Thursday, August 24, 2006

Peruvian ceviche

Initiation to an unfamiliar culture often occurs via food. On recent visits to a farmers' market in South Pasadena to take photos for a Food Destinations write-up, a stand named The Happy Inka kept tugging at my eyes. Wanting to know more I looked up Wikipedia and was surprised to learn that hitherto little-known Peruvian cuisine has recently exploded on the world gastronomic scene. This seemed worth exploring. On the next visit I made a beeline for the stand to peruse the several dishes plated for display.

There were basically two dishes, the first being a choice of shrimp, pork, chicken or beef saltado, a type of stir-fry with tomatoes, onions and the distinctly Peruvian aji amarillo, or yellow chile, and splash of vinegar. Lomo saltado (beef tenderloin), usually eaten mixed with rice and fried potatoes, is a Peruvian classic. The second was chaufa, a type of fried rice with the same choice of meats, eggs and scallions, seasoned with soysauce in addition to the aji. I tried the shrimp chaufa and it was delicious.

Both saltado and chaufa reflect cooking techniques and products bought to Peru by Chinese immigrants. Peruvian cooking, I learned through further readup on Epicurious, is the ultimate fusion cuisine, a spicy hybrid of Andean food mixed with Spanish, African, Italian, Chinese and Japanese influences.

Indeed, at the bottom of the menu I spotted ceviche, Peru's flag dish and epitome of that blend: aquatic resources from Peru's Pacific coast, Inca hot peppers, onion and citrus from Spain, the Japanese approach to preparing fish. I asked for a pint of ceviche de pescado, which was fished out of an icebox. The opposing contrast of ice cold lime marinade and fiery hotness of chile shook me out of any lingering summer langour. The opaque morsels of cured white fish were but distant cousins to Japanese sliced raw fish; the flavors were much stronger and sharper than the original. None of the easy familiarity between shoyu and sashimi, like that of a longtime husband and wife; ceviche is fraught with tension of strangers in co-existence that does not allow complacency.

Preparation is elemental. Just combine the ingredients and watch the transformation.

Peruvian Ceviche (serves 6)

-2 pounds of lean, white fish such as sea bass or snapper
-juice of a dozen squeezed limes, approximately 1 cup
- tablespoon of aji amarillo paste, or several good shakes of Tabasco sauce
-1/2 purple onion, thinly sliced

Cut the fish into smallish cubes. Place in a bowl and cover with lime juice. Mix in salt, chile paste and onion slices. Wrap and refridgerate for at least 6 hours until the fish is "cooked" -- it should look white and nearly opaque. It is important to use the lime juice immediately after squeezing or there will not be enough acidic content for proper curing. In any case, it is best to use sashimi-grade fish.
(This recipe is but a blueprint. Experiment by substituting the limes with lemons and oranges, adding diced tomatoes or red pepper for color and crunch, garnishing with chopped cilantro or popcorn.)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Farmers' market in South Pasadena

Last week's Food section in Los Angeles Times proclaimed, "Luscious, at last!" reporting the summer peak in California produce and the astonishing bounties witnesssed at farmers' markets: "piles of peaches and nectarines, mounds of melons, tomatoes of every color, eggplants, squashes, cucumbers and all kinds of berries." I had to go see this for myself. Off I went to the nearest one in my neighborhood -- the South Pasadena Farmers' Market.

My first impression was one of confusion and disappointment. Instead of the dizzying mosaic of vegetable and fruit vendors, butcher stands, cheese stands, honey and spice stalls of my old neighborhood market in France, here I encountered a T-shaped alley with the longer stretch lined with stands selling street food. Thinking how typically American that the "greenmarket" should have more fast foods then fresh produce, I directed myself towards the shorter stretch where a few farmer stands stood scattered here and there.

One did indeed see piles of peaches and tomatoes of all colors. But the fruit stands resembled a discount sale, with buyers pawing through the mountain of peaches, casting aside the bruised ones, grabbing and filling plastic bags in bulk. A contrast to France where you would patiently stand in line for your turn, then say what you wanted and for when, whereupon the vendor would touch, sniff the fruit in question before choosing what would be ready to eat that evening, or in three days, before deftly wrapping it up in brown paper.

I went over to the tomatoe guy. Taking a pocket knife he cut for me a slice of the monstrously large and orange-colored "mango" tomatoe which, contrary to its great looks, tasted flat. The LA Times article had waxed poetic about the "grandeur" of these heirloom tomatoes, their perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, their indescribably savoury quality. All this eluded me.

More and more I was beginning to feel about the market the way I feel about LA in general, how there is a lag between image and reality. I thought about a recent friend's visit, how we kept driving along the freeways, from one place to the next but no matter what I showed her -- shops and cafes in Beverly Hills, neighborhoods around Melrose Place, even the Hollywood sign -- there was always a sense of letdown, these places looming so much larger in popular imagination and myths. In response to our frusteration though, somebody told us that LA is less a place than a state of mind. California, I remembered Pico Iyer writing in The Global Soul, encourages transcendence precisely because its surfaces are hollow.

Griller at Robin's Woodside BBQ, laconic amidst the smoky fires.

Corn on the cob grilled in their husks, popular with children. My favorite condiment was lime & chile pepper.

Hispanic flavor: tamales wrapped in corn husks, churros dusted with cinnamon and sugar, as well as Peruvian and Salvadoran specialties such as pupusas (small cornmeal pancakes filled with cheese, beans, pork.)

I decided to change tack and take an inventory of street foods offered. I watched the people having picnics in the grassy areas and decided to join the fray, getting a corn grilled in its husk and a hotdog for my daughter. The sun was setting and the warm air was filled with laughter and a festival atmosphere. It dawned on me that this is what the market was about -- not so much a place to buy fresh provisions but more a celebration of summer, an idea of barbeques and corn on the cob and biting into a giant peach, never mind the juices running down, a simulacrum if you like, or a nostalgic representation rendered all the more poignant since the season was in its final throes, with back to school sales just around the corner.

The unreality of places with synthetic surfaces, acording to Iyer, can have advantages over those with seductive ones ( ie quality and artistry of French markets) and I suspect he may be right. In the end it's the invisible things that make us feel at home.

The Farmers' Market in South Pasadena is located on Mission Street and Meridian Avenue. Every Thursday from 4-8 pm, rain or shine.

"It's a California Thing"

Sunday, August 13, 2006

mango mania

I love mangoes. I love its shiny green red-tinged skin, its seductive kidney shape, its intoxicating odor and orange yellow melting flesh. The markets are bursting with ripe mangoes at the moment and the other day on a splurge I bought an entire crate of about a dozen of the Kent variety.

The first phase of mango mania consisted of eating them fresh: slicing off two sides along the flat oblong pit, cutting through the fruit lengthwise and crosswise then turning the skin outside in so that cubes pop out and form "hedgehogs." They make a great breakfast; I love the combination of its buttery sweetness and bitterness of coffee.

Then came the frozen phase, in the form of sorbet, smoothies (blended with milk and crushed ice) and lassi (with yogurt, a sprinkle of cardammon and ginger added) In the last phase, I had them sweet & savory: sprinkled with chile pepper and salt as the Mexicans do, or as salsa -- delicious piled over seared tuna:

Mango salsa (or sauce, or chutney, or whatever you choose to call it)

Cut into small cubes two ripe mangoes and gently toss with 1/2 white onion, 1/2 red pepper and a bunch of cilantro, chopped. Squeeze over juice of one lime. Season with salt and hot chile pepper. Chill 30 minutes before serving.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

taste test: pasta

People often ask me, so what do you cook at home? I fear they expect effusive descriptions of, say, a fusion of Japanese and French techniques applied to Southern Californian produce, but instead I usually end up mumbling something like "um, ...pasta?"

Which is actually quite true. The two people I cook for daily are both happiest when there is pasta on the table. Plus it is admirably suited to the kind of "all in one dish" meals that makes most sense after a busy day.

Although I am very bad at stocking and typically shop on a day-to-day basis, I do make sure there are always several boxes of dried pasta in the pantry. When buying them I am invariably faced with the dilemma: do I go for the ubiquitous Barilla brand or do I choose a pricier more "artisanal" make? Pasta is pasta; is one type really all that superior to another?

I decided to resolve this question once and for all. I rounded up three different kinds of dried spagetti: the aforementioned Barilla for 1.59$, the Latini mark purchased at an Italian grocer for 4.99$, and Benedetto Cavalieri from William Sonoma's selection at a whopping 7$. I cooked the spagetti according to the designated time for each in salted water and added olive oil before twirling it around a fork. Latini and Cavalieri seemed to have a slightly better taste and texture but not dramatically so. It was only when I swathed the spagetti in a sauce of San Marzano tomatoe and grated Parmigiano that the differences really came to the fore. Latini won hands down.

Probably it had something to do with the surface of Latini's pasta which looked rough and porous in comparison to the smooth and glazed appearance of the other two. When cooked the ridges became barely visible but I think it allowed each strand of pasta to hug the sauce which actually seemed to amplify the flavors, making them deeper and more vibrant.

Intrigued, I started experimenting with the Latini brand. According to their website ( Latini pasta is made from carefully selected varieties of quality Italy-grown wheat. It is slow dried at low temperatures so as to not eradicate molecular structures and preserve the durum's flavors and aromas. It therefore makes sense to use the absoption method in cooking the pasta so as not to lose any of it, or use the pasta water to finish the sauce. Or even, come to think of it, drinking it as a broth as one does with cooking water after eating soba, or is that going too far?

But more than the character of durum wheat, I find compelling this pasta's capacity to valorize the qualities of the sauce with its caressing attention and receptiveness. People are like that too I suppose; Latini is the one who knows how to give love.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Among friends

A few days ago I received in the post a thick envelope of cinnabar red decorated with stylized Chinese characters. Inside was an invitation to a wedding reception to be held in Alsace, hosted by "Mr & Mme Klinger of Druesenheim, France" and "Mr & Mme Bui of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam." My thoughts immediately flew back to last summer, to a garden party, and to Thanh and Christian announcing their engagement.

In retrospect I realize that in the course of five years spent in Strasbourg I cultivated five friendships, Thanh being one of them. Their backgrounds were as diverse as could be (five women of French, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, South-African origin, all whom ended up in Strasbourg for one reason or another) but they shared one thing in common and that was a passion for food -- buying it, preparing it, eating it, offering it, sharing it.

Xiaofei, who hailed from Beijing, was like Thanh -- in Strasbourg she met the man of her life and that person happened to be an Alsatian. Meals chez Eric and Xiaofei reflected that happy fusion: a stir fry of spicy chicken and walnuts served with a galette de pomme de terre on the side, or a plate of chacuterie followed by Chinese-style seafood fondue. At their wedding banquet I took note of the delightful pairing of foie gras and quetsch jam served on toasts of pain d'epice. An even more lasting impression was the surreal tableau of revelers setting up mah jong tables on the illuminated grounds of the chateau.

On Xiaofei's wedding night I met Cristina, of dual Spanish/American nationality, and her boyfriend Michael who worked as a magistrate at the Palais de Justice. They shared a bohemian apartment in the Petit France quarter and had a flair for collecting and connecting people. On her birthday Cristina hosted an evening of tapas and guitar music and got everyone merry on sangrillas. When Michael was posted to Guadeloupe she threw a going-away party with a Carribean theme: roasted chicken spiced with Old Bay-ish seasoning which we ate from plates on our knees piled with rice, avocado and banana slices. In the kitchen I watched her take blanched almonds and shake them in a bag with Tabasco sauce -- a fiery aperitif snack that I haven't stopped making since.

Anya too, from South Africa, had relocated for love. Troy, her husband, was an "engineer of democracy" and she worked tirelessly to help set up his non-profit organization in Strasbourg, seat of the European Parliament. I suspect people attended meetings just as much for Anya's scones and muffins as for Troy's ideals. An avid baker she would make trips across the border to markets in Germany for nuts and grains she couldn't get on the French side. Afternoons with Anya meant Rooibos red tea and addictive grainy chocolate (apparently Cadbury bars from South Africa have a superior taste and texture to the UK product) and leaving with a beautiful loaf of home-baked bread. She also taught me about detoxing after culinary excess with a regimen of fruit and vegetable smoothies.

Sophie, a native of Cannes, had come to Strasbourg for her studies and stayed after getting a job at the Council of Europe. I first met her and her British partner Lee while visiting a maternity clinic. Both expectant mothers-to-be, we bonded instantly. Several months later we each gave birth, to a boy and girl respectively, born one day apart. Sunday afternoon gouters became a tradition; while we chatted about the newly discovered wonders of parenthood Lee would make tea in the way only Englishmen can and on cue Sophie would pull something out of the oven. One day I asked her how she had made the delicious fruit crumble -- she just smiled and remained vague. This was one of the many lessons I got about French women, the first being that they don't give away so easily the secrets of their charms. But then, perhaps it was the Anglo-Saxon infuence of her other half, on the next visit she recited to me the recipe. I think of her whenever I make her almond-based crumble, especially in this season when apricots are abundant.

Back to Thanh. We met during a summer language course and became friendly when she offered to show me the one Asian grocery in town (called Paris Store, for some reason) and to teach me how to make Vietnamese nems. I remember watching with fascination the way she cut open limes (asymetrically, to avoid the seeds falling out when squeezed) and the delicate movements of her fingers as she wrapped shrimp, egg and purple basil in wetted rice paper. At that time she was determined to perfect her French and find what she wanted to do in life. Then she met Christian. At the engagement party, hosted by her adopted French family, tables were laden with arrangements of fruit and flowers as well as a rich array of desserts. I panicked inwardly -- I have an inexplicable aversion to buffets of any kind and usually end up not sampling anything at all. As if reading my thoughts Thanh floated over in her summer dress, pointed to a glass cut bowl and said, "C'est moi qui l'ai fait." If I were to take only one thing, her tone implied, it would be the ginger icecream she had made herself that morning. As always she was right and the ice was divine. Although I probably won't be able to attend her wedding I plan to make a batch on that day.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Paco's tacos

The taco is to Angelenos what the slice of pizza is to Manhattanites; they inspire fanatical loyalty and everyone has a favorite joint.

I was recently initiated to one by Raymond and Lisa, a quintessential LA couple (he works for a digital film lab in Hollywood; she is a sculptress with a studio in Santa Monica) who like good food, frequently eat out and every weekend go to Paco's Tacos.

We had chosen the spot as a meeting point to take a mutual out-of-town friend to the airport and had to rush through a blur of deep fried chips and salty vinegared carrots, a basket of pillowy flour tortillas handmade on the premises. My hastily ordered taco de carnitas arrived as a thick, soft, white corn tortilla holding juicy shreds of roasted pork, but we were running out of time and I wistfully had to wrap it up. (It was still very tasty several hours later in the car.) We will surely be back at Paco's Tacos but in the meantime here is how to make your own:

Prepare the filling:

-skirt steak (often sold as carne asada in West coast supermarkets)
-2 teaspoons of ground cumin
-1 teaspoon of dried oregano
-1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper.

Dry rub the steak with spices and grill, about 3-4 minutes per side.

Warm the corn tortillas, fold in half and fill in the following order:

1) carne asada, cut into strips
2) a handful of something crunchy (shredded iceburg lettuce or cabbage)
3) a spoonful of something creamy (sour cream or guacamole)
4) finally, salsa fresca and maybe crumbled Mexican cheese

For the salsa fresca

2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
1/2 white onion, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon of lime juice
salt to taste

(method adapted from Mark Bittman)

Paco's Tacos Cantina
4141 S. Centinela Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90066
tel. 310-391-9616