Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Unemployed Fighter Pilot's Cookbook: A Jug of Wine, a Sock, and Thou

As a fighter pilot in the Korean War, David Elliott had to think quickly, reacting to situations where one false move could mean the difference between life or death. He is no less so in the kitchen, where despite being blessed with almost every gadget known to chefdom, he sometimes revisits the thrill of flying by the seat of his pants - or in this case, by the soles of his feet. When a recipe for Chateaubriand called for coarsely crushed - not ground - peppercorns, he came up with a novel solution.

"Have you ever tried to crush pepper with just a hammer and an anvil?" David exclaimed incredulously when asked for the origins of his method. "It gets all over the place. You end up needing a broom, a dustpan, and eye protection."

Fancy footwork: David's sock makes a natural vessel for pounding peppercorns.

The results are one step closer - pun intended - to another cooking adventure with the Bobby Flay of 11th Avenue. With occasional detours for Shrimp Creole, tempura, and the occasional Cajun meatloaf, beef is what's for dinner almost every night. Even with a highfalutin' name like Chateaubriand, he keeps it simple: meat, fire, and a dash of improvisation.

The right tool for the job... Or was it the left foot?

"Probably a better approach to improvising is that I grew up on a farm," said the boy from Walters, Oklahoma. "Everything broke often and the fix was from a list of things, like bailing wire, binder twine, cowhide, canvas, staples, and nails. All cowboys carried a Barlow pocket knife and fence pliers, which combined, made [sort of a] cowboy's Swiss Army knife. The pliers had a hammer, a staple puller, a wire cutter, a crimper, and a pry bar. With that combination and those supplies, one could fix almost anything but a computer."

This particular recipe called for shiitake mushrooms, Marsala wine, and beef demi-glace. David used a dried mushroom melange from Costco, some undrinkable red wine from Colorado - they're not known for wine, that's why he cooks with it - and some McCormick beef base. Despite the massive sodium content, the sauce still had a certain je nais se quoi to it.

Magic (dried) mushrooms for the chateaubriand rub.

After the mixture of mushrooms, wine, the beef base, and various spices had cooled a bit, David slathered it onto two small tenderloins that he had prepared. He said that the price of tenderloin triples when you buy it pre-trimmed, so he gets his beef from Costco and does the work himself. This yields lots of great tenderloin scraps that are perfect for Beef Bourguignon or Beef Stroganoff later.

Ay, there's the rub. To beef, perchance to eat - in about 40 minutes.

While the chateaubriand was being cooked, we prepared David's quick but impressive asparagus with sesame seeds. After blanching a small bunch of asparagus in boiling water, the spears are dunked immediately into a pan of ice water. After they cool a bit, they are sautéed with a bit of olive oil and sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds. d

Ice, ice baby: asparagus gets dunked in cold water to stop it from overcooking and to keep it gorgeously green.

Finally, the chateaubriand is done. David pulls it out of the oven and lets it "rest." I just love cooking terminology. The chef and sous chef also need a "rest," and do so with a bottle of good cabernet sauvignon.


Finally, it's time for plating. Actual dinner plates are a slight improvement over the standard issue mess kit plate, even though civilian plates seldom have compartments to keep the gravy separated from the peas. David deglazes the pan with its drippings and creates the sauce that will put the "eau" in the chateaubriand. We assembled our plates with the beef, asparagus, and a couple of tomatoes that baked in their little tanning salon of a toaster oven, encrusted with parmesan cheese.

The Vicomte - and Tim Allen - would have been proud.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Spice Girl: Food is "One Louder" With Heat

In the mockumentary, "Spinal Tap," Christopher Guest plays Nigel Tufnel, a British rock musician who proudly shows filmmaker Marty DiBergi (played by the incomparable Rob Reiner) an amp whose volume controls "go up to 11" as opposed to the usual ten.

Tufnel describes the need for 11 as "if we need that extra push over the cliff." The same thing happens with the connoisseurs of spicy food, myself included. We're like little kids who want to see how far they can go with a prank before getting caught. My rule of thumb is that I still need to be able to taste the food amid the heat, kind of like giving my tastebuds a thrill not unlike that first blast of sunshine after a storm. But with a bit of pain involved.

When Pam told me some time ago about a Himalayan restaurant on Venice Boulevard, I was intrigued. We met at Tara's Himalayan Cuisine for one of our all too rare dinners and were warmly welcomed by Tara herself. Pam, who is my former supervisor at work and who has a keen magazine editor's sense of getting the whole story, helped order a meal that was indicative of the restaurant's best qualities. But I had to dally with the devil and order the "yak chili," a dish that sounded from the online menu like a bowl of red made with the meat of a shaggy, good-natured bovine.

Fellow intrepid diner Pam... Most likely to scale Everest - but drew the line at the painfully hot yak! Here she is, enjoying the best of two worlds - Chinese-influenced momo dumpling and Indian pappadum cracker...

We had delectable vegetable momo, a lightly steamed dumpling similar to potstickers. Pam ordered her favorite dish, a tandoori chicken that arrived sizzling like fajitas. I was surprised that the much-anticipated yak looked like a sliced beef concoction from a Chinese restaurant. But the tame garnish of onion, tomatoes, and bell peppers belied the fire within. Although I had ordered the dish to be made medium spicy, it was beyond hot. After a couple of bites, Pam decided that she could not eat it, and I choked down as much as I could, in between pleas for cold water and more rice. I'm looking forward to the next visit - maybe I'll order it "hot" next time and bring along some liquid nitrogen for my tongue.

Yakety-yak: this seemingly tame dish didn't just talk back - it bellowed.

Still, others not only seek out the fire, they like to create it themselves. Adriana shares this Christmas tradition of her family's for "El Pavo Caliente."

"We prepare a turkey with my mom’s secret recipe - and I say secret because it is not written in any cookbook or even a loose piece of paper, but it is the same traditional recipe every year," she says. "I guess it was her invention. On the night before Christmas Eve (December 23rd), we all gather at my parents' [house] and inject the turkey with a delicious concoction of chiles, spices etc.

"Everyone is selfish and only injects the part they would eat," Adriana says. "After a while, we have pinched that turkey until it looks more like a colander than a bird," Adriana says. "But we sing and [inject the turkey] until there is no salsa [left].

Adriana says that the tradition in Mexico City, where her parents live, is to take the main dish for Christmas dinner to the panaderia to be cooked.

"Many panaderias will start accepting turkeys, pork roasts, crowns of beef early on December 24th," she says. "People started doing this because panaderias have huge brick ovens which makes the flavoring of the dish a little better, and thus the tradition continues. We then pick it up to enjoy the delicious bird all together, and say as we do every year,"Oh, Mom, this turkey is better than last year's!"

Pump it up: Adriana's family injects the Christmas turkey with her mother's secret salsa. L-R: Victoria and Jorge Javier, Jeremie Bitoun, Karla Villalobos, Adriana Bitoun, and Camille Bitoun.

I even like spice in my sugar. After watching Ina Gartner, "The Barefoot Contessa" make these fabulous lollipops with fruits and nuts while visiting British chocolatier William Curley, I made my own version.

Fun - or fire - on a stick.

I tempered dark and white chocolate chips in the microwave by gradually melting them in a Pyrex cup, spooned out little puddles of melted chocolate on a foil-covered cookie sheet, and pressed a variety of "healthy" sweets and savories into them, such as dried cranberries and figs, smoked almonds, crystallized ginger, and miniature pretzels. I got a bit adventurous and inspired by the Aztec Brownie at Tender Greens, I added a mixture of chipotle and ancho chili powders and a bit of sugar into some of the chocolate, and made "warning" labels for the finished product. When I finally ate one, I was a bit disappointed in the heat level, but others said they were pretty tasty. I guess I should create the next batch with designations for both the timid and thrill-seeking: a "level one" could be slightly redolent of chili, the "911" would be for those who boast tastebuds of asbestos.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

We Three Kings: Rosca de Reyes

For my first rosca de reyes, I had decided to hit Porto's, the most popular Cuban bakery on the planet. The only trouble is that they sold out long before I could get there after work on Tuesday night. I consoled myself with a dozen potato balls and some empanadas and decided to hit one of the dozens of panaderias that are in my orbit.

Porto's potato balls: like Ding Dongs made of shepherd's pie, Havana style.

Then I remembered reading a review of La Monarca somewhere, a panaderia that didn't use manteca. Needless to say, I was intrigued. Growing up in Southern California has provided me with a cornucopia of international snacking possibilities, and one of the most treasured tastes of my childhood is pan dulce, the pillowy round sweet breads topped with a sugary and colorful streusel. However, my aging metabolism does not allow me to enjoy these as often, although I search the panaderias ardently for half-size versions of these treats, which have become popular with the war on carbs.

In the bag: the only pan dulce that won't expand my waistline are these cute and fuzzy numbers by Xochico.

I raced to the corner of Wilshire and Euclid in rush hour traffic, in a surprisingly short time. It took me twice as long to get home after that, due to my avoidance of the 10 Freeway and a couple of misguided detours through neighborhoods that I could swear were linked to more familiar terrain. But it didn't matter - my rosca de reyes was snug in its windowed box on the back seat.

Ring of ire: White-knuckling my way through traffic knowing that the roscas might be sold out by the time I got there made my conquest that much sweeter.

La Monarca was, as all the Yelpers say, fabuloso. It wasn't as cavernous as Porto's - which I still love, don't get me wrong - but nicely lit and cozy. The breads and pastries were displayed in the classic panaderia cases, with metal trays and tongs provided for your shopping convenience. And to my relief, there were stacks of roscas in boxes in the middle of the store.

When I got to work, Bernadine gave the large cardboard box I was carrying a quizzical look as if there was a birthday she didn't know about. I sent out an email inviting my coworkers from our two suites to come and have a piece of rosca, with one small change to the tradition. Whoever finds the plastic baby Jesus in their piece is obligated to throw a party on February 2, which is Candlemas, the day that the infant Jesus was presented at the temple. (I told you that Catholics get a lot of holidays!) I decided that whoever got the doll would be entitled to extra good luck for the new year. Intangible, but it's all about attitude.

Bernadine popped into the conference room while I was arranging the rosca with napkins and a knife. I began to tell her about the Epiphany, which is celebrated with more gusto in Latin Catholic countries than anywhere else. My mother, who grew up in the Philippines near Manila, was the one who told us about the feast day, but I think it was just an excuse for sending her Christmas cards late and leaving the tree up for weeks after the holidays. I stole a small slice, hoping that I wouldn't ruin the suspense of finding the doll. I didn't, but wished I had a cup of coffee at that moment to go with the subtle sweetness of the rosca.

Drulet, Amy, Annette, and Adriana arrived and immediately got into devising a strategy to find the doll. After a lot of demurring about who would take the next piece, Drulet dove in and began to poke and prod the cake until settling on an auspicious spot. She took a good-sized piece and ate it, carefully ripping the soft cake into small pieces in search for a tiny limb. The rest followed suit until the rosca lay in a number of chunks on the cardboard.

The first cut was the deepest: Dru dives in.

Of all the Yuletide characters that fill the imagination, the Magi are the most mysterious, yet the least explored. The word is the Latin plural of magus, which refers to those who could read and manipulate the stars and practice magic. And of course, my favorite Christmas story of all time, O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" is a heartwrenching and funny look at the way that the holidays transform our aspirations and our realities.

The rosca turned out to be a great conversation starter, as often what is shrouded in mystery is more interesting to talk about than what is apparent. Amy realized that was probably why the city of Long Beach waited two weeks after Christmas to pick up residents' discarded Christmas trees. And Adriana, a native of Mexico City, said that although her family was not Catholic, if you live in Mexico, you have to have a rosca. As in the

As we joked and laughed about where the doll could possibly be, I happened to glance down at the rosca and saw a small white figure at the end of a cut slice. They all said that I was "the winner" and we discussed possible alternatives for a prize other than throwing a party. One of the more brilliant ideas was to get an extra day off, but I think we would have to take that up with the state, which would probably not appreciate the combination of quasi-religious practice with baked goods.

Oh baby, baby: the wily doll eluded the knife and mooned us from his sugary perch.

El Dia de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day) is like a whole second Christmas, with more gifts, more parties, and more food. But the real epiphany is that it only takes a few moments out of a busy day to share something more sustaining than food - laughter, good conversation, and a sense of fun. Here's to a year of more adventures with friends and food.

Maya's Tamales: Uno Docena del Fraile

The Saturday before Christmas, my friend Maya hosted her first tamale-making party. As a child on up, she had helped out at gatherings of friends and family. But this year, she wanted to start a new tradition. I could not help but think about the first time I had made tamales with her.

Her stepfather , a former state Assemblyman and founder and bishop of his church, had been extremely ill for months and was at home in between numerous hospital stays. Her mother, an energetic college administrator and nurturing mentor to many, was constantly busy taking care of her husband while keeping up with work at the office. We call her "Dr. Ruth," not in reference to the diminutive sex therapist, but because of the authority she wielded over so many people's lives, lives that were willingly offered to her for advice, guidance, and support.

Yet, this busy and accomplished woman wanted to make tamales for Christmas. Maya invited me to their home in Long Beach so that I could finally experience this time-honored family tradition.

I arrived at their Long Beach home and was surprised and not a little touched to see Maya's stepdad installed in a hospital-type bed in a room off the kitchen. Dr. Ruth, who apparently had not really made tamales by herself before, asked a co-worker's mother to help prepare the spicy meat filling. The formidable Dr. Ruth had an apron tied over one of her typically professional "office" outfits. She would frequently leave Maya and I in the kitchen to check on her husband with great tenderness and solicitude.

Maya and I laughed over my beginner's "rank" on the tamale-making "totem pole." I was only fit to be a "spreader" at this point, and happily scraped masa onto cornhusks all afternoon. I marveled at the giant - I mean, giant - pot that was used to steam the tamales. The results were delicious and warming. But the months to come were not ones to celebrate.

A basic tamale steamer is huge. Masa for the masses.

Maya's stepdad - who she and her brother affectionately called "Pop," died a couple of months later. I remember totally losing it at the funeral. I cried for Maya, who I had always envied for having not one, but two great dads. I cried for her mother, who handled the whole thing with her usual stoic grace. And I cried for myself, because I was only a few months into a marriage that would end that summer. I hated myself because I could not envision myself at that time, standing behind my new husband the way that Dr. Ruth had stood by hers.

Three years later, Maya decided to have her tamale party. It was at her Aunt Linda's house, and to be attended only by those serious about making tamales. As a matter of fact, she wanted it to be a "dry" party, unlike the ones that she described at the homes of family friends. But in the end, she relented and stocked up on cervezas and some harder stuff.

The secret ingredient. It's not chiles or onions - it's cojones. Photo by Maya Banda

Stocking the bar was not the only preparation for Tamale Boot Camp, which took place on the Saturday before Christmas. On Wednesday, Maya started all the shopping, gathering the ingredients, including 40 pounds of masa and two turkeys that she and her cousin roasted the next day. After roasting the turkeys, Maya set about finding the right degree of heat, armed with a trusty blender and handfuls of jalapenos. That morning, she was at Amapola Market at 6 a.m., standing in the rain with scores of other would-be tamale chefs before it opened. Her convivial co-hostess, Aunt Linda, who I always remembered for her cheerful and bustling ways throughout the family's bereavement and her mother's subsequent stroke, which occurred months after her husband died, teasing Maya for getting her up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday to start scrubbing the bathtub so that they could start soaking the hojas (cornhusk tamale wrappers).

This isn't as bad as when Kramer decided to use his shower as a kitchen sink, is it? Photo by Maya Banda

"Making tamales at my Grandma Juanita’s house on Christmas Eve morning has been a traditional event since I was a kid," recalled Maya. "We lost track for awhile when she and my grandpa moved to Tucson, but it started up again when they moved back [here].

"The Gonzales Girls, my mom and her two sisters, would all go over to my grandma’s house and form the assembly line. A lot has changed in everyone’s lives in the past few years. The Gonzales Girls are never going to get together and make tamales the way [they] used to. As soon as I realized that, I also realized, this would be the perfect year to try something new. My grandma, mom, and aunts all taught me things over the years. Spending time in the kitchen with them taught me how to do things and how not to do things. I can’t let all that go to waste. Before I let a tradition die off, I wanted to start a new one. New people, new recipes, new atmosphere. Every time I participated in an assembly line was part of someone’s tradition - why not start one of my own?"

Tamale filling: turkey, green chiles, and memories.

Music is a big part of Maya's life. Her dad is one half of the Banda Brothers, the mastermind on the drums. He and his bassist brother Tony have played with everyone from Celia Cruz to Jackson Browne. She and I even had, for a brief time, a show on the university's Internet radio station. We dubbed ourselves "The Queen Bee and Danger Fox." Her Highness's groove was blues, R & B, and funk; mine was 80s, country, and a smattering of jazz and randomness. We gave our seven known listeners a taste of our combined eclecticism and the alter egos we hid beneath our (mostly) ladylike exteriors.

That being said, the perfect music for making tamales is Etta James, Vicente Fernandez, and Maya's all-time favorite band, Tower of Power. This was the soundtrack as I arrived at Aunt Linda's, where preparations to begin the assembly line were under way. I jumped in and started to dry piles of hojas with Stephanie, a young friend of the family for whom Tamale Boot Camp was initiation by fire. Slowly but surely, the novice and I, an almost-novice, were promoted up the ranks of the tamale "ladder," going from lowly cornhusk driers to the coveted posts of spreaders and folders. Actually, Stephanie surpassed me more quickly and ended up with a more skilled task, that of wrapping the tamales in paper, labeling them as to their fillings, and packaging them as baker's dozens of 13 per Ziploc bag. At the home stretch of our tamale-making marathon, I realized my OCD personality was best suited to drying hojas and went back to my original task.

How dry I am: blotting hojas before wrapping tamales.

Papa Ramon showed up and was put to work as a spreader. We laughed as Maya expressed her approval of her father's efforts at spreading masa - and proceeded to redo his hojas. We sampled some tamales that Aunt Linda had received from friends and neighbors, the most picoso being some cheese tamales made with masa dyed green from an abundance of chiles.

Maya and her dad. The apple of "cool" doesn't fall far from the tree!

When one of the tables in the kitchen was almost covered with bulging plastic bags, Maya put several dozen into the two-foot high tamale steamer. She had to climb on a small stepladder to reach into the pot. It takes several hours to steam that many tamales, so we didn't sample them that evening.

But a couple of days later, she brought me a freezer bag and a couple of cooked turkey tamales, so my first taste of Los Tamales de la Abeja Reina was at my desk. They were spicy, but not highly so, and the masa turned out tender and flavorful, due to our careful spreading techniques: the hard waxy exteriors that often occur are a result of laying the masa on like plaster. Less is definitely more.

When spreading masa, thin is in.

What Maya remembers most about making tamales as a little girl is "looking forward to seeing improvement in my skills and developing my techniques. Sounds silly I know. I was all about being a 'master-spreader' wanting to perfect the art of spreading masa. I used to look forward to getting approval from the elders. She put this into practice at a more recent tamale party.

"Things had always been pretty straightforward and traditional until last year I went to a tamale making party for a family friend," she recalls. "Lots of people, lots of meat, and New Mexico chile. There must have been at least 30 people. Folks were drinking, playing music, laughing - not like grandma’s house with just the four or five of us. I was offered a drink and I didn’t want one - me, refuse a drink! It just didn’t seem right to drink and make tamales at the same time.

"We were outside under the patio sitting at tables," Maya says. "I picked up a spoon and started spreading [masa]. A friend said, 'Wow, Maya’s doing it like my grandma used to.' Some folks were spreading the masa like butter on bread with rubber spatulas. It was all over the table! But everyone was having a great time."

In the spirit of the Christmas (that's right, score one for the Judeo-Christian tradition!) season, the thing Maya likes best about tamales is "Giving them away."

Virtual hug while in the trenches at work: Maya's tamales are a reminder of friends, family, and the holidays.

A hearty gracias to the Queen Bee, her beautiful family, and an old/new holiday tradition that I'm grateful to add to my list.