Bon Appétit – Paris Food

Pain-au-chocolat_SacasaMaybe it was fall’s cinematic sunlight or the giddiness of waking up in Paris, but this was pain au chocolat perfection. A first bite left my lips slippery with melted butter and glossed with warm, bittersweet chocolate. No one was looking, so I allowed myself to lick my equally slicked and stained fingertips. Why thank you, but no, I don’t need a napkin! It was impossibly flaky—so much so that at least one third of it wound up wasted on the sidewalk.

cheeseA women I once met told me she thought cheese should be its own food group. I believe the French have already declared it so.

Candy-shopA candy shop in Île Saint-Louis. The Parisian version of me lives on that lovely island and comes into this shop to bathe in its sunset-gold light. The shopkeepers always hand me a cookie to nibble on while I fill a rustling paper bag with sweets. And as I pay, they offer me a chocolate-covered candied orange peel.

Candy-shop-2These cellophane-wrapped nougat squares reminded me of swanky marble tiles. Only better, because you can eat them. Hansel and Gretel’s evil witch must have had exactly these in her little house.

Reviewing-the-menuLunchtime in Paris. A woman peruses the menu, carefully, and with much thought. I like the beginnings of her smile. She must have read a menu item that made her mouth curve pleasantly upwards.

Lunch-at-Le-Comptoir_SacasaI’m not well-versed in the art of eating alone, but found that I was a quick study, a prodigy even, given the proper location. Pictured here, boudin blanc at Le Comptoir.

Raspberry-tartsRed is my favorite color.

breakfast-in-bedIt was quite sunny, but my friend Pauline and I drew the blue velvet shades and pretended it was dreary so we could have a proper breakfast in bed.

patisserie

 

La Dolce Vita

The trip was sudden. My father called from Rome to say a friend, Aída, was planning a dinner to draw attention, and hopefully, investments, in Nicaragua. The dinner would take place at Ca’ del Bosco, a winery in the Franciacorta region of Lombardy. The chef planning the dinner was Michelin-starred  Vittorio Fusari, currently  owner of Dispensa Pani e Vini, a lovely, modern restaurant with glass-walled kitchen, where local, and often, neglected, ingredients are showcased. Aída asked if I would plan the menu with Vittorio—I balked, to say the least. “I’m not a chef,” I explained, but, she pressed and coaxed, and, a day or two later, I was packing my bags.

Padenghe  sul Garda, about a 2-hour drive from the Milan airports, is breathtaking. Lake Garda is encircled by the picturesque town, complete with terracotta-hued lakeside villas and cafés, bobbing sailboats, and snowcapped mountains in the distance. I could see the gently rolling waves from my bedroom, where I found a personalized chef’s jacket laid out on the bed.

The glint of  chef Vittorio’s Michelin stars kept me up that night. In the morning, I was driven to Torino, where Salone del Gusto was taking place. Vittorio, with an abundant mane of silver hair and matching beard, met me at the gates of Salone. We talked about traditional foods of Nicaragua, and within a few minutes, had outlined a  menu that would combine Italian and Nicaraguan ingredients and methods of preparation. Then, it was on to a tour of Salone—I must have eaten at least 5 kilos worth of regional cheeses, prosciuttos, breads, olives, and more cheeses. It was a dream version of a street fair. I love a street fair.

The day of the dinner, I went to Dispensa, with my father’s housekeeper, doña María del Carmen, in tow.  Chef Vittorio wanted to serve tortillas at the dinner, and doña María del Carmen came, mercifully, to help—about 200 tortillas needed to be shaped and cooked right before the dinner. At the restaurant, I was very graciously absorbed into the staff—all boys—and helped prep for the dinner. Halfway through the day, Vittorio sat me down for an incredible lunch. I’m not a food critic, but I can say that every bite tasted of the changing foliage, the earthy breeze, and the surrounding vineyards.

Later that afternoon we moved the operation to the Ca’ del Bosco kitchens and started readying for service. Among the appetizers were beef tartare polpettini dusted with pinol, a blend of ground toasted corn kernels, cacao, and spices normally used as a beverage base or as a coating for fried fish.  A first course of risotto with black beans paid homage to Nicaragua’s gallopinto while seared filet of beef was served with a delicately spiced cream sauce that also had pinol. It was inspiring to see how our humble pinol can be made to sing (expect to see a version of the recipe here soon). The hectic pace of plating course after course for 100+ guests was nerve-wracking, but I think I slipped into the groove easily and…dare I say it? Did I experience a tinge of nostalgia? Did I suddenly want to be a line cook?

In all, the visit was dreamy. My gracious hostess Aída plied me with local fare and fabulous sparkling wine, chef Vittorio and his staff welcomed me into his kitchen, and the Ca’ del Bosco folks Ivo and Alfonso let me roam around the vineyard and winery. Grazie mille a tutti!

Where the Heart Is

Though the Aeropuerto Internacional Augusto César Sandino has boasted jet bridges for several years now, I still expect to descend directly from the airplane onto the tarmac. In the 80s, excited family and friends would crowd together mosh pit-style on a terrace that overlooked the landing strip, everyone calling out and waving signs like crazed fans awaiting a celebrity’s arrival on the red carpet. But they were just waiting for their exiled own, coming home for the holidays.

My trips to Nicaragua are bittersweet, especially during Christmas. My passport still marks me a citizen, and I do call it “home” whenever I refer to it, but Nicaragua hasn’t really been home for a very long time. I’ve moved on, but that first sighting of dusty olive green land from the scratched acrylic windows makes my heart cramp. Memories of trips when my family lived in the U.S. and Mexico during the 80s jumble with those from college breaks and the more recent perfunctory visits. The childhood jaunts were all fun and adventure; I was mesmerized by ox-pulled carts on the main roads and street vendors pouring sodas into plastic bags—mini-udders that dispensed Coca-Cola. But even in the haze of little-kid wonderment, I knew everything was broken, and it made me deeply sad. It’s sadder today. But, there are uniquely beautiful and wow-worthy people and scenes to be found, and I appreciate them all the more.

FOODYWOOD, THE SEQUEL

enchiladasEnchiladas rojas at ¡Lotería!

I like to eat Mexican whenever possible. I lived in D.F. as a child and I have many a fond memory of life and food there. Classmates at Instituto Irlandés, my all-girl, plaid-green-jumper Catholic school, quickly taught me to train my taste buds to accept and in most cases like, a wide array of picante foods. Soon, I too was bringing chile piquín-dusted cucumber slices bathed in lime juice in Hello Kitty Tupperware to recreo and sprinkling the vibrant red dust on oranges and mangos. I also learned to appreciate Mexican counterparts to American candy bars and other sweets: Pulparindo, a chewy tamarind and chile bar; mazapán, a peanut-based marzipan; and Duvalín, vanilla and hazelnut cream that came in tiny packages with a plastic stick for an eating utensil.

I came to know Mexico through its flavors and to understand that it was made up of a vast and complex array of ingredients, textures, and colors that distinguished it from everything else I’d ever eaten. To this day I am shocked when people equate Mexican with Taco Bell or when that fine cuisine is reduced to an overstuffed burrito. Happily, though, there is some authenticity and variety to be found. I had the opportunity to experience Mexico all over again at two spots in LA:
sign¡Lotería!: Grab a table in the center of the LA Farmer’s Market or hop on a bright red stool and eat right at the counter. Eager to try everything on the menu, I ordered a sampler platter containing miniature versions of the twelve different taco fillings available, including, nopalitos (cactus salad), mole poblano con pollo (chicken with mole sauce), papa con rajas (potatoes with roasted poblano peppers), and chicharrones en salsa verde (pork rinds in tomatillo sauce). I can’t say I had a single favorite, but surprisingly for carnivorous me, the vegetarian nopalitos made a lasting impression.
sampler
De todo un poco.
aguasThe colorful aguas.

Luckily, I had a few people in tow and was able to taste enchiladas in hot and spicy red chile guajillo sauce that was eagerly mixed into the accompanying rice so as not to waste a drop; crunchy, crispy, corn tortilla tacos; and a mountain of chilaquiles verdes (fried corn tortilla strips sautéed in house-made sauces – either green tomatillo, chile guajillo, or mole) topped with eggs and dressed with queso fresco, crema, chopped onions and cilantro. Oh, and of course, no meal is complete without an agua fresca, fresh fruit drinks in a variety of seasonal flavors. My pick: agua de jamaica, the refreshing, floral, bougainvillea-hued hibiscus tonic.
tacosCrispy tacos.

As fate would have it, owner Jimmy Shaw happened by and we got to talking in English at first until we realized he was Mexican himself. We talked about food, of course, and childhood memories revolving around food…of course. It was a lovely encounter and made us feel like we’d just dined at a dear friend’s home.
stoolsEat right at the counter.

Monte Albán, Mexican eatery with Oaxacan roots, was also a big crowd pleaser. Señor O and I headed there for breakfast with my little brother, and, quite embarrassingly, I was presented with a colorfully sprinkled bun and cup of hot chocolate…because it as Mother’s Day and the hostess took me for my sibling’s mom. I was going to play along, but vanity took over and I just had to clear up that I was not old enough to be this 11-year-old’s mother. Well, technically I am, but still.

…I digress. The food: I had enfrijoladas, with eggs naturally. Enfrijoladas are similar to chilaquiles, only these corn tortilla triangles are smothered in thick black bean sauce. Señor O had a large plate of eggs scrambled with chorizo, and little brother opted for salsa de queso, melted cheese in a pool of spicy tomato sauce, a sticky mess that can be neatly folded into a slender and pliable corn tortilla.
tamalconmoleTamal con mole.
quesadillaZucchini blossom quesadilla.
moloteChorizo and potato molote.

We made a return visit later that very same evening with family members who’d missed out on breakfast and had tamales with black mole, dense and chocolaty, zucchini blossom quesadillas, potato-and-chorizo molotes, deep-fried and crisp, as well as another round of enfrijoladas, this time with a side of cesina, thinly sliced, salted beef. For dessert: ripe plantains, sliced and fried, then topped with condensed milk. As we like to say, barriga llena, corazón contento. (Full belly, happy heart).

 

FOODYWOOD

hotdogI was in LA for a few days, and, despite the fact that I spent my nights sleeping in my brother’s bachelor pad from hell – sorry, Charlie, but it’s true: the place was a wreck, a combination opossum refuge and crack den – it was a good time. I absolutely love LA, especially the heretofore unexplored food scene. In the span of a week I had Thai, Korean, Spanish, Mexican, French, Italian, and good ol’ American – a veritable “It’s a Small World” for gluttons. I’m no food critic, but some of my eat-outs must be described.

At the top of my list: Honey Pig Korean BBQ. Up until my journey to Koreatown, my experience with Korean cuisine had been limited to the Momofuku Ssäm and Noodle Bars in New York. Don’t misread – the Momofukus happen to be among my favorite NY spots, but Honey Pig is a whole other animal, and I was completely unprepared for what I encountered there.
honeypigsignLike a beacon in the night…

We asked to be seated, at which point the waiter whirled around our appointed table like a dervish-meets-Chinese-plate-balancing-act, dropping little plates and saucers and bowls and then more plates and saucers and bowls with sauces and oils and lettuces (oh my!) all around, till there is not an inch of tabletop visible. In the middle, rising like cupola from a crowded city center, The Inverted Wok Thing. Our awed foursome sat, giggling and gawking as the waiter zeroed in on a tiny dial in the tabletop (Gadzooks! You yourself can control the heat!) and started throwing kimchi-covered cabbage and bean sprouts on the base of Wok Thing.

wokWok Thing.
sprouts
saucesThe accoutrements…

We stared, stupidly, not knowing at all what to do with the food. Were we supposed to eat it? How long did we have to wait for it to cook? Were we allowed to touch it? Desperately, we looked around at the other tables attempting to discern the how-tos of KBBQ. I try to make eye contact with any of the passing waiters, but my silent SOS went unnoticed. I flailed my arms and a harried-looking man finally come over. “Uh, I’m sorry, excuse me,” I muttered, unintelligibly and in near-whisper, “Umm, we’re, like, new to this whole BBQ thing,” nervous giggle, “umm, uhh, how do we order?” More vexed looks from the waiter who instructed in a few terse fragments to order four portions of pork belly and one of beef. Now, novice though I was, I thought four portions of pork belly sounded a bit piggish, so I ordered two and one sliced beef. The waiter scurried away.

I’d forgotten to order drinks, so once again, I started casting frantic looks at the wait staff while they continued to ignore me. I began to feel unwelcome, out of place. I hung my head, pouting, and that’s when I realized I was not being ignored; I was just not following protocol: there was a doorbell on my table, hidden under a tiny bowl of pungent red sauce. One is meant to press down on it if and when one needs service. I pushed down, and, wouldn’t you know it, my finger was still on the button when someone materialized at my side. Mercifully, this lady was kind and took pity on us lost sheep. She started snipping the cabbage into bite-size pieces with the aid of slender tongs and shears, and piled them up on the highest part of the dome. “OOOhhhhh,” we mouthed. Next, she lay the pork belly on the wok and it started to sizzle. Once cooked, she, with a deft hand, natch, picked up a piece with a pair of shiny metal chopsticks and quickly dipped it in one of the small bowls, this one containing sesame oil, salt and pepper. The now-seasoned belly, some cabbage, bean sprouts, and thinly sliced green onion were piled on a large and crisp lettuce leaf, which she wrapped. We understood! We got it! We could finally eat!

We were congratulating ourselves on our powers of international comprehension until we started trying to imitate her maneuvers. Turns out metal chopsticks are not for neophytes– they’re slippery and food kept dropping on the way to the plate. We longed for forks, but were too embarrassed to ask. We would eat with slippery sticks even if it took us hours. Someone spotted wooden ones though, and once we had those in hand, things went rather smoothly.

We’d eaten through most of our pork belly and were feeling pretty full when a waiter ran by and without even glancing at us tossed an octopus tentacle on Wok Thing. “We didn’t ask for this!” we yelped, but he only said, “It’s free!” and continued on his way. Meanwhile, another waiter restocked our cabbage and sprouts. We began to get nervous every time someone neared the table, worried more food would appear unannounced. Besides, we still had a mound of thinly sliced beef waiting to be cooked.

tentacleRandom tentacle.

After the deliciousness of pork belly, I worried the beef would be a letdown. But it was actually my favorite. Our kindly waitress plopped it on the heat and said, “Very delicious with rice.” I just nodded, defeated, and heaved a deep sigh. I would just have to create more space for the rice. It was orange, and in a bowl, mixed with bits of lettuce and seaweed. She plopped it on top of the beef and started raking up the remaining cabbage and sprouts, mixing it all together. It was my favorite part of the meal. Everything had just enough spice and salt, and at the base of it all, a gentle sweetness that gently played with the underlying heat. I’ve added Korean BBQ to the list of foods I crave, and wish I could install a Wok Thing at my table – it’s one-pot cooking at its best.
riceVery delicious with rice.

Next up: BACON-WRAPPED HOT DOGS. Months ago, New York Magazine wrote about Crif Dogs, an East Village spot selling deep-fired wieners. Apparently, some genius there decided to give David Chang (creator/chef of the above-mentioned Momofukus) a namesake dog and thus came about the bacon-wrapped-deep-fried-kimchi-topped-hot-dog. I haven’t had the chance to sample this delightful monstrosity, but have spent ample time drooling over its photo. How happy was I then to learn that you can get a bacon-wrapped hot dog in LA? Naturally, I had to have one. Little brother and cute girlfriend took me downtown where we walked through blocks of knock-off bags and tight, neon-colored clothes looking for a… let’s say artisanal hot dog cart. Cute GF instructed us to bypass brick-and-mortar stands because what we wanted was true-blue street food. For a while it looked like it wasn’t going to happen for us and that all we were going to get out of this trip were some snazzy $4 “designer” shades, when we saw (and smelled!) it: a teeny vehicle, no bigger than a golf cart, equipped with a glassed-in flattop and Coleman cooler stocked with Jarritos – Mexican soda pop – and a bowl of coarsely chopped avocado and pico de gallo.

standjarritosThe bacon dogs sizzled alongside sliced onions, green peppers, and jalapeños. I’m sorry Gray’s Papaya, but you’ve been dethroned! The vendor tucked the sausage into a bun and drizzled it with yellow mustard, ketchup, and mayo (!), then topped it with everything in his reach, including the chunky guacamole. It was absolute bliss, and 100% worth the gut-wrenching heartburn that followed.
hotdogcookingOn a sad note, it seems bacon-wrapped hot dog purveyors are being persecuted by the health department. It’s an outrage! Check out Drew Carey’s inspired report on Reason.tv. Potentially harmful food? Puh-lease. Let’s not get started on the Golden Arches, et al.
DSC_0327Save the dogs!

More mouth-watering to come,

HH&F

FORBIDDEN FRUITS

There are certain fruits back home that are not easy to come by in the US, even in the southernmost extremes of its geography. Some, such as nancite, a cranberry-sized fruit of bright yellow skin and white interior with a gaping belly button that exudes a heady and nauseating stench, I am happy to be safely away from, but others like sapote and níspero I crave. Sapote is rather like an avocado in shape and flesh texture. The exterior of the footballesque fruit is brown an rough, but the inside is buttery, smooth, and rich terracotta orange in color. A glossy black seed is tightly wedged into the velvety flesh. Sapote is for the persevering only, as it will frequently be filled with wriggling white maggots or be ripe to the point of fizzy fermentation. Should you chance on a perfect one, though, you will be rewarded. Decadent, it coats the palate and tongue with buttercream texture and aromas of exotic dark chocolate and mellow spices.
sapote
Níspero skin is also dull brown and coarse, and while its interior is not as rich and smooth as sapote, it does share with it unusual flavors. Níspero is grainy and fibrous, like a cat’s tongue. Redolent of chocolate and moss, it smells of earth dampened by rain, moistened cedar, and secret hiding places.
nispero

Other fruits, like guayaba and jocote were not yet in season, and so I was able only to have the former in jelly form and the latter in preserved from. Many of you are probably familiar with guava paste or guava and cream cheese pastries as the flavor combination is rather popular. I never tire of the taste, perhaps because like Proust’s madeleine, it reminds me of childhood. My mother and I used to have “tea time,” whose fare always consisted of toast spread with butter and jalea de guayaba and topped with a slice of cheese.

jalea

Jocotes bring to mind olives with great big pits. During semana santa (Holy Week) they are available everywhere, their bare-branched mother trees decorated with clusters of the sour green fruits. My grandfather has a farm in Granada and during semana santa huge basketfuls of mangoes and jocotes would be brought from there and lined up down the corridor. I would eat one after the other, wincing as the too sour ones wore down the enamel on my teeth and sucking greedily on the ripe red ones that were a prize to find buried in the multitude. Jocotes en miel are the preserved variation and it is all I could get in early February. If March jocotes recall the hot months, these honeyed bites are bits of waning summer.

jocote

T IS FOR TORTILLA

Aside from telling you that I am – or was, until very recently – a culinary student I have told you very little about myself. Here’s a biographical tidbit: I am from Nicaragua, and more specifially, the small colonial city of Granada, “La Gran Sultana”. I grew up here and there, and have lived in the U.S. for the past ten years, but roots remain planted at approximately 12° 10′ N 86° 15′ W.

granadaOne of the things I hope to do someday is a thorough research project on the food of my country: why do we eat what we eat? What is really native to us? Who taught us to cook? So many questions about what we consume and why that I would like to answer.

I visited last week, and although ten days is but a brief sojourn, I tried to eat as much as possible. Most of the time my stomach was filled to capacity, but in the interest of scientific investigation, I chewed bravely on. This is merely a brief overview of my native cuisine, but I hope to add more information, as well as recipes, in the not too distant future.

Rice and small red kidney beans are on the menu three times a day. For breakfast, they are mixed and fried together to make gallopinto (literal translation spotted or painted rooster, alluding most likely to the reddish tint that roosters have which resembles the final product). Gallopinto is often accompanied by eggs, either revueltos (scrambled) or as they say in my grandmother’s house, perdidos (lost) or fried, as well as by tortillas or bread. You could also go the full monty and have fried plantains or maduros (sweet, ripe plantains) and cheese, either fresh or fried.

gallopintoGallopinto and tortilla

cuajada

Cuajada and queso fresco, two traditional fresh milk cheeses.

At lunch and dinner, the rice and beans will be presented separately at the table, but there they always are. Growing up, meals served at home were of an international variety, but regardless of what we were having, rice and beans would be at the table. My mother and I always fought against two starches on the same plate, for example, if we were having lasagna there was no way we were going to have R&B there as well, but my younger brothers waved all propriety aside and would have them at the end of the meal, as “dessert”, they’d exclaim.

Corn products are as many can guess, a staple, tortillas being the most evident example. Most people buy theirs from vendors selling from humble roadside shacks. At under $1.00 for 10 tortillas, they are one of the more affordable food items available in a country that is among the poorest in the world.

TortillasA tasty local treat is quesillo: Quesillo is string cheese that bears a striking resemblance to mozzarella. A braid of it is wrapped in a tortilla, smothered with sour cream (our version being much more liquid than the US variety) and a slaw of pickled onions. The taco-like roll is placed in a slender plastic bag, and voilà, you’re ready to eat. The best part of the plastic bag is that you can tie it, cut off the bottom end, and finish eating your quesillo from that side, the better to enjoy the sour cream and pickled onions that have pooled at the bottom.

quesilloMEJORquesillo2

Corn is also the basis for a number of tamales: tamal pizque, of a greyish green hue that comes from the ash that’s incorporated with the corn; the sweeter and more tender yoltamal (which I unfortunateley couldn’t get while in Nicaragua); and nacatamal, the mothere of all tamales: weighing in at at least two pounds, this huge tamal cotains corn masa, pork, potatoes, rice, tomatoes, prunes, and raisins. It is a delicious and incredibly filling meal.

tamal1

tamal2
Tamal pizque.

The mister’s grandmother treated us to one of my favorite things; chicharrón con yuca. Pork cracklings are paired with steamed yuca and topped with a slaw of cabbage, tomatoes, white vinegar, and tiny, spicy congo chiles, which are the only chilies we use and never in great quantities. If bought at a stand at the market or a park, chicharrón con yuca will be served on a chagüite, or plantain tree, leaf.

chicharron
yuca
chicharronconyucaWe were also treated to fried plantain chips, grilled meat kabobs, and my favorite, maduros en gloria (sweet plantains in glory, literally, but figuratively meaning that they’ve died and have gone to heaven): the sweet plantains are fried, then smothered with cream and cheese and baked for a bit in the oven. Really, you must try it. You can find the sweet plantains at your local market (*do NOT buy green ones and expect them to ripen. Buy the yellow ones and wait for them to ripen further, until the skins are black as this will ensure they are tender, rich, and perfectly sweet). There is a recipe from a traditional Nicaraguan cookbook, 50 años en la cocina, by Angélica de Vivas, that I will try at home with American ingredients and post on the site as soon as I can.
DSC01557
platanosymaduros

carne

maduros

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HAPPY MEAL

I like to think that I have a pretty discerning palate. It’s in training, yes, but I can by this point appreciate the finer things in life: foie gras, caviar, truffles… When I cook I always do so from scratch – no bottled marinades or microwave meals that came out of the box, thank you. On occasion I have been known to even make the bread needed to make French toast. So why, I wonder, is it that when I travel – be it a four-hour road trip to a nearby city or par avion across the big blue ocean – I turn into a disgusting pig? No, seriously. I see a Wendy’s, McDonald’s, or Burger King and my brain short-circuits. Especially, at breakfast…I can almost smell the hash browns and the Egg McMuffin with sausage and cheese.

Alas, I am afflicted with acid reflux, otherwise known as The Disease from Hell, and even two tater tots from BK will make what should be a happy meal into a very uncomfortable experience. For the next few hours after consumption of the grease-laden goodies, I will grip my sides, rock back and forth in my chair, and groan, the sounds very similar to the croaking of a toad.

I’m writing just as I ready to go on a few days’ vacation. I am telling myself that I will pop my daily Prilosec, eat a sensible breakfast at home, and walk straight past the airport food court tomorrow morning. May the force be with me!