arrival of a new year on some arbitrary, cold winter day (ok, unbearably hot summer day in the southern hemisphere) those crazy mofos in Iran have been doing it right, celebrating the new year when it actually feels like, well, a new year. That would be the first day of spring, or as we like to call it in the Axis of Evil, norooz. (Or nowruz, or nohruz, or whatever... نوروز)

Yes, that's right, the people your media has led you to believe are a bunch of self-flagellating religious zealots in search of nuclear weapons actually celebrate the world's oldest pagan ritual in a very colorful manner, and it's a very big deal. Ok, some of us do wear a lot of black and get into the whips and chains, but not in the way you see it on CNN. But come this time of year, it's all about Norooz. The Vernal Equinox. The Rite of Spring. March 20, 2009 at 17:32 GMT. Whatever you want to call it, there's only one way to properly celebrate it: Copious amounts of food. (It's the Iranian way.)

Haft-sin: The traditional Norooz spread made of seven (haft)
items that begin with the Farsi letter S (sin).
No, you don't eat these.

Luckily, my wife likes being stuffed with a whole lotta Persian. So much so that immediately after we got together, she started learning how to make the stuff. Don't tell my dad, but some of Alannah's dishes are even better than grandma's... But Iranian cookery is complex. So we'll start with the simple stuff, as we did for this Norooz: Maast-mousir. Essentially, it's yogurt with minced elephant garlic and a dash of salt to taste. Maast is yogurt, and mousir is the elephant garlic, often badly mistranslated as shallot.

Elephant garlic is tough to come by, although some Trader Joe's stores carry it in cute little wooden baskets in the US, and in Europe it can be found in Middle Eastern stores under names like "Oriental garlic" or in French "ail de cheval." As is often the case with Iranian food, using anything else simply does not work. This is a very stubborn, persnickety culture.
Heart on.
The dish is typically served as an appetizer or snack. It looks absolutely non-descript, but the elephant garlic packs a pretty powerful punch. And, of course, the tang of a real yogurt (not that runny, sweet Dannon crap) carries its own dimension. But you don't simply spoon it up. If you order it at an Iranian restaurant (half of whom use regular garlic, rendering it too hot and utterly inauthentic) it will be served with lavash flatbread. But in just about every real Iranian household – and Iranian-Japanese-American households in France – it's best eaten with that über-Persian form of carbs: Potato chips. That's right. Take an ancient dish made with an elusive wild leek bulb... and scoop it up with plain potato chips. If you want to feel more exotic, call them by their French name: Chips à l'ancienne. Classy, no?

Next stop, salade Shirazi. Which means "salad from Shiraz." We're only moving up slightly in complexity here, finely dicing sweet onion, tomatoes, and Persian cucumbers. Despite the opposite being the case in figurative, innuendo-loaded terms, Persian cucumbers are much smaller than the usual English cucumbers, thicker skinned, and bitter on the ends. So when prepping them, you should chop the ends off and peel the skin in stripes – you want to leave some green for both appearance and taste. The dressing is simple: Lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. I like to add some dill and black pepper.
Salade Shirazi. Do not add Feta cheese. That's Greek, not Persian.
And no, 300 was not an accurate portrayal of either culture.
It's best to only lightly dress the Shirazi. The vegetables' own juices will leech out after a short while, both adding a sauciness to the overall dish, and toning down the acidity of the dressing. This is a huge problem at restaurants, where the salad has been sitting in a mixing bowl all day: By the time it's served, it gets very soggy. So if you plan to serve this, don't add the dressing until maybe 15 minutes before dinner time.

So far, neither of what we've made is mandatory Norooz fare. The main course, on the other hand, is. Sabzi-polo va mahi quite simply means "herbed rice with fish." Typically the fish is a white fish of some sort, but we went with salmon... Mostly because that's how my parents sometimes did it, because growing up it was hard to get any sort of brackish water white fish that was up to their standards. (Again, Iranians are very persnickety about ingredients. And apparently so are Japanese wives of Iranians. And now by osmosis, American wives of Japanese-Iranians.) It actually does not matter. The important part is to get good, fresh fish, dredge it in flour, and fry it in a skillet without drying it out. To give it the proper golden color, drizzle it with a mixture of lemon juice and saffron.
Sabzi polo - mahi
As for the rice, I could write an entire volume on properly preparing Iranian rice – which is pretty much Indian basmati rice about 99% of the time, but basmati taken to an extreme of perfectionism. It is the most persnickety of persnickety food components, and the technique takes half a lifetime to perfect. To be frank, I still suck at it at times, and Alannah is still learning. It's a long, drawn out process that requires parboiling the rice until just a shade crunchier than al dente, rinsing and cooling it, then very slowly steaming it until it's relatively dry and fluffy. The trouble with sabzi polo is that you're introducing a melange of herbs in the steaming process - chopped flat-leaf parsley, coriander (cilantro), chives and fenugreek, as well as thinly sliced garlic. These bear both water and weight, making it more likely that your rice will come out less than fluffy – and possibly soggy! The necessary adjustments come naturally after making the dish many times, knowing your rice (stick with one particular brand for consistency!), knowing your pot, and knowing your stove. Seriously.

Then there's the matter of making part of your sabzi polo yellow with saffron. This is done by stirring the desired amount of rice in a mixture of saffron and hot water (this is after the parboiling and draining) and lining the bottom of your pot with it for the steaming round.

Speaking of the bottom of the pot, one can not forget the tahdig. Which means – wait for it – "bottom of the pot!" This crunchy layer of (saffron-infused) rice is the golden ticket in the crazy Wonka land that is Persian cuisine. You spend years perfecting the perfect white, fluffy rice... only to crave the hard, crackly crust at the bottom of the pot.
A perfectly round bottom.
Tadig is served as a side dish, or sometimes – if the stars align and it comes out perfectly – the entire pot of rice is flipped on to a serving dish with the tadig on top, kind of like some sort of basmati upside down cake. Tadig can also be made with lavash flatbread or sliced potatoes (kind of like chips) lining the bottom of the pot. Either way, successfully making a good one is analogous to an American cook roasting a Thanksgiving turkey without drying it out: It'll be what every dinner guest will talk about. "Did you see that tadig? Perfection!"

Of course, in Iran, one is never done playing with saffron and rice. (Personally, I would play with Saffron every chance I got!) A festive holiday dessert is sholeh-zard, which literally means "runny yellow." It's a pudding consisting of basmati rice, sliced almonds, sugar, rose syrup and about US$500 worth of saffron per serving. Perhaps I'm exaggerating a bit, but as pointed out in our Drunken Paella episode, real saffron is not cheap. It is, by weight, more expensive than gold, cocaine and possibly printer ink. Half a teaspoon usually goes a very long way, but if you have Iranian guests and really want to impress them, your sholeh-zard needs to be more golden than a shower with Kim Kardashian.
Sholeh zard. Not as runny as the name implies.
Sholeh zard is typically served chilled (but not cold, as the saffron scent would be too muted) with a dusting of cinnamon and chopped pistachio on top. Fancy people like to write things in Farsi with their cinnamon, but I find that a bit lame. (Sorry, Mom!)

Of course, an Iranian host(ess) would have no credibility if their hospitality didn't reach a certain level of overkill. So it's always best to have a second dessert ready. For this occasion, we made halva. Like most Persian cooking, it's relatively simple in concept, but maddening in detail.

In a dry skillet, you toast flour... Once browned, you add an almost equal amount (in weight) of butter. We went off-script and used a demi-sel butter as opposed to sweet, which means that if my grandparents were alive today, we'd be disowned and written out of the will. The brown roux you've created needs to slowly cook over very low heat. Once cooked, you add a hot syrup of water, sugar, rose syrup, saffron and green cardamom and whip it until there are no possible lumps. The mixture is then poured into a dish to cool, with chopped pistachio sprinkled on top.
Of course, the halva is not eaten alongside the sholeh zard. It's the second dessert, meaning it would go best with your tea! Iranian tea is quite parallel to Iranian rice: There's an over-complicated preparation process, people are really persnickety about how it's made, and the principle ingredient comes from India – in this case, Darjeeling and Assam tea leaves. We added some green cardamom to tie it a bit to the halva, and also because my grandma would've approved.
Halva and Chai
Incidentally, the Farsi name for tea is "chai" just like in India. In China and Japan, it's cha. That whole Silk Road connection is pretty amazing, eh?

With few exceptions, Iranian food is very colorful and aromatic, whether you're celebrating the arrival of a new year or not. None of what we made is specifically for Norooz: While the sabzi polo – mahi is mandatory, it's also eaten year-round. So really, every day is a colorful celebration. Each dish has colors that are a tribute to various forms of what the French call terroir. It's a cuisine full of life, vibrance, and color; fiercely proud of where it comes from, resistant to meddling, and more ubiquitous than you'd likely think – just like the people.

Persian culture is not about head-to-toe veils, headscarves, big beards or turbans. More than anything it's about pride. Generosity. And eating really, really well.

Saal-e no mobarak!

18 March 2010

The Feast of Saint Patrick

This post was supposed to go up on St. Patrick's Day, but we were too destroyed to finish it. No, not by copious amounts of Guinness, but by food coma.

St. Patrick's Day. The day when everybody is Irish. Dress in green day. Annoyingly pinch those who aren't wearing green day. Drink some green beer day. Or as we professional drinkers like to call it: Amateur night.

While my curmudgeonly side likes to deride the, well, amateurs who come out to drink tonight, I do like St. Paddy's. Alannah (as if you couldn't tell by the name) is partially of Irish stock. And the other side is Scottish, who according to my good Irish friend are merely Irish who couldn't swim. Add to that our ability to out-drink people twice our size, and you can see why despite all the douchebaggery, we'd like this holiday.

So imagine my delight coming home from work this commercialized-by-beer-distributors holiday to find Alannah taking on an entire hurling team's worth of Irish. Foods. She was even kind enough to take pictures of what she was doing, knowing I like to show off her stuff on the web.

I came up to the kitchen and saw her furiously whipping something up on the stove. It smelled cheesy. It smelled boozy. It was... Welsh?

Surprise number one: Welsh rarebit. Following the recipe perfected by Fergus Henderson. You know, that famous chef in London. Ok, so maybe none of this was Irish, but it's the same archipelago, right? Besides, ever since eating at St. John on our latest trip to London, I'd been jonesing for the very version of beer-and-Worcestershire-spiked cheese-on-toast perfected by Henderson. Paired with a glass of port, I was having myself a very happy evening.
She then led me up to the kitchen to help her with the next dish: Colcannon. Alannah first made this for me last St. Patrick's Day, when I learned a) that it's delicious and b) that I'd had it before as part of an airline meal under its English name, "Bubble & Squeak."

"Colcannon" sounds much more manly, like an Irish porn star with a thick mustache. The English name sounds like there's a mouse squished in it. Nomenclature aside, it's a hash of potatoes and cabbage, fried like a patty. Simple, but delicious. Of course, Alannah can't leave well enough alone, so she used red cabbage and savoy cabbage. She had me fry up bits of smoky bacon to add to the melange before it was fried, just to make sure it was customized enough to qualify for an episode of Pimp My Ride.

Speaking of customization, she put me to work on the next treat: Soda bread. Irish soda bread is a quickbread. In lieu of making a yeasty dough and proving it over the course of hours, you use baking soda as the leavening agent and bake it straight away. It's like an English scone or American biscuit, only it's often made in a huge round as opposed to little individual morsels. Again, Alannah couldn't leave it alone. Borrowing from my Iranian side, she asked me to put in a fistful of barberries, aka zereshk. Along with a fistful of caraway seeds and a fat pinch of sugar, this customization makes for the most flavorful soda bread, lovingly bastardized with Persian flair. I fear our kids will look like this soda bread.

While I was on boulanger duty, Alannah was doing a bit of kneading of her own, working on her magical pie crust. For she had spent much of the day preparing the filling for what would become a Guinness-brisket-trotter pie.

For the uninitiated, a trotter is a pig's foot. It's smelly. Kinda hairy. And doesn't particularly have much meat. In fact, in the wrong hands, it's downright disgusting. (Have you seen the film Precious? There's some pig foot up in that joint.) But, again, Alannah was plying me with food perfected by Fergus Henderson. And thus, she'd spent the afternoon on "trotter gear." She scrubbed clean the pig's foot, chopped up the aromatics, then drowned it all in port. Delicious tawny port.
How 'bout a pictorial spread?

Tawny port. As Alannah told me she did it: Some for the pig.
Some for the cook. Repeat.
The trotter and its aromatics. Alannah says,
"Trust me, you need all the aromatics you can get."
Starting the stew side of things.
The trotter concoction had to simmer for hours, letting loose all the collagen from the skin and connective tissue, and infusing it all with a rich, fatty, gelatinous property. In the end, there's not really any meat to use, but liquid richness.

In the meantime, she had also started a cast iron pot of a standard beef stew, using a nice fatty brisket. Brisket isn't easy to come by in France. We learned this when trying to make corned beef last year. Alannah had to overcome her language barrier to explain to the butcher that we wanted cow belly. Not pork belly. Not veal belly. Full grown moooooo. At least, that's how I imagine she explained it. This year, it was much easier, because the butcher had apparently remembered last year's exchange.

Anyway, she went with brisket because she knew I love corned beef brisket, but simply didn't have three days to brine it and somehow manage to surprise me. And because it tastes good. No other meat has the texture of beef brisket. Stringy, striated, chewy, and unique to the cut.

When making a stew, it's good to brown the meat and vegetables before adding any liquid. In northern France, as with in the Isles, it's assumed that you'll do the browning with butter. Lots of it.

To quote Hugh Jackman in that horrible romantic comedy
with Meg Ryan, "Rich. Creamery. BUTTER."
We buy our butter and eggs in bulk from a dairy family at the local marché. First off because we go through a lot of it. When you bake as much as Alannah does, you need to buy in near industrial quantities. When you eat like I do, you want to be as far from industrial as possible, as much to stave off the early death from this sort of consumption, as well as because artisanal ingredients taste better. That and even the fanciest of packaged butters – even the one that every food blogger in France pimps and goes on about like a bleating goat – contains stabilizers and flavor-enhancing compounds you're not supposed to know about. So we buy huge hunks of butter by the kilo.

But I digress. The butter is important because it's also what makes the magical pie crust so damn magical. You know that scene in American Pie? You know which one. Yeah, well, Alannah's pie crust will make you want to recreate it.

So, back to the filling, eventually you do need to add liquid. In this case, the liquid is Guinness. Again, some for the stew, some for the cook. Note that his beer is, obviously, black. (Ok, it's a very deep brown, but even in Ireland, it goes by "the black stuff.") Green beer should never be consumed. Hell, beer in a green bottle is even a no-no by beer snob standards.

Anyway, the stew must also simmer for several hours to break down nicely. The trotter gear must then be drained so that the gelatinous substance that's left can be added to the stew to create the world's richest, booziest pie filling.

To be honest, it doesn't look very good. But it's a pie filling, for fuck's sake. It's going to be hidden by a crust of golden, buttery, flaky, delicious dough.

Guinness-brisket-trotter pie.
The richness will nearly kill you.
Once covered with a crust, a brief 20 minutes in the oven is all you need. It seems short after hours and hours of stewing, and the smell emanating from the kitchen is intoxicating and satisfying in and of itself. If you're feeling impatient, you can wait it out by having a Guinness.

Of course, such a dish must be enjoyed with yet another pint of the black stuff. (Or a Smithwick's if you can find it. No such luck this year in Paris.) The point isn't to get hammered, but to enjoy the richness and depth of meats cooked low-and-slow with the earthy, mild bitterness of a good beer. A good brew adds more dimension to a meal like this, and it's a reason the beer is in the stew to begin with.

But wait! There's more!

A proper holiday meal just isn't complete until dessert is served. Though I couldn't eat another bite, I always have room for Alannah's chocolate-stout cupcakes. Which are made with, you guessed it, Guinness.

Here's the thing: I hate cupcakes. I'm not sure it's because the whole cupcake trend was kicked off by the equally deplorable Sex & the City, or because something about the confection doesn't jibe with me. Maybe because they were (and in 4-years-behind-California-in-most-food-trends Paris, still are) trendy above all else, and utterly destroyed by all the people cashing in on the trend and producing fancified little chocolate or red velvet turds covered in buttercream. Read the only trashing review of the beloved Kara's Cupcakes in San Francisco, by yours truly. Then spread the gospel.

But Alannah's little cuppies are tha bomb. They're the first to sell out at every Paris charity sale she brings them to, and they're the first and only ones I've ever actually begged for. In fact, she refused to ever bake them for me until she knew I was the right guy.

They're that good. And even better with a little tawny port.

Happy amateur night to all.

02 March 2010

Where's the Beef?

Until recently, if you told me to go shopping for Meatless Monday night, I'd stop by one of the dodgy shops on Rue Saint-Denis on my way from work and come home with an all-girl DVD.

We're avowed trend-haters, particularly food trends (even though Alannah's got a thing for cupcakes), but once in a while, something comes along that – while faddish – is very positive in influencing how we approach food. (Just read the link for the whole philosophy behind cutting out meat once a week so I don't have to rehash it...)

For the reason it exists, Meatless Monday is kind of moot for us.

No, we haven't gone militant vegan. Both of us are of the Anthony Bourdain school of thought that vegetarianism is an anomaly. While we're not as single-mindedly carnivorous as the chain-smoking posterboy for foodie-travel-hedonism, we're fully on board with an idea that when plucking from Mother Nature's smorgasbord, one must respect her by using everything we're given. That calf that just died? Its liver, testicles, and face are just as worthy as its meat. And speaking of its face, we're also of the firm belief that you should be able to look at what you eat in the eye, or at the very least be fully aware of where it comes from.

Considering we're very conscious about what we buy – our poultry, meat, and off-cuts come from artisan butchers and never in a styrofoam barquette – we don't particularly feel any pressure to go more "sustainable."

No, we're quite simply going Lindsey & Samantha (or is it Ellen & Portia?) this week to detox from our bacchanal of beer and beasts in England and Germany spanning the last week.

The thing about eating vegetarian (or even vegan) is that so many people try to substitute meats, and that's what turns so many omnivores off of the concept. Any sworn omnivore who's been subjected to Tofurkey or oil-based "cheese" or Soysage is likely to say "fuck that!" and become a carnivore out of spite.

Forget substituting. Forget emulating. There's such a wide array of flavors and textures and substance in the non-meat world that there's no need to try to re-create meat based dishes. After all, do you go to a southern Indian restaurant and get Textured Vegetable Protein in your dosa? No. It tastes so good, you forget you're not getting meat.

With that in mind, we put together last night's meal, that was not only colorful and healthy, but filling.

The red cabbage above may not look like much, but even on its own, it's nutty, a little spicy, and carries a lot of heft. Toss it in salt and let it sit to soften it a bit (unless you like it really crunchy), then toss it with a dressing of miso, rice vinegar, and a little vegetable oil. Hell, add peanuts if you like the whole Thai coleslaw thing. You'll love it. Instead of seeing it as a raw vegetable dish, think of it as mild Japanese fusion. Throwing some Central European flair into an Asian side dish as old as time.

The same goes for the Sesame Kale seen here.

Riffing on a classic Japanese sesame-spinach dish, wilt some curly kale, and toss in a dressing of 2 parts ground sesame seed, 1 part soy sauce, 1 part mirin, and 1.5 parts sugar. (I just divulged Alannah's kick-ass recipe. You're welcome.) Garnish lightly toasted sesame seeds. You can serve it hot, cold, or room temperature, so feel free to live out your Goldilocks cosplay fantasies with this one. You'll be ooh'ing and aah'ing like never before, satisfied with every chopstickful you lift to your lips.

One of the best parts is that it's all so easy. Even the main course we threw together is hardly more complicated than a toaster strudel...

Simmer some kombu-dashi (seaweed stock, but you can use bonito stock and we won't tell anyone) and add sugar, soy and mirin to taste. Throw whatever you want into the broth. We went with carrots, Hokkaido pumpkin (kabocha), small shiitake mushrooms and firm tofu. Before serving, I decided to add an 8-minute egg to add some more girth (and to keep from going over that vegan line of madness), but to be honest, it's a bit much.

Serve it all with a bowl of steamed Japanese rice, and you've got yourself a supple, nicely rounded meal that will leave you more satisfied than you could possibly imagine. (If you're a carnivore, that is.)

In fact, even though I don't feel the need to do Meatless Monday in terms of sustainability and reducing the flow of money to factory farmers, I'm pushing we adopt this habit simply for the widening of our palate... Or palette, so to speak.

01 March 2010

Getting Stuffed, German Style

As if the previous weekend's overindulgence in London wasn't enough, it was off to Germany this past weekend. While the focus of our trip was Düsseldorf, travel issues forced us to spend more time than planned on train changes in Brussels and Köln. And though they were an inconvenience, we found ways to take full advantage.

Half a minute of pleasure
Despite being laid over two hours in Brussels to change Thalys trains, we didn't have much time to indulge Belgian style. Not only was getting anywhere on Brussels' cramped, slow metro system time-consuming (half an hour to go three stops!?) but the weather was so bad, even the locals wouldn't come out with their carts to sell us waffles and fries.

No matter, though. I managed to find one of the most charming beer bars in town, Au Bon Vieux Temps, to relive the greatest part of a previous visit: Westmalle. It's the only Trappist ale you can get on draft (all the others are bottle conditoned).

Unfortunately, by the time we ordered, we had about thirty seconds before we'd have to suffer the godforsaken transit system back to Brusells-Midi/Zuid station, so we more or less chugged our monastery-brewed liquid goodness and booked it back to catch the Thalys train.

But even when not properly appreciated, a proper Trappist ale is, um, appreciably better than most of the swill served up on our side of the border, where Heineken-brewed Affligem passes for an Abbey ale. Poor monks. Not only can they not get it on, but their finest product has been jacked by a conglomerate.

Meat and two veg. Maybe three.
Köln (Cologne) - Brauerei Früh - Do you see the onion, tomato, and lettuce used as garnish above? (Alongside the little pretzels...) Ogle them, because you won't see anymore vegetables. The platter above - consisting of aforementioned garnish, Leberwurst (liver sausage), Blutwurst (blood sausage), Speck (bacon), potato salad and aged cheese contained the last vestige of veg we saw until our return to France. That said, the charcuterie and cheese were so good, we didn't even miss food that contained color.

Taste the golden spray
The beer you wash down all that meat and cheese and dark bread with in Köln is, naturally, called Kölsch. It's light. It's nutty. It's refreshing. And it goes down way too easily. It's as though it's made to go with food. Or without food. Or to be drank by the gallon between train rides. And the waiters know this. They just keep bringing it until you stop them, marking your coaster with a pencil to keep a tally of how many you've had. Not to make sure you don't overindulge, but because it's a much easier way to keep track of the huge quantities being ordered at each table.

We didn't want to leave. We could've ordered even more cured Wursts and other unmentionable animal parts, but we eventually had to get to our destination, Düsseldorf. Which isn't to say we didn't get our tubesteak on before hopping on another train. After all, they sell Bratwurst and Currywurst on the train platforms there.

Slurping on the Axis
Who knew that the best Japanese food I'd ever have in Europe would be in Düsseldorf, Germany? The locals, apparently. People there line up – even in freezing weather (thanks to a heated bench) – for Na Ni Wa's array of authentic ramens. They're big, they're the real deal, and in proper German fashion, they're meaty. Really meaty. I had more cha-shiu in my bowl of ramen than in all the bowls of ramen I've eaten in Paris combined. And that's a lot of ramen. (And never you mind that green onion. It's not a vegetable. It's a garnish.) While Alannah slurped up the most fantastic curry ramen, I went for what they call the "Stamina." It's actually a kim-chi ramen, but they call it stamina because you seriously need some if you want to make it through the giant bowl, not to mention the serious dose of spices.

Oh, but it burns so good. Twice, even.

I like 'em older
Na Ni Wa had dominated us. Bound us. Tied us. Made us her bitch. Despite the fascinating array of old-school German brewhouses (and their accompanying menus), we couldn't eat another bite. But, we theorized, beer is liquid, and thus can fill the crevices without (most likely) killing us.

So we parked ourselves at a booth in Brauerei Uerige to imbibe in some Altbier. That means "old beer," but it's not old, just made using old methods that predated lighter-colored lagers. (By pre-dated, I mean back to the 16th century.) Alt is the Shirley Bassey of beers - older, darker, and still worth fantasizing about after all these years. And despite its rich appearance, its far from heavy, so you can keep drinking it just like with the Kölsch. See the marks on the coaster above for proof.

Swingin' with the locals
We don't go traveling solely to eat, you know. In fact, the main motivation behind this trip was to see Depeche Mode's final concert of their Tour of the Universe. So we'd met up with fans from all over (and stayed with our friends in nearby Dortmund). Upon the suggestion of one of the locals, a bunch of us got together for a pre-show lunch at Im Füchschen ("The Little Fox") for more Düsseldorfer Brauerei action.

While the beer didn't flow quite as freely (four non-drinkers and slower service in general), I managed to rack up five tallies of Alt on my coaster over lunch.

Lunch itself was a gorgeous, dark set of balls... Liver balls (or dumplings, though they weren't very bready) known as Leberkloße. As part of my put-as-many-unknown-meats-in-your-mouth-as-you-can travel/eating policy, I was excited to try this new sensation... and admittedly a little apprehensive. While the balls themselves were a bit organ-y, they were brilliant with a bit of gravy, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. To be honest, I also ordered it because I was hoping the sauerkraut would somehow compensate for the lack of vegetables in my diet. But, of course, the cabbage was cooked down to near-nothingness, leaving the chunks of bacon mixed within as the only morsels.

Alannah, growing tired of mystery meats, stuck to the plain Schnitzel.

Stick it in your pretzel hole
If I learned anything at the concert Saturday night, it's that if Germans aren't drinking beer, they're eating. And because outside of a Brauerei there may be a five to ten minute gap between beers, there is food available everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean on the floor, in front of the stage, within the audience, at a concert. Not only were there vendors going around selling beer, cola and – WTF? – pre-made caipirinhas, but they'd also come around with enormous baskets of pretzels, cheese bread, and other baked snacks the size of your head. A small bicycle bell on the handle of the basket alerted us to their (omni)presence.

I didn't indulge, fearing that having anything more to eat would make me have to go drop the kids off at the pool during Depeche Mode's most energetic, energized, electrifying show in decades (though the previous week's gig at Royal Albert Hall was their best ever, but in a totally different way).

Between after-parties, staying out late, sleeping in really late, and rushing to catch mostly canceled trains during Europe's biggest storm since the late 90's, our eating and drinking adventure ended prematurely, but this is probably a very good thing.

A steady diet of fat and beer since the previous weekend – while culinarily inspiring in some ways – has actually given us a new mandate: To detox.

So we promise... The next update will be about something healthy. Something fresh. Something that doesn't involve squeezing meat, pulling casings, or chugging as fast as the tap allows. Unless, of course, I find a cheap ticket to Prague.