February 1973. My mother and I step out of the plane in the Yucatan. Atop the mobile staircase a blast of hot air slaps my face. I detect the scent of corn, burning wood and flowers. I’m 13 and it’s my first time in Mexico, the country that would become my own.
We’ve landed in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan, a torpid, provincial city of faded glory. Cortez and his conquistadors had little interest in the hot, sparsely populated region where little grew and gold and silver weren’t to be found. Riches were made in the 19th century when it was discovered that henequen, used for rope, could be produced here. Many Lebanese immigrants, versed in shipping skills, arrived and ran the haciendas.
Tips from Zester Daily's Nicholas Gilman
World War II brought acrylics to replace the henequen, and carriages turned back into pumpkins. But Mayan culture endured, as ruins were unearthed and marketed. And a few years ago foreigners found that the glorious mansions of those henequen days could be bought for a song and revamped. Now tourists and locals alike stroll down Merida’s streets, and gussied pastel facades, the colors of Necco wafers, reflect the harsh tropical sun. Palm-leafed plazas provide respite from the heat.
We check into our colonial-style hotel and then walk down the street. The driver of a horse-drawn carriage beckons. We ride up to the Paseo Montejo, a grand boulevard in the Parisian tradition, lined with glorious French-style mansions, all faded, some abandoned. Forty years later most are gone, victims of callous development.
The sun is setting and we’re hungry. So we enter a typical white-table-clothed middle class restaurant, with aire acondicionado, promising platos típicos. My mother, an artist who had lived in Mexico, orders sopa de lima and tacos de cochinita in her somewhat clumsy Spanish. Having grown up in New York City, surrounded by ethnic cuisine and its purveyors, I’m eager to taste the “real thing.”
Sopa de lima at la Reyna Iftzi. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Discovering sopa de lima
The sopa de lima arrives. A bowl of steaming soup! How illogical, I think, scalding soup in a hot climate.
Little did I know, at that time, how small a part logic plays in Mexican life. The soup is a rich chicken broth any Jewish grandma would be proud of, loaded with shredded meat and perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent, so very Mexican, became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me as Proust’s madeleines did for him. At our meal pallid bread is served (that’s what they thought all gringos wanted), but I request tortillas, which makes the waiter chuckle. But he brings them, my first taste of the real McCoy.
Yucatecan food can be magnificent. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is in a revival. From market stands to highfalutin experimental restaurants, the eating out scene in Merida is hopping. Like all Mexican regional cooking, it is a true fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious.
Pollo alcaparrado is chicken in a caper sauce, direct from Andalucía. Kibbeh (or kibi), Lebanese wheat dumplings, are sold here in markets just like they are in the Middle East. Pan de cazón, tortillas layered with shredded epazote-perfumed shark, refried black beans and chile-tomato sauce, is pure fusion, an adaptation of Spanish cooking style to local ingredients.
And then there’s the truly indigenous: the Mayan pib, a pre-Hispanic method of anointing, marinating and then roasting meat, fowl and fish. The settlers brought pigs, but local cooks quickly substituted them for regional game.
David Sterling, formerly of New York, teaches Yucatecan cooking at Los Dos Cooking School. He explains that “You have to remember that even just 15 or 20 years ago, this was still ‘the provinces’ — folks cooked and ate at home exclusively. The dining scene has changed dramatically during the last several years. There are more and more regional options too. In terms of quality. … in general it’s progressing, albeit at a glacial pace. I think that’s inevitable as Mérida continues to grow and more outside influences come in.”
Cochinita pibil, the quintessential Yucatecan dish, is suckling pig, slathered with a sauce made of achiote (annatto), sour orange juice, garlic, oregano, allspice and pepper, then wrapped in a banana leaf and slow roasted, preferably over coals. It is eaten as tacos, in soft corn tortillas, or tortas, on white flour rolls, with fiery habanero sauce. The Yucatan produces the most picante salsas in the country, if not the world. Today, few people make it at home, preferring to buy from the experts.
One locally famous stand appears Friday through Sunday in front of Panadería La Ermita in the plaza of the same name. Neighbors gather to eat there, fragrant meat heaped on fresh baked bread and spiked by pickled red onions. Some buy kilos to go. And everyone knows to come early, since by noon it’s run out.
Tamales, ubiquitous in Latin America, are sold in the market as they have been for centuries. Customers in the know vie for a place at the long table at Jugos Mario for hot tamales. Called tamal colorado, they are the regional variation on a theme. Corn masa is ground to a custard-like consistency and flavored with chile and achiote, then steamed in a banana leaf. A dash of habanero salsa adds fire.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ku’uk is a restaurant whose name comes from the Mayan word meaning “sprout.” It has done just that, sprouting like an experimental lab in a sea of conservative tradition. It’s the venue for young chef Mario Espinosa, an academy-trained veteran of Mexico City’s renowned, avant-garde restaurant Pujol.
Here, old-fashioned Yucatecan cooking is deconstructed and reinterpreted. The kitchen has a traditional pit oven for cooking “pib,” but contemporary molecular gastronomic trends are introduced as well. And although traditional ingredients are incorporated, they are reconfigured with the chef’s creative flair. The market favorite castacán (deep fried pork belly), usually eaten with a little salsa in tacos, is elaborated into “castacán, prawn, string cheese from Tabasco, fava bean broth and dried shrimp.” The breakfast standard chaya con huevo (eggs scrambled with the regional bitter green herb chaya) is refashioned as a “transparency of potato and herbs, egg cream, and chaya.” So, while one foot stays firmly planted in local culinary heritage, the other dances a postmodern rhumba.
As the food-minded public becomes aware of Mexican cooking in its intricate variety, regional adaptations will continue to be unearthed and celebrated. That’s a good thing.
And I, although intrigued by these recent developments, stay admittedly “in search of lost time” as I continue to seek out the best bowl of sopa de lima I can find.
Top photo: Chichen Itza. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
If the average food magazine were a castaway on the ’60s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” it would be Ginger: glamorous, worldly and somewhat unattainable. Cook’s Illustrated magazine, on the other hand, would be a hybrid of Mary Ann and the Professor: wholesome, intelligent and oh-so-accessible.
Just look at a cover of Cook’s Illustrated and you’ll see what I mean. Rather than seducing readers with gorgeous food-porn photography, Cook’s presents still-life illustrations of basic ingredients, such as walnuts or heads of garlic. Inside the magazine you won’t find profiles of celebrity chefs or reviews of the hottest new restaurants. You won’t even find color. Cook’s is printed in no-nonsense black and white, and most of its images are simple line drawings.
By the editors of "America's Test Kitchen"
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While the glossy magazines present features about how to entertain your impossibly beautiful friends on the rooftop deck of your Manhattan apartment, Cook’s chronicles its 37 failed attempts at roasting the perfect chicken before discovering the best technique.
To put it another way: Cook’s Illustrated is a cooking magazine for nerds. Nerds like me.
Through its pages I learned to make wonderfully creamy scrambled eggs by cooking them slowly over a low flame and gently stirring with a heat-resistant rubber spatula. I learned how to avoid making a watery, gray scramble by cooking the eggs and vegetables separately and combining them just before serving. I learned to make a nearly foolproof pie crust by adding vodka.
Kimball’s food publishing adventures
I have Christopher Kimball to thank for all that kitchen know-how. Kimball founded the original Cook’s magazine in 1980 and ran it as editor and publisher until 1989, when he sold it to the Bonnier Group. The magazine eventually folded under its new publisher, and in 1993, Kimball relaunched the magazine as Cook’s Illustrated. Its audience has since grown to more than a million subscribers.
America’s Test Kitchen isn’t just a TV show, it’s a working test kitchen outside of Boston where three dozen cooks, editors, food scientists, tasters and equipment experts collaborate.
It was this team, led by Kimball, that created ATK’s impressive new book, “The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook.” This mammoth 822-page tome isn’t merely a collection of exhaustively tested recipes, it’s an education in essential cooking techniques. The book covers not only the “how” of each technique but also the “why,” and provides useful tips on such diverse topics as perfecting knife skills and choosing cookware.
We checked in with Kimball about ATK’s new book, the philosophy behind Cook’s Illustrated and the evolution of American home cooking.
What sorts of dishes did your family eat when you were growing up? Were your parents good cooks?
My mother was an early promoter of organic foods and ripped up the front lawn at our home in the ’60s to plant a large, organic garden with only partially composted fertilizer. The neighbors loved it! But she was not much of a cook. The food I loved the best was cooked at the Yellow Farmhouse in our small town in Vermont where we spent summers and weekends. Marie Briggs cooked the standard meat and potatoes but her specialty was baking — Anadama bread, molasses cookies, nutmeg doughnuts. I am still a meat and potatoes guy.
How did you learn to cook?
Marie taught me a lot on rainy days when I wasn’t out haying. I started using the old Fannie Farmer book when I was about 10. I eventually met Malvina Kinard, a friend of Jim Beard’s and the founder of the Cooks Corner retail stores. She taught me classic French cookery including coulibiac of salmon and how to make pate brisée.
In a world of glossy cooking magazines and celebrity TV chefs, why do you think Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen” have been so successful?
We ain’t glossy! The secret of teaching cooking is to put oneself in the shoes and kitchen of the typical home cook. They experience a great deal of fear and frustration (and failed recipes). That’s why we always start off with “bad” food. We make people comfortable by showing what can and often does go wrong. Then we fix the recipe together and explain why a recipe works. It’s taking the time to explain why things go wrong that is important — an educated cook is a better cook.
How many variations are typically tested at ATK before a recipe is deemed ready for publication?
The typical Cook’s Illustrated recipe is tested at least 50 times over a period of weeks.
What was involved in creating the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook”?
Lots of aspirin and long nights in the kitchen and at the computer. We tried to put what we know about cooking into a form that was both in-depth and easy to approach and digest. The book is really a culmination of over 20 years of kitchen work.
Why is it important to know why a particular technique works versus simply knowing the technique itself?
If you understand why, you are much more likely to do it right. When you don’t understand what you are doing you are less likely to do it, and then you end up doing something really stupid like substituting shrimp for chicken (a true story from one of our readers).
Are Americans better cooks today than they were when you started Cook’s magazine?
Yes, no question. The 1980s were a low point in American cooking. Women had fled the kitchen and left for the workplace. Convenience was at a premium and the food industry exploded with more and more bloody-awful products that nobody questioned at the time. These days, balance is being restored. More parents are choosing to stay home. Health is a major consideration, which places the emphasis back on home cooking; it’s the best way to control what goes into your body. And, finally, a whole generation of kids had grown up in households without parents that cooked much and they wanted to find out what they were missing. Plus, the emergence of food television has also brought many folks into the kitchen.
How much of being a good cook is science versus art?
There is very little art in cooking unless one is a top chef. There is also not much science to it unless you develop recipes professionally. That is, you don’t really need to know that flour does not contain gluten per se, it contains glutenin and gliadin, two proteins that interconnect to form gluten in the presence of water. Cooking is really about paying attention and caring about what you are doing.
How important are improvisational skills in the kitchen?
Too many people want to improvise rather than follow a recipe; they think that doing it step by step is beneath them. That is, however, the only way to become a good cook. Then, later in life, with many thousands of recipes behind you, the art starts to come into the process. First, you have to know what food should feel, look, smell, sound and taste like.
What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday dinner at home?
Pot au feu — boiled beef with a salsa verde, horseradish and simmered vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and carrots. And don’t forget a couple of bottles of a great white Burgundy while you are at it, and a good store-bought baguette.
Top photo: Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen.” Credit: Courtesy of “America’s Test Kitchen”
Why let gingkos jar this glorious New York City scene? It’s late November. Central Park is at its peak in fall color. The Conservatory Garden up on Fifth Avenue and 105th Street is all decked out with its fall array of chrysanthemums.
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Yet it happened on my afternoon doggie walk, as I passed under a ginkgo tree, and the pungent smell about bowled me over. I am familiar with what is often called “nature’s stink bomb” and have developed a kind of acceptance and regard for the ginkgo, knowing its benefits, but simply, it smells like vomit. The stench is supposed to keep animals from eating the fallen fruit from this ancient Asian tree.
Ginkgo’s famous healthful qualities
But as a baby boomer who is keen to stave off memory loss, I know ginkgo biloba made from this tree species is one of the best-selling herbal medications. It is used in traditional medicine to treat blood disorders and improve memory. It also is an antioxidant, so I welcome the stench.
This time of year in Central Park, one will find many older Asian people on their knees, some wearing rubber gloves, picking through the fruit that has fallen on the ground. And each year, I ask myself, why don’t I collect a bag and try them out? So this year I did just that.
Ginkgo leaves are fan-shaped and green until the fall, when they turn a bright yellow. The leaves contain two types of chemicals, flavonoids and terpenoids, which are antioxidants. Studies show that ginkgo is good for promoting blood flow and treating anxiety, glaucoma, premenstrual syndrome and Reynaud’s disease.
It is important not to use ginkgo for at least 36 hours before surgery or dental procedures because of the risk of bleeding. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also not take ginkgo. Ginkgo may also interact with some medications and antidepressants. As with any supplement, it’s good for users to read up on ginkgo before ingesting it. Also keep in mind, the nut can be toxic to eat raw, and even picking it up can cause a rash like poison ivy.
Recipes from around the world
Asian women to whom I’ve spoken say it is no mistake that the nuts fall at this time of year because when they are cooked, they helps fight flu and colds.
The best way to use them is to remove the fleshy insides and skin from the nut. The flesh is discarded, and then the nut is boiled in salt water, fried, roasted or broiled. The nuts are used in Asian rice porridge and other desserts. Another chef used the nuts to make dried scallop and ginkgo nut congee, but instead of hassling with fresh ginkgo he uses tinned nuts because they are easier.
In a piece called “Gathering Ginkgo Nuts in New York,” a couple wrote about collecting the ginkgo nuts and trying various ways of cooking them. They finally hit on something when they separated the smelly pulp from the nut, washed the nuts, coated them in egg, salt, pepper and flour and dropped them in hot oil. Delicious was their assessment of this cooking method for a local, sustainable nut.
I have now collected about two pints of ginkgos, and today is the day I intend to try them. A friend gave me this recipe, which seems easy enough.
Roasted Ginkgo Nuts
2 pints of ginkgo nuts
Oil for frying, such as coconut or olive oil
Salt to taste
1. Using rubber gloves, collect the yellow squishy nuts from the ground. You know they’re ripe because they have fallen from the tree and they stink to high heaven. Still using rubber gloves, separate the pulp from the nut. (I did this outside on Park Avenue.)
2. Wash the nuts thoroughly and let them dry.
3. Pour a half-inch of your favorite oil into a pan. Salt the nuts. When the oil is hot enough to sputter, place the nuts in the pan. The nuts should pop like popcorn, except much louder. When they have split open and you can see the green of the nut.
4. Drain, and let cool. Eat like popcorn.
Top photo: Roasted ginkgo nuts. Credit: Katherine Leiner
Charles de Gaulle famously asked, “How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of fromage?” Not only that, one might add, but how on earth can you find the right wine to bring out the best in each of them?
Most people tend to play it safe and reach for the classic reds, but for some cheeses, I’m inclined to go for a white. The richness and fat content of many cheeses is perfectly suited to more acidic, less tannic whites, and my top pick would be a nice crisp Chardonnay, ideally from Burgundy.
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The Chaource made a fine match with a chilled glass of Macon-Villages, a white Burgundy, and I was reminded of my bow-tied and aproned sommelier days. I would try to coax diners who had ordered cheese away from the port, tempting them instead with a little taste of Chablis — one of my favorite combinations.
If this is whetting your appetite, just bear in mind that Chaource can be a bit tricky to track down in stores. Brillat-Savarin would be a delicious alternative, a bit more buttery in flavor; or perhaps a tasty Camembert; or even the failsafe Brie. As a rule of thumb, the softer the cheese, the crisper the wine — to cut through the creaminess.
When you are having a hard cheese, a more full-bodied white wine will be appropriate. Something like extra-sharp Cheddar is a great match for the peachy mango flavors often associated with a Californian Viognier, whereas the creaminess in the semi-hard Gouda goes brilliantly with minerally driven and peachy dry Riesling. However, considering that Gouda is traditionally eaten at breakfast in the Netherlands, it won’t go amiss with an aged vintage Champagne, something with brioche like characteristics.
As for specific wines to try, I’ve suggested a few styles, most of which are on the medium to lighter side. Just remember: Go for crisp wines with minerality but enough weight to handle cheese’s tendency (for instance Sancerre over New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc) to overwhelm the palate. Chardonnay is ideal; however, others like Viognier and even the rare Marsanne have proven worthy.
So next time you’re preparing that cheese board, pour a soupçon of white on the side. It could thoroughly change your perspective.
Top left: 2011 Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon, Macon-Villages
A classic Chardonnay from the southern Burgundian region, with a slight appley richness in the mid-palate that gives this wine weight and makes it perfect for cheese pairing.
Around $20, widely available
Top right: 2012 Two Shepherds, Marsanne, Saralee’s Vineyard
Usually Marsanne is blended with Viognier and Rousanne; by itself, there is a remarkably rich mouthfeel, like honey, and elegant marzipan flavor.
$30, contact winery for availability: twoshepherdsvineyards.com
Center, top and bottom: Chaource cheese
Bottom left: 2012 Baker Lane, Viognier, Sonoma Coast, Estate Vineyard
Viognier in California tends to be overwhelming and flabby, but this one is as clean as they come, and quite floral as well. The vineyard is perfectly placed in a tiny cool-climate valley deep in Sonoma.
Contact winery for availability: www.bakerlanevineyards.com
Bottom right: 2011 Lioco, Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma
A crisp and direct Chardonnay with brilliant stone fruit flavors.
$20, contact winery for availability: www.liocowine.com
Top photo: Cheese trolley. Credit: Louis Villard
It’s a frosty morning in Paso Robles, Calif., and I’m on my way to Fandango Olive Oil for its harvest. Why is it that these places always feature stunning views in the very early morning and late afternoon? I arrive at the ranch run by Jerry and Carolyn Shaffer and park my car behind the trucks of the pickers who are already at work.
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Fandango has been making olive oils I’ve admired for years. The ranch grows only two cultivars, arbequina and koroneiki. The former is of Catalan origin, and the latter Greek. Fandango makes sensationally flavored, mouth-popping blends if you like that sort of thing. I do. In 2013 alone, it won 20 medals in various California competitions.
The Shaffers are among the few certified organic olive oil producers in the region. A lot of sweat and paperwork goes into earning that distinction. For example, the buckets they use have to be scrubbed and free of mud, and when olives go to the mill to be pressed, the crusher and malaxer have to be cleansed thoroughly — at extra cost to the producer — because there mustn’t be residue from a previous, non-organic pressing. One miller told me this cleaning costs an additional $500 on top of everything else.
Olive oil producers must get the timing right
At Fandango, I have a Bourdain moment when Jerry Shaffer takes me out for a tour in his souped-up golf cart. It’s all blue sky and vapor trails. What you typically see in this region and on these ranches and estates are steeply sloping hills. Several growers have told me these slopes in a way create their own microclimate. A dropoff of 75 feet might mean a difference in temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. And this, of course, means olives ripen at different rates, so the grower has to tape off areas that need to be picked for harvest.
Out in the trees, the pickers work by hand, dropping the olives onto blue tarps, which are then carried over to be emptied into buckets. After being sorted, they will be delivered to be pressed within the same day. This is mean, hard and fast work, as evidenced from this email I received from another grower after my tour of Fandango.
Art Kishiyama, the grower at Olio Nuevo, has this to say about his picking schedule: “As fast as possible but within 4 hours. My schedule for tomorrow — first trip to the mill at 10:00 am, 3 hours after the first olive is picked — 2nd trip at about 1:00 pm, again 3 hours after the first olive is picked after 10:00 am, then around 4:00 pm latest, with the same logic, presuming the worst case of the pick day being extended to 9 hours. To make this work, I use two trailers — the 2nd trailer is being loaded while the first trailer is being towed to the mill. Round trip … is 30 minutes — I have 12 bins and use them up to 3 times each with a heavy fruit set.”
Harvesting olives involves a lot of hurry up and go.
The final lap on my tour of olive ranches took me up to San Miguel Olive Farm in San Miguel, Calif. There I met with Richard and Myrna Meisler. As Richard explained to me, olive trees go through “alternate bearing years.” This year happened to be a poor one, but next year could be a great one.
Other growers have given me the same story, but it’s not all bad news. Jerry Shaffer told me that although his yield was disappointing, the quality of his pressed oil was really good. Richard Meisler allowed me a blind tasting of his just-pressed oil. This is a sensory experience; it’s best to do this without bread. What I got at the front of my palate was a buttery beginning. When you taste a high-quality oil, you should expect either a buttery or grassy flavor, and then there is a delayed reaction: A second or two later, you get a peppery finish. It’s a similar experience to tasting wine.
At San Miguel Olive Farm I got another tractor ride, this time with Richard, who showed me something Jerry had done as well. He picked a perfectly ripe olive and squeezed it, checking for water content and oil. I popped it in my mouth, and it tasted like a good olive. This is how the real guys in the business do it. You may have read that eating a raw olive will make you gag. That’s not entirely true. It depends on the degree of ripeness. A really green one might cause you some discomfort, but those are the polyphenols at work. More on polyphenols in our next chapter.
Top photo: Half-ripe olives. Credit: avlxyz / Flickr
We are concerned about species of animals that might be headed for extinction, but we don’t seem to be as concerned about our endangered culinary traditions. There are recipes that need to be saved. Food is who we are. It’s what binds us together culturally in this multicultural country. One such food from New England is red flannel hash.
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Red flannel hash is hardly made anymore, probably because it’s a way of using the leftovers from a New England boiled dinner, which also is rarely cooked anymore. A boiled dinner is simply corned beef brisket, beets, parsnips, carrots, onions, cabbage and potatoes with a few spices, boiled only in water for dinner and served with a horseradish sauce.
But red flannel hash is so good that it can be made from scratch without using leftovers. How it got its name will be instantly obvious once you’ve made it. If all you’ve ever had is the heartburn-producing canned corned beef hash then what awaits you is a surprise and a delight.
In the modern age of global food distribution and processed consumer food products, regional specialties like this fall out of favor and are in danger of being lost forever. Like recipes that call for local produce grown only in a small area or ethnic delicacies from small immigrant groups, these dishes are in jeopardy of becoming unknown.
Often said to be a food eaten by the colonists, red flannel hash more likely was concocted in the early 20th century as a way of using leftovers. Its characteristic red color comes from corned beef and beets. Typically cooks would start with chopped up leftover boiled dinner and add potatoes to make the dish a hash.
Because it was such a breakfast favorite, especially in New England diners, and not everyone had made a boiled dinner the night before, recipes appeared for making the hash from scratch.
Red Flannel Hash
2 ounces salt pork, sliced and cut into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ small onion, finely chopped
6 ounces cooked corned beef, finely chopped, not ground
1 pound cooked Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and finely chopped
¼ pound cooked turnips, finely chopped
1 pound cooked red beets, peeled, trimmed and finely chopped
¼ cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 large eggs, poached
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
2. In a 12-inch cast iron skillet, over medium heat, cook, stirring the salt pork until crispy. Remove and leave the fat in the skillet. Add the butter to the skillet, then over medium heat, cook, stirring the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Combine the corned beef, potatoes, turnips, beets and cream in a bowl, and toss gently with some salt and pepper.
4. Transfer the hash to the skillet and spread it out with a spatula so it covers the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until a crust forms, about 15 minutes.
5. Place the skillet in the oven and cook until the top is crisp, about 15 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, poach the eggs. Remove the hash from the oven, cut into wedges and serve with the crispy salt pork and poached egg.
Top photo: Red flannel hash. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Think “State Fair,” the quintessential celebration of rural Americana as portrayed in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s eponymous musical film of 1945. That’s where I am for a moment when I enter the provisional arched gates of the annual mega-food event in Mistura, Peru. Missing are the rides, the games, the cotton candy, the stuffed animal prizes. But the atmosphere is familiar. Couples stroll placidly, hand in hand, directionless and contentedly sipping drinks. Spotlights shine on hawkers shouting invitations to passers-by. A joyous tranquility is in the air.
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Mistura is the most extensive gastronomic fair I’ve ever seen. It’s Peru’s most important cultural event, and should make every citizen of this brilliant but poor Latin American country proud. The pet project of star chef Gastón Acurio, it is now sponsored and funded by such diverse backers as the state and one big soft drink manufacturer that wants us to think it’s doing redeemable things as well.
Every September since 2008, several performance stages, a huge market featuring more than 300 stands and more than 100 food stalls are set up on an empty stretch of beachfront south of Lima’s center. Only Peruvian cuisine is featured. There’s also an Encuentro Gastrónomico for serious students: presentations, lectures and demonstrations that address the latest trends in the restaurant world, modern society’s relationship with food, and the importance of honoring the environment and its ingredients. It’s a proud celebration of peruanidad, the state of being Peruvian. Everybody from all walks of life goes — at least those who can afford the $6 (U.S.) admission. There were 300,000 attendees in 2012, more this year. And it’s all about food. Nothing makes people happier. Seeing it, talking about it and, of course, eating it.
A welcome message from star chefs
The Encuentro Gastronómico features star chefs and gastronomes from all over the Latino world who expound on their particular culinary identities. This year, the guest of honor was Chef Alain Ducasse, who kick-started the fair with a presentation on the importance of healthful eating, extolling the virtue of quality ingredients and the evils of junk food. We knew that. But it’s good to hear it from the mouth of a gastronomic demigod. Later, Acurio presented his new initiative called “Salsa,” which “aims to unite Latin American cooks and share experiences and knowledge.” Preaching to the choir? Perhaps, but necessary in a food world still dominated by Europe and the U.S.
The fair is divided into two main areas, the Gran Mercado and the food stalls. The market, under a huge tent, celebrates all products Peruvian. There are booths dedicated to quinoa (black, red and white), bread, chocolate, olives and, of course, potatoes. Hundreds of them, millions it seems. The vendors are men in brightly colored, hand-embroidered suits and women wearing traditional clothing, hair in braids, topped with what look like hipster hats. They offer purple, red, yellow and white potatoes, little black squiggly ones, large round polka-dotted ones. They’ve schlepped them from the far corners of the Andes in sacks. One proud indigenous lady, her pretty denim-clad daughter looking on, cuts open a yawar huayco to show me its royal purple interior — blue black juice drips down her weathered hand. I want to buy them all; airline/border restrictions hold me back, but I purchase a few kilos anyway.
Eater’s haven at Mistura
A light sea breeze starts to waft through the market tent, carrying with it the incense of the kitchen. The mundos (worlds), as the food stand areas are designated, gently beckon. My heart starts pounding. I need to eat everything. How am I going to do it? There’s no time, no stomach big enough. I’m afraid to blink, fearful it will all disappear. It’s a virtual eater’s heaven. Stands are divided by region. Mundo Amazónico offers various preparations of the freshwater fish paiche, fragrant tamales of rice seasoned with fresh turmeric called juanes, and to wash it all down the hot pink juice of the camu camu, a jungle fruit with a wildflower-like fragrance.
I forget that we’re not in Mexico and norte doesn’t mean the deserts of Sonora and Chihuahua. The north of Peru is warm and heavily influenced by indigenous culture. The signature dish of this area is seco de cabrito, a stew of goat flavored with black corn “beer,” cilantro, oregano, and fresh and dried chilies. The meat is tender and fragrant, like a mild Indian curry.
In the Mundo de Ceviche section I choose the busiest stand and order a classic tiradito de pescado: thin strips of flounder are showered with spiky leche de tigre, perfumy lime juice with a bit of ground fresh ají, a yellow chili. It’s like sashimi, softer and subtler than Mexican ceviche, masterfully made.
In Mundo Limeño I can’t resist sampling Doña Chela’s aji de gallina. The doña smiles maternally while efficiently ladling out Peru’s comfort dish to adoring fans. Chicken, cooked in beautiful hand-polished earthen pots, is bathed in a velvety cream sauce thickened with bread and augmented by mildly picante roasted yellow peppers. At this point I’m no longer hungry, but I get a plate anyway.
Peru’s lexicon of cooking includes what has been labeled Nikkei, the melding of Japanese and home traditions utilizing local ingredients. It is proffered at El Mundo Oriental, several of whose stands combine fresh fish corn, ají peppers, yucca and potatoes in new ways. Another popular food category here is chifa, a simplified Chinese adaptation of stir-frying that is found all over Lima.
A crowd magnet
I skip past the Mundo Oriental in order to leave room for grilled chancho, the most popular dish of all. In the Mundo de las brasas (world of the coals), long lines of hungry eaters wait patiently while workers stoke huge, medieval-looking wood fires to roast whole, midsized pigs. Pork-infused smoke permeated this crowded section — the sweet aroma turning even the head of a near-vegetarian. I wait until shortly before closing when I finally procure a plateful of the divinely tender chopped meat. My stomach says “enough already” but my senses reply, “Go for it!”
Peru is now in a gastronomic boom; its culinary traditions have become known around the world in recent years. Street and market food are unparalleled, comparable in scope and quality to that of Mexico or Thailand, and its burgeoning high-end restaurant scene, with its myriad fusions of deep-rooted traditions, is fascinating.
I leave happy, sated. That’s how a visit to a country fair should be.
Top photo: Potatoes add a splash of color at Mistura food fair in Lima, Peru. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
I’ve been reading with fascination Michael Moss’ often hilarious and deeply thoughtful article in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine. Moss — his book “Salt Sugar Fat” is a must-read for anyone who wonders how the American diet got to its present parlous state — approached a top ad agency, Victors & Spoils. (I thought it was a joke at first, but no, that really is an agency, renowned for provocative crowd-sourcing campaigns.)
What would happen, Moss proposed, if you created an ad campaign for, let’s say, broccoli, probably one of America’s most hated vegetables. The Times article follows Moss through his research on how a Coca-Cola type of campaign might approach the problem of vegetable dislike. (On the way, he looks at another key link in the chain — how American farmers could produce more vegetables and why they don’t.)
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Because the fact is, if you look at statistics, we hate vegetables. Oh, I know, someone is going to respond by saying, “No, no, we love all vegetables, we eat nothing else.” But you, dear reader, are a sadly diminishing minority. Moss cites a 2010 study by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services that concluded only 5% of Americans younger than 50 are getting the recommended five servings a day. Most Americans consume daily only half as many vegetables and less than half the fruit they ought to be eating. (And most of that fruit is in the form of juice — the least healthful way to get it.)
That five servings a day, recommended by no less an authority than the World Health Organization, is itself a bit of wish fulfillment.
No one in fact knows for sure whether fruits and vegetables on their own will have an effect on chronic disease rates. (There is some skepticism about cancer protection, as noted in this BBC report.) But it’s very clear anecdotally at least that a diet high in a variety of fruits and vegetables has a positive impact on health.
So why don’t we eat more?
Probably because it’s too easy not to. Junk food, fast food and the like are all around us, mostly at arm’s reach. If you’re going to eat more vegetables, you have to prepare them — wash ’em, trim ’em, look ’em over for slugs or bugs or worse and then … cook ’em. (Unless you prefer to live on salad.)
What’s a busy guy to do? Reach for the microwavables. Maybe Healthy Choice’s Chicken & Potatoes with Peach BBQ Sauce, which has a whopping 24 grams of sugar and just 5 grams of dietary fiber, plus about a third of the total daily sodium intake recommended for people older than 50. Maybe not such a healthy choice after all?
Kale, leafy greens are worthy additions to your menu
Nonetheless, the selection of greens in most produce markets, even in the most ordinary supermarkets, grows greater every year, and somebody has to be buying, cooking and eating them. Along with the usual spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, we find such offerings as broccoli rabe (aka rapini), collards, turnip greens, kale in many varieties, mustard greens, bok choy, beet greens and dandelion greens. The list goes on and on.
Nutritional powerhouses, these are often, sad to say, the most detested items on any menu, especially for children. But here’s the secret: It’s all in the cooking. No one could possibly love greens if they’re steamed to a limp, gray mash, then dumped on a plate with a blob of cold butter stuck on top. But done the Mediterranean way, they reveal, first of all, flavor. Then texture. Then an overpowering deliciousness. Garlic, oil, a little chili pepper, a scrap of citrus juice — they make all the difference in the world.
I just made the following utterly simple recipe using Tuscan kale, aka lacinato or dinosaur kale, the kind with long, dark green, slightly blistered leaves that is a growing presence in supermarket produce sections. You could do the same with spinach (much more cleaning, much less cooking time), chard, turnip greens (cutting away tough stems, otherwise leaving whole), ordinary kale (de-stemmed), broccoli rabe (trimmed of tough stems) and many other greens you find.
Braised Kale With Oil, Garlic and Chili Pepper
Makes 6 servings
3 pounds fresh Tuscan kale, lacinato kale or dinosaur kale
Sea salt to taste
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus a little more for garnish
1 small dried hot red chili pepper or a pinch of chili flakes
1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice or aged red wine vinegar (not balsamic)
1. Prepare the kale by stripping the leaves away from the stems. (Hold the stem in your right hand; grasp the leafy part in your left hand and simply slide down the stem, releasing the leaves.) Rinse thoroughly in a couple of changes of water.
2. Transfer the rinsed greens to a pot large enough to hold them all. Add a sprinkle of salt and a couple of tablespoons of boiling water. Set over medium heat and cook, covered, until the greens are wilted.
3. Remove and drain, then transfer to a chopping board and chop the greens coarsely in several directions.
4. Set a skillet large enough to hold all the cooked greens over medium heat and add the garlic and olive oil. Cook, stirring, until the garlic starts to soften, then add the chopped greens, stirring and turning them in the aromatic oil until they have completely absorbed it.
5. As soon as the greens start to sizzle in the pan, remove from the heat and taste, adding more salt if necessary. Stir in the chili pepper and lemon juice.
6. Pile the greens on a heated platter and garnish with a dribble more of oil. Or serve the greens atop crostini, toasted slices of Tuscan country-style bread rubbed lightly with a cut clove of garlic and dribbled with a small amount of oil.
Top photo: Baskets of greens for sale at a market in Camucia, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins