City of Angels

 

IMG956076.jpgWhen the girls are older, and we’re done paying for school and daycare, we will travel the world and have culinary adventures. It’s going to be a few years before anything like this happens, but I’ve been working on my list since long before they were born.

It might surprise you to learn that it’s not Europe at the top, but North America. And the top line belongs to Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s in the southwest of the country, and because of its mountains and differing climates, the food there is varied and amazing. Chocolate is grown there, and its best known for its seven moles. I would probably skip the edible insects, though.

I know, there isn’t a ton of Mexican food on my blog, but my dream is to make Chiles en Nogada, minus the pork, in a Mexican village. This summer, I started making my own chilaquiles with the tomatillos Lilli and I would pick at the farm. They were perfect and surprisingly simple to make and I’m sorry I didn’t find the time to blog about them. Next summer, I promise.

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The second destination on my list is Los Angeles. Silver Lake, yes, but also the places that Jonathan Gold writes near-poetry about. I’ve always been about places tucked away. I had a gastronomy professor who used to say to look to a city’s suburbs, where rent is more affordable, especially for newer immigrants trying to run a restaurant.

So when I was contacted and offered the book L. A. Mexicano: Recipes, People & Places by James Beard winner Bill Esparza, I jumped at the opportunity. A book, about Mexican food culture in Los Angeles? Yes, please!

And it’s a wonderful book! Yes, there are recipes, 65 of them. But the book also profiles L.A. Mexicano community activists and politicians. It’s also a guide to L.A.’s best markets, vendors, taquerias, bakeries, and more. It’s essential reading for someone planning a trip to Los Angeles to eat. It’s also a primer on Mexico’s culinary regions, and there’s also a dictionary of Mexican culinary terms. The writing is wonderful and the photos are crisp and vibrant.

Sure, there’s a ton of stuff, like wild boar chilaquiles, that I’m skipping, but I settled on a papaya cream soup to test first. It’s actually not a Oaxacan specialty, but is based on the food served by Mexico City’s grand masters of Mexican haute cuisine, made by modernist chefs using Mexican techniques and ingredients.

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To be honest, I’m not the biggest papaya fan, so I made it with the idea of giving it to my mom, who loves it. It was a lovely soup, light and sweet. And I’d never made a sofrito (onion, celery and green pepper) before. With its additional herbs and spice, it’s a little different than the Holy Trinity of Southern cooking I had to make for the summer vegan jambalaya.

I am not a drinker, so I can’t give you definitive directions on what white wine to use for the sofrito. I think the one I bought was from Portugal and cost $8. I bought my papaya from Trader Joe’s for $3.50. There’s a Mexican store in Hadley I’ve been dying to check out but haven’t had a chance to. Someday soon, I hope.

I’d meant to have this post up before Day of the Dead, so you could have a nice Mexican recipe to celebrate, but a migraine has been hounding me all week. Next year, hopefully.

Papaya Cream Soup from L.A. Mexicano by Bill Esparza

Ingredients

1 papaya, about 3 to 4 pounds, peeled and cut into chunks

½ carrot, peeled and cut into chunks

½ cup Sofrito (recipe follows)

½ cup sugar

5 cups stock (I used Better than Bouillon)

1 cup half and half

Sea salt and white pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat the oven to 450F. Wrap papaya and carrot in aluminum foil with a tight seal and roast in the oven until both ingredients are cooked through, about 30 minutes.

In a medium saucepan, combine papaya, carrot, Sofrito, sugar and stock. Bring to a gentle boil and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour soup into a blender, blend for a minute, and then pour through a strainer back into the saucepan. Whisk in half and half and return the soup to a gentle boil for another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Sofrito This flavor base is useful for many soups, stews and sauces. Consider doubling the recipe to keep more on hand.

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

½ onion, diced

½ stick celery, diced

½ green pepper, diced

1 garlic clove, minced

Pinch of thyme

Pinch of oregano

1 bay leaf

½ cup white wine

Set a medium saucepan over medium heat and add oil, onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic, thyme, oregano and bay leaf. Cook, stirring until onion turns translucent, about 5 minutes. Add wine, increase the heat to simmer briskly, and cook until the sauce reduces, about 5 minutes. Discard bay leaf. This will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for a week or more.

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Return Again

We lost my Great Uncle Harry this year. He really was great. He always had a fun story to tell, or a perfect song to sing. He was a vegetarian and for decades built these wonderful, multilayered Dagwood sandwiches for Shabbat breakfast. We were all lucky enough to visit Uncle Harry and Auntie Julie about two months before he died, because we went to a family reunion in London right around New Year’s. We flew in from Boston; Sylvie, Miriam and Leo flew in from DC; my Cousin Larry and Ashley flew in from New Jersey; and my dad came in from Jerusalem. It was Sylvie’s idea, really. She wanted the kids to meet the British relatives before it was too late — a good call on her part.

Weinbergfest

We were only in London for a couple of days, but we were able to score a table at NoPi. We ordered every vegetable dish on the menu, and a perfect piece of fish. I had a kumquat and passionfruit mocktail and rhubarb Eaton mess. It was everything I wanted it to be. Pro tip: They only have two high chairs in the whole restaurant, and no changing table in their amazing mirrored bathroom, so plan accordingly.

Lilli and I caught something on the plane on the way over, and because I was 20 weeks pregnant and had no immune system, I couldn’t really do much touring. Or stand. Or make conversation. But Rich did get to see a real football match with my cousin Jonah. By the time I made it to my doctor’s office on New Year’s Eve, my temp had spiked to 102.8F. But the trip was still well worth it, and I really miss my Cousin Jenny. Hopefully we’ll get to see Jonah soon; he is in Philadelphia for the year studying at Temple and drinking American beer.

Nopi

It was never the right time to talk about finally eating at Ottolenghi’s restaurant, because it never felt right to talk about Uncle Harry. But it’s Day of the Dead on Sunday, and I’m looking forward to joining my friend Tania and her family for her holiday, so it seems appropriate to honor Harry, as well Rich’s Uncle Tommy and Auntie Ruthie and his professor Svetlana Boym, all of whom we lost far too soon this year.

If I find my blanched almonds in time, I’ll be making this horchata for the occasion. It’s a traditional Mexican sweetened rice drink, and it has become my litmus test of whether a Mexican restaurant is worth my time. Aleza introduced me to the beverage when we stumbled into a real hole in the wall in Williamsburg. This was in 2002, back when there were still holes in walls in Williamsburg.

mirrored bathroom

This particular recipe is from the Ultimate Nachos cookbook, also the cookbook for these pickled red onions I use all the time. The drink is vegan, and you need a blender and an overnight to make it work. Sure, it’s really meant for a hot summer’s day, but I think it will also work at the ofrenda.

Horchata from Ultimate Nachos by Lee Frank & Rachel Anderson

Ingredients

1 cup long-grain rice, rinsed and drained

1 cup blanched almonds

4 cinnamon sticks

1 quart water

¾ cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups ice cubes

Ground cinnamon, to taste

Ingredients

Put the rice, almonds, and cinnamon sticks in a blender. Blend the mixture into a powder.

Add the water, sugar, and vanilla and blend for 90 seconds.

Chill the mixture overnight in the fridge.

Strain the liquid into glasses over ice cubes and serve, sprinkled with ground cinnamon to taste.

Dia de los Muertos

When pressed to name my favorite holiday, I’m a little hesitant to answer. We’ve just had an entire month of really terrific ones which involve really good food and spending time with my family (oh, and praying). Springtime also has some really good ones, but the truth is, the holiday which holds a special place in my heart falls on November 2: Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

In Mexican-Indigenous tradition, there is a belief that our beloved ancestors and loved ones who have passed on – or returned to the source, as the Aztecs viewed it – come back to our world on this day. This return visit is celebrated with memories, blessings, good food and drink, flowers, candles, music, friends, family, and much more.  Every year, my Chicana friend and former neighbor extraordinaire Tania hosts a gathering at her home. Due to a new job she wasn’t able to host one this year, but I took piles of photos last year. I’m so happy to be able to share them with you.

Tania starts preparing for the feast long before the actual day. I’ve been lucky enough to join her and her family around the kitchen table to hand-stuff masa, a corn dough, into corn husks for tamales, a Mexican dish prepared for special occasions. She stuffs and folds hundreds of tamales, some vegetarian and some with chicken, which she then steams in huge pots on the stove. (Tania tells me that it’s traditionally made with lard, but luckily she is not an animal eater. Score one for the Jews!)

Tamales

On the evening of November 2, we arrive at her home. Bill, Tania’s wonderful husband, always prepares a trail of flower petals, which helps our beloved relatives find their way to the ofrenda, the community alter. The ofrenda is covered in pictures and symbolic memories; Tania always leaves out a cloth and water so our ancestors can wash their hands and do a little freshening up.

On top of the hundreds of tamales, Tania also prepares many more traditional Mexican dishes, including a mole, a chicken dish with a sauce made of dozens of spices including chocolate, chili and cinnamon; tomatillo salsa; nopales, an edible cactus; beans, rice; and of course, her father Oscar’s famous flan. Lots of flan, so much so that Rich and I would store eight or so in our fridge in the days leading up to the event. Our reward? An entire flan, just for us.

Chicken mole

Tomatillo salsa

Nopales -- cactus salad

Oscar's famous flan

As friends and family mingle and enjoy the Mexican feast, children spend time at the big kitchen table decorating sugar skulls.

As we finish up our meal, Tania gathers us around the ofrenda, shares words of wisdom, and invites us to share memories of our loved ones who have taken the long trip to join us for the holiday.