Friday, April 30, 2010

Casting for Gilligan's Island

David Edelstein meditates deeply on casting for the rumored upcoming Gilligan's Island movie.

Hmm. A likely smart remake of a really dumb show discussed in a silly, tabloid-ish (yet also somehow brilliant) way by a brainy film critic. My head wants to explode.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Shanghai Expo

Have a look at this breathtaking photo essay and try to tell me you're not dying to go to Shanghai Expo.

All this, plus soup dumplings. Gawd...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Fundamental Secret of Cooking

Here's the tiny but game-changing realization that marked the moment I became competent in the kitchen: Start cooking just about everything slightly too hot, and then turn down the heat.

Cooking's all about heat. There are countless modern stand-ins for "fire", but make no mistake about it, it's always about fire. No fire means no cooking. You need that kinetic energy to make things happen.

I once read an article by a writer who'd challenged a famous chef to come to his apartment and try to prepare something brilliant just from the so-so ingredients on hand in his refrigerator, using his non-professional cookware and appliances. The first thing the chef did when he entered the kitchen was to turn the oven and all stove elements onto "high". This was before examining ingredients, let alone cutting or slicing.

When I read this, it dawned on me that, really, it's all about heat. Recalling my pre-competency cooking, I mostly remember food sitting in pans laboring to get up to speed....and meals emerging piecemeal as certain items took far longer to cook than expected.

Imagine, for a moment, a good chef at work. You're visualizing sizzling, hot, kinetic action, no? Now imagine an amateur. I'll bet you see someone hesitantly stirring away at some silent static pot. The trick is to use heat as a professional driver uses fuel: boldly. Though, of course, you must be focused and careful, too, lest you (respectively) crash or burn!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Spain Trip Part 9: Manzanilla, Day Two

Part 1: Brussels Layover
Part 2: Calçots Somewhere in Catalonia
Part 3: The House of Garlic Mayonnaise
Part 4: Spanish-Italian Fusion in the Countryside
Part 5: Barcelona Holdouts
Part 6: Chocolate Leftovers
Part 7: Tapas in Seville
Part 8: Small Town Andalucia

Good morning, Manzanilla! It's semana santa week, just prior to Easter, and that means torrijas, or honey-soaked pieces of toast. Sigh...if ever a descriptive phrase was destined to fall short in evoking deliciousness, "honey-soaked pieces of toast" is it!

This isn't Miguel's sort of thing, so I strayed to another village cafe, which had triggered my chow-dar as I passed by. Sure enough, there were torrijas, and they were slamming:

Deeply moved, we asked what other pastries are made in house. The proprieter told me she had a cookie pie in the works, but hadn't yet doused it in chocolate. Finishing touches were applied right in front of us while we drooled and moaned:

We strolled over to the village's olive oil cooperative, which sells two liter bottles of the local bold, rich, luxurious aceite for eight bucks. Check out these prices:

Here's the bottling equipment:

We also bought magical, radiant bread from the village cooperative bakery:

I chose not to buy a gallon jug of mosto at the village cooperative winery, figuring I'd just drink it all and then find myself back in the exact same predicament of not having any mosto. Better just to go cold turkey when I left Manzanilla.

Then it was back to El Puesto for lunch. Let's tear this off fast, like a band-aid, so as to cause you, the viewer, as little pain as possible: Miguel asked his mom to cook me this fava bean omelet: a dish of fried eggs with bitter, tender, tiny sprigs of wild asparagus in delicious sauce:

I have no comment. What could I possibly say?

As the sun set, I was startled to run into what appeared to be a stampede down the main street:

These two chatting women didn't bat an eyelash as the bleating pack strolled by en masse:

Here they remain, oblivious, as if nothing had happened:

The next morning, I took the really really fast train to Madrid, performed the complicated transfer to Madrid airport (which involves catching both a commuter train and a subway), arrived in New York, and immediately ran to a Chinese restaurant, like a desperate junkie.

Thanks for coming along.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Spain Trip Part 8: Small Town Andalucia

Part 1: Brussels Layover
Part 2: Calçots Somewhere in Catalonia
Part 3: The House of Garlic Mayonnaise
Part 4: Spanish-Italian Fusion in the Countryside
Part 5: Barcelona Holdouts
Part 6: Chocolate Leftovers
Part 7: Tapas in Seville

We have one more quick stop to make along the highway before pulling into the village: Badía. What appears, from the outside, to be a soulless generic big box convenience store turns out to be a killing field (and I use the term "killing" in the most positive sense) of pork haunches. Behold:

The stink was overwhelming, but my friend, saxophonist Pablo Garcia, braved it for the sake of photography:

This big box convenience store sells amazing jamon iberico, including the rare acorn-fed ham (or, I should say, acorn-fed black ham, which is even better!) both as full appendages and cut up in dainty vacu-packs, at prices that would make a Western Hemispherian cry bitter tears.

Fully porked up, we were ready to hit Manzanilla, a small town an hour outside Seville which no one seems to have heard of. This is perhaps the first-ever Internet photo essay on fabulous Manzanilla, vacation paradise for the questing chowhound.

Check out the amazing architecture and the gleaming blue skies:

Click to blow this one up so you can see the careful tile work on those steps:

And here is the infinitesimally tiny pub in the village center, El Puesto:

Meet Miguel, the quietly genial owner/bartender/waiter/chef/magician, here pouring my 80th glassful of wonderful, wonderful "mosto", the village's young white wine, from a cheap plastic jug which retails for something like a buck:

We're just an hour from Portugal, so it's tempting to draw comparisons between mosto and the young, light Portuguese white wine, vinho verde. But unlike the latter, mosto has very low acid. It's the subtlest of drinks; imagine water that's been just barely touched by the white wine gods. You can drink it forever (hence my 80 glassfuls). Here's glass #81, shot, with obvious reverence, through the front door of Miguel's bar, with the town center in the background:

Pablo's wife Montse, who works in fruit accounting, is like a character from a whimsical French film, and she clearly loves mosto as much as I do:

With mosto, or any other drinks for that matter, you get picos - crunchy little bread stick bites. In Seville, even the best bars serve prepackaged picos that are pretty "meh". These, here in Manzanilla, are nothing less than godly:

Funky, intense sheep cheese, great with mosto:

Here's Miguel's great specialty, carne machada. It's a lot like Italian braciole...if your braciole were prepared by Fred Flintstone. Filled in with eggs and herbs, this brutally delicious stuff separates the true carnivores from the crypto-vegans. Welcome to Andalusia. Nothing to do but man up and tear into it:

Here's the whole deal, from whence Miguel slices:

A hot pressed shrimp salad sandwich. Tasted as good as it looks:

Please click the prawns to expand them, just so I can make you writhe in jealousy:

Did I say in the previous installment that only Galicians are fit to cook octopus? Uh, wrong:

Pork brochettes. Sorry for the smoothy/shiny food mag shot, but Miguel's work could actually pass in that world:

Disarmed by my obvious love for his bar and food, as well as my impressive ingestion of mosto (I may have set a record), Miguel insisted on giving me "a taste" (i.e. a huge plateful) of his own dinner: wild spinach with garbanzo beans, prepared for him by his wife. You know the cliched phrase "I'm not worthy"? That's what I solemnly muttered to myself after each reverential bite (eaten at the outdoor table, so as not to arouse envy in the other patrons, who don't normally get offered Miguel's personal supper):
Obviously, everyone in town knows Miguel and his bar, and while they all happily hang there, drink there, and sometimes eat there, I'm not sure anyone appreciates how great it truly is. Sometimes it takes an outsider to come in and freak out about the incredibility level. I'm proud to have been that outsider. As is often the case in these situations, some regulars were slightly taken aback. This is just our local bar; Miguel's good people, the food's good, sure, it really worth all that fuss?

Yes, it really is.

The next day, Miguel's mom made me some special dishes. Wait'll you see...

Continue on to Part 9

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spain Trip Part 7: Tapas in Seville

Part 1: Brussels Layover
Part 2: Calçots Somewhere in Catalonia
Part 3: The House of Garlic Mayonnaise
Part 4: Spanish-Italian Fusion in the Countryside
Part 5: Barcelona Holdouts
Part 6: Chocolate Leftovers

After razzing Barcelona for being so defiantly un-Spanish, it's time to swing to the other extreme by taking a paseo through the lovely streets of Seville at tapas time (i.e. late afternoon until dinner at 9 or 10). You can fly from Barcelona to Seville for as little as $40 on discount Vueling Airlines...just as long as you don't check a bag. Or reserve a seat. Or pay with a credit card. Or ask for some juice. Or do any of the many, many other perfectly normal things which incur surcharges, some of them steep. Such a deal!

But once you flee your middle seat (aisles and windows cost plenty extra) on the packed, sweaty, awful plane with its testy, condescending flight attendants, just the very pavement is enough to make it all seem worthwhile:

I had only four hours to explore Seville. I'd visited twice before, but was always busy working. This time, I decided to wing it, and just stop in for a bite wherever looked good. The first good-looking place (shoot, everywhere looks good in Seville!) was Bar Europa (C/ Siete Revueltas, 35; 954 217 908), whose famous specialty, I learned later, is quesadillas made with granny smith apples. I wouldn't have ordered that, but I did make out well with croquetas. I've had many of these in Spanish bars, but never made from scratch. I watched the cook toss small bits of jamon into batter and fry it all up. Gawd.

An hour later, I stumbled upon an old woody no-nonsense-looking Seville tapas bar, Bodega Antonio Romero (Antonia Díaz, 19
; 954 223 939), staffed by macho career waiters. These days such waiters are middle-aged and beefy; when I first came to Spain in the late 1980's, waiters were old, short (due to deprivations during the Civil War), bald, and clad in vests. They all looked exactly like Generalissimo Franco. On tour, Pau, Nono, and I would derive endless mirth out of impatiently asking each other if we can get a Franco over to our table to take our damned order.

The Francos are all gone now, but the potato omelet, thank God, remains. This one is paired with lackluster all i oli (a chowhound's fate is to be forever wistful about the limitations of wherever one is; one's ducks are never all in a row):

Superb bull's tail with french fries tasted like the essence of Andalucia:

Here are some more photos of tapas from Antonio Romero over at the superb Sevilla Tapas web site (well worth a surf even for vicarious chowhounding). I particularly need to direct you to a delirious bit of potato porn shot at a place called La Taberna (Calle de Gamazo 6; 954 221 128). Scroll down this page to the photo captioned "fried egg with homemade crisps and tomato sauce" and die a little.

Moving on...

This is from a lousy bar, and the tortilla hidden beneath this saucy blanket was jive, but the sauce itself, salsa salmorejo, was something new to me. Even this bad version tasted like a revelation, brimming with the aroma of fresh tomatoes. Imagine gazpacho rendered in cream:

This place, Meson del Pulpo‎ (Calle de Tomás de Ibarra, 10; 422 05 34) looked good to me. Lots of interesting pulpo (octopus) dishes, and I'm pretty sure they're Galician, and thus qualified to prepare octopus. I must try it next time (along with the aforementioned fried egg with homemade crisps and tomato sauce):

Ok, we're now heading out of Seville, down to a small village which we'll be exploring next time. En route, we stopped at a roadside joint for a dish that was merely adequately tasty, but made my head explode as I tried to ascertain its place in the big culinary scheme of things. This, friends, seems to be the original chicken adobo:

Filipinos have been cooking a vinegary stew called chicken adobo since long before the Mexicans went through there, but the name "adobo" comes from Mexicans, even though red peppery Mexican adobo has nothing to do with the Filipino dish. And this, similarly, which I assume to be the ur-adobo, has nothing to do with Mexican adobo, though this is clearly where the name originally came from (got that?). It's just fried chunks of chicken....with a hard-to-pin-down blend of aromatic spices worked into the batter. I did taste cumin, and cumin's also an ingredient in Mexican adobo. But...idunno. More research is needed.

Seville sure has some great trees:

Continue to Part 8: Small Town Andalucia

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Spain Trip Part 6: Chocolate Leftovers

Part 1: Brussels Layover
Part 2: Calçots Somewhere in Catalonia
Part 3: The House of Garlic Mayonnaise
Part 4: Spanish-Italian Fusion in the Countryside
Part 5: Barcelona Holdouts

Before we leave for Seville, there are a couple of chocolate items to throw in. Barcelona has a gleaming new Museu de la Xocolata, or Chocolate Museum. I had a cup of hot chocolate in their cafe, and it was proper Catalan hot chocolate: luxuriously thick and bitter. The cookie was merely stylish - haughty ingredients that amounted to less than the sum of the parts:

I also had a fine cup at Cacao Sampaka (Calle del Consejo de Ciento, 292; 932 152 544), not far from La Valenciana, the horchateria discussed in my previous report. It was excellent, as well:

Both venues are representative of the new, shiny (not to actually say "pretentious") post-Olympics Barcelona. There are a number of older hot chocolate spots, the best of which is an ancient, woody, atmospheric, and decidedly unshiny place called Dulcinea (Carrer de Petritxol 2, Barcelona) which also makes great churros.

Continue to Part 7: Tapas in Seville.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Spain Trip Part 5: Barcelona Holdouts

Part 1: Brussels Layover
Part 2: Calçots Somewhere in Catalonia
Part 3: The House of Garlic Mayonnaise
Part 4: Spanish-Italian Fusion in the Countryside

The conventional wisdom is to never look for Spanish culture in Barcelona. Locals will fervently inform you - in Catalan, not Spanish - that you are in Catalonia, not Spain. Here, the tapas, the gazpacho, and the bullfights are all proudly poor. The less Spanish they seem, the more Catalan they feel, and Catalans are extraordinarily nationalistic. It is therefore a badge of honor for Catalan restaurateurs to serve, say, really shoddy gazpacho.

But Nono Fernandez, Andalusian bassist and food lover, has found a holdout, owned by genuine Andalusians, from the south. There are said to be a few authentic Andalusian eateries in the remote Hospitalet district, but Nono's tapas joint, La Higuera (Carrer Sicilia 101; 932 463 886), is completely off-radar right in the center of town.

Below, Nono and expat guitarist/food lover Dave Mitchell (who I neglected, two reports ago, to credit as the discoverer of my all-time favorite restaurant, La Llar De L'all I Oli) work exuberantly through a plate of acorn-fed Spanish ham (Dave, right, is also holding a plate of pan con tomate - it's safe to use the Spanish term for 'pa amb tomàquet' here in this foreign bastion):

Nono's speciality is in finding ordinary-looking places serving ordinary-appearing food which turns out to be surprisingly high in quality and price. He's not interested in pretentious eateries (Barcelona has way more than its share), but he won't hesitate to spend up in ordinary places serving extraordinary food. Another great find of his is Jaizkibel (C/ Sicília, 180; 93 231 32 62), a nearby Basque tapas place which excels at shellfish and potatoes. I grew so woozy feasting on their cigalas (aka langostines - sweet little crustaceans halfway between shrimps and lobsters) that I forgot to shoot a photo.

Dave Mitchell likes a better, and better-known, Basque tapas place at Taktika Berri (Valencia 169;93 4534759), but, as he acknowledged from the start, it's extremely crowded and lacks down-home charm. You compete for items as they emerge from the kitchen, ala dim sum, deflecting ravenous diners as they feverishly grab at the plates. Fun once or twice, but Jaizkibel's more tranquilo...

One more Nono find: Yaffa (Carrer de la Marina con Casp), a tiny Syrian joint trying to make a living serving staunchly authentic food to a non-comprehending populace (Barcelona has plenty of North Africans, but few Arabs).

Speaking of Barcelona's North Africans, there are lots of Moroccan fast food places - I've never found a great one - but few sit-down places cooking ambitious things like bastilla. I found a good-looking one in the dodgy neighborhood just west of the Ramblas, but I never made it back to actually try a meal. Ali Baba (c/Robador 14; 652 184 689) doesn't Google at all. I like it!

Slicing the catty nationalism ever more finely, Valencia (the name of a region and also its capital city) is just a few hours from Barcelona, and while people there speak Catalan, don't ever make the mistake of voicing this observation. Locals testily insist they're speaking an entirely different language, "Valencian" (they've even managed to inject this insanity into the city's Wikipedia entry). The difference between Catalan and Valencian is, as I understand it, that one uses "vusaltras" for second person plural, and the other uses "vusaltres". I can't remember which is which. And that's it.

So the Catalans rebuff this rebuff by making staunchly poor horchata (a quenching nut drink that's the second proudest Valencian foodway, after paella), inevitably from mix. Barcelona horchata lovers have long faced a grave challenge in finding good versions. The longtime favorite has always beens an anonymous little soda shop at the intersection of Mallorca and Bruc (on the east side of the plaza). But I was ecstatic to read this superb piece of horchata scholarship, revealing that there are actually a couple of proud, serious horchaterias around town: Sirvent (calle Parlament 56, near Mercat de Sant Antoni) and La Valenciana (Aribau 18, near the University).

I visited the latter, and was amazed to learn that they serve horchata year-round (the place at Mallorca and Bruc is open only for summer):

Serious horchata is made fresh daily and is ladled out of barrels (lousy horchata, from mix, is served from fountains):

Fartons (bready ladyfingers) are the traditional accompaniment:

It's every bit as quenching as it looks:

Horchaterias usually serve pastries. These looked great:

Continue to Part 6: Chocolate Leftovers

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