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myMEGusta

Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Archive for the month “December, 2011”

Of Myths and Gingerbread Men

It’s easy to confuse gingerbread with “Christmas”.

After all, you have gingerbread men popping up in car commercials (exhorting us to lease a rather forgettable automobile brand) and architecturally in gorgeous gingerbread houses with candy cane joists.

But like most of what we associate with Christmas, gingerbread has absolutely no religious significance, a characteristic it shares with holly, decorated fir trees and wreaths. These are all accoutrements invented by creative Northern Europeans to brighten dark winter days, and especially to make the holiday as beautiful and festive as possible.

The dried, ground version is the main seasoning for gingerbread of all types, the cookie like shapes we love (both at the holidays and as ginger snaps) as well as the softer cake which is so aromatic, also known as “pain d’epices” in France.

Beyond its use in baking, ginger is one of the world’s most versatile seasonings.  Sliced, fresh ginger is a foundation for Indian and Chinese cuisines, which also utilize it dried. Pickled ginger is a must to accompany Japanese sushi. Its soft pink blush is a byproduct of the pickling process, not food coloring (although the darker variety you sometimes see has been made with red plum vinegar).

The sautéed spinach with fresh ginger at the Blue Lemon in Westport was a revelation on one recent evening. It was even voted one of the state’s best side dishes in Connecticut Magazine’s Best of Connecticut 2010.

Then there are ginger tea, ginger ale and stronger tasting ginger beer, not spicy at all, and supposedly yielding some health benefits. Not having any medicinal properties, but quite delicious, is the Dark and Stormy, a concoction of ginger beer, dark rum and a squeeze of lime.

Too dubious to purchase and sample, was the White Ginger Cosmo I spotted on a drink menu: “freshly muddled ginger shaken with Absolut Citron Vodka, Mandarin Napoleon and white cranberry juice.” If any readers have tried this, leave a comment!

Wishing everyone a Spicy Holiday Season!

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Bullseye! Homing in on Where to Dine Out

Think about it: Selecting a restaurant in a new city, or even a new neighborhood, can be daunting.  All you can go by is looks, the shallowest of measures, a little like a college mixer.

But sometimes, there are little cues and clues that will raise your likelihood of having a delightful dining experience. Or, if you are paying attention, these signals will save your evening by sending you elsewhere, fast.

Rule #1: Trust your instincts

I am remembering my first experience with Paul Prudhomme’s legendary Cajun cuisine. It was in the early ‘80s, and I was wandering around the French Quarter as lunchtime approached. Something about the appearance of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, a hole in the wall, caught my eye. The menu was enticing, the smells were spicy siren calls and the place was sparkling clean. Of course, this little love-at-first-sight lunch joint turned out to be the jumping off point for the whole Prudhomme empire.

Rule #2: Look for Real Food Cooked by Real People

Many years later, on an early Rome morning, I wandered the streets of the Trastevere neighborhood, where Romans actually live and work, but which is also convenient to attractions like the Coliseum. I looked up from my jetlagged reveries to see a man carrying a calf carcass into a homey looking restaurant, La Tana de Noantri. I made a point of returning later for dinner. Sure enough, there were a number of veal daily specials including brailed veal tail, one of the most succulent cuts of any animal when properly cooked, in this case with celery, and served with garlicky escarole.  Oh Heaven! Oh Cielo!

Rule #3: Eat Local

Americans are famous for complaining that the food in (fill in the blank) is no good, when all they order is typical American fare like burgers. We do make the best burgers in the world, and ordering them anywhere else is a minefield. I remember Brit colleagues who always enjoyed pub burgers when in the United States, because they were so lousy at home. Chinese food is another issue: Do you really want the Bavarian interpretation of Peking duck when you could be having a world class sausage? Or a hot dog in Hong Kong instead of dim sum?

Rule #4: If It Doesn’t Feel/Look/Smell Right, Leave

If you’re abused by the host for any reason, just wait until you sit down and the haughty wait staff gets their chance. Restaurants known for treating unknowns like second class citizens have earned that reputation, and don’t deserve your business. Once seated, look closely at the menu, the most important marketing tool the restaurant has. If it’s filthy, it’s conveying a message (“Get out now”).

Wishing you dining adventures that only need Rules #1 through #3!

Flaky Times in a Flaky World

Quick: What looks like an oyster, but is crunchy and a little sweet?

And is related (in spirit) to custards in Macau (or any pie, for that matter) and baklava and strudel?

We’re talking sfogliatelle (say it with an Italian lilt: svohl-yah-TELL-eh), the crinkly, ricotta filled pastries from Naples which are, in my opinion, the crowning glory of Italian pastry.

What makes them so charming, in addition to being absolutely delicious, is that they look impossible to make, almost mysterious.

Sfogliatelle!

And what makes them part of a glorious international constellation of flakiness is the simple combination of flour and water and fat, folded or rolled to create countless layers.

Anywhere you go in the world, you will find a variation on this theme.

Travel to Ohio, and there’s good old American pie, best with a crust made of lard, sadly compromised with the invention of Crisco. The French call their pie crust Pate Brisee, and use butter. These are simply moistened flour tossed in butter then rolled. (Yes, DO try this at home.) The best custard tarts I have ever had were still hot from the oven in Macau (near Hong Kong), descendents of Portuguese cooks’ creations centuries ago.

Custard Tarts in Macau

On another level are the stretched doughs into which layers of fat, usually butter, are folded or rolled.

The French make their mille-feuille (thousand layer) through a rigorous process of rolling, smearing with butter, then folding, rolling, resting, folding, rolling, resting. “Napoleons”, by the way have nothing to do with the little emperor, rather the word is a bastardization of napolitan, referring to Naples, Italy.

Then there are the pastries which start with the creation of one vast sheet of dough – flour and a liquid – and a filling.

Strudel, baklava and sfogliatelle all have this in common. Everyone loves leafy phyllo, layers of crispness, honey, and nuts. Strudel starts the same way, and you can see yours being made at The Great Market Hall, the huge indoor market in Budapest, Hungary.

Making Strudel at The Great Market Hall, Budapest

 

But sfogliatelle are the sexiest of all, and even TV stars.

“The Sopranos” producers were inundated with recipe requests every time the characters enjoyed them, even though real life Italian homemakers rarely make them (too time consuming and too easy to find at the neighborhood baker). Michele Scicolone (www.MicheleScicolone.com), co-author of The Sopranos Family Cookbook, answered this demand by creating a relatively easy, user friendly recipe.

Connecticut denizens have easy access to world class sfogliatelle at DiMare Bakery (Stamford and Riverside, www.dimarepastry.com ). Their minis (on the weekends) make this flaky indulgence even more irresistible.

 

Hail to Ye Olde Non-Locavores!

Let’s face it.

If our culinary forebears had stuck to locally grown foods, and not carted crates of edibles half way around the world, we would be boring eaters, indeed. Many fabulous dishes and flavors we associate with the Old World would not exist.

Of course, there were mistakes along the way as people moved foods into new environments. The most egregious that comes to mind is phylloxera. A root louse to which American grapes are immune, these pests hitchhiked to Europe on vine cuttings and nearly destroyed the European wine industry in the 19th century.

And, the Americas could have done without Europe’s dandelions, thank you.

On a happier note, take chili peppers and bell peppers, originally from Latin America.

The source of the heat we associate with Indian food, chili peppers did not exist there until introduced by Portuguese and Spanish sailors only a few hundred years ago. Vindaloo, the searing stew from the Goa region, is actually a derivative of a Portuguese dish called “carne de vinha d’alhos”, meat with wine and garlic. Peppercorns, native to the Far East, used to be the main source of culinary heat in that part of the world, and having tasted fresh green peppercorns on a curry in Bangkok, I can attest to their fiery flavor.

What would Hungarian cuisine be without paprika? Similarly, stuffed bell peppers are staples of many other middle/northern European cuisines, and Italian sausage and peppers is a classic.

Tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes are other foods of the Americas which enriched cuisines wherever they were imported. Imagine pasta without red sauce, Provence without ratatouille, and Ireland without potatoes.

While legumes such as fava beans, lentils, dals, soybeans, and black eyed peas were staples in the Old World, it was not until the 16th century that string beans, navy beans, lima beans and the like were introduced there. Enterprising French botanists created what we now call the flageolet, a delicious bean we associate with that country; similarly cannellini beans were developed in Italy from American stocks. France’s famed cassoulet, originally made with favas, not the white beans used today, is the ancestor of Boston baked beans.

Traveling in the other direction across the Atlantic were most of the fruits we Americans take for granted: peaches, plums, pears, melons and even apples.

“As American as Apple Pie”? Not quite!

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