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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 category “Uncategorized”

Baloney!

Bologna Market

As a kid, I was always confused as to why some baloney was spelled bologna. Were they the same thing? Did you have to say bah-log-nah if that’s what the package said?

Bologna, Italy, of course, is the home of this sausage. This old city even has the nickname, La Grassa “The Fat One” honoring its rich, meat based gastronomy.

Located in Emilia-Romagna, the region is also the home of Lambrusco, that fizzy wine that was popular among college kids in the 1970’s, and rarely seen any more on any self-respecting table (or picnic, for that matter). As a side note, the Lambrusco that you get on the spot in Italy is a world apart, more complex and tastier, a perfect counterpoint to the sausages and other delicacies you get in the area.

Fresh pasta with Bolognese sauce

“Bolognese”, the rich, meat based pasta sauce we all adore, also originated here. A real “Bolognese” is not just a tomato sauce with some ground beef. Rather, it will have a slowly simmered blend of different ground meats (depending on whose absolutely authentic grandmother’s recipe you follow), possibly including veal and pork, and lots of finely chopped vegetables (carrots, celery, onion, garlic) and herbs, sometimes even a dash of milk, with tomatoes as minor players, not the overwhelming star.

And, to be really traditional, you’ll serve that Bolognese with fresh egg-based pasta, perhaps fettuccine or in a lasagna, and, of course, include cheese in or on the dish. That said, nothing pleases myMEGusta more than a bowl of good quality spaghetti (the hard wheat kind, no eggs) with a dollop of this fabulous sauce. And, it’s not bad on spaghetti squash, either.

Mortadella

The ubiquitous baloney we enjoy in the United States is a descendent of Mortadella, recognizable by the fat cubes and pistachios dotting it. There are some very, very good versions of both of these, particularly if you shop for a good brand, some of which are of Germanic descent, or in a deli. Perhaps the old adage, “You get what you pay for” is really apropos here.

I have fond memories of that most pedestrian of lunches, a baloney sandwich with neon yellow mustard on wonder bread. Baloney was such an early favorite of myMEGusta’s, that a favorite doll was named Joanie Baloney. Alas, JB was kidnapped one day by a big, mean dog that Daddy chased for blocks to no avail.

Fried baloney

A Saturday lunch treat for my late father was a fried baloney sandwich, and, for a kid in the 1950’s, it was a tasty twist on an everyday meat. That said, a slice of really good baloney style sausage on excellent bread with tasty mustard is a really good sandwich, as exemplified by leberkase I cannot wait to have on my next trip to Munich.

Leberkase!

This morning’s passing of Anthony Bourdain reminded me of a recent “Parts Unknown” episode during which he enjoyed a local favorite, a fried baloney cube, in Newfoundland. And, I’ll bet it was delicious.

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Potatoes: Everyone Loves ‘Em

Ancient Potato Breed

Despite monikers like Irish Potatoes and French Fries, most people are aware that the humble potato is a native of South America, and one of the treasures brought back to Spain by the conquistadors, along with the tons of gold that now grace churches and palaces in Seville, the Vatican and all over Europe.

Main Altar, Seville Cathedral, Spain

On the other side of the pond, potatoes became wildly popular, although the tubers were once believed to be as poisonous as the plant that springs from them. But cultivation spread far and wide once people realized how healthful, versatile and easy to grow the potato is. Italy embraced them in their gnocchi, Indian food features them in wonderful vegetarian dishes, the Scandinavians love them with fish dishes and stews; you name it. Then we have Swedish potato pancakes (with lingonberries!), and innumerable other Northern European delights: potato sausage, potato salad, pierogis and vodka!

This has been quite a trip for a tuber from south of the Equator!

Irish Colcannon: Potatoes, Cabbage and Butter

Unfortunately, the potato became such a staple that it caused the death of millions of Irish, whose rural poor had become totally reliant on the spuds which were devastated by a mold known as Potato Blight, resulting in a deadly famine in the mid-19th century. Making matters worse, those who subsisted on potatoes were planting only one variety, the Irish Lumper, so when the disease hit, it wiped out a massive proportion of what people depended on to live.

On a happier side, the French embrace of the potato was more varied, and it never was a group’s sole source of nutrition, even in those areas where they became the most popular. And, we still look to France for some of the most delicious recipes, from the myriad kinds of French fries (all of which have distinct French names and classic culinary pairings, such as mussels with French fries), to pommes rissolees (browned in fat, never referred to as frite, or fried), to waxy potatoes steamed/peeled/drizzled in butter, to vichyssoise (cold leek and potato soup). Belgians also love them, always fresh and crisp in sidewalk kiosks (and served with mayonnaise for dipping).

Potato Display

But, the traveling potato aside, the most exciting place in the world to find potatoes is South America, Peru in particular. Over 4,000 varieties of potato grow there and elsewhere in the Andes, related but biologically diverse, and they have been the staple food of indigenous people for generation upon generation.

Potato Festival

On one visit to Cuzco, Peru, myMEGusta stumbled upon a Potato Festival taking place in the halls of the Monasteria, a very fancy hotel converted from a religious institution.

Some of them don’t even look much like potatoes, and certainly require different cooking techniques than tossing into an oven and baking. Potato preservation is different, too. You find giant bags of dried potatoes known as chuno in the marketplaces, preserved for year round use in traditional dishes like soups and stews. Today, they are freeze dried to expedite the process.

Dried Potatoes

For more about a wildly popular modern day potato preparation from Peru, causas – little fresh potato cakes garnished with various goodies- visit myMEGusta’s posting from July 2013: https://mymegusta.com/2013/07/02/mellow-yellow-potato-all-for-a-good-causa/

So Many Names for One Little Legume

Chickpeas

Garbanzos, ceces, chickpeas, chana dal…

They ares all the same delicious legume, whether in Spanish, Italian, English or Hindi.

Their origin is unknown, but based on analysis of wild varieties, chickpeas are believed to have come from Turkey, somewhere near Syria, where they have been cultivated over 7,500 years. Neither pea nor bean, the chickpea is classified as a ‘pulse’ because it grows in a tiny pod containing only two or three seeds. On the vine, they look very much like the lentils we saw in an Udaipur, India, street market rather than like pea or bean plants.

Chickpea Plant

Lentil plant in Udaipur market

This versatile bean is easy to cultivate and high in protein and other nutrients, and is, thus, very important in many vegetarian based diets.

Couscous

Omnivores like myMEGusta love them in favorite dishes like classic Moroccan couscous.

Chickpeas are popular throughout India, the Middle East, and Mediterranean cuisines, and places where those cuisines have immigrated, for example, to Mexico.

Socca

 

In the South of France and in Monaco, people love Socca, a street food pancake made of a chickpea flour batter with a little black pepper (and, if the cook likes, some rosemary) baked to a crisp in olive oil. Of course, it can be made at home, and it can be garnished with a dollop of salad, chopped tomatoes, or other goodies to round it out to be a meal.

One favorite dish, with as many variations as there are Indian cooks, is Chana Masala, chickpeas stewed in a fragrant mélange of spices.

Chana Masala

On a visit to a favorite Barcelona restaurant, Etapes, we tasted bacalao (the reconstituted salted cod so loved in Iberia) served with garbanzos and garbanzo puree. Pure heaven.

Bacalao with Garbanzos and Garbanzo Puree

On a more pedestrian level, you can make homemade hummus in a jiffy for a last minute appetizer if you have a few standard ingredients on hand and a blender/food processor. Go to https://www.goya.com/en/recipes/hummus for the quick recipe. I have successfully substituted peanut butter for the tahini (different result, still very tasty).

Making Hummus

When is Chilean Sea Bass not Chilean Sea Bass?

Patagonian Toothfish

When you are in Chile!

 

What we know as Chilean Sea Bass blew into the American market in the 1990s. Delicious and rich, almost impossible to overcook, this delight from cold waters in the Southern Hemisphere became wildly popular. Before it was called Chilean Sea Bass, it was called Patagonian Toothfish, and was, essentially, a junk fish that no one wanted.

Change the name, and watch the people buy it.

Chilean Sea Bass

The success of this marketing effort, and the fisheries that sprang up to meet the demand, was so potent that the species became endangered. Truth be told, there are some fishing organizations who harvest it totally responsibly; others, not so much. It is virtually impossible to know where that fillet you see at the fish market, or on the menu, came from. In any case, the situation has improved vastly since the initial crisis, so it is reasonable to purchase and enjoy it now.

Vina Del Mar, Chile

On a recent visit to Chile, myMEGusta visited beautiful Vina Del Mar, a seacoast city established where vineyards once grew, and not far from Santiago, the Casablanca Valley (known for fine wines, especially Chardonnay), and the UNESCO World Heritage City, Valparaiso.

Vina Del Mar, Chile

So, always looking to try the local food, we spotted Chilean Sea Bass on the menu! In discussing this with the waiter, he went on in detail about the wonderful local fish that comes in fresh every morning, no surprise when the fishing docks are about a mile away.

What arrived was one of the best pieces of bass myMEGusta has ever had: thick, juicy, perfectly cooked and impeccably fresh.

Sea Bass at La Terrazza, Vina Del Mar, Chile

But, it was not Patagonian Toothfish. It was simply a piece of the most perfect fish one could imagine, with a zesty salsa on the side.

And, it did not disappoint! I don’t think the locals, unless they are in the fish business, have any concept that their delicious Chilean bass is an entirely different animal in the US!

Happy Chinese New Year! With a Taste of Portugal

Some foods have bizarre histories.

Take the little custard tarts they offer in Chinese restaurants. What’s so Chinese about them, and why are they there?

Custard Tarts in Macau

It all goes back to the Portuguese explorers laying claim the island Macau, near Hong Kong and now part of China, many, many years ago. As is normal, they brought food traditions with them, including Pasteis de Nata, delicious custard tarts, for which the city of Belem, near Lisbon, is internationally famous.

Pasteis de Nata in Belem Portugal

The memory of smelling those tarts coming out of the oven on a day trip to Macau several years ago, still lingers. And the taste: Not too eggy, not too sweet, super flaky heaven, as delish as they look in this photo at the bakery.

Jean Anderson, the author of the definitive The Food of Portugal (myMEGusta’s go-to for Portuguese recipes), created a recipe for Pasteis de Nata for Gourmet Magazine several years ago, and you can find it now at https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/portuguese-cream-tarts-108194

But, there’s more to the story.

Sweet, eggy pastries have an interesting past, with a surprising, and huge, role in convents.

Now, these were not convents educating the sweet young daughters of the rich (remember Sophie in Der Rosenkavelier?). Nor were they nunneries, filled with the fasting religious.

Pousada Vila Vicosa

These were the places where single women were sent by the male relatives who wanted them out of the way. If one was poor, she went to a poor-ish convent, perhaps living among the devout or among the little students. If one was rich, she went to a gorgeous edifice, perhaps with rooms for her retainers as well as having her own suite.

And, the rich ones got bored. What to do? Have some dessert. These convents, many of which have now been transformed to deluxe hotels, also known as Pousadas, were full of women, some having taken religious vows, some not, but all enjoying these little custard pies and other eggy pastries as part of their daily entertainment.

Basque Lemon Custard Tart at Ortzi

Custard pastries are, of course, also popular throughout the Iberian Peninsula and Europe. A fine example was recently enjoyed by myMEGusta at a new Basque restaurant, called Ortzi, in Manhattan.

For more on international flakiness (and the first myMEGusta mention of the custard tarts of Macau) go to: https://mymegusta.com/2011/12/12/flaky-times-in-a-flaky-world/

The Myths Of Italian Cuisine

Italia!

How do you say “old wives’ tales” in Italian? There are lots, and myMEGusta looked into a few of them, some simply misunderstandings, and other, just plain odd ideas.

We scratched the surface of the subject in looking at that wonderful Italian dish, Salad Caprese, at its best in the summer time with bursting ripe tomatoes and freshly made mozzarella. Readers may recall that a fellow traveler insisted that it was not Italian, and no Italian person would eat it. Balderdash! It comes from the Isle of Capri, quite Italian, thank you.

Pizza with a side salad in Venice

https://mymegusta.com/2017/07/27/the-joys-of-summer-salad-caprese/

And this is representative of a lot of confusion about what is and is not Italian. United as a nation only in the 19th Century, Italy was a collection of city states with different cultures, climates, crops, and cuisines. The authentic cooking style in seaside Sicily, in the shadow of Mt. Etna, bore no relation to that of an alpine village abutting Switzerland.

Pizza!

So, myMEGusta rolls her eyes when advised that certain things are NOT Italian, or when specialties from one area are dismissively put down as unquestionably inferior to comparable foods and practices from another. They are, or can be, all wonderful.

Let’s talk about pizza. No, the heavily laden, gloppy pizzas of Papa Johns and its ilk are not Italian. “Hawaiian” pizza with pineapple is not Italian. The gentleman overheard on one Metro North train bemoaning that “there is no good pizza in Italy” after a disappointing trip there, was wrong; he just had a very American, un-Italian idea of what constitutes pizza.

Naples is considered the mecca of thin crust pizza, but it can be found just about everywhere in the country, with local variations. We have fond memories of eating a fantastic eggplant pizza at the unfortunately named “Bar Domino” (no relation to the chain) on the Lake Lugano shore, in the Italian sector of Switzerland. And the giant oblong and rectangular pizzas of Rome are crispy and delicious, meant to be sold by the piece.

Roman Pizza Dough

Sicilian Pizza

Sicilian pizza is another very real and authentic treat, essentially focaccia bread, as opposed to a thin crust, with toppings. Chicago deep dish pizza is an attempt to replicate this, and can be quite good, but only if the bread base is crispy and delish, and if the toppings are modest and top quality.

We recently saw a delightful picture of a very young friend eating pizza with her “nonni,” grandparents, on a trip to visit them in Milano.

And what about the concept that fresh pasta is, by definition, better than dried pasta? Wrong, again.

They are just different: Fresh pasta, found largely in the North, is made with eggs, hence the yellow tinge, and the best versions will use a softer flour. Yes, you can make this at home. Dried pasta, more Southern, is made with durum wheat, harder, with a higher gluten content and too stiff to work by hand, so it is factory made and sold dried.

Rolling fresh egg pasta

The best of both are equally fine, and will go with different dishes, fresh skewing to the North and dried skewing to the South. For example, you’ll probably see fettuccine served with a creamy sauce (no tomatoes) and spaghetti with a red sauce.

A recent issue of Saveur Magazine quoted a good-eating Ligurian talking about Genovese white sauce (celery, carrots, garlic, pine nuts, veal, olive oil) and their wonderful pestos, “And no tomatoes with your food in Liguria!”

Not all fresh pasta is great, and not all dried pasta is, either. Pay attention to the brand, and be willing to pay a little extra when you find one you like.

Spaghetti!

And, forget about the prohibition on twirling spaghetti with a spoon. No, it’s not correct everywhere in Italy, but it’s what’s done in Sicily, and we have confirmation on this from a friend who learned it from his Sicilian grandmother.

What about tiramisu? Italian ancestors from some regions will tell you that it’s an imposter. But, not so fast. Tiramisu is as Italian as can be, with several regions claiming its origin, from Renaissance Venice to 16th Century Tuscany. Whether it goes back that far in some form (probably) or not, tiramisu never really became widely known and loved until it was “invented” in 1971 in a restaurant in Treviso.

Tiramisu

Now, it’s time to plan a trip to Italy to do more research!

Cashew!

Cashew Nuts

Who knew that a visit to St. Lucia in the Caribbean would yield a taste of freshly roasted cashews, made the old fashioned way over a wood fire, cracked and peeled by hand and still warm when gobbled up?

Cashews are another of the universally loved foods that originated in the New World, specifically, Brazil. Portuguese traders introduced them to Europe, and then to more exotic locales where they became wildly popular and a staple of local cuisines, like in India and China.

Cashew fruits, note kernel at base

Have you ever wondered why cashews are never sold in the shell, like most other popular nuts?

Raw cashew kernels

Cashews contain a chemical similar to the irritant found in poison ivy, and so they are never eaten raw. The thick, hard nuts are usually heat processed, by steaming or roasting, and this facilitates the necessary removal of the outer shell and skin.

Roasting cashews the old fashioned way

Cashews roasting in St. Lucia

They can also be processed by drying, which can be the case when they are marketed as “raw”, although that may just mean that they have had no further roasting (with or without oil) or salt.

Chinese spicy cashew chicken

The less processed nuts will show up in Chinese, Indian and other popular dishes, while the more processed (developing further flavors) will show up in a Planter’s can or in a little dish on an airplane.

Indian cashew rice

Cashews are particularly popular among vegetarians, because of their high protein content, and you can even find cashew paste and flour in an Indian market (or just go on Amazon or drive to Trader Joe’s). They also appear to be a viable food for those on Paleo diets.

One of myMEGusta’s good cookin’ friends uses ground cashews instead of panko for coating fish, a great idea which she is going to try!

What Are Yellow and Live in The Canary Islands?

 

Bananas

Gotcha. The answer is bananas, not birds.

Canary Islands

The first European settlers were greeted by indigenous people (probably from North Africa) and their multitudes of dogs. “Canis” is the Latin word for “dog”, hence the name, Canary Islands, now a part of Spain.

Yes there are canaries there, too, but the local species is grey, not yellow. They were named for the islands, not vice versa.

Back to bananas, the fruit originated in Southeast Asia, spread to Africa and then to the nearby Canary Islands. But, you won’t see banana boats leaving there too soon. The substantial tourism industry on the islands demands tons of the fruit during high season, so there is no export industry.

Banana Greenhouse

On a recent visit to two of the islands, myMEGusta saw bananas and plantains growing all over the place on Gran Canaria. Some were in orderly farms, others in odd fabric greenhouses. We were told that a grower’s investment in the greenhouses is significant, but that the yields were substantially higher thanks to protection from the winds and other elements.

There are a multitude of banana varieties. The Cavendish is the most well known type of banana. One of the first widely traded bananas, it has several cultivars which largely impact size. William Cavendish owned the greenhouses where they were planted in the 19th Century, and labeled as such when his gardener created the scientific name for them, Musa Cavendishii.

You’ll sometimes see red bananas (quite sweet), tiny bananas and other more esoteric types, and it is said that there are between 300 and 1000 types globally, although some of them may simply have different names in different places.

Varieties of Bananas and a Plantain

Plantains are relatives of bananas, and can be seen growing side by side in some farming areas in The Canaries.

Visually, they are larger and pointier. In terms of flavor, they are starchy and only mildly sweet. A Latino favorite, fried plantains are a real treat, as are plantain chips, particularly delicious at Brasitas Restaurant in Stamford, CT (www.brasitas.com ).

Fried Plantains

“Game” At The Table? Not So Much

What do lodge dining in Yellowstone National Park and at a Big 5 Game reserve near the Indian Ocean have in common?

Lunch Time at Pumba

Not the cute monkeys who hop over to steal your lunch at Pumba Lodge in South Africa, that’s for sure.

It’s the appearance of “game” on the menu, and it’s no more “wild” than the free range chicken at the grocery store. But this is NOT a bad thing. One thing that struck myMEGusta was the notion of how farmed game was so similar in such diverse places, over 10,000 miles, nearly half a globe apart.

Old Faithful Inn

This is about bison burgers, which are not made from those beautiful beasts that are ‘home on the range’ in Wyoming, and ‘venison’ which, when ordered in Africa, is really farmed impala.

We won’t get into the virtues of eating Bambi, or not, or the politics of the Old West, when the newcomers nearly decimated the bison to eradicate and control the native people who depended on them.

“Bison” Burger

Did you know that bison burgers are really beefalo? Relatively low in fat and cholesterol, the meat of bison (not buffalo, that’s a misnomer that an early settler used and it stuck) cannot be farmed unless it is interbred with beef cattle.

Ground “Bison”

The reason for this is very practical: Bison are extremely powerful, violent animals with extraordinary abilities to perform feats like jumping over high fences. Charming to view at a distance, these beasts are quite dangerous up close, which those who attempted to domesticate them learned very quickly. Breeding with the more docile cattle, creating beefalo, made farming them possible, and led them to our tables.

Bison burgers, by the way, are one of the real culinary treats to be had in the Western National Park lodges, although they are so lean that they have to be consumed cooked rare, otherwise they are turn into cardboard.

“Venison” Dinner at Pumba Lodge

Impala are at the other end of the easy farming spectrum from bison. When you order venison in South Africa (and, I suspect, elsewhere in that continent) you will receive delicious impala. They certainly were not captured in the wild (where they are chased by lions), rather grew up in relative calm (and good feedings), on a farm somewhere. And, the venison you find in the United States, unless you are at the home of a hunter (or friend of a hunter) is also farmed.

Like deer venison, impala is a delicious red meat, but also very lean, and requiring careful cooking so as not to be overdone and dry.

Our friend and colleague, Chef Arno Schmidt, encountered a very different “game” experience on a recent trip to Greenland. The opportunity to taste never came up, but he describes a fish market in Sisimiut, halfway up the West Coat.

A lady “of a certain age” with a walker negotiated with the fishmonger as to exactly which cut of blubbery seal – wild, not farmed – she wanted. Spotting her later at the supermarket purchasing root vegetables, Chef Schmidt didn’t know what dish she was planning, but he posited that a boiled dinner – one of the traditional ways to eat seal meat – was in the offing. Or she could have been planning on crispy seal cracklings, and rendered seal oil for an old fashioned lamp.

Bloomin’ Zucchini

Zucchini Blossoms

“My grandchildren are going to bankrupt me.”

Scene: Sunday morning farm market at the Nature Center in Stamford, CT http://www.stamfordmuseum.org/farmers-market.html

Players: A tiny Italian lady ‘of a certain age’ and a much younger couple speaking (when just between themselves) in an Eastern European language.

As the lovely little lady amassed her purchases, which included a giant box of zucchini flowers, the Eastern Europeans asked her what she did with them. Kindly, she explained her flour (flouring the flower) procedure and deep frying, as they looked on uncertainly, clearly not doing a lot frying in their house. Having left before the couple, myMEGusta does not know if they are going to try it.

Fried Zucchini Blossoms

These gorgeous yellow blossoms are an expensive seasonal treat, and a great way for anyone to literally nip zucchinis in the bud rather than wait for a bumper crop of squash with not enough friends to farm them out to. And, they are a nice profit center for our farmers (who can also be plagued by a deluge of squashes beyond what they can sell).

Interestingly, the male flower is the one found in US markets, while in Europe, you see both the male and the female, with a baby zucchini attached, perhaps because there is such a strong market for them there.

The lady’s recipe is classic, and a tempura style batter also works great, although it’s a lot more work.

In her travels, myMEGusta has also had them in the Roman style, stuffed with a little cheese before frying, meltingly delicious, of course! Here’s a link to Michele Scicolone’s recipe: (http://michelescicolone.com/roman-style-fried-zucchini-flowers/ /

Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms, Verandah Restaurant at the Hotel Splendide on Lake Lugano, Switzerland

On a recent trip to Lugano, Switzerland, the heart of Italian Swiss cooking, myMEGusta sampled them at the Verandah Restaurant in the Hotel Splendide: stuffed with chopped wild mushrooms, pan seared rather than fried, then served over a tomato sauce with a garnish of cheese sauce. It was awesome, and less guilt-inducing than the deep fried specimens (other than the delish cheese sauce).

Zucchini Blossoms and Wild Mushrooms at the Lugano Market

What a treat that was after ogling the flowers and fresh wild mushrooms in the market that morning!

 

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