I’m a travel addict; give me a plane going anywhere, a car with no maps, no GPS, nothing but a tank of gas. Give me any of these things, and I’m happy. Normally, I’m happy.
Not this time. This time the trip there and back was the most enjoyable part. A 20,000 mile round trip of bottomless glasses of wine, dainty little plates of smoked trout, vichyssoise, cheeses, quiche, etc etc. I’ve become a spoiled corporate wife that (sometimes) gets to fly first class to visit her husband on his foreign assignments. It’s tough.
What does it matter how comfortable and expensive the journey to my destination was if the rest of the trip was not much better than the outtakes of Rick Steven’s… wait, this isn’t Europe?!
It’s a hot, dry yet stickily humid, highly contested piece of land no bigger than the state of Arizona. Sun bleached, shade paid for in the entire country per the square inch, made up of nothing but muted shades of beige and dark olive green; the only colors were the bright impossible blue of the warm Mediterranean, the round shiny heavy spheres of pomegranates.
Nothing else had color, not the people, nor their clothes, everyone wearing faded 80’s style denim while riding their scooters, throwing themselves in between the impatient cars at every stop light. Everyone pushing far into the intersection. At least they wore helmets, and seemed to get to where they were going. Maybe they were all in a hurry, pushed along by the thought they weren’t going to get where they were going, that fate or a rocket would intervene.
Maybe one reaches a point of too much travel, too much seen, too many previous experiences one can compare a new one to. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was beautiful, but oh perhaps not the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I sound far too jaded, don’t I?
The souk, the market, was fragrant and full of bright things. Plump dates and figs, fragrant spices peddles by a pushy old man, pitas stuffed with gizzards, livers, and other nasty bits.
But this is also the place where one can come to see dead things. A dead kitten, dead rats, dead cockroaches, legs up, twitching.
And perhaps here again I am jaded, how can this compare to the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar of Istanbul? The street markets of Paris or Barcelona? I’m spoiled and jaded.
But it was a lovely time still, nothing involving figs can be bad, can it?
I’ve never understood the appeal of pickled watermelon rind, despite my love of not wasting useful things. It’s just too jelly like for me. So off to the garbage watermelon rind goes.
The very fragrant skin of the pineapple is an entirely different matter, and along with the otherwise thrown out core make a refreshing and lightly fizzy fermented drink called tepache. And in the case of forgetfulness, a slightly boozy home-fermented pineapple drink.
Choose a pineapple that is ripe and fragrant, but still firm. Avoid pineapples that are showing white mold between the ridges. If you cannot find piloncillo, the dark unrefined sugar cones easily found in Latin centric grocery stores, use dark brown sugar instead.
Tepache is a five to seven day process at room temperature. The longer the drink is allowed to rest, the more likely it is to develop a slight bit of alcohol. I do say a slight bit, just enough to know it’s there, not enough to get a buzz. Leaving the tepache to rest for longer than a week and a half will result in vinegar; a good, fully formed vinegar takes two or three months.
1 ripe pineapple, skin and core only
8 cups water, cold
1 - 4” cinnamon stick
1” piece of ginger
1 star anise
10 black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
Roughly chop the pineapple skin and ginger. Place in a food processor and chop until about 1/4” to 1/2” in size. Pour the ground ingredients, and any juice they may have released into a clean 1 gallon container. Break up the cinnamon stick, and lightly crush the whole spices. Add to the container, along with the water. Stir well.
Cover the container with a clean dish towel, and secure tightly around the rim with kitchen twine or plastic wrap. Tepache requires air for fermentation, and it is best to prevent any intrusion by fruit flies.
Place the container in a warm place, and allow to rest until day 3.
2 piloncillo cones, or 1 1/4 packed dark brown sugar (8 oz approx.)
2 cups water
Place the piloncillo (or brown sugar) and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved. Allow the syrup to cool completely before adding to the tepache.
Rest the tepache until white sediment has formed in the bottom, as well as a slight bit of fizz in the liquid. Taste the drink every so often, to check on the progress. When you’re satisfied with the results, strain the liquid through a very fine mesh strainer and refrigerate.
Home fermentation is never an exact science, and there are signs that the batch has gone wrong. If the pineapple develops a red hue, or a thick white film on the surface of the liquid, it is best to throw it out. I will however openly admit to having consumed many a batch that had a slight white film of mold on the surface, with no ill effects what so ever. Trust your sense of smell and taste. If the smell is of anything other than bright pineapple, or the color changes from an amber to something else, changes are, something has gone wrong.
Tepache is best served very cold, and really very enjoyable when mixed with a lager or hefeweizen.
Related: 2 + 2 = 5; Or Is There A Correct Way To Make Simple Syrup.
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A cushy five star resort may not be the first place you think of as a foraging location, but with prickly pears standing bright and ripe, and no pesticides in sight, it’s hard not to dive into a field of cacti, carefully at least.
It might not beed saying, but do not grab prickly pear barehanded. The plant is prickly, the fruit is even more prickly. Those thorns may not be as vicious looking as the two inch thorns on the leaves themselves, but are instead tiny and nearly invisible. Use tongs to hold them. It is possible to find the fruit at Mexican grocery stores during the summer months an even then, clean as these fruit may be, do not grab them bare handed. Your palm will thank you. Even with the greatest of care, some of these tiny thorns will find their way into our hand, much like the one lodged in my finger even now.
Colonche, a prickly pear beverage, is made by fermenting the juice and pulp of the fruit, with a bit of peel thrown in, which aids in the fermentation process. The process is supposed to be simple. Press the pulp of the fruit, or puree in a blender. Boil lightly, throw in the peel, and allow to rest for one or two days, until fermented, and strain. The result should be a bright pink, sweet and slightly boozy drink.
Or not so much.
Day one showed no fermentation at all. Day two tasted at first awful. At second taste, like a flat raspberry lambic. Sweet, tart, and just so pink. The taste is so unbelievably pink, and so completely undrinkable. But once you end up starting a vinegar, might as well keep going with it.
On the list of things that I’ve learned from my Dad that have proved to be invaluable:
Beer Marinated Carne Asada
Carne asada is frequently prepared with arrachera, skirt steak, but this recipe calls for the slightly more flavorful flank steak. Both cuts are characterized for being tough, long, flat and lean, requiring to be cooked quickly over high heat, or slowly over long heat. They are relatively affordable and very flavorful. Due to their relative toughness, it is preferable to cook to no more than a medium temperature, and be sure to cut them against the grain. Plan on cooking six to eight ounces of beef per person.
3 to 4 pounds flank steak
2 - 12 ounce cans of Tecate
2 Anaheim peppers, thickly sliced
1 small white onion, medium diced
1 orange, peel and juice
A small handful of cilantro
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
Place the steaks in a container just large enough to hold them without much overlapping. Pour the beer over them, adding the remaining ingredients. Toss them well to ensure even distribution of ingredients. Marinate for two hours, but no more than four hours, noting that the beer flavor will be more pronounced the longer it is marinated.
Remove the steaks from the marinade and lightly pat dry. Season well with coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper on both sides and cook on a very hot grill for approximately 4 minutes per side.
Originally published in South Mountain District News, August 1st, 2014.
Cooking is perhaps not as easy as math. Anything that can be made one way, can be made in a variety of other ways, with any one of them being accepted as correct. 2+2 = 4, but ask how to make simple syrup and 2+2 = 5.
Yet as far as I’m concerned, there is only one correct way to make a thickness simple syrup:
Equal parts water and sugar. Bring to a boil, simmer gently until the sugar is completely dissolved and the liquid has thickened slightly.
Nearly acceptable, but not right: Bring water and sugar to a boil, remove from heat. At this point, the sugar may not be completely dissolved, and the liquid will lack thickness. It is called simple syrup, right? If this is how you do your syrup, don’t feel bad, even pastry chefs get this wrong.
Not acceptable: two parts sugar, one part hot but not boiling water poured over it, also known as bar syrup. Dear bartenders of the world, there is nothing about this sugar water that is a syrup, and cocktails are not meant to taste like hummingbird food. Thanks.
Even less acceptable: Equal parts, or 2:1 of sugar and room temperature water, allowed to dissolve at room temperature, allegedly in as little as 15 minutes. At over 3 hours and counting, a test batch is still largely sugar crystals in the bottom, and overly sweet sugar water at the top. My task tomorrow: to cook this ungodly liquid into an acceptable syrup.
There’s two types of cooks in a kitchen, or really, two types of people in the world. There’s the type that will see you working on cutting up a case of lemons, or working any other type of non-prep list item, and will stop to chat, asking for details.
'What are you doing?'
'Making preserved lemons.'
'How do you do that?'
'You pack them in salt, but you squeeze the juice out first, so you can cover them with it.'
'Why are you throwing away the ends? And the seeds?'
'The ends have too much pith, too bitter. And I take the seeds out because I'm not lazy. Ok, I'm lazy, but not that lazy. Might as well clean them properly now so I don't have to worry about it later. I can just use them as they are.'
The same conversation over and over, mostly in Spanish, every time someone walks by. Sharing what I know is not something that ever bothers me. What use is it for me to know something if I can’t teach it to someone else?
What bothers me is the other type of person. The type that walks by, asks you what you are doing and with a sneer asks:
I’m making them because no one else is making them, because I can. Because there’s lemons and salt. Because there’s nothing else to do. Because I don’t need an actual reason to make something that tastes good and is useful. Do you?
Preserved lemons, at their best, taste of salty, gel-like bits of slightly fermented, mellowed out lemons. At their worst, imagine tasting lemon dishwashing liquid with gritty kosher salt granules thrown in for texture.
Disposable food-safe gloves are incredibly useful when preparing preserved lemons; there’s nothing quite like the sudden burn of acid hitting a break in the skin.
Select lemons that feel light for their size; heavier lemons have a thicker pith, and will be unpleasantly bitter. Organic, or home grown lemons are preferable, but conventionally grown lemons are just fine, provided they are washed well before using.
You will need approximately 6 to 10 lemons, depending on their size to fill a pint size jar, and around 1/2 cup of kosher salt. But this recipe is more about technique, rather than specific measurements.
Cut the ends the lemon, discarding. Cut the lemon in half, lengthwise, and depending on the size, cut each half into two or three pieces. Trim the white center of the lemon (and if anyone knows the technical name for this, please do tell me), and remove any seeds.
Press the lemons, straining the juice as you do so. Pour a thin layer or salt in the glass jar, about 1/8”, and begin layering the lemons, overlapping as little as possible. Cover each layer of lemons with a layer of salt, continuing to do so, leaving 1/2” of headroom in the jar. Pour the strained juice over the lemons, making sure it reaches into the bottom of the jar. Seal the jar tightly, give it a good shake, and leave it resting at room temperature for two weeks, or until the the salt has dissolved. Invert the jar every 3 or 4 days, as undissolved salt will settle to the bottom.
Once the juice in the lemons has visibly thickened, and the salt has dissolved, refrigerate the lemons, and allow to rest for another two weeks, or until the skin of the lemon has become smoother, and gel-like in appearance.
Once they’re ready, strain the lemons, and soak them briefly in cold water to eliminate any excessive saltiness, and remove any undissolved grains of salt. Place the lemons in a clean jar, and cover them with a 50-50 mixture of olive and canola oils. Store refrigerated, for up to six months.
Just in case it was starting to look like everything that comes out of my kitchen is a perfect result, every time, please let me correct that tought.
I could sat I get lucky, and get good results frequently without effort, but instead those good result are the byproduct of thinking on what I’m about to make for hours or days before I make it. Doing research and comparing recipes, tasting thr results of different methods in my head.
And then some days I get lazy and sloppy, and throw something together, getting a strawberry jam of passable taste, but runny texture. And that late night loaf of bread to go with the runny jam? Instead of the light, fluffy bread I was looking for, the unfamiliar recipe I made turned out a dry and crumbly bread, far more scone like than I was expecting.
Was everything tasty? Sure. But nothing like I was hoping for. I can’t bury my mistakes, like a doctor. I can’t grow vines over my mistakes, like an architect. But I can still eat them.
Working at a five star resort is like having a gateway into the very best and worst of humanity. Some days, it seems like every gluten-avoiding person from California to the Mississippi is staying with us, and they all want bread, as they drink a tall refreshing glass of gluten juice, aka beer.
We have the guests that go out of their way to let the kitchen know how much they enjoyed their meal, the celebrities that appreciate the effort the staff puts into making their stay comfortable and private, not like that treatment is really better than what the average Joe would receive.
But how strange is it that an ordinary ticket, one where a table of four orders half the menu, no special requests, everything shared, nothing split 2, 3 or 4 ways would get a nasty comment from someone in the kitchen? You know what happens when you split a salad four ways? A pile of lettuce the size of a golf ball on each plate.
This was perhaps the easiest ticket of the night. They just wanted the food and wanted it soon. Easy. Sharing everything, all $200 worth of food they ordered between the four of them. So easy. The response from someone in the kitchen, ‘Ugh, poor people.’ Our food runner quickly whispers, 'They're Asian!'
Ugh, lack of cultural awareness and understanding of different cultures.
Cooking for only myself gets pretty repetitive. Eggs. Sandwich. Eggs. Sandwich. Eggs… Sandwich…
I can’t have another ham sandwich. I just can’t. But a pork belly sandwich, from braised dry cured pork belly, so much better.
After curing, rinsing and drying the pork belly, braise it gently in chicken stock, beer and a small amount of onions, carrots and celery. Maybe a bay leaf and some garlic cloves. No chicken stock? Use pineapple juice and beer. Add enough liquid to come up at 3/4 of the thickness of the belly.
Place the belly skin or fat side up in a 425F oven for 20 minutes, or until the top surface develops a light golden tone.
Drop the temperature to 325F and cook until the belly is very tender, basting occasionally. Allow the belly to cool in the braising liquid; it is specially happy resting in the liquid for a full day.
As for the sandwich itself, cut the belly into strips. Sear them over medium high heat, deglazing with the braising liquid, and reducing until the liquid coats the belly.
Toast the bread. Coat the mayo, pile on tomato, lettuce, cucumbers, queso fresco, avocado.