A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
How to make a fantastic and chewy chocolate chip cookie: lightly spray the top with water before baking. (via Ad Hoc at Home).
How to make a fantastic and chewy chocolate chip cookie even better: add the zest of half an orange to the recipe.
Telling someone you live in Mesa in this area, you might as well be saying ‘I’m really just not cool, like really not cool.’ Anyone that knows me knows that this statement is honestly, pretty accurate. I’m not cool, but you know what, there is something about little Mesa, Arizona, that makes it so much cooler than the endless strip mall that is this town would imply.
I live within walking distance to a Mexican and Asian grocery stores. Also in walking distance, that suburban shopping mecca, Target. It is suburbia, ok? But thing that everyone that says ‘Oh I don’t go to the East Valley!’ doesn’t understand is that Mesa has an impressive collection of ethnic restaurants, all hidden, of course, in a strip mall.
Hodori Restaurant. Amazing Korean food, including the bubbling hot soon tofu soup, chased with a tall Hite. At a 15 minute walk from me, so much closer than LA’s KTown.
Pho Thuan Thanh. The place may have inattentive and hostile service, but it also has a fantastic shrimp paste and tomato soup with blood sausage.
UnPhoghettable. Fragrant fish pho that comes with a stink warning and the crispiest chicken wings in town.
I could go on, but every sprawling suburban block has yet another gem Asian or Latin American restaurant hidden in the middle of it. A Scandinavian cafe I’ve meant to visit for ages. A Filipino restaurant serving all the nasty bits. More places for raspados, tortas, pan de dulce, and paletas than I could ever eat. All of them ten or fifteen minutes from my home. You only think of this kind of variety of ethnicities in such a small area as existing in large cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco. And it’s not Phoenix that has them here, it’s little ol’ Mesa.
What does the very hip CenPho (Central Phoenix) have? Oh, so very many coffee shops.
Two things I hate wasting, glass containers and citrus peel. Nothing easier than making lemon oil.
Wash and dry lemons. With a peeler, take off the skin, avoiding the bitter white pith. Place the peel in a steralized and dry glass jar or bottle. Microwave the jar or bottle for 30-45 seconds to do this.
Fill the jar with olive oil 3/4 of the way. Fill a small saucepan 1/2 way with water. Place the jar or bottle in the pan, uncovered. Simmer gently for 15 minutes.
Cool the oil completely before covering. Strain out the peel if desired. Use within one month, storing in a dark, cool place, or in the fridge.
Cherry season is a delight to me, a preciously short part of the year when these plump little fruits are plentiful and cheap.
2 pints cherries, pitted
2 cups sugar
1 cup pomegranate vinegar
1 cup water
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Peel of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Place the pitted cherries in clean pint sized mason jars. Bring the remaining ingredients to a boil, and cook until it forms a light syrup. Pour the syrup into the jars, sealing with a sterilized lid. Hot process in a water bath for 12 minutes.
Alternately, cook the cherries in the syrup until they are softened. Cool and refrigerate, using within a month.
Pete Wells, restaurant critic for the NY Times, coined a new term to cover the current trend in high end cuisine, of visually appealing but tasteless food: Camera Cuisine.
Picture ready food, clinically arranged by color, texture, for shine and visual appeal, not for flavor. Expensive and artistic, plates requiring twelve touches to finish, minutes to finish, and as Wells points out, are lukewarm at best. Chef’s copying the visual style of Redzepi, without the understanding of this visual being informed by his physical environment, not just his own artistic sensibilities. This is much like chefs taking up an ethnic cuisine without having an understanding of the culture that produced it. The food may be technically correct, but the heart of it will never be there.
My own experience with this type of cuisine is limited, having stayed away from it purposely, but my exposure to it left me as cold as the food itself. Layering plates with thinly shaved raw turnips and radishes over carpaccio, micro-sorrel, everything undressed, unseasoned. I’ve worked for more than one chef that would gladly throw a flaming sauté pan at my head for placing undressed greens on a plate.
It takes a special kind of person to respond with bright enthusiasm at a request for an order of gusanos de maguey, but hell, he may have thought it takes a crazy sort of person to make such a request so far away from the southern Mexico, where the dish hails from. But perhaps years of Anthony Bourdain / Bear Grylls all-day beer-accompanied marathons have finally gotten to me. I decided to ignore the years of bias against some of the stranger culinary traditions of my home country, and bite into a worm.
Or larvae to be exact. The red larvae of the Hypopta agavis, known in Spanish as gusano de maguey, chinicuil or tecol, a larvae that burrows into and eats away the heart of the agave, fattening up and waiting to hatch. In pre-Columbian times, this was the food of emperors; nowadays, it is perhaps just as rarefied and consumed at high end restaurants in Mexico City and southern Mexico, due to it’s high cost and growing scarcity.
Presented with a small bowl filled with salt, ground seasoned chiles and two small red larvae, the presence of this tiny bit of protein was disturbing, the salt and ground chile clinging to them, accentuating their delicate ridges. They looked so awfully fresh and alive, seeming as if they would squirm away when sprinkled with a bit of lime juice from the wedges paired with them. Had I not known they are mostly eaten lightly sauteed, (while alive, of course, and yes! they plump when you cook them!), I would have fully thought they were still alive and squirming, despite being far from the heart of an agave. This is the point in the story in which sucking it up, getting over years screwing up my face and thinking gusanos, gusanos, gusanitos…. and not being able to get over the apparent grossness of the food, have to be let go off. Or I could walk away from the tiny challenge like a culinary coward. I don’t think so… I’ve eaten White Castle. Clearly, I’ve put worse things in my mouth.
With a splash of lime, and a swift scoop of salt, ground chile and two tiny and terrifying larvae, down they went, chewed once or twice… and experiencen nothing worse than a spicy salt lick with a decisive crunch. I may as well have bitten into air, but quickly felt the need for another order. Maybe I missed something? No, again it was crunch with just the slightest bit of flufly filling, more reminiscent of a french fry than a strange and offensive piece of protein.
Far more rewarding to my taste bubs were the red chapulin, cricket, that was offered after my round of larvae. Piled high on a neatly cut square of banana leaf, the tiny crickets glistened red with chile. At this point there was no need to hesitate. Lime juice, fork, and straight in, with a satisfying crunch and spice, not unlike that of a chile spiked potato chip. Who would have thought bugs and larvae taste and eat like a potato?
The second bite was a far less delicate one, using the banana leaf square as a cricket slide of sorts, shaking every crunchy morsel in. Just a warning: be sure to check your teeth after eating the crickets. Bits of the exoskeleton have a tendency to stick.
Originally published in Chow Bella, August 19th, 2013.
Some days life needs a spicy kick to every mouthful. And when your nightly supper becomes something along the lines a sandwich made entirely out of a slice of processed cheddar wrapped around two slices of cheap turkey deli meat, eaten while foraging through the fridge for some other edible, non-beer item - and yes, ok also while drinking a beer - a hunk of spicy, vinegary home pickled jalapeño might just make that open fridge door a bit more interesting.
Jalapeño peppers some of the most suitable for pickling for having flesh that is neither too thin, such as habaneros, or too thick, such as poblanos. The jalapeño burn varies greatly, but the classic escabeche mix of carrots and onions, with the addition of squash, cauliflower, or turnips, can create the taste of mild chiles, and mouth-searing carrots.
Two points of advice for home-made pickled jalapeños: distilled water and latex gloves. Do you want your chiles sitting in that same grime you see building up on the walls of your shower? I think not. And speaking of showers, taking a shower after bare hand contact with a pound or more of hot chiles, even hours afterwards? Ouch… Wear gloves!
1 pound jalapeno peppers
2 medium carrots
1 medium white onion
1 or 2 Mexican grey squash
2 cups distilled water
2 cups distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon whole black pepper
½ teaspoon Mexican oregano
½ teaspoon coriander seed
A piece of cheesecloth
Wash the jalapeños and squash thoroughly. Cut the top off the chile, then cut in half lengthwise. If the chile is particularly long, cut into two on the bias. Peel carrot, and cut into ¼” thick rounds, cutting the carrot in half lengthwise depending on the size. Cut off the ends of the squash, and remove any bruised pieces. Cut into quarters lengthwise, and cut into ¼” pieces. Cut the top and bottom off the onion, peel, cut in half, and cut into ¼” inch sticks.
Place all the spices inside a large enough piece of cheesecloth to contain them. This step is optional but highly recommended, as it makes removing the garlic cloves from the end result easier. Bring the vinegar, distilled water, kosher salt and spice bundle to a boil in a large enough pot to contain the liquid and all the vegetables. Allow to boil for approximately 5 minutes, to cook out some of the harshness of the vinegar. Add the jalapeños and carrots to the pot, cooking for an additional 6 minutes. Add the squash and onion, and turn off the heat. Pour the by now very fragrant mixture into a glass container (also highly recommended but not necessary) and place in the refrigerator to cool, uncovered.
Originally published in Chow Bella, May 27th, 2013.