July 31, 2007

Beef jerky finally gets what it deserves!

According to the New York Times, beef jerky is finally making its way into the ranks of the elite gourmet - reaffirming the pro-jerky stance that I have taken for years in spite of the mockery of my peers. While buying beef jerky at the gas station on road trips has long been a tradition in my family, I am thrilled to find that the fanciest foodies are taking the delicacy to a new level - using lean strips of top and bottom round or chuck, seasoned and then slowly smoked and dried using complements such as molasses, brown sugar, Cabernet Sauvingnon, garlic, and whiskey to name a few.
Actually, the article points out that beef jerky (as I've long suspected) is actually the perfect meat, it has zero fat, lots of protein, and low cholesterol. It dates back to at least the Incas, and the name "jerky" comes not from the cowboys of the Old West, but from the Quechua word “charqui.”
In Spain, the land of ham and all cured pork products, I have been getting my beef jerky fix for years with something called "cecina". Typically from the region of Leon, cecina is essentially fresh beef that for hundreds of years has been smoked and naturally dried. The inside is deep red with very little fat, and it goes splendidly thinly sliced on salads or alone and drizzled with olive oil.
To check out the Times article.

July 22, 2007

Aquodka, Avodka, Tomato, Tomahto

I feel like I owe it to everyone to give an update on the Aquodka - probably because over a week ago I said that I was going to post the recipe for this new dreamed up cocktail sensation on the web, and shucks, I didn't.
I'd be lying if I told you that the aquodka hasn't been on my mind however. Sloshing around in my big fishbowl glass of a noggin, stirring up memories, ingredients and even color combinations from cocktails past. But alas, true inspiration came in the form of a pastry bag styled mound of avocado mousse perched jauntily on the edge of a plate of sashimi a la Karen. The AVODKA not the AQUODKA, a frothy moussey, avocadoey, limey, vodka-y, refresher served in a martini glass maybe with jalapeno rock salt neatly arrayed around the rim. After all, avocado is my favorite fruit and vodka is my favorite Russian distilled potato beverage (although actually can now be made from many other sources such as corn).
Finally sure that this is the way to go, I thought I should do some research into the cocktail just in case I am serving it or drinking it some day at Memento and a stranger at the bar tries to outshine my avocado knowledge. Thanks to the FOOD LOVER'S COMPANION, I learned the following tidbit, making me think that this will not be a problem:
"The fruit's name comes from abuacatl, the Nahuatl word for testicle, which is assumed to be reference to the avocado's shape." You don't say....
Avodka recipe and photos to follow, this time I promise....


July 13, 2007

The Aquodka

I just woke up from an extended siesta, proving that they do actually exist in Spain, which is something that people ask me all the time. We just got back from two days in La Granja, a city about an hour or so from Madrid, and fifteen minutes away from Segovia. It is the site of an extremely grandiose 18th century royal palace that is particularly well known for its gardens, laid out in an imitation of the ones at Versailles and runningith over with fountains.
Anyway, maybe due to the heat or just to my own inherent laziness, when I got back to Madrid (neatly deposited on my doorstep by a car, not the somewhat outdated bus service that I had used to get there in the first place), I had the feeling that I had traveled those 75 kilometers on horseback wearing an excess of petticoats - sidesaddle - so I allowed myself to nap the afternoon away in preparation for this evening when I am going to pick up a shift at my friend Karen's wonderful restaurant, Memento. Her trusty main waitress is out of town so I have been reliving my glory days and forcing everyone to call me the Sommelier, regardless of what I am actually doing. I go up to each table to take their order or to run their food with my whole background story prepared just in case the customers decide to ask me questions such as "so, how long have you been a waitress here?" or "Wow, you seem like more of a sommelier than just a waitress, how come?". I would then explain to them that "actually, I am a sommelier, I am just clearing your plates because our waitress just choked on her tongue and had to go to the hospital." I think I might say it in a British accent, I mean, in the event that someone ever does ask.
The point of this whole thing, (and trust me, I think there is one), is that I took a siesta and had a dream that I invented a new and insanely refreshing cocktail called the AQUODKA. Much like Santa Teresa must have felt after communing with God, I woke up in a haze of Aquodka excitement, repeating the ingredients to myself and most importantly the name, over and over again. So I'm thanking my lucky stars that I am the sommelier at Memento tonight (my temporary laboratory of cocktail research) and the soon to be mother of the Aquodka, (which the only thing that I have clear about so far is that it contains ice and vodka, and I think is meant to be rather lemony), the most refreshing drink of all time. I will post the recipe tomorrow, when I have one that is. Bet you can hardly wait.

July 10, 2007

Hedgehogs, not just for breakfast anymore

So, I've just discovered something incredibly titillating in the Spanish lexicon. The word for sea urchin, erizo, is the same as the word for hedgehog, erizo!
Ok, so maybe titillating isn't exactly the right word, but isn't it fascinating that in an ocean of vocabulary so big that you could spend a lifetime swimming to the other shore, someone, somewhere and for who knows what reason, decided that these two creatures should in fact share the same name.
To be fair, I should start this loquacious bit of prattle with an apology to my friend Valen who, as we were walking along the road in Germany the other night and came upon a pair of hedgehogs, actually informed me that they were called erizos in Spanish, just like sea urchins. Considering that my complex animal terminology in Spanish is limited to things that can be served on a plate, I must confess that I scoffed at him for suggesting that this was their name. However, when I started doing research in order to prove that Valen had in fact no idea what he was talking about, I learned that, not only was he dead correct, but that hedgehogs were actually known as urchins in English as well (and still are in some places) until the term hedgehog was coined in the 15th century.
Ok, fine, both hedgehogs and sea urchins do share certain physical characteristics - and I was also surprised to find that both types of erizos are in fact eaten - and apparently on purpose. The consumption of sea urchins is quite common along the coast of Northern Spain. I tried them once in Asturias, still in their spiny homes and piled high on platters. To prepare the urchins, (or whore's eggs as they were called in 19th century Newfoundland), scissors are used to cut around the urchin's mouth on its flat side and the connective tissue inside the spiny shell is punctured and then the orange colored coral, or reproductive organs, are scooped out. I ate them raw, which is the most common way that they are eaten, and while the flavor was delicate, it was also overwhelmingly iodiney on the other. Despite the fact that I loved dipping my spoon ino the squishy center of the urchin, feeling both macho and cool, the flavor wasn't what I was looking for, although it seems that the extremely high iodine content in the sea urchins can be an effective cure for a neck ache.
While I have never eaten a hedgehog, I was able to find out (dear, beloved Wikipedia) that Hedgehogs were eaten in both Ancient Egypt and during the Middle ages. The most accepted method of preparation is to cover the hedgehog with clay and then bake it. When the clay is cracked open, its spikes are removed and voila, hedgehog a la pharaoh.
It is also interesting to note that neither one of these creatures is related to the porcupine or the sea cucumber, and that hedgehogs are naturally lactose intolerant.

July 9, 2007

For Whom my Burger Tolls

Enrique says that I make the best hamburgers in Spain. “Poor man”, I think, shaking my head. If only he’d had the privilege of growing up with a backyard deck and a father who grills just about everything with a hint of Chipotle smoke. Now, THAT’s a good burger. But alas, he’s a city boy, a Madrileño born and bred in the capital city of Spain, and yes, I will concede with a sigh, my burgers are probably the best ones here. I should mention that there is a fancy restaurant here that makes even fancier burgers out of Kobe beef, but what do they know? Unless you’ve been through what I’ve been through, you just can’t understand what makes a burger tick. I consider myself a Cook, not a Chef mind you because I’ve never studied, never worn checkered pants, and my knife collection is an odd mishmash of what I’ve been able to steal from my parents and smuggle in my suitcase, mixed together with a 10 dollar set of IKEA knives bought 8 years ago that still work like a dream. I did however have my own restaurant in Madrid for several years, and I was in fact the Cook, so monogrammed jacket or no, I do own a pair of kitchen clogs. Additionally, I have been in Spain for 9 years and have endured the running commentary by Europeans about American food. My restaurant, although my American partner and I never advertised it as American food, was plagued by the irritating question, “what’s American food?, hamburgers?”. My new friendships were marred by comments like “you Americans don’t have a cuisine of your own, except maybe hamburgers”, and my wallet was consistently lightened by my constant dinner parties – determined as I was to show the wealth and variety of “American” food. Imagine the struggle, the exhaustion, the dishes washed without a dishwasher, until something happened last summer ago that turned by world on end.

Four years before that, during the first summer that my restaurant was open, a lot of expectations were placed on the United States World Cup soccer team. They were good, they were playing well, and they were actually holding their own in the incredibly talented and competitive World Cup tournament that was taking place that year in South Korea. My parents were in town from Michigan and for a week we actually carried the prep cooking from the restaurant to my nearby apartment and prepared it in the kitchen there; Dad skewering chicken, Mom rolling spring rolls, and me whipping up some tuna marinade (all in strict adherence to health codes of course), the three of us glued to my television – watching the U.S. beat first one team and then another. When they had made it further than any US team ever had before, we were dismayed to realize that the biggest game of all, between the USA and Germany, was scheduled right in the middle of the restaurant’s weekday lunch rush. Luckily, my dad, who has a PhD, came up with the brilliant idea of carrying my microwave sized television down to the restaurant (as opposed to lugging 75 Tupperware and a cooler four blocks back and forth and up three flights of stairs). We went as far as to plan two special lunch menus around the event: the American one consisting of coleslaw and barbecued short ribs, and the German one of German potato salad and Wiener schnitzel. The restaurant was packed, expectations were high, and I remember that my then-new acquaintance Enrique sat at the table next to my parents. The USA lost, my German customers were unbearable, the television was lugged home, and we were forced to wait another four years for the USA to have another go at the World Cup.
Although fervent soccer fans might think that the world came to a halt for those four years, in truth, a great many things happened in the years that fell between those two tournaments. Enrique and I fell in love and eventually moved in together, he came to the States with me a few times and (a lover of spicy foods) tried his very first Jalapeño burger in a bistro type tavern in Boulder, Colorado. I watched his eyes grow big as the massive french fry laden plate was set in front of him, a tiny American flag waving proudly from between the sesame seeds on the top bun. He also tried his first Chili burger that summer on our road trip from Colorado to San Francisco. He was lucky with that first one, it was delicious oozing spicy homemade chili, but unlucky with the four or five canned chili burgers that he tried after that; starting with the unrecognizable and slightly grey chili blob that he ordered at a diner in Leadville, Colorado, America’s highest city, and continuing with the tepid chili burger experiment at a place called Mom’s somewhere in Utah. During those years I also closed my restaurant and studied to become a sommelier, and a couple of times I slapped together some burgers for lunch or dinner at Enrique’s request, never suspecting that all the while expert soccer playing men from the US of A were gearing up to surprise the world again in yet another well-played World Cup tournament, one that would change my culinary claim to fame.
Last summer was full of lazy – albeit economically challenged – days. I had just finished sommelier school and was delighted to pour my efforts into enjoying the World Cup for a week or so. I may lack the fervor that Europeans like Enrique feel for the event, it is their super bowl, their end all – be all, their moment to slip out of the European Union and return to the old “us against them” rivalry; but I did play soccer for almost 15 years and don’t mind getting catching a good game and getting caught up in the rivalry myself. With time and unemployment on our side we decided to watch as much as possible. When Spain played for the first time, Enrique and my mother-in-law and I dressed in the Spanish colors of yellow and red, ate Spanish jamon and drank Mahou beer, cheering loudly with the neighbors when the team scored. And when the States played for the first time, we stood up for the national anthem with a friend from New Mexico, drank Budweiser and said things like “hot-diggity” and “that was a doozie” (for some reason watching American sporting events always makes me revert to retro 1950’s lingo). Everything was going just dandy until the US was scheduled to play Italy and we decided to strike up a friendly culinary rivalry with an Italian friend who was coming over to watch the game. “I’m going to make something typically American” I said into the phone “and I was hoping that you would bring a typical Italian dish”. And it was at this moment that my world momentarily stopped. A pause, and then a snickering started coming across the phone lines, then giving way to full-on chortling, with arrogant guffaws coming from the evesdropping Portuguese husband in the background. I heard him gasping “what is she going to make that’s American, hamburgers? Americans don’t have cuisine, there’s no contest”. “I’m sorry”, she managed “but my husband thinks it’s funny that on top of thinking that you can beat the Italians in soccer, you are even daring to suggest that our gastronomy can be compared, let alone challenged, and by what, burgers???”. Sickeningly sweet, a hostess that my Southern grandmother would have been proud of, I hung up the phone, and swore that I would indeed make burgers that night, and that I would make them pay for those comments with the best burger that those pompous citizens of former Roman colonies had ever seen.
With Enrique’s American burger road trip and several calls to my father as my inspiration, I began to create not only the best tasting ground beef patty imaginable – a mixture of four different fresh herbs, garlic, chipotle flakes, different spices, special bread crumbs, organic Galician eggs – but also the most colorful and elaborate mélange of toppings to lay out on the table in the oh-so-American make it yourself tradition. A relatively new mother and independent businesswoman, my Italian friend had found the time to throw together a Napolitano style lasagna and for a second, glancing at my colorful table, I almost felt sorry for the Ital-Portuguese couple, unaware that their dismissive comments about American cuisine had released the beast within me. Sorry, that is, until I saw their new baby flaunting an Italian team uniform, and until they mentioned that they were so sure of victory both on the field and the dinner table that they hadn’t made much of an effort with the food at all.
Much to my dismay and their gloating delight, the US team tied the game and lost their place in the competition. But much to the horror of the Italians perhaps, the burgers stole the evening. The guests heaped their plates with the toppings: bacon, jalapeños, three kinds of cheeses, sautéed mushrooms, the standard lettuce and tomatoes, onions, four kinds of mustard, horseradish, and of course the savory herb and spice laden burgers; leaving the (oops, did I dry that out in the oven while reheating it for you?) lusterless lasagna on the bench. While the Italian team did go on to win the entire tournament, I felt like I had won the real tournament that night, taking a stand for American chefs everywhere, not by showing a savoir of creative and innovative gourmet delights, but by embracing the very thing that I have spent a lifetime denying as a symbol of all that is culinary: the burger.
While we may have to wait another four years to show our soccer savvy, the recipe for “Spain’s best burgers” follows:

ground beef
finely diced fresh herbs: cilantro, basil, mint, thyme, parsley
crushed garlic cloves
garlic salt or Jane’s Krazy mixed-up salt
Perrin’s sauce
Chipotle flakes
cayenne pepper
finely diced shallots (optional as I’m allergic)
whole wheat homemade dried and rough smashed bread crumbs

Mix ingredients together, form patties, fry or preferably grill, and enjoy, all the while doing your little superior dance.

ich bin 5 pounds heavier

I realize that this is supposedly about Madrid, gastronomican in madrid yes, yes, but I just got back from a long weekend at the Dokumenta contemporary art bonanza in Kassel, Germany, and I just can't stop thinking about those darn good German breakfasts.
I have always loved German breakfasts, to the point that I will do anything in my power when taking a morning flight (including pay extra) to book my ticket on Lufthansa, the German national airline and one of the only ones that still serves a hot breakfast.....no, a hot GERMAN breakfast.
It seems absurd I'm sure to the casual observer. Why can't she just make a German breakfast at home? Black forest ham, salami, smoked herring and whitefish, assorted soft cheeses (some with herbs), muesli, hard boiled egg, brown bread, rye bread, those soft white rolls, honey. The obvious two-part answer is that it can be hard to come by the raw product here in Spain and even more importantly, that it is extremely hard to justify eating that much for breakfast when you are not on holiday.
I'm going to go snack on a slim jim.
(photo by Carlos Nogueira)
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