26 November 2008

Panamanian Fiesta

Cooking lessons from Panamanian matriarchs:

1. Only deep fry in vegetable oil. Canola tastes too heavy, and olive oil is too dangerous!
2. Deep fried plantain chips should always be made while still green and need no other seasoning than love.
3. Time is the real secret ingredient, so wherever you can, marinate for days, braise for hours, and allow ingredients to reduce over heat until they have been distilled to their essential goodness.
4. Fried pork is perhaps the naughtiest appetizer invented
5. Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, onion, garlic, salt, and season-all can and should be applied in all meat situations.
6. Flan should be drunker than the cook: steeped in rum for a week
7. Dried-out beef slow cooked in tomatoes and Panamanian spices is a treat from meat heaven.
8. Always save your cooking oil from frying plantains and pork to flavor rice or any other dish.
9. Never underestimate the deliciousness of rice and beans.
10. Beauty is possible well into one's eighth decade with enough good food, alcohol, and company.

Thank you Maria and Tia Venus for your fabulous cooking and hospitality!

25 November 2008

At long last the Frontier!

Angela Williams, a UNM grad, took us to a favorite student hangout called Frontier. This large diner has remained largely untouched for the past several decades (except for a new electronic system that calls out filled orders), and that's the way Albuquerque likes it.

Their breakfast burritos are superb primarily because of the fresh, handmade tortilla. It's filled with a scrambled egg, shredded cheddar cheese, hash browns, and green chili. Meats ranging from carne adovada to bacon can be added, but I had mine classic.

Fresh squeezed orange juice is a cheap citrus fix. Cinnamon rolls are dangerously good when drowned in hot, sweet, and spicy butter.

24 November 2008

Red or Green?

Dispatch from Albuquerque, NM:

Sadies on a Monday night was packed. Frank's parents said we were lucky to get a table so quickly. Since we had been fasting in preparation of a week of New Mexican, Panamanian, and Texan feasting, the complimentary chips served with a surprisingly hot red salsa (every last seed in those peppers was added) were gobbled up, as was an order of guacamole, which was interesting for its very clean flavors. It tasted as though it was made only with avocado, a bit of lime, salt, and tomato - not even any cilantro or jalepeño.

Sadie's salsa is so popular that they sell it across the country. A variety of other New Mexican foods are sold on their website, including chili sauce, enchilada sauce, and sopapilla mix.

For main courses I had enchiladas (as Sadies was once rated to have the best enchiladas in NM), filled with their specialty of carne adovada. The waiter asked if I wanted them flat or rolled, and the perennial NM question of red or green chili? Rolled, both.

It came on a magnificently large platter, the heaps of food allowing no plate to peek through. There are two enchiladas to an order, smothered in cheddar cheese, swimming in its sauces and frijoles (beans). The carne adovada filling the corn tortillas turned out to be slow-cooked chunks of pork in a mild adobo sauce. It melted in my mouth.

The only slight disappointment was the thoroughly plain "Special House" margarita; I should have upgraded to a better tequila, and they should have used fresh lime juice.

More updates to follow: now we're heading out for Breakfast Burritos...

22 November 2008

Turkish Feast

I promised a Turkish friend to write a column devoted to the cuisine of his country after we both bemoaned its relative obscurity in New York. Turkish food is too good to remain unknown! If you are lucky enough to have a specialty shop nearby like I do (92nd and 1st Avenue for any of you who live on the UES), then you can buy actual Turkish bread with sesame seeds baked in, Turkish feta (which is creamier and less salty than most other styles), and the Turkish yufka pastry (which is a bit drier and thicker than typical Greek-style phyllo pastry). However, pita bread, Greek-style phyllo, and any kind of feta will work in a pinch, so there can be no excuses for not trying this heart-warming meal.

The cigar bureks are best when eaten right away, and the meatballs are well served with both the tomato and yoghurt sauce inside a sandwich of Turkish bread, garnished with chopped, long green Italian peppers (which are close to a popular kind of Turkish pepper), with lemon wedges squeezed over everything.

Cigar Bureks (Sigara böreği)
- 1 package of yufka pastry (or phyllo pastry), defrosted and stored in the fridge
- 1 ½ cups feta cheese (Turkish feta if you can find it)
- 1 bunch parsley, chopped finely
- 1 egg
- ½ tsp. ground black pepper
- enough vegetable oil for shallow frying in a heavy pan
- Lemon wedges for serving

• Mix the feta, parsley, egg, and black pepper in a bowl
• Using defrosted pastry, carefully peel off only one sheet per burek. Have a cup of water handy for later when you roll it.
• If you’re using yufka, the sheets are cut in rounded triangles, while phyllo comes in retangles. The goal is the same: fold them up so that no filling can escape, in the shape of cigars (like egg rolls, but thinner):
• Spread about 2 Tb. of the filling into a parallel line 2 inches from the bottom of the round edge on the yufka, or the shorter edge of the phyllo
• First fold the left and right edges over to hold in the filling on the sides
• Fold the bottom edge around the filling tightly, rolling it over and over to the end of the sheet.
• Seal the end of the roll with a bit of water on your finger
• Repeat until you run out of filling.
• Heat vegetable oil in a big, heavy pan so that it is less than an inch deep. (about 350˚F if you have a cooking thermometer). Be careful when doing this! Use tongs.
• Fry each burek until golden-brown on the outside, without crowding the pan
• When done, transfer the bureks to a plate covered in paper towels to blot the excess oil
• Eat while still warm, with lots of lemon juice squeezed on top.

Tomato Meatballs (Izmir kôftesi)
For the Meatballs:

- 1 lb. lean ground beef
- 1 onion, grated
- 1 handful of breadcrumbs
- 2 eggs
- 1 bunch parsley, chopped finely
- 1 tsp. paprika
- 1 tsp. red chili flakes
- generous salt and pepper, to taste

• Preheat oven to 350˚F
• Combine all ingredients in a bowl, mixing well.
• Form large balls, and place on a lightly oiled baking sheet
• Bake in the oven for 40 minutes, turning the meatballs at the 20 minute mark.

For the Tomato Sauce:

- 28 oz. can of tomatoes
- 1 tsp. red chili flakes
- Salt and pepper to taste

• Mix all ingredients in a medium pot, crushing the tomatoes if they are whole
• Simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes, so that it is ready in time if you make it right after the meatballs.

Garlic Yogurt Sauce
- ½ pint plain thick yogurt
- ½ lemon’s juice
- 5 garlic cloves, crushed and minced into a fine pulp

• Mix all ingredients together either directly in the yogurt carton or a pretty bowl. That’s it!

14 November 2008

Exclusive Interview with Rachael Ray!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008
222 E. 44th St., around 2pm.

*this is a rough approximation of a transcript since audience members are not allowed recording devices*

CB: Hi Rachael, my name's Christie.
RR: Hi Christie, welcome to the show!
CB: Thanks! My question to you is, what's your favorite cocktail?
RR: (smiles) I'm not picky! (pauses to consider it a little longer) My friend Nick makes a gorgeous cocktail called Sage Advice. I love them. I have no idea what's in them, although it definitely uses the herb sage; but he has his own cocktail recipe book, and it's probably in there. Nick Mautone. His book is called Raising the Bar. Of course, when I go out, I usually just order a vodka soda - it gets the job done! (broadest smile yet)

Rachael Ray then recounted some stories from her days as a bartender (many years ago), when she bartended on a boat on Lake George. I simply can't do them justice: from winging Slippery nipples and Long Island Ice Teas for the drunks who don't know any better, to licking the ice cubes of mean Canadian tourists who skimp on tip... RR in person is not relegated to the same PG rating as is her host persona on the daytime show; after all, she's now been in FHM twice (according to the Boyfriend who regrets not having bought those issues).

13 November 2008

Eating Middle America

It started out so well.

We arrived at the Sunrise Inn at about 9pm on Halloween (the Friday before elections), ravenous after an interminable road trip from Manhattan, NY to Warren, OH. Marcus (in the blue stripes) and Frank (in the green) had especially craved this food, the down-home taste of campaigns past. Just look at those pictures! Marcus with Sunrise's specialty, Garlic Chicken, and Frank contemplating a sausage hoagie twice the size of his head. Erin and I remain unphoto-ed at this point because we were too busy stuffing ourselves silly with crab cakes and cheeseburgers, respectively. Sunrise Inn epitomizes everything a simple American restaurant should aspire to be: diner-style with booths in the back, every dish cooked to order, several beers on tap. Their menu is gigantic, drawing on cuisines as diverse as Greek and Chinese, showing absolutely no shame in bastardizing culinary traditions in order to smother everything with a bit more cheese, a bit more sauce, making it all that much more comforting. For lunch the next day, we ordered their deep dish pizza, which was twice the depth of a quiche, and filled with as much meats (sausage, pepperoni, and meatball) as with tomato and cheese! I am only a little ashamed to say how much I liked it. It is food that gets the job done: filling and warming you. It is outgoing, friendly, and generous, just like Americans.

Then the problems began.

Restaurants outside of NYC close before 10 on weeknights! Election night, after much breathless watching of the results rolling in, we (spoiled New Yorkers that we are) were stunned to discover that no amount of money could rouse our beloved Sunrisers to bring us take away. With no food left in the house, our only option was Pizza Hut. It was so bad that I didn't even bother to photograph the depressing mounds of food we ordered. The crust on the pizza tasted of fake butter, the macaroni and cheese of something more plastic than Velveeta. Cheese sticks turned out to be the same awful pizza dough with a meagre sprinkle of fake Parmesan. Chicken wings were suspicious, and its dipping sauce tasted like a sewer of chemicals. Do places like this keep in business only because they capitalize on stranded late night eaters?

On our ride back from Ohio, the most palatable option was McDonald's - a pretty swank one actually with free wi-fi and cappuccinos. Yet the sadness imbued by the fried silly putty molds of food they served was best expressed by Erin's downcast gaze as she contemplated her french fries. (Never mind Marcus' gusto - he'll eat anything when hungry - both a chicken sandwich and Big Mac in this case). It's been at least a year since my last meal at the Golden Arches, and my bite into a Big Mac surprised me: the flavor formula remains just as addictive as I remembered. McDonald's is an incredibly successful business, having fed billions of meals to Americans over the years. It does it by being incredibly convenient, cheap, and ruthless in its addition of addictive fats, salts, and sugars in every item sold.

Having spent my childhood abroad, I remember the McDonald's in Rome my parents would take us to after church if we had behaved. It was at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, and the interior looked like a grotto with waterfalls trickling down glittering black marble walls. The succulent chicken sandwiches came as full breasts, slathered in beautifully flavored mayonnaise. Big Macs came in substantial sesame buns, and the meat was not so mysterious. My point is that higher quality food is possible even for the mass market - and that the Italian model is a great model when considering a new food policy for America. In Italian public schools, sub-par ingredients are banned. If children will be fed Parmesan, it must be the real deal: Parmigiano Reggiano; fewer fresh ingredients are bought more frequently; and quality pasta is used instead of limp macaroni. This means with a little loving preparation, every cafeteria can be proud of its food. I still remember the food from my elementary school in Rome as something I looked forward to, and how we were taken on a field trip in second grade to see how buffalo mozzarella is made.

It does take more money to cook better food, but a shift in attitudes is even more important. It's as simple as remembering that quality ingredients make good meals. Americans spend the smallest portion of their budgets on food of any other country, which shows how little we value our food. But good food has the power to raise our quality of life enormously! How can we expect to be nourished bodily, socially, and spiritually, when the major restaurant brands that rule the way our country eats put in minimal effort as to the food, but spends millions on elaborate advertising campaigns? It seems that much like tobacco companies, giant American food producers care more for finding the most addictive formula than for the consumer's welfare. The point of a business to to make money, after all. However, with the interest shown in more recent years for organic foods and celebrity chefs, I wonder if American tastes are turning for the better, and if the power of a new, educated consumer will win a higher standard of food in all venues?

12 November 2008

Cooking on the Campaign

I was granted the honor of designated Comfort Captain for the Get Out the Vote (GOTV) operation in Warren, Ohio. Although it may sound a little dirty, it actually entailed the dual responsibilities of baking and cooking dinners for our team campaigning to turn Ohio blue - what a dream job! One Katie Lyle (the extraordinary volunteer lead organizer of GOTV in Warren) had the premonition for putting me on that task even before she met me or knew my culinary proclivities; those kind of instincts make her a natural leader.

For excellent campaign coverage including details of our victory in Warren and across Ohio, turn to Marcus Roberts' blog, Vom Politik. Though as Scot, Marcus has packed up his bags and campaigned in Warren for the '00, '04, and now the '08 presidential elections; he knows the terrain like few other people. This was my first time accompanying him, and I was primarily struck by the huge disparity of wealth evident even in this factory town. From trailor parks to McMansions (many of them which were under foreclosure), we spent five long and grueling days knocking on doors and getting people to the polls. The long haitus in my blogging since October can be explained by the extreme physical exhaustion that follows such work, a numbing crash resulting from running on adrenaline for so many consecutive days.

I have ministered Marcus back to health after many similar endeavors (such as after the DNC convention), and so had many ideas to implement straight away in my Comfort Captain role, including a policy of primarily home-cooked meals incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables wherever possible without sacrificing the comfort factor. A sample of the menus:


1) Meatball and roast vegetable hoagies, toasted in the oven with melted mozarella.
2) Pasta Alio lio: my mother's recipe of spaghetti in a garlic and olive oil sauce, heated up with red chili flakes, and brightened with lots of chopped fresh parsley on top - no anchovies for this crowd.
3) Meat and bechemel, roast vegetable, and tomato and mozarella lasagnas, homemade down to the tomato sauce (since I'm picky about that sort of thing).


1) The required morale-boosters of brownies and chocolate cookies (both of which, I must admit, tasted better from a mix than from a recipe of my own devices. I especially recommend Ghiradelli for the brownies!)
2) Banana bread & muffins - the sleeper hit despite my limited baking skills!
3) Crisp apples (an item that I enjoyed even though they were snubbed by most in favor of snacks 1 & 2...)
4) Bagels with cream cheese and peanut butter
5) Lots of granola bars

We supplemented this with a dinner out at the Sunrise Inn (which was great) and some take out from Pizza Hut and McDonalds (not so great): experiences of readily-available American food which spoke volumes as to the advantages and disadvantages, trial and error of trying to eat well in this country. It also led to a revelation mid-way through Pennsylvania on our drive back to New York that there should be a Federal Restaurant Czar to set standards for acceptable ingredients and recipes in the chain restaurants that dot our country alongside the highways. No wonder America is obese when all the food readily available enough to fit into our busy lives leaves a sickly sweet aftertaste of overprocessing. It's a plastic coating that covers your tongue, leaving dead taste buds in its wake that confuse sugar withdrawals for hunger pains.

Not to end on a negative note, however, I need to give my many thanks to the gracious and interesting people we met and imposed ourselves upon during our stay in Ohio: especially to Katie and her new husband, Adam, who were saints when it came to having so many people invade their home (and kitchen)! You both are fabulous - congratulations on electing Obama as our 44th president!