Taqueria Guadalajara had a different vibe than the first two stops on our taco tour of the Mission. The biggest difference was that there were more hipsters. Despite that fact, we stayed.
Sometimes guacamole has a watery texture, and I like it. That was case with the guac at Taqueria Guadalajara. The guacamole was fresh and cooling, with just the right ratio of fruit to heat, salt, citrus, and lilly family (garlic, onion). The pico de gallo was watery in a bad way, but the salsa verde was as light and fiery as the blast from an alien's ray gun. The chips were on the stale side, and made me long for the fresh tortillas at Rancho Grande.
Good guacamole is so different from bad guacamole, which is often marked by the addition of sour cream, blue and yelow dye, and sometimes has no actual avocado.
The good stuff is so rich, so fatty, it's no wonder the word "guacamole" comes comes from the Nuahatl for "testicle sauce."
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
I was excited to see a taco de nopales on the menu, having developed a fondness for eating cacti ever since spending a month in Colorado some years ago. Their gooey texture reminds me of okra, and it makes sense that people in hot, arid climates have incorporated these juicy plants into their diet. I was also relieved that at least one of our tacos that night would have something in it that didn't have to be slaughtered.
(Note the forks!) Tangy, slimy and tasty, this was the only taco I had in the Mission that was built atop a fresh, handmade tortilla. We broke the rules and also got a pupusa, because who doesn't want a pupusa? I, for one, wish that I was eating one right now.
The cook confirmed my suspicions about the floppy thing hanging above the range: they use the heat from the stove to dry out pork skin before frying it into chicharrones. The woman working the juice bar handed me a sample, and I quickly realized that it was the crunchiest, and loudest, thing that I will ever eat.
Monday, January 28, 2008
Things taste better when you're in a good mood. This tea is smooth and a rush of sweetness hits your tongue just after the liquor does. I was smiling immediately, but maybe it was for other reasons. I have enough in the sample package to brew it a few more times. Maybe I'll wait until I'm pissed off and see if it is still as smooth.
While visiting San Francisco's Mission district, Elise and I decided to take a local friend up on a thorough tour of the area's infamous taquerias. We went to as many as we could before they closed for the night, all three of us sharing one taco at each locale. Saving our disposable silverware from the first stop, we did a good deed for the environment and developed what proved to be the best way to tour a neighborhood: with outstretched fork in hand.
Our first stop was the Taqueria Vallarta. The large sit-down section was packed, but there were even more people standing in line for a quick bite at the specially designed grill by the door. From above, the grill would look like a wagon wheel, each spoke representing a divider separating different fillings. The center was thereby kept clear for warming tortillas, which were rapidly filled with different kinds of meat, doused in grilled onions and sauce, and sprinkled with cilantro, more raw onion, and served with a lime wedge. We ordered an al pastor.
The flavor was fantastic and made even better by the strong accoutrements, though the texture was a little chewy. While it tasted great, I know how tender such slowly cooked meat can be, and was a little disappointed, though only in that aspect. We discussed the "pastoral" origins of the dish and the general (and thankful) disappearance of those hard shelled tacos we'd each grown up with on "taco nights" in our respective homes. As with all good taquerias, the price was inconsequential.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Raw pu-er that has fermented into maturity is prohibitively expensive. It is slightly more affordable to drink a raw tea that has matured just enough to mellow and remind you what fermentation does. 5 years of aging has replaced the bitterness of new tea with a pronounced sweetness. The tobacco has mellowed out without disappearing and you can taste the range of flavors in a way that young tea doesn't allow. I'm tempted to buy an entire cake and drink this all the time.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
I'm fighting off a bit of a cold today, so this young raw pu-er complements some ginger tea and raw garlic. My taste buds are a bit off, but I've had it a few times already so I can go from memory. What's striking is just how dark the leaves are. While most young pu-er looks golden and autumnal, the dry leaves of this look, well, purple. (Follow the link and check out the pictures, you'll see.) I initially thought that it was cooked so I was surprised to see it produce a cloudy yellow liquor. Tastewise it is pleasant but unremarkable. Its mellowness makes it easy to drink, and the characteristic tobacco flavor is present though it is weak and accompanied by almost no bitterness.
Monday, January 21, 2008
I should say first that beans, like cantaloupe and sweet potatoes, are among those things that I have forced myself to like because they are good for me - and because I read disliking foods as childish and annoying. The job is done for both cantaloupe (it's better with a little salt) and yam (I like them best with Indian flavors), but I still don't get too excited about a mess o' beans. I got a big push, however, in the right direction last week: I ordered a sampler of heirloom beans from ranchogordo.com, which sells about 20 types of dried 'heirloom and heritage' beans.
I'm willing to allow that I may be more inclined to like these pedigreed beans because I'm a fool for food marketing, but they really do seem to be a better bean: The Runner Cannellini was creamier and more deeply flavored than a typical cannellini. I stewed them a bit with a mirepoix, kale, lemon, and veggie broth, then poured that around a piece of seared tuna. Everyone seemed pleased - more later on the rest of the shipment: I'm thinking a ham and bean soup on Thursday night...
First came the oysters.
My principal taste of the famed Chez Panisse could not have been less impressive. I was shocked at how cold and flavorless these were. While immaculate in their presentation, I couldn't get over how much better the oysters are that I buy in a parking lot behind a post office at a Somerville Farmer's Market. Elise thought they might have been sweet and subtle, but try as I might, I simply couldn't taste them.
Next came a cauliflower puree with black truffle oil.
Musky, savory, and smooth, it was everything the oysters weren't. We experiment with cauliflower puree quite often, but it had never occurred to me to add a flavor as radical as truffles. The vegetal taste of that famously pale brassica was perfectly matched by the dank funk of the oil.
Our third appetizer was a Dungeness crab salad over shaved fennel and blood orange and grapefruit slices.
The fruit reminded me of the high quality backyard citrus I took for granted growing up in South Florida. The shreds of meat was expertly mixed: some sweet, some gamy, implying that the chef had thought to include different "cuts" of crab.
Waiting for the main course, we had time to savor the excellent Acme "Upstairs" sourdough, and the house wine, Green & Red Zinfandel, prepared specially for C.P. by the Chiles Mill Vineyard of Napa.
For the main course, I had a local rock cod blasted in the wood fire oven along with new potatoes, leek, and beets, served with an aioli. I was told by a friend and former C.P. reservationist to get anything cooked in the oven, and was glad that I did.
The fish had a nicely roasted brown top and the vegetables were delicate and simple, especially the tiny potatoes. These contrasted well with the leek, which had become a savory, tubular mush in the intensity of the hearth. Somehow, the aioli was even better than aioli normally is.
I was even impressed by the shape of the fillet, which was not the clean, symmetrical block that every other restaurant is too afraid not to offer. I received that customary piece as well as a scraggly, barely attached secondary hunk. It seemed a metaphor for the restaurant itself. Just because the ingredients are local, it doesn't mean that you're going to miss out on anything. In fact, you'll get more than you're used to. Chez Panisse: it's not just a block - it's a block plus a hunk.
Elise ordered the duck with homemade pasta and mushrooms. I was surprised when her plate came out without a showy, handsome leg. Instead, the three main ingredients came in equal proportions, as though the duck was no more important than the humble pasta. They rested in a shallow pool of rich broth which we were all too happy to sop up when nothing solid remained.
For dessert, Elise ordered the chocolate pave with hazelnut flecked whipped cream. I mean it as a compliment when I say it was the finest brownie you can imagine, topped with an extremely delicate yet crunchy crust.
I had the huckleberry and pear crisp.
My only prior experience with crisps had been when someone who doesn't know how to make a pie wants to put too much sugar on fruit. This dish maintained the rustic personality of the crisp without succumbing to any of its pitfalls: overly sweet, poor quality fruit, homogeneous texture, and limp crumb. The topping actually was crisp, the pear not at all too sweet and with its grainy texture intact, and the huckleberry was almost masculine, spreading its strong flavor and color throughout the filling.
The meal had come a long way since the oysters. I was deeply satisfied, even though I had never spent as much money on any one meal. Nor had I sat at table for two and half hours, eager and alert for every minute of it.
Thanks to Chez Panisse's commitment to local cuisine, we bought more than food with our money. We also made a contribution to the highly visible cornerstone of a culinary movement. One with farmers, communities, and the preservation of food culture and the environment in mind. We also probably bought a little more duck fat than we realized.
We were very happy with our choice of the cafe over the restaurant. Unbound by the prix fixe, we got everything we wanted and experienced twice as many dishes. Next time I'll go for the full dining experience of the downstairs restaurant, and you'll certainly read about it when I do.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Yes, it was. Philz is perhaps the only place in the world where you have to answer the question "floral or earthy?" at 7am. Not a coffee drinker for some years now, I've recently been intrigued into few mugs by reading "Coffee: A Dark History." Philz's was indeed dark, and also earthy and rich, with aspects of smoke and minerals. If I lived there, I'd be interested in going to one of their tastings. I'd also have to be careful to go often enough to show my support, but not so often that it put my body into shock. The caffeine had me dancing through San Francisco.
This was one of many thrilling food experiences while visiting the Bay Area last week. Stay tuned for "Mission: Taco" and "A Meal At the Chez Panisse Cafe."
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
When I went home over Christmas, I didn't bring any Dan Cong and I was surprised how much I missed it. I had spent the days before the trip tasting several and gotten used to their strong and soothing flavors. Karen gave me some excellent Dan Cong for Christmas, and Imen included a few samples, so this is by no means my last Dang Cong post, but it does conclude the series that I started a few weeks ago. According to the description, the gold medalist honey orchid is harvested and processed one tree at a time. I'm not sure exactly what this does for a tea, but the thing that strikes me here is how clean the flavors are. This honey flavor isn't as rich as the other honey orchid, but its cleanliness allows me to focus on its subtleties. The honey flavor is accompanied by a juicy sweetness. The tea is undoubtedly strong, as the flavors have yet to subside over 5 infusions and it certainly can make being inside on a snowy day pleasant.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Saturday, January 12, 2008
This raw pu-er from Rishi starts as a tightly compressed tuo cha and slowly unwinds to reveal silver pu-er buds. This is the only pu-er I've had that consists wholly of buds, rather than leaves, and it shows. The tea is sweet and fruity, though fairly thick. If I were ignorant, I'd guess that it was a white tea. It has staying power: it didn't really get going until the 6th infusion and it is still going strong as of the 9th. Definitely an interesting tea, though perhaps not quite worth the steep price tag.
Friday, January 11, 2008
This was certainly the easiest recipe I've made, and perhaps the easiest I've heard of. We expect no less from Bittman. Just get a cast-iron skillet really really hot and put the mussels in. They open up and release their juices, which they then steam in. Throw a little salt and pepper in and serve them in the pan. They're juicy and a bit smoky. A perfect appetizer.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Pu-er isn't the only fermented tea I keep around. I have a little Kombucha factory in the corner of my kitchen where 2 gallons are always in the works. It is a little exciting to know that there's a living thing in the corner of your kitchen, eating away at sugar and caffiene in order to reproduce. Also, if you wait long enough the kombucha gets fizzy. As you can see, I use tea bags for my Kombucha. This is the only reason I use them anymore: you just can't beat the convenience. The Kombucha flavor takes over anyway. (If you don't know what Kombucha is, click here.)
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
After hours of roasting the leaves didn't look too different, so I assumed they wouldn't taste too different either. I was wrong. The Bi Lo Chun has taken on an entirely new character. Surprisingly, there is almost no roasted taste at all. Instead, there is quite a bit of seaweed-ish richness that actually reminds me of a sencha. This starts to wane after the first infusion and it is replaced with a nuttiness that is characteristic of Bi Lo Chun, but was missing in this tea pre-roasting. Imen says that the tea will continue to change for a week or so, so I'll check back soon. I have the faint feeling that I've violated some taboo by roasting Bi Lo Chun, but I enjoy the post-roasted version much more than its pre-roasted counterpart.
Okay, I realize that from the photo this looks like vanilla ice-cream with strawberry sauce, but it is actually coeur à la crème, a dessert that is not much harder to make than whipping cream but is a showstopper if you have the heart-shaped mould. Maybe I'll buy it for next time? It's made much like a cheesecake, cream together cream cheese and confectioner's sugar (called icing sugar in Canada), then switch to the whisk attachment on your mixer and add vanilla, lemon zest, and more heavy cream (called whipping cream in Canada) than is decent and whip it all together. Then into the fridge overnight wrapped in a cheese cloth and sitting in a sieve until it sets. So yummy--and my first experience using a cheese cloth, which was super fun. I also made the strawberry sauce--Bon Maman Strawberry Preserves, strawberries cooked in water and sugar and a little bit of Grand Marnier in the food processor. I would make it a little less sweet next time since the preserves were already pretty sweet, but this was for Peter's birthday and he has the sweetest tooth of anyone I know.
One thing that came out of this dessert was a conversation about differences in dairy and sugar products in the US and Britain / British colonies. Peter is from the Bahamas and claims that there are dairy products with even more fat than heavy cream and things like castor sugar that you can't really get in the US, which means that there are desserts you can't really make. I believe it--during my brief year in the UK I did consume more different kinds of dairy than ever in my life, and when I moved to the US I was uncertain as to whether heavy cream would whip since I had only known it as whipping cream in Canada.... This is a question that merits further investigation I think--and maybe an experiment in making clotted cream?
Tacos Lupita probably has more dishes that fit my "Perfect Food" criteria than any other in Somerville, if not the whole US. That means there are plenty of items that meet all of the following requirements: regional, unprocessed, locally made, under two dollars, and good.
The best way to do Tacos Lupita is to go with a few friends and order one of everything. Then, on subsequent visits, you can pop in for your whatever you liked best. On this occasion, I had a tamale and a mulita de lengua (tongue). Large and stuffed with chicken, potatoes and, surprisingly, chick peas, the tamales are extremely filling and comforting. I eat one whenever nothing that I make at home will do the trick.
I liked my meal at Tacos Lupita so much that I forgot to take a picture of it, and it was only once I had wandered outside, slightly dazed and full of different preparations of cornmeal, that I snapped this pic. But if you're feeling over-gorged after a T.L. feast, just go next door to Tea Zone, the yin to Tacos Lupita's yang. There you can have a freshly brewed cup of any tea in the house, and it's the perfect digestive compliment to all that otherwise Perfect Food you ate.
Monday, January 7, 2008
A few days ago I finally made time for a home roasting experiment. I used a Bi Lo Chun that I have a lot of and don't love. I really just wanted to see what roasting would do to it. I put a single, even layer of tea at the bottom of my crock pot and set it to low. The tea roasted for about 4 hours and I tossed it around occasionally. It smelled nutty and grassy. As for the taste... more to come in my exciting next post.
This might be antithetical to the spirit of this blog, but I will confess that my mom and I are always looking for showy desserts that aren't too much work to make. This one was a winner--Pear and Gingerbread cake from Canadian Living magazine--basically butter and sugar creamed together, all the spices you would put in a gingerbread cookie (ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg) and some hot water to dissolve them, and of course, flour. Then some pears artfully arranged on top. All in all it took less than half an hour to get into the oven, and the result was a nicely spiced gingerbread dough and a moistish cake that meant that even those who don't enjoy the brittleness of some gingerbread could enjoy this treat. The sweetness of the pears was lovely with the spiciness of the gingerbread. We served it with whipped cream. It helps with the presentation if you have a nice cake stand--even the easiest dessert looks impressive on a cake stand. I may make this again for my reading group. An added bonus is that it keeps well.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
My last Indian white is grapey with some honey. An excellent evening choice: low of caffeine and relaxing. Indian whites have such a different profile than Chinese whites, they are a bit louder and fruitier. I wonder what it is that makes the difference. It is clearly nice tea, though not something I'd buy again.
I'd been in the mood for squid ever since watching Korean monster film The Host. Though most of the movie is about a squid-like monster eating humans, in more than one scene we see humans eating squids in a poignant reversal that begs the question: who is the real monster? (According to the movie, the answer seems to be "Americans.") Either way, it made me want to eat squid. Unfortunately the presentation at Kame in Beverly, MA was nicer than the squid, which was too chewy. But so are humans...
I'm no baker, but a new year of dinner parties has begun, and tonight I am providing a dessert for dinner at my editor's house. So I'll turn to an old favorite, which is a classic - it appears in my Cordon Bleu book as 'Lemon Surprise' - but may now be becoming a bit trendy, according to my unscientific poll of menus in restaurant windows. The description is lengthy, but it's terribly easy, and when you're done, you've got - surprise! - little cakes with pudding on the bottom!
Softened butter for the ramekins
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon table salt
1-1/4 cups whole milk, at room temperature
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice, at room temperature
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
how to make
Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Butter eight ramekins and arrange them in a baking dish.
In a large bowl, whisk the melted butter with 2/3 cup of the sugar and the egg yolks until smooth and light, about 1 minute. Add the flour and salt and pour in just enough milk to whisk the flour smoothly into the egg yolk mixture. Then whisk in the remaining milk and the lemon juice until smooth. The mixture will be very fluid.
Put the egg whites in a large bowl. Beat to medium-firm peaks, adding remaining 1/3 c. sugar at the soft peak stage. Scrape one-third of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture, sprinkle the lemon zest on top, and whisk until combined. Gently incorporate the remaining whites into the batter, using the whisk in a folding/stirring motion. The batter will still be thin.
Portion the mixture evenly among the ramekins; the cakes don’t rise much, so you can fill the ramekins to within 1/8 inch of the top. Pull out the oven rack and put the baking dish full of ramekins on the rack. Pour warm water into the dish to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until the tops of the cakes are light golden and slightly puffed, and when touched with a finger, they should feel spongy and spring back a bit but hold a shallow indentation, 25 to 30 minutes. Using tongs, carefully transfer the ramekins to a rack. Let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours before serving, with whipped cream if you like.
Friday, January 4, 2008
As predicted, I couldn't resist plopping $5 down at the supermarket despite being burned in the past. Ten Ren Tea is ubiquitous, with stores in multiple states, malls, and continents, as well as a website that prominently features their business model. This made me pessimistic.
The tea itself is nice and honey-ish. It is not complex at all but it does have staying power. It can go strong through 6 or so infusions: not bad for a supermarket tea. Drinking decent Oriental Beauty is fun because it is a better version of so much bad tea that I've had in Chinese restaurants. Not too bad for a $5 investment.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
A cross between tea and trail mix, this blend by Somerville's own Tea Zone is really, really fruity. Sometimes during these bleak months I crave the deep color red and non-chewable vitamin-C pill flavor of a sour, fruit tea. This was full of all kinds of crazy flavors, and it was fun to drink. It also gave me a chance to try out the super-macro feature on my new camera. Mr. Teaandfood, imagine the leaf shots you could get!
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Our friend Dr. Jonathan Dworkin "discovered" this drink during a stint with a traditional medicine practitioner in Hawaii. I decided I would try it whenever I had some leaves on hand, and the perfect opportunity presented itself while pruning an indoor avocado sapling given to me after it sprouted in a friend's compost heap in Vermont.
I covered two dry leaves with almost boiling water and let steep about seven minutes. The liquor was a smooth and rich, golden-green drink with a noticeable calming effect.
Blinded by the fruit, we often ignore the full range of a plant's possibilities. We're never more than a stone's throw away from a cup of coffee, yet few of us have ever tasted amertassa or kuti, the green and black equivalents of coffee leaf tea. Or kish'r, the drink made from the coffee cherry itself. Nor have we simply eaten the coffee cherry, which some say has flavors of watermelon and jasmine.
Drinking a.l.t. helped me better understand the avocado itself. What an all around soothing and sensual experience it is to eat that fruit, in terms of texture, color, flavor and even temperature. There are many uses for different parts of the plant, including the seed, which is used to treat both snakebite and unwanted pregnancy. Fortunately, I had no need of testing its powers as a vermifuge.
When I surveyed my bag of travel tea I discovered that many odds and ends ended up in the bag precisely because I don't love them. One exception was a small bag of 1999 loose leaf pu-er that I bought in the wake of loving the broken nugget pu-erh. The 1999 ripe tea quickly became my travel favorite and I brewed nearly every evening for 11 days. As a result, I got to know it quite well. It hits its peak at about brew 4 which produces a rich and sweet liquor that quickly relaxes me. As instructed, I patiently waited for the tea to cool and was rewarded with some additional woodiness. Curious about my habit, my parents began requesting tea after meals and I routinely brewed this for them. Both enjoyed it and, I think, will continue to drink pu-er, at least when I'm around.
Happy new year.
Tuesday, January 1, 2008
In a rush to replace my buttercream, I hastily piped the castaway chocolate-marred meringue into mushrooms. They went into the oven alongside my pristine white mushrooms, just for the sake of experiment. The straight-up meringues gradually dried, crisped, and ultimately bore a texture reminiscent of packaging material. The chocolate meringue dried almost instantly on the outside, yet retained a soft gooey center even as the plain mushrooms turned to hockey pucks. These delicious mushrooms reminded me of a French macaroon, without the chewy grit of ground almond. A week later (as I gave in and polished off the last of the mushrooms) they were still gooey inside.
The crowning bit of decor is this mini Totoro, a shoutout to Studio Ghibli (and to my girlfriend, who loves Totoro). I warmed up a wad of marzipan and wrapped it around a hunk of Valrhona gianduja. Dried cranberries went in the top for ears and the whole thing got dipped in dark chocolate and rolled in confectioners' sugar. The eyes are disks of milk and dark chocolate. It came together haphazardly, in between other steps of cakemakery, but was delicious nonetheless. We cut 'im open and compared him to a Mozartkugel. Totoro, unsurprisingly, was the winner.