Articles in Travel
In a country that cooks European food notoriously poorly and has its own renowned cuisine, it might seem risky and even foolish to open a Western restaurant in a small northern Thailand town that is an hour and a half from a major city. But The Nest at Chiang Dao isn’t hurting for business, and owner Wicha Cavaliero’s commitment to quality cooking and ingredients is only part of the reason.
What makes a great chef and what, in turn, makes a great restaurant? The answers vary, but at the Nest, a few answers are clear: unpretentious surroundings and staff; locally-sourced, organic ingredients; and a commitment to quality, even if it means halting growth.
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Wicha, who was born in Bangkok and received her culinary training at Norwich City College and affiliated internships in the United Kingdom, speaks with an intensity and frankness that might lead you to believe she has been taking nips of sherry back in the kitchen. But this Michelin-trained chef is a serious professional who will not change her style to please diners.
Remote, rural and beautiful
A good example of Wicha’s unwillingness to compromise is The Nest’s location. At the foot of a massive mountain, tiny Chiang Dao is not the first place one might think of when opening a European restaurant. Only a small trickle of tourists makes its way up north to this quiet spot, but nearly all are here to dine at The Nest. She chose the location for its beautiful setting, as well as the opportunities for making an impact on a small Thai town. “I can do more here than anyone else, because they need it,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be me, it could be anyone.”
“I want to bring up my children in an appropriate natural place. That is why this place is called the Nest,” she said. She notes that being in a beautiful, rural location has helped maintain a happy marriage. Stuart Cavaliero, Wicha’s British husband, is an integral part of the restaurant.
“I manage the restaurant and he manages me. Without him I probably wouldn’t have opened. He is more Thai that I am; he knows all the traditions and is very caring,” she said.
Patrons listen to ‘the stars talking to each other’
Though the restaurant has the business to support growth, Wicha prefers to keeps it small and simple. A tile-floored dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows looks out to the mountain, and Wicha notes that expanding the room would erase that view. “I want to see the view, I want to see the mountains,” she said. “I’d rather be happy and poor than rich and not happy.” Thus, the restaurant remains very intimate.
Keeping the operation small is just one tenet Wicha will not break. “The Nest is so popular because we have so many laws and unwritten rules,” she said with a laugh. “We don’t allow many things, such as music.” When I ask her why she doesn’t play music in the dining room, she nods her head towards the thunderstorm rumbling outside. “There is the rain, the bamboo, stars talking to each other,” she said. “I’d rather hear the sound of people laughing. And maybe the music I like, you don’t like. You can’t make it perfect for everyone. There’s only one kind of music that is perfect for everyone — it’s the sound of raindrops.”
Wicha treats her staff respectfully, and it is obvious that they in turn respect her. They move in comfort around her, asking questions during our interview or alerting her to any issues. Wicha is always quick to respond, jumping up to talk to a guest or check on something in the kitchen. “I don’t find my staff, they find me,” she said. She takes local residents, many of them Shan (from Shan state in Burma), under her wing and trains them, which is certainly a big time investment. “It’s easier to deal with people who have will,” she said, adding how proud she is of her staff.
As much of the food as possible is locally sourced. Wicha visits Chiang Dao’s Tuesday market and picks produce from vendors she trusts. She explained that much of the produce is not certified organic, but that local farmers do not have the money for pesticides (or expensive organic certificates). Vendors know her and what she likes.
The menu changes daily and is written on a chalkboard. Breakfast features classics such as farm-fresh eggs and homemade bread. One popular lunch feature is the grilled eggplant sandwich on homemade bun with green salad. Dinner entrees usually include a lamb, steak and duck option.
The Nest started small, with just six bungalows that had no showers or toilets. When a group of hoteliers arrived shortly after opening and had to eat steak under umbrellas, Wicha realized she needed to expand the dining room to its current size, as well as upgrade the bungalows. Today, there are more than a dozen huts, with soft mattresses and thick blankets, as well as a nearby Nest 2 location with a restaurant serving excellent Thai food.
The Nest has received international acclaim, though Wicha seems unaffected. She simply wants a business she can feel good about: “Even if I die tomorrow I can still feel proud,” she said.
The Nest at Chiang Dao, Northern Thailand. Credit: Catherine Bodry
Once a year cows, pigs, sheep, goats, birds, flora and fauna — not to mention a vast cornucopia of foods, wines and liqueurs made from them — make their way to Paris from France’s diverse regions, including its overseas colonies, for the Salon de l’Agriculture.
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The Salon de l’Agriculture encapsulates France’s commitment to its agricultural heritage, especially on the part of the capital, which has, since the late Middle Ages, depended upon importing food into the city. Unlike medieval antecedents, such as the Foire Saint-Germain, the salon no longer plays an essential role in supplying such products to Paris. Nevertheless, no other event so effectively offers Parisians and others the opportunity to sample and learn about them.
For many Parisians, an annual visit to the salon is their primary contact with rural France. One father from the edgy 20th arrondissement explained that he’d brought his daughters, who are 5 and 8, because although they had no trouble recognizing exotic zebras, lions and elephants, they had difficulty with common farm animals.
Salon de l’Agriculture exhibits beckon with specialties
With more than 4,000 animals, the feeling is that of an old-fashioned county fair blown up on an epic scale. However, all of the counties are represented against the backdrop of the most cosmopolitan of cities.
Gourmandizing visitors often find it hard to spend more than a perfunctory moment visiting cows, watching sheep-shearing and equestrian feats, or perusing the somewhat disappointing fruit and vegetable pavilion, which is admittedly challenging to mount in winter. The fair’s largest section, which features two football-stadium-sized floors filled with French regional foods and wines, beckons too strongly.
It is tempting to nickname this area, “infinite variations on pigs and grapes, punctuated by ducks, geese and plenty of cheeses.” Sausages of every shape and size dangle alongside hams from Bayonne, Auvergne, Franche-Comté, Corsica and numerous other regions. Oenophiles sample grand cru wines and engage in prolonged, sotto voce negotiations with winemakers in the subdued Burgundian section. The overseas area, however, buzzes with Caribbean music, tropical fruits and Creole boudins, as visitors jostle to purchase cups of Planter’s Punch. Waffles, caramels, ice cream and oysters proliferate in the Breton area; while a cacophony of cheeses, sweets, honey and preserves vie for attention at nearly every turn.
The Île-de-France features bakers, who prepare baguettes on the spot, and members of the Confréries de l’Île de France, wearing Masonic-like robes and medallions, who proffer samples of protected-name brie de Meaux. This guild-like organization has plenty of other regional counterparts, whose members can be found parading around in similarly antiquated garb.
The fair’s layout bears no relation to geography, which produces surprising juxtapositions. This year, the Norman area, replete with artisanal Calvados and seafood, adjoined the southwestern section, overflowing with foie gras and a staggering array of other duck-based treats.
Those who prefer not to graze on take-away items and free samples can opt to dine at one of more than 30 restaurants, each specializing in a different region.
For the artisanal producers who exhibit at the salon, it represents big business, not because of retail clients but for the numerous wholesale buyers who attend from across France.
The competition for the annual Concours Générale Agriculture, which has since 1870 awarded medals to the best examples of a broad range of foods, wines and liqueurs, takes place over the fair’s nine days. On opening day, visitors visibly flocked to stands flaunting gold medals from 2012, such as for duck foie gras at Jean-Pierre G. of Landes; or for Champagne over at Champagne Sanger. By the closing day, attendees sought out newly minted winners such as Biper Gorri for its Basque piment d’espelette and the Nyonaise Cooperative, which won medals for several Côtes du Rhone wines and for its olive oil. Every winning product can thereafter carry a sticker announcing its award, so the prestige and profits of winning reverberate long after the fair.
A powerful political stage
Politicians keenly milk the Salon de l’Agriculture’s symbolic potency. French President François Hollande opened this year’s event, while former Prime Minister François Fillon of the UMP and Marine Le Pen, head of the right-wing FN party, also made conspicuous appearances. During last year’s lead-up to the French presidential election, overt campaigning was rampant.
So too, fast-food corporations such as McDonald’s, which has been wildly successful in France since emphasizing the use of French products, and agribusiness invest in large stands.
Nevertheless, with a host of rare, conservation breeds, plenty of demonstrations and interactive displays, and especially the strong presence of so many artisanal producers and vendors, the salon powerfully promotes and protects France’s agricultural heritage and gastronomic culture.
Rare Casta and Lourdaise cows, now under conservation, at the 2013 Salon de l’Agriculture. Credit: Carolin C. Young
It seems Mediterranean food is back in the news, as it should be. As an author who writes about Mediterranean cuisines, I am often asked about my favorite cuisine and recipes. These are impossible questions, but heck let’s give it a shot. So here are my five greatest celebratory dishes of the Mediterranean. You can’t please everyone and the list won’t include everyone’s favorite, but here are my choices for legendary dishes.
The Mediterranean has been the home of great feast celebrations at least since Odysseus sailed the wine-dark sea with his men feasting on roast lamb. The popularity of Mediterranean food today draws all of us to its classic meals. We see this popularity everywhere from the promotion of the Mediterranean diet, to so-called Mediterranean dishes in scores of restaurants, and on the pages of food magazines.
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Think you don’t know Mediterranean food? If you’re eating pizza, yogurt, lasagna, tapas, bruschetta and couscous, you’re eating Mediterranean food. However, the world of Mediterranean food is huge, deep, and varied.
Celebrate with these great dishes of the Mediterranean
As soon as we hear about its health benefits we’re presented with a variety of famous and not-so-famous celebratory meals that are extravagant and rich and delicious that belies our perhaps false notion that Mediterranean food is mostly green vegetables with a touch of olive oil.
A celebration in the Mediterranean is a big deal and here are, arguably, the five greatest preparations in the Mediterranean, any of which can be made to celebrate. Each of these dishes is utterly unforgettable.
The Moroccan bastila (also transliterated pastilla) is a magnificent pigeon pie rich with eggs, butter, almonds, spices such as saffron and ginger, herbs such as cilantro and parsley, and orange flower water. The dish is encased in thin pastry leaves called warka, which are like phyllo pastry leaves, and finally dusted with confectioner’s sugar and powdered cinnamon.
In Morocco, it’s usually eaten at the end of Ramadan. If you try the recipe, read it several times before beginning so you are familiar with what happens. Given how labor-intensive the preparation is, you’ll only want to make it for friends who truly appreciate good food, and who love Moroccan food already. You’ll need a 16-inch round baking pan.
A large steel pan of saffron-infused and yellow sticky rice with fish, shrimp and runner beans or with chicken is an invitation to a great feast in Valencia. One of the great misunderstandings about paella is that true Valencian Spanish paella is made in one of two ways, with chicken or with seafood, and never with mixed meats. Today there are many variations, including dishes that mix meats and seafood. To make paella authentically, you cook it in a flat steel pan over an open fire outside without ever stirring the rice. You’ll need an 18-inch steel paella pan that can be purchased online from Dona Juana.
This classic preparation of coastal Provence is almost never made at home and tends to be a restaurant dish. That doesn’t mean home cooks can’t make bouillabaisse. My recipe seems more complicated than it should be because I wanted a recipe that doesn’t makes compromises. You should follow it exactly, and you’ll have an experience identical to the one I had at the Tetou restaurant in Golf-Juan in France, where we lingered over a bouillabaisse all afternoon. The gentle waves of the Mediterranean sea were lapping mere feet away from us while the air was redolent of saffron, fennel, orange, garlic, and rascasse, the essential scorpionfish.
The idea of a pasta pie is one of the most extravagant in all Italian cuisines. The 16th- and 17th- century cookbooks included recipes per far pasticcio (for making pie) which usually meant pasta pie.
One version of a pasta pie is the timballo, which is a kind of pasta pie or pasticcio in Italian. This dish is made in a ball mold that looks like a timbale or kettledrum, hence the name. One of the most famous renditions of this dish is found in the wonderful 1996 movie “Big Night.” In the film, the timpano (Neapolitan for timballo) is not made with a pastry crust, making its unveiling all the more tense as everything is held together precariously. One can make it in any kind of springform mold or deep pie pan with or without a short dough pastry crust.
The Arabs, Turks and Greeks all make a variation of the same preparation of spit-roasted, seasoned fatty meat on a vertical rotisserie. It is purely street food and never made at home, and perhaps shouldn’t be called “celebratory” as it is everyday snacking food in its birthplace. For me, though, every bite of a gyro is a celebration, so I include it.
The Turks call it döner kebabı, the Greeks gyro (pronounced YEE-ro), and the Arabs shāwurma. In Greece, a gyro is made with slices of meat rather than ground patties as it is in some places. Although it’s quite common to see electric rotisseries, many believe the hardwood charcoal rotisseries with their vertical shelves for charcoal are the best way to cook the meat.
The meat used for these dishes is varied. Generally it is a combination of the best cuts of top sirloin, loin, and shoulder of lamb. These cuts are not necessarily ground but pounded very thin, layered, seasoned and skewered.
Any one of these five preparations will be a challenge with a great reward. Make any of these and you will understand more about the culinary patrimony of the Mediterranean than you can imagine.
Bouillabaisse at the Tetou restaurant in Golf-Juan. Credit: Ali Kattan-Wright
“Don’t ask for your T-bone steak well done!” The sign, handwritten on ocher butcher’s-block paper, makes me smile. Nothing has changed at Trattoria Mario since I first ate there in the late 1990s, when I spent three adventurous years researching my book “The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany.” On a return visit to three of my favorite Florentine restaurants, I am reminded of the different facets of Tuscan cuisine, and its enduring traditions. Mario’s is such an integral part of Florence’s central food market’s bustling neighborhood that it closes when the market does. True to Italian form, the most compelling dishes here are handed down from one generation to the next, changing little along the way.
Take the T-bone steak, or bistecca alla Fiorentina, as it’s known. “In Tuscany, ‘la Fiorentina’ is always eaten rare: Any other way is sacrilege!” says Romeo Colzi, one of the late founder’s two sons, as he serves a thick, juicy, freshly grilled steak. His father, Mario, used to say the same thing. The brothers run the busy restaurant with as much enthusiasm as Mario once did, cooking Tuscany’s equivalent to short-order cuisine in the narrow kitchen that flanks their cramped dining room.
The rest of the menu is unaltered too. Mario’s features the rustic dishes of Tuscany’s cucina povera: humble vegetable and bread soups, polenta with ragù, roasted pork liver with onions, Florentine tripe stewed in tomato-rich sauce and simply grilled meats. The pastas — central to any Italian meal, yet rarely an end in themselves — are hearty affairs. Pappardelle sulla pernice are wide noodles tossed with a few spoonfuls of meaty partridge sauce. “This is one of our family recipes,” says Romeo’s wife, Patrizia, as she serves a steaming bowl to a young Korean couple. In the two decades since I first ate here, old Florence — la vecchia Firenze — has found itself a new world of admirers.
A few streets away, near the Duomo, there’s a different kind of Florentine lifestyle. The handsome, 15th-century Renaissance Palazzo Antinori is the headquarters of the aristocratic Marchesi Antinori family, whose members have been producing wine in Tuscany since 1385. They still possess large swathes of vineyards in the region’s most prestigious areas, from Chianti Classico to Montalcino to Bolgheri. On the palazzo’s ground floor is Cantinetta Antinori.
“Landed families like mine traditionally sold produce and wines from their estates directly to the Florentine public from small windows in their palazzi,” says Marchese Piero Antinori, one of the Italian wine world’s most dynamic figures. “In the 1950s our Cantinetta was a simple place where people could drink our wines.”
In recent years it’s become a sophisticated restaurant and wine bar that attracts the city’s well-heeled citizens. Despite somewhat grander surroundings — the high-vaulted dining room features a polished wooden bar and multiple vintages of the family’s prize-winning wines — the food remains true to its country origins.
Crostini are not adorned with foie gras but with wilted Tuscan winter cabbage (cavolo nero) or white beans. The egg pasta is handmade: tender maltagliati con cernia are triangular pieces “badly cut” from a pasta sheet, dressed with a light sauce of Mediterranean grouper. They’re refined yet uncomplicated, as is the best Tuscan cuisine. The menu shifts with the seasons: Some of the Cantinetta’s produce still arrives from the family’s farms. As for the winemaking operations, they’re now mainly run by Piero Antinori’s three daughters, Albiera, Allegra and Alessia.
Tuscan ingredients can also stimulate creativity. In the part of town called Sant’Ambrogio, another large food market specializes in local growers. It’s a lively residential quartiere whose culinary pioneer and star has long been Chef Fabio Picchi. Picchi’s empire straddles a crossroads: on one corner, Cibrèo restaurant and trattoria share the same kitchen. Across the street, Caffè Cibrèo too relies on the main kitchen: the waiters duck the traffic with their trays. A few doors down, Picchi also runs the Teatro del Sale, a members’ club (anyone can join) in an ex-theatre that now features his colourful cooking, with theatrical entertainment in the evenings. For Picchi, food is always convivial.
At the refurbished Cibrèo Caffè, I’m tucked into a cosy table on a red plush-velvet chair that I suspect once sat in the Teatro’s stalls. Fabio Picchi is host here, running the dining room as he explains the dishes with his distinctly Tuscan accent. The antipasto sequence is exciting. Picchi takes some Tuscan classics — sliced tripe, hand-carved local prosciutto, salame — and combines them with more unusual starters. I’m smitten with scordiglià, a firm paste of Sicilian almonds loosened with olive oil and a hint of vinegar. “Spoon it generously onto organic bread to start the meal,” Picchi suggests, unmissable in his bright red cardigan. The procession of small plates includes home-pickled carrots and sun-dried Gallipoli tomatoes. Picchi is currently championing a decidedly non-Italian ingredient: turmeric. I love his silky little budino made of yogurt and lemon with a hint of the spice as well as very subtle black pepper with a long finish. “I’m adding turmeric wherever I can for its anti-cancer properties,” he says.
Picchi has long taken a stance against Italy’s culinary mainstay, pasta. “I love pasta, but it’s easy to cook and best eaten at home,” he says. I’m intrigued by his dumpling-like gnocchi: Thin oblongs of roast potato are rolled in day-old breadcrumbs before being baked and browned in a delicate sauce of ricotta, spinach and turmeric.
When a manly oxtail stew arrives, Picchi demonstrates how to de-bone it. It’s followed by a large, “drowned” Mammolo artichoke filled with a runny egg yolk and served over mashed potatoes. A novel approach — with Tuscan soul. The meal ends with a bitingly bitter grapefruit and orange cheesecake with lingering citrus notes, brought across the street by Fabio’s son, Duccio. “I’m still full of ideas, but I’m enjoying relinquishing some of the reins to my children,” Picchi says. “After 33 years at Cibrèo, I can afford to let go a bit, as long as it’s in famiglia.”
Top photo: Romeo Colzi cuts a freshly grilled T-bone for serving at Trattoria Mario. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Visiting the island of Maui in Hawaii was a last-minute lark. With no plan greater than mindlessly combing the beach, the only sensory experience I sought was that warm island wind my partner affectionately describes as “delicious.” But culinary curiosity won out, and within 24 hours I was combing local markets for all those indigenous ingredients you can’t get anywhere else. Luckily for me, a postage stamp-sized, extraordinary fish market was within walking distance. That’s where I was introduced to poke, the “hang loose” version of sushi.
Poke (pronounced PO-keh) is the Hawaiian way of dressing perfectly fresh, bite-sized chunks of ahi, or yellowfin, tuna with a few simple yet sometimes exotic ingredients. Longtime locals I spoke to recalled poke becoming popular in the 1970s and ’80s. While the dish may not have a long culinary history, islanders are quite addicted to the stuff.
Local flavors enhance freshness of poke
In its simplest form, poke begins with tuna tossed with slivers of sweet Maui onion and finely chopped green onion tops. The fun begins when the tuna salad is then made to order by selecting from a variety of ingredients, including chopped limu koha (fresh red seaweed), inamona (roasted, crushed kukui nut), Aloha Shoyu (local soy sauce), sesame oil and ground fresh red chili paste.
Every grocery store worth its Hawaiian red salt is judged first by the poke it keeps. After visiting a few different markets, it was clear that having the winning reputation for the best poke concoctions on the island was a big source of competition and pride. Poke masters don’t easily give up their secret combinations. At the best of them, long lines form at the poke counter for the quintessential local lunch favorite — poke piled high atop a scoop of steaming white rice.
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Some real digging was required to score the limu koha and inamona. Not typically stocked on grocery store shelves, it took a bit of cajoling with the poke master at Foodland Farms in Lahaina before I wrangled a little bit of these precious staples. You can substitute another authentically Hawaiian nut, the macadamia, for the inamona, but you’d be missing out on the deep, slightly salty, not as sweet finish. Finely chopped and roasted Brazil nuts might be a closer substitute, although not truly local.
Over a week of experimentation, I discovered it’s easy to overpower fresh ahi tuna, blanketing some of its natural sweetness with too much spice. I came to favor poke that celebrated the silky texture and subtle flavor of the catch of the day when seasoned with a light hand. But poke is very personal. Spicy poke is a top seller at many markets. Fresh jalapeno chilies and avocado are popular additions. Even kimchi made an appearance in a version I tasted.
To make this recipe in a true Hawaiian way, don’t worry too much about following it to the letter. Just “hang loose” if you can’t find that red seaweed or the kukui nut and invent your own personal poke favorite.
1 pound fresh ahi, or yellowfin, tuna, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 Maui onion, slivered
1 bunch green onion tops, chopped
½ cup limu kohu (red seaweed)
1 tablespoon inamona (roasted kukui nut), finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground fresh red chili paste
1 teaspoon ONO Hawaiian Seasoning*
⅓ cup soy sauce
¼ cup sesame oil
Gently combine all the ingredients together in a bowl, chill and marinate for at least 30 minutes or longer. As an appetizer, plate it up on its own or with thin savory crackers. For a light lunch, serve the poke accompanied by simple white rice.
* ONO Hawaiian Seasoning can be found in most island markets and online. To substitute, use coarse salt seasoned with cracked pepper, fresh minced ginger, fresh minced garlic, crushed dried chilies, cayenne and ground dried chilies.
Top photo: Some of the poke options at Foodland Farms in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
In a cozy Newfoundland home, a sideboard filled with food I was about to try for the first time beckoned me. There was the jar of seal meat I was dying to try, and next to it was the moose pie. On the stove in a black Dutch oven was the fish stew with its super fresh cod, potatoes and brewis, which is what Newfoundlanders call hardtack, that is, ship’s biscuit made of durum wheat. This was Newfoundland food and I had never known or even thought about what that might be.
I was in Newfoundland in the cold late autumn of 2011 as a guest of the Early Modern Network, a group of Newfoundlanders interested in understanding and promoting the island’s history and forming the bedrock for a new Newfoundland consciousness. Newfoundland has been considered the slightly strange poor cousin of the other Canadian provinces. Its isolation and distance, and the fact that it was not even a part of Canada until 1949, has given Newfoundlanders an inferiority complex that the group hopes to overcome. Newfoundlanders not only didn’t have the right to vote until 1949, but for the last half century they’ve been poor and suffer from poverty-fatigue. It is time for Newfoundland pride.
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The first thing you learn upon arrival in Newfoundland — because it happened to me at customs — is to “underSTAND, NewfoundLAND.” It’s decidedly not “Newfundlun.”
In Newfoundland, when you eat something “fresh,” it means only that it is not salted. Cod rules here, and I don’t think I’ve ever had better cod than that in Newfoundland. On Sundays, many families make “Jigg’s Dinner,” which consists of roast (usually beef), salt beef, collard greens and cabbage cooked with salt beef, boiled carrots, turnip and potatoes, doughballs, beets and mustard pickles, and pease pudding.
Fish and chips with gravy and dressing is a staple dish in St. John’s, the capital. Lightly battered fresh cod deep-fried are served with golden fried potatoes that are tasty and soft with brown gravy and a crumbly turkey-stuffing-type bread stuffing called “dressing” sprinkled on top. I ate this at two nearly identical, rustic and sparely decorated greasy spoons serving the same great food, Leo’s Restaurant and Take-out, 27 Freshwater Road, St. John’s, which is near the other famous fish and chips place Ches’s Fish and Chips, 9 Freshwater Road, St. John’s.
Newfoundland food’s colorful names
I ate some wonderful and fascinating food such as “toutons,” pieces of ripped up and reformed bread made into 5-inch diameter “pies” and fried in butter in a skillet until golden brown and served with molasses or a lightly fried runny egg.
At Blue on Water, 319 Water Street, St. John’s, I had an appetizer of the famous and delicious dish known as “cod sounds and scrunchions.” Cod sounds are the air bladder membrane on the back of the cod that inflate to equalize pressure when the fish dive. They are boiled then salted, pickled, lightly battered and fried in melted pork fatback. The diced pork fatback cracklings are called scrunchions. The cod sounds have a soft raw-oyster consistency.
I had to eat the obligatory “moose meat pie,” which is the stewed shoulder and neck meat of moose that comes out of a jar and is served with a relish made from tomato, apple, onion, vinegar and spices such as cloves, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon as well as “capelin with sliced almonds.” The capelin are the small fish that the cod eat and what brings them to Newfoundland. They are lightly floured and fried in canola oil surrounded by fried sliced almonds and eaten with a rhubarb relish made with half rhubarb and half onion with vinegar, brown sugar, cloves, allspice and cinnamon.
I particularly liked flipper pie, made with the meat from seal flippers that came out of a jar, but couldn’t imagine the hassle of trying to bring that back to the States. Bakeapple was found in many desserts and jams, and it was only later I discovered that it’s the Newfoundland name for cloudberries. I also ate figgy duff, though I never figured out what that was.
Bay Bulls-Style Fish Stew
Bay Bulls is a small fishing village south of St. John’s. Here, “fish stew” means “cod stew.” This stew is made with a hardtack called brewis, which is typical in southern Newfoundland, but not in the north. Hardtack is rock hard biscuit made from durum wheat that must be soaked before using. Every Newfoundland market has Purity hard bread (hardtack or ship’s biscuit).
½ pound pork fatback, cut in three ¼-inch-thick pieces, each scored
1 large onion, sliced
4 Yukon gold potatoes (about 1¾ pounds), unpeeled and sliced ½-inch thick
2 cod heads
1 cup water
1½ pounds boneless cod steaks
3 hardtack biscuits (about ½ pound), soaked in water over night
1. In a Dutch oven or other cast iron stew pot, over medium heat, cook the pork fatback, turning and stirring until crispy brown, about 15 minutes.
2. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until not quite soft, about 5 minutes.
3. Layer the potatoes and cod heads on top of the onions and add water.
4. Place the cod steaks on top, cover, and once the water starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until done, 30 minutes.
5. Drain the soaking hardtack biscuits, crumble with your hands and sprinkle on top of the cod, cover, and cook 10 minutes. Serve hot.
Fish and chips with dressing at Leo’s in St. John’s. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Suddenly street food is cool. Perhaps it’s a reaction to lofty trends like molecular gastronomy, vegetable foams and chefs in lab coats. People are ready for more accessible cooking. Some call it street food. Hugo Ortega, a home-schooled chef from Mexico, presents the most recent and best book on the topic in “Street Food of Mexico.”
ZESTER DAILY LINKS
By Hugo Ortega
and Penny de los Santos
Bright Sky Press, 2012, 256 pages
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In my hometown of Mexico City, the phrase “street food” might connote a low-class, unsavory, health risk from which tourists and locals alike are warned to stay away. But foodies on the cutting edge are busy promoting this popular cooking. Restaurants with names such as Street in L.A., Fonda in N.Y. and Ortega’s own Hugo’s in Houston are pulling in crowds. Anthony Bourdain and the Los Angeles Times are touting street food as trendy, reminding us that the best cooking is often found in the most humble places. We fearless global eaters could have told them.
Writing about Mexican cooking in his heartfelt introduction, Ortega’s description could apply to the popular cooking of any culture:
“… street food is actually “slow food,” prepared in someone’s own kitchen with little to no shortcuts, from family recipes handed down through the ages. The food is cooked all through the night on the outskirts of the towns and villages, in kitchen ovens or in deep earthen pits, and brought into city and town centers each morning … Rich with tradition and heritage, street food is the purest form of true authentic … cuisine.”
While other cookbooks on the subject might employ “street food” as a catchphrase, an excuse for simple, plebeian cooking (“easy” usually shows up in the title of these books), this one is true to its subject. Recipes are for dishes really found at stalls on the street or in markets.
The book is divided into chapters delineating seven styles of foods by their Spanish titles: antojitos, tacos, salsas, tortas, ceviches y cocteles, dulces and bebidas. Thankfully, Spanish names come first with descriptions underneath in English — no condescension here.
Recipes reflecting the spirit of the street
Recipes are tweaked, updated but only minimally, without losing their true homey nature. For example, empanada de camarón (half-moon pie stuffed with shrimp) is commonly found at every seafood stand in Mexico. Here, the dough calls for butter and the filling for olive oil, two ingredients undoubtedly too expensive for market and street stalls to stock. But nothing else about this recipe is compromised. It’s just as grandma would want you to make it, with good old butter and olive oil instead of the cheaper versions thereof.
The section on tacos is especially informative, and again true to the streets of Mexico — the most interesting recipes have been culled from the author’s travels around the country and interpreted to re-create authentic flavors. Occasionally a cooking method is altered, but to good effect. Tacos al pastor, Mexico City’s famous spit-grilled marinated pork, is impossible to reproduce in the home kitchen. But Ortega’s oven-roasted version will approximate the flavor and texture of the original.
One of the most visually astounding features of street and market stalls is the rainbow of colorful fresh and cooked salsas. This chapter gathers the best multi-regional examples and explains the essentially Mexican techniques, such as dry-roasting chilies, in detail.
Tortas get their due in ‘Street Food of Mexico’
The torta, Mexico’s version of the sandwich is not well known outside the country, but ubiquitous within. Ortega covers the topic thoroughly — even a recipe for the bread is given. He includes interesting regional items, like the capital’s guajolota (a tamal within a roll), a “gilded lily” to some, a divine treat to others.
Although essential beach food, ceviches are found in street stalls throughout Mexico. Ortega’s simple ceviche de huachinango (red snapper) is a textbook example that should be in any Mexican cook’s repertory. The caldo de camarón, a rich soup made with chilies and dried shrimp, is true to the stand, Mexico City’s El Caguamo, from which the recipe is gleaned.
This is a fine cookbook — user-friendly, well written, uncompromising in transposing recipes for the home cook, and beautifully illustrated by renowned food and travel photographer Penny de los Santos. “Street Food of Mexico” is an important addition to any library of Mexican or world cuisine.
It’s 4:50 a.m. and I’m standing on a still-darkened street corner in an unpromising part of Hong Kong with a handful of elderly Chinese men. I got up before dawn to visit the city’s wholesale fish and vegetable markets, which are just finishing business at this hour. I’m not sure whether the others waiting here are market workers or simply early risers. Unlike me, they are habitués of Tak Yu, a historic Hong Kong eatery from the 1920s famous for its dim sum. At precisely 5 o’clock, a small door in the steel siding opens and the line of men disappears inside. I wait for the main door to open, a few minutes later, before following them upstairs to the large dining rooms on the second floor.
The tradition of dim sum, or yum cha (literally, “drink tea”) as it is also known here, began in 18th-century Guangzhou, in southern China. Teahouses there competed for their clients’ business by offering small dishes to accompany the tea. Over time, these developed into an elaborate repertoire of over 100 recipes that could easily be shared, like tapas. Many are steamed or fried.
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At this early hour we don’t want many dishes, but Dorathy Yu orders a few classics, from wide, steamed beef meatballs (牛肉球) served on fine bean-curd skin, to steamed rice-noodle rolls with sliced chicken (雞絲粉卷), and char siu bao (叉燒包), a popular bun filled with barbecued pork and baked with a light sugar glaze. The most intriguing are the taro dumplings (芋角), in which mashed taro root is combined with diced shiitake mushrooms, shrimp and pork before being deep fried. Their unusual spiky, crisp batter makes them resemble little fluffy animals. There’s nothing refined about this food: The meats ooze with fat and flaunt their richness. These are the earthy flavours of China as they have been maintained for decades at this ever-popular restaurant.
As we eat, Dorathy explains more about dim sum culture. “Dim sum is quite common in Hong Kong. Many people enjoy it for family gatherings: I go to dim sum restaurants once a week with my parents, usually on Saturday or Sunday morning. We are rarely able to relax together during the week, but at the weekend we make time to eat and talk. Dim sum is not cooked at home — there are too many dishes to prepare. We select the restaurant according to our mood: Each is known for different specialities.”
Comparing dim sum
Later that day I go for dim sum again, at a much higher end of the dining scale. Lung King Heen is one of Hong Kong’s most exclusive restaurants and is known for fabulous dim sum. It is located in the luxurious modern Four Seasons hotel and was the world’s first Chinese restaurant to earn three Michelin stars. The elegant dining rooms offer panoramic views over Victoria Harbour. Chef Chan Yan Tak — known as “uncle” — creates a seasonal dim sum menu to complement the restaurant’s more formal Cantonese cuisine; there is a list of premium teas for those who don’t want wine. Chef Chan is not a media-seeker. He insists that success comes from using quality produce and the team’s hard work.
As with all Chinese food, the ideal here is to go with at least two friends to be able to share and compare lots of dishes: China is one country where eating alone limits your chances of enjoying as many taste experiences as possible. I begin with a few of the chef’s summer dim sum dishes. If the characteristic dim sum trolleys have been banished at Lung King Heen, the food arrives beautifully arranged on trays, set like jewels in sleek silver steamers. A clutch of organic vegetables is beautifully wrapped in translucent green rice dough for the zucchini dumpling: It’s crunchy, fragrant and refined. Beside it, a steamed lobster and scallop dumpling is topped with a plump river shrimp and reveals itself succulent and pure. Condiments for the dumplings include broad bean paste, chili oil and spiced soy sauce. The chicken and abalone puff is baked as a two-bite pie with crisp short pastry. It’s piping hot, and displays the prized shellfish beneath a hearty poultry glaze.
Chef Chan excels at barbecue. I opt for a sampling, and I’m presented with three pieces, like little poems of texture and taste. The barbecued pork combines fatty and complex lean meat with subtle honey notes. My suckling pig’s skin is arranged like a crisp caramel layer over the soft meat. A small portion of goose conjures up the vision of the whole bird roasting in a wood-burning oven, and goes well with its clean-flavored plum sauce. After this, an obligatory bowl of soup fills the palate: double-boiled tomato and potato, with fish tails and pork. I wish I had room for more of these excellent dim sum: I’d be drawn to dumplings of bird’s nest and crab roe, and to barbecued pork buns with pine nuts. Alas, I’ll have to wait for my next trip to Hong Kong to find out how they taste!
Top photo: Steamed dumplings at Lung King Heen, Hong Kong. Credit: Carla Capalbo