Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Libyan Spaghetti

When my friend Eissa got access to a kitchen his second year of college, he began a culinary campaign that somehow permeated into my home cooking. Eissa is a skinny, carnivorous, half-Libyan Southern boy who lives forever resenting his father’s choice not to teach him and his brother Arabic. Instead, he taught them how to cook. Although Eissa knows about as many home-cooked Southern recipes from his stint in Alabama during the early years of his life, whenever he invites guests over the menu is invariably Libyan. From tajin to stuffed pepper, many spices and hard bread, everything cooked slowly over a low flame or in the oven, spicy beyond his white-bred American roommate’s ability to cope and created with the serene nostalgia of an immigrant searching for a piece of home. Granted, Eissa has never set foot in the Great Maghreb but his fascination with his heritage comes out purely as a culinary expression.             

The first time Eissa had me over for one of his Libyan feasts, the menu consisted of what he calls Libyan spaghetti, stuffed peppers, and bread. Everything was good enough for second and third helpings, a world apart from what any other college student on a limited budget would ever dream of attempting, but this was fun for Eissa, it meant something to him, and it came out in his food. Other dishes, tajin (baked meat and potatoes) and Hassah (meat slow-cooked in tomato sauce thickened with flour), have also come up but nothing as often as the peppers and spaghetti. To the extent that I decided I needed to learn to make them. Specifically, the spaghetti. Something about that recipe resonated with me. I loved that it took a classic dish- spaghetti- and added so many unexpected elements to it, that it was simple but very complex at the same time, and it was a relatively easy recipe. Ha! I can do this. 

I had Eissa walk me through the process. Onions, meat, tomato paste, tomato sauce, another can of tomatoes, spices (including a secret spice his grandmother in Libya makes and sends to all her children around the world), lots of cayenne, chickpeas. Let it cook on low heat for several hours and then add the raw pasta straight into the sauce. His father had taught him some general rules of thumb: The longer it cooks, the better. If it’s not spicy then you can’t taste it. Never stir. Sure thing, pops, whatever. My eyes had a dangerous glint to them as I purchased my ingredients. I can totally do this. Except, as I found out, I actually couldn’t. At least, not the “right” way. Even though, I accepted I wouldn’t be able to recreate Eissa’s dish exactly, and I didn’t actually want to, I was never satisfied with how I made my versions of Libyan spaghetti, which prompted me to make it again and again and again. Each time I ate it, was marginally satisfied with it, and made notes of how to make it better. In essence, through the repetition and variation of this dish, the same cycle I’d gone through with rice and beans (my own nostalgic culinary expression of my childhood in Puerto Rico) when I first started making them. I was learning how to be a better cook. 

My first lesson was that the substitution of meat for anything else is unrealistic and eventually futile. I have a rule that I never cook meat at home, except fish and some seafood, so the how to replace the meat element in the recipe. I tried using tempeh on one occasion, which crumbled, the grainy texture didn't work with the pasta or the chickpeas, giving the whole dish a weird texture. I then tried salmon. Why I thought this would work is beyond me. 

Obviously it gave the perfectly tasty sauce the fishiest flavor you could possibly imagine which was only slightly neutralized by the bottled lemon juice I ran downstairs to the deli to buy (I advice against this whole-heartedly, I was so lazy about my ingredients, but the bottomline is pre-minced garlic, bottled lemon juice, and sundried tomatoes you buy in plastic containers from the supermarket will ruin rather than enhance your food). The latest attempt was with cut up veggie burgers. I added too much and not enough pasta but that aside, the veggie burger itself brought its own flavors to the mix which didn't mesh at all with the spices in the sauce (cumin helped a little with that). I had to face it, seitan was never going to be beef, tuna was never going to be chicken. Lesson: Embrace them for what they are, not for what they should be.             

At that point, Eissa stepped in. Like a seasoned physician he observed, diagnosed, and recommended a remedy at the patient’s discretion. A problem with how I'd been preparing the recipe was that I didn't trust low heat cooking. Since I didn’t have meat, I got nervous the vegetables would turn to mush or burn or be overcooked. So while Eissa recommended cooking it for at least three hours, I rarely got to two. 

“Libyan food is not in a rush. I've been given many a lecture from dad about how cooking in a rush isn't cooking. These recipes came to what they are because after the kids left for school in the morning, my grandma would stay home cooking all day long. These were the times when you made your own bread, your own olive oil, your own noodles, your everything. Cooking was an all day activity. It's turned into something that takes time. It's not the same anymore, but it’s largely about the process.” 

My other hang up was the spices. I love spices, I love their potential, how they make a kitchen smell, the way they transform food, so I tend to use them liberally, albeit with only a modicum of an idea as to how to use them “properly.” Often my dishes were a chaotic mess of spices with an undertone of ingredients. This was no different. 

“You're putting too much faith into the spices. I usually forget to add or don't have at least one of the spices every time I cook the food, but the differences are negligible. The spices aren't as important as the time and the process.” 

OK, chill out on the spiced, got it. But something was still missing, something wasn’t right. 

“Your personality is supposed to be a part of it, so you're not doing it wrong, per se. I think that’s why my dad taught me and my brother two different ways to cook it.” 

Making Libyan spaghetti for Eissa was what making rice and beans was for me, what making meatloaf and mashed potatoes is for other people or grilling the perfect burger, what making an old recipe is to any new generation. It’s not until you embrace your own presence in it that it becomes good. So I took a step back and regarded the progress (and all the setbacks) in my many variations, revisited Eissa’s instructions, and precariously embraced what I could bring to this dish. The missing element wasn’t meat or Eissa’s grandmother’s secret spice or even just time necessarily. What was missing was that second-hand nostalgia Eissa brought to his version, the rules his father taught them, his brother’s recipe variation. I was missing my personal flavor choices, my intentions, my original inspiration for wanting to make this at all. 

First, I stopped looking for a substitute for meat. I chose to add chopped celery once, out of whim. The new texture filled a hole in the composition while the subtle flavor blended with the harsher spices and acidic tomato. Based on that decision, I added a small amount of honey which softened the edge, added garlic to add a new layer that was missing along with the meat, disregarded the tarragon since I never used it, and cooked the sauce for at least two hours (some day I would make it to 3) before adding the pasta. The process felt smooth, it harmonized, and when I finally served it, it finally seemed right. I’d created my own Libyan spaghetti, one I loved even more than Eissa’s version, which is different from his dad’s and different from his brother’s. That’s what makes great home-cooking, the personal variations and touches that harmonize inside a classic recipe that means something to you. 

Now on to figure out how to make the stuffed peppers.

Stupid French People

The American vision of French people’s eating habits would stir up envy in anyone. A skinny man with a pencil-thin moustache smoking cigarettes at a bar next to a thin elegant woman in a form-fitting dress also smoking cigarettes with a baguette, cheese, a chunk of chocolate, and wine glasses full of Bordeaux laid out in front of them. And this is what the French do all day. Eat, drink, smoke. Life is good in France.

But no, that's not the case. I mean, life may very well be good in France, but the ones that eat and drink all the time (no one really smokes that much anymore) are the Americans. From my experience with French friends, real French people don't actually eat that much. It's something I like to make fun of them about. But after attempting my first "French" recipe last night, scallops a la provençal, in fact after starting to cook halfway thoughtout meals at night, it makes sense to me why the Gauls tend to wait for meal time rather than eat all the time and embrace the philosophy of small portions.

My friend Celine visited NY last summer and told me about going to a BBQ in Long Island and how horrified she was at the leniency with which chubby, spoiled children were given whatever they wanted whenever they wanted: chips, cookies, fries, hot dogs-- all before even having their proper meal. To her it was shocking that these kids were being allowed to eat between meals. To me it was shocking that to her it was shocking because eating between meals is pretty much what we do. The snack food industry in the States is huge. I'm not sure about Europe, where people are starting to get fatter, but at least I know I'm guilty of snacking every day as are my friends, of wanting a whole dessert, and we usually outdrink our friend Marc, a French guy who rarely picks at the appetizers we force on him when he comes over to our apartment. During a dinner party he went for seconds once and it was the highest compliment to my cooking I've gotten yet. But in all seriousness, snacking mindlessly or eating junk food is rather anti-French and if they do indulge, because I have seen them do that as well, it's only a few morsels. Those bastards.

But in all honesty, what good is snacking mindlessly on bland junk food when you can eat very rich, delicious food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For me that's what it boils down to: quality over quantity. If you eat brie and bread mindlessly you will get sick very quickly. If you eat chips mindlessly, you will get sick but after a good long time. Also, why tarnish a good meal with the guilt inducing impulse-eating that we find irresistible? I still haven't figured out how exactly to avoid that pitfall but I think the cure for poor eating habits is better food.

When I have a snack it's usually because I am a) bored, b) anxious, c) tired, d) hungry. What I snack on is usually a) nuts, b) dried fruit, c) real fruit, d) cookies, e) chocolate, f) granola bars. And you will say, well the first three are OK and even the last one is fine. That's another common misconception in the American view of eating. Just because it's "good for you" doesn't mean you can eat as much of it as you want. In fact, eating a ton of nuts and dried fruit creates the sensation of having a soft rock in your stomach and instantly brings up emotions like, Why did I do that? Oh God. As for granola bars, those are good for breakfast, a meal, not for a snack, unless you're one of those people (whoever you are) that eat several small meals a day. Personally, I can't do that. The only snack which I say is OK, and which I talk myself out of all the time, is fruit. Fresh fruit and fresh vegetables are good snacks, low-calorie, healthy, etc. but they also turn you off unless there's something else to them, like peanut butter or ranch dressing. So you opt for the other options that give you a fast high, a shock of flavor, and a nasty feeling afterwards. Because I don't think our meals are all that great either. Low-fat, low-sodium, low-sugar, low-flavor affairs eaten as quickly as possible so you barely taste them anyway. I'm guilty of that. And even if I have something super tasty I usually want something else, because of habit or craving. So I end up overeating. We end up overeating.

If you look at French food-- and I'm going on what I've eaten while in Paris, French restaurants in NY, my Cordon Bleu cookbook, and Julia Child-- there is an emphasis on: strong flavors harmonizing together, variety of textures and ingredients, multiple small courses or at least one course that offers you a lot of variety inside one dish. The idea is satisfaction and that doesn't need to come in a large plate. Filet mignon is small. Crepes are thin. Soups are filling. It's the idea that you get a lot in a little. Instead of a little in a lot.

During college I lived in Madrid for a while as part of a study abroad program through NYU. One evening, a sampling of us students were taken out to dinner so that Study Abroad Ambassadors could ask us about what we thought about the program. Food was a big complaint. They said the food in Madrid was bland, few places offered to-go options, etc. I didn't agree that this was a limitation nor did I agree that the food was bland. It just wasn't American food and if you're serious about food, then you try different things and you go by the culture and the place you're at. I think expectations and pacing are another two things where Americans and the rest of the world are at odds. We expect convenience, speed, and sharp, intense flavors (which usually come with processed food). The advent of fast food and delis makes this a cultural habit. Starbucks only serves your coffee to go and it's always in a large cup. The times I've taken my family from Puerto Rico to Starbucks they are always so surprised that the cups are so big and can rarely finish them. In Spain, when you went to get coffee you would sit or stand at the bar, it was usually a small cup, and the coffee was strong. Lunchtime meals were large, three course affairs or giant sandwiches. Dinner was late and eating at home is common. 

Quality vs. Quantity. Slow vs. Fast. Enjoyment vs. Convenience. Expectations. If we changed the way we think and the way we enjoy things, then things become easier. If your meals are satisfying then there's no need to snack. If you've taken the time to enjoy them then you will feel satisfied. If you prepare it yourself or opt for good ingredients and food instead of processing and added flavors, then you won't feel guilty. It's not as easy at that, obviously, we're fighting our upbringing and a culture that bombards us with easy, instant-gratification that only leaves you wanting more. 

Start by cooking and setting higher standards. Gourmet means connoisseur of good food and drink. What's good? Keep in mind two things: some of the best food comes from the poorest countries and no one would say that McDonalds is good. But then there's the other psychological hurdle that we face: deprivation. So instead think of it this way, you can have McDonalds and you can have chips and  you can do whatever you want, but why would you want to?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Simplicity, simplicity

While French and American haute cuisine has embrace a culture of complexity when it comes to food- reductions, confits, exotic ingredients, strange parts of an animal you didn't even know you could eat- there's been more than a few place that I've visited recently where what has prevailed is simplicity over engineering. Among them Momofuku Milk, Egg, Una Pizza Napolitana, and even 11 Madison Park, although the latter isn't as clear-cut as the others.

Momofuku is a dessert restaurant in the East Village that is part of the other Momofuku restaurants including Ssam bar (rated one of the top 50 restaurants in the world), Momofuku Noodle bar, and Ko. At Momofuku milk you have a wide range of desserts from cookies to cakes and pies, bread, milks, and if you're looking for savory, pork buns and beer. The kitchen is visible from the standing-only tables and the smell of sweet dough and cookies slowly baking is thick in the air. In the evening the line rivals that around Magnolia during the summer tourist season. The first two things I ever tried there set the tone for me and established it as my favorite dessert restaurant: cornflake and marshmallow cookie and cereal milk. I'd heard about this new trend that was happening among the pastry chefs in New York of incorporating breakfast flavors into desserts and breakfast being my favorite meal of the day, combined with a massive sweet tooth, this was heaven. The cereal milk was the remnants of a satisfactory bowl of Frosted Flakes and the cornflakes cookie was perfectly crispy around the edges and gooey and thick in the middle. They somehow manage to do this with all their cookies. But the cakes pushed it even further. Each is a three story affair with a distinctive identity- chocolate cake, chocolate chip cake, banana cake- but it's the small layer of filler in between each of the layers that demands to be heard. The banana cake, which my friends got, almost made me cry it was so good. The cake itself is soft and in between the layers of soft banana cake were gravelly sweet layers of cinnamon and brown sugar. This was repeated in the chocolate chip cake where layers of passion fruit offset the classic vanilla cake with chocolate chips embedded. Their most successful pie, though, is also one of the simplest things: crack pie, or just pie, the kind of pie people made when you couldn't afford to mix fruit and frills in with the butter and sugar mix. A sweet oat crust with a simple filling. Works every time. I could go on about their soft serve (last time I went they had Sour Gummy and Fireball as flavors) and the rest of their repertoire but I think the examples say it all. These are classic simple flavors reinvented within another very recognizable and accessible form. 

Egg is a variation on the idea of simplicity because unlike Momofuku Milk it doesn't strive to reinvent so much as excel. Their food is classic Southern cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients produced locally (like their cheddar cheese and brioche) or grown upstate. While their dinner crowd is still rather (thankfully) thin, their breakfast and brunch crowd waits almost an hour for a table in their narrow dining room. I hate waiting for table. It makes me irritable and generally makes me more aggressively critical of the food. But Egg although always a wait in the morning is entirely worthwhile. The Egg Rothko (brioche with an egg cooked inside a hole in the middle and smothered in cheddar cheese with a side of either meat or seasonal vegetables and some roasted tomato) and the Grits and Eggs (also with a side of either vegetables or meat) astound because of their precise, fresh flavors that are so simple their natural complexity is brought out. This is even true in the coffee they serve, always in a french press with lots of grounds, the coffee is very flavorful and rich, even thick if that can be achieved with french press. During lunch their half-pound, grass-fed beef burger is pretty much the best burger I've ever had. When you ask for medium rare that's what they give you and the seasoning of the meat complements it rather than overwhelming the flavor of the meat itself. Skip the french fries, though you probably won't be able to. Recently they've also started serving wine and beer. They stock some local brews including Brooklyn One which gives continuity to their philosophy of fresh and local. For dinner, the duck and dirty rice still haunts me, although I can't say they have the best corn bread (Peter's takes the award for that) butvtopped with kale it becomes something else. Their mac and cheese is excellent (anything with cheese you have a good shot with) as are their biscuits. You will never leave Egg hungry and you will never regret having a meal there. As one chef put it when asked how he taught his child to eat well, if he made a macaroni and cheese with four cheeses and bread crumbs, it may be more fattening that your out of the box M/C but the ingredients are real, it is more wholesome. That's Egg in a nutshell. Basically you know you're eating something good.

I've already discussed Una Pizza Napolitana in my previous posting so take a look, it's a similar idea to Egg's just boiled down even further.

As for Eleven Madison Park, you could almost say the simplicity of their food is relative. Relative to other restaurants of their caliber that use more complex ingredients and preparations (and I'm sure 11 MP does too in certain dishes) but their was a great deal of simplicity in a lot of the dishes. Slow-poached egg with asparagus was bright and interesting, the Atlantic Halibut tasted like halibut with lemon and capers, even the duck had a simple symphony of lavender, honey, and rhubarb to offset the fattiness, but the red, soft meat still stood out among the undertones. The best dessert was the Tahitian Vanilla Souffle with Passion Fruit that beat out the intensely chocolatey Symphony No. 2 and the Cherry Crumble (that one was interesting, the cherries were sour and intensely sweet, almost like candy except for the texture). But their were little things served aside that really stood out for me. A bite-sized roll of cucumber and salmon that simply jumped out at you, the cucumber wet and sweet with a blast of salmon flavor packed into a pink square one square inch in size. An olive and rosemary bread, smaller than a normal rolls, served with either goat's milk butter and unsalted cow's milk butter with salt on the side (the separation of the salt and butter made a huge difference in the flavor). And finally, these small cookies you get at the end, with a flaky crust and a half inch layer of creamy filling, with flavors ranging from rose to peanut butter and jelly, those two in particular being the stand outs of the crowd. They're very small and anything but one note. The rose in particular was complex and unexpected, sweet with a flavor you're not used to, unlike the violet that definitely tasted of chocolate. I can't even talk about the wine.

Flowers might seem like something you wouldn't categorize as "simple" but they're as simple as it gets. Like when you have breakfast for dessert, the difference is you're experiencing something familiar in a different way. This is the testimony of complex culinary experimentation but the foundation of that is simple, fresh ingredients with classic preparations that take something ordinary and push it further, done especially well when it's an almost obvious direction you wouldn't have expected it to go in.

Friday, June 5, 2009


One of them is a chaotic mess. It drips grease openly, tastes like alfredo sauce smothered in mozzarella with some artichoke and spinach mixed in and spread over a thick wet crust that still manages to be crunchy only because its size defies the oil. That is Artichoke Pizza. Your dream drunk food, available at all hours, just look for the line. Disregard that it has all the calories you need for the day, all the fat you need for the week, and all the cholesterol you will ever need in your life.

The other is also a hole in the wall, also has a line, but gives you the option to sit, have a drink. Like Artichoke, it only gives you a limited amount of options. All they serve are four kinds of pizza and only pizza. The dough is simple and light, soft and with burned air bubbles sticking out of the edges. Sauce and cheese harmonize or they don't. Sometimes it's cheese alone, sometimes it's sauce alone. In all cases the garlic, olive oil, sea salt, and basil create a subtle chorus of undertones which flare up every so often as you devour the delicate slices. It is simplicity itself, with all the complexity of a violin piece. That is Una Pizza Napolitana. All ingredients fresh, standalone, imported from the birthplace of pizza, Italy.

Both have been hailed "best pizza". OK. Sure. Regardless of whether they are the best or not, both are a few hundred stories above your average Joe's, Ray's Domino's, or All Star Pizza. One pushes the boundaries of Americanized pizza to its screeching extreme. It's almost Deep Dish in its thickness, all the flavor elements melded together into one two inch thick white sauce that explodes with intensity, it's jazz and big band, a wall of flavor. Meanwhile, the other one pushes in the opposite direction, reaching all the way back to Italy, back to the basics, the peasant food, the ingredients that each make their own statement but combine flawlessly with each other. Tomato, cheese, and bread, emphasized with salt, garlic, basil, and olive oil. It's almost healthy, definitely quality, maybe not completely Italian (all imports lose some of their edge) but close enough.

Aside from the basics of "good" that are standard in all recipe- good ingredients, freshness, heat- they have an element that makes them great. They are unexpected. When you bite into a slice of Artichoke it defies your expectations of what a pizza can be by being many things at once. It is pizza but it is also pasta alfredo and it is also artichoke dip. There is no tomato sauce or discernable toppings, one slice is more than enough, and the rush of serotonin is harder and faster than a normal slice of pizza could ever deliver. With UPN it's more subtle. You will every so often get some sea salt prominently featured, sometimes you will have basil, the cheese only covers certain sections and the sauce is also mobil on top of the greased dough. The dough has flavor. It's good bread. Simply flour, oil, salt, and yeast, baked in a brick oven. 

Each has chosen to make a bold statement. It took the elements that make pizza great and pushed them. When you have normal pizza the saltiness is there, the chaotic toppings are there, the cheese is there creating endorphins, the dough is soft or thin, more a vehicle for the cheese and sauce. It's satisfying, very tasty, but nothing you would call exceptional.