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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Twists of Fate

It feels like I moved to Boston a million years ago, but it was actually the fall of 2004. Gas was $2 a gallon, the Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series since before women had the right to vote, and not many people knew what a levee was.

I had moved to town to write for a small Jewish newspaper. Which one makes no difference, really, but like so many things in life, I credit fate, some sort of divine plan that brought me here: My mom’s best friend sat next to a distant cousin at a family bar mitzvah. The long-last relative, Richard, was the editor of said Jewish newspaper, and he was on the search for a new writer. Less than two months later, Richard had hired me. I signed a lease, bought a T-pass and was on my way.

We were a small staff, but managed to create a 40-page paper every week. I averaged nine stories an issue. Richard quickly recognized our strengths and weaknesses, and knowing passion always creates a better product, I was lucky enough to interview such famous Jews as Joan Nathan, Susie Fishbein and… Joe Lieberman. (One of these things is not like the others…)

My fellow writers had their own passions: Shira focused on religion and politics, and Penny focused on education and parenting. We were a team. Richard was our coach, creating the roster and calling plays. “Frame a story,” he would tell me as he created a box with his arms at 90 degree angles.

A million years later – or, this past weekend – Richard gathered his team for a reunion potluck. We drove down to Rhode Island listening to the end of another lackluster Patriots’ game. The Pats failed to blow out their opponent, our car managed to blow out a tire on Route 95. Undeterred, we finally made it to our destination, albeit an hour late.

Richard had made big pot of winter borscht, with large chunks of root vegetables and cabbage that floated in a ruby broth. There was a salad full of fruits – pomegranate, kiwi, apple and citrus – thick bread and a bean salad. I brought this sweet potato gratin as a side and a cranberry molasses pudding (think Charles Dickens-type pudding) with a hard sauce for dessert.

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My gratin was a mere twist of fate – our friends Will and Gabi bequeathed their CSA last week to us, and I dug the recipe from that accidental Ottolenghi cookbook that’s turned into a tidy box full of tricks. Even trickier math was involved than last time, as I had one third less sweet potatoes the recipe, written in grams, called for. I had the heavy cream in the house because it was on sale a few weeks ago and thought that the need for heavy cream would reveal itself soon, what with all the holiday parties we were scheduled to attend.

The recipe calls for a medium-sized pan for the gratin, and I found that my medium-sized lasagna pan was perfect for the tightly-packed orange coins. I used both sage and thyme because I had both on hand; I wouldn’t worry too much about it if you only have one of the herbs. I would strongly advocate using a mandolin for this project.

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The pudding was even more unexpected: I was trying to come up with something for the remaining two cups of cranberries that hadn’t been strung on our tree, and I’d dug up a jar of molasses in the pantry during my clean-up a few weeks prior. I’d never steamed a cake before, and I did have to ask myself several times if I was doing it correctly. It turns out I did, although my bundt pan was a little tilted and the cake looked like it had a club foot. Don’t skip the cholesterol-laden hard sauce. It really makes the dish. I had hoped to use some more of the on-sale heavy cream for the sauce, but I opened Richard’s fridge and he magically had the half-and-half the recipe called for. Richard took out his family china for our fancy dessert. Couldn’t have planned that one better if I’d tried.

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Danielle Postma’s Sweet Potato Gratin from Ottolenghi The Cookbook

This dish is simple but effective, due to the way the potatoes are arranged in the baking dish. You can prepare everything a day in advance and have it ready in the fridge to just pop in the oven. The sage can be replaced with thyme, or you could use both. Make sure you choose orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (as opposed to the paler variety).

Serves 4 – 6

Ingredients

6 medium sweet potatoes (about 1.5kg in total, about 3 lbs.)

5 Tablespoons roughly chopped sage, plus extra to garnish

6 garlic cloves, crushed

2 tsp. coarse sea salt

½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

250 ml whipping cream (About 8 oz. or 1 cup)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas Mark 6 (400 F). Wash the sweet potatoes (do not peel them) and cut them into discs 5mm thick. A mandolin is best for this job but you could use a sharp knife.
  2. In a bowl, mix together the sweet potatoes, sage, garlic, salt and pepper. Arrange the slices of sweet potato in a deep, medium-sized ovenproof dish by taking tight packs of them and standing them up next to each other. They should fit together quite tightly so you get parallel lines of sweet potato slices (skins showing) along the length or width of the dish. Throw any remaining bits of garlic or sage from the bowl over the potatoes. Cover the dish with foil, place in the oven and roast for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and pour the cream evenly over the potatoes. Roast, uncovered, for a further 25 minutes. The cream should have thickened by now. Stick a sharp knife in different places in the dish to make sure the potatoes are cooked. They should be totally soft.
  3. Serve immediately, garnished with sage, or leave to cool down. In any case, bringing the potatoes to the table in the baking dish, after scraping the outside clean, will make a strong impact.

Cranberry-Molasses Pudding with Vanilla Hard Sauce from “CottageGourmet” on Food52

Ingredients

1egg, lightly beaten

1 Tablespoon sugar (a heaping Tablespoon)

1/2 cup molasses

1/3 cup hot water

1 1/2 cup flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups fresh cranberries, picked over, washed and drained

1 cup half and half

1 stick unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Gently fold together all of the ingredients through the cranberries in the order listed. Pour into a greased mold (I used a Bundt pan), and tightly wrap with several layers of foil so no water sneaks into the pudding.
  2. Put a steamer basket in a large pot and fill the pot with an inch or so of water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so the water is barely simmering. Rest the pudding on top of the steamer basket and cover the pot snugly with a lid. Steam without uncovering the pot for 1 to 1 1/4 hours, until the pudding is cooked through but not totally dry. (A cake tester should come out sticky, but not wet.)
  3. To make the sauce: combine the half-and-half, butter, sugar and salt in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar and butter are melted and the sauce is smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Serve the sauce warm over the warm pudding.