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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”

“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.

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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!

 

Spitzbuben, Those Little Rascals

Spitzbuben!

Sometimes things just catch your eye.

The first Spitzbube sighting was in Zermatt, Switzerland, while myMEGusta was agog from just having seen the peak of the Matterhorn overlooking a glacial brook on a cloudy afternoon.

How can you see a cute fellow like this smiley guy and not stop into the bakery to ask about him?

Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland

 

Known as Spitzbuben, these Swiss cookies pop up all over the country, and the motif is even used in restaurant signage. The funny name ties to the cute, mischievous face, and it means “villain, rogue, scamp, scallywag or rascal.”

Spitzbube Sign Near Interlaken, Switzerland

In context:

“Dieser Spitzbube und mein ungezogener Sohn stopften sich einst mit Melonen aus meinem Garten voll.“

“This scamp and my scapegrace son crept into my garden and gorged themselves on my seed melons one year.”

Relatives of Austrian Linzer cookies, which also contain ground up nuts and some spices, they have a jam filling, usually raspberry or strawberry. Interestingly, their relative, a proper Linzer Torte, much larger, will usually have a fancier lattice top.

Linzer Torte

Swiss bakers* have a lot more fun than do the Germans, who simply make them into little circles. But, they are well known treats in Germany, especially around the holidays.

Recipes are rarely included by myMEGusta, but this one looked particularly simple and tasty, and you don’t have to take their boring design direction. Have fun with the shape, like the Swiss do!

http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Raspberry-Jam-Sandwich-Cookies

*Autocorrect wants Swiss bankers to take on this task.

Fondue!

Simmering Fondue in Gruyeres, Switzerland

It was a dark and stormy night, rather, noontime.

Normally a cause for tourists to be annoyed in July, the cool weather was a blessing for us in beautiful Gruyeres, Switzerland, because it was Fondue Day! And we got Raclette, too! But myMEGusta is getting ahead of herself.

Those of us of a certain age remember fondue parties, with fondue pots at wedding showers seeming to multiply like spoons in the sink.

Cheese fondue, a mélange of cheeses with some white wine, maybe a little mustard seasoning, was the most popular, eaten by dipping hunks of crusty bread on which impatient neophytes would always burn their tongues.

There was beef fondue, now pretty much unheard of, where little pieces of tenderloin were dipped into oil, then dipped in savory sauces. A cholesterol festival, if there ever was one.

Chocolate Fondue

And, who doesn’t love chocolate fondue, totally decadent but delish when made with really good, dark chocolate and excellent fruits in season.

Getting back to Switzerland, fondue is a genuine “local” food, not something created for tourists, but something the locals eat relatively rarely, and then, only in cold weather.

Raclette Bubbling

Raclette is a close relative, basically baked cheese which oozes and bubbles as it cooks and caramelizes.

It was no surprise to see fondue signs all over the place in Switzerland, but Chinese Fondue mystified myMEGusta (although not enough to stimulate her to order it).

Interestingly, and it makes sense, this dish is a local version of the traditional Mongolian Hot Pot, a simmering bowl of broth, in which thinly cut, tender meat slices are quickly cooked, then dipped in one’s favorite seasonings and sauces. Vegetables also simmer in the broth, maybe noodles as well, and it makes for a healthy, savory dinner. The oddly named Hometown Restaurant on Grand Street in NYC’s Chinatown serves a varied and delicious hot pot menu.

Asian Hot Pot

Lovers of Japanese food will recognize the similarity to shabu-shabu, the bubbling broth into which well marbled beef, from Kobe when you can find it, is plunged just long enough to barely cook it, then, like with Hot Pot, dipped in a soy/mirin based sauce. Yummy.

Once, on a trip to visit the snow monkeys of Nagano, Japan, the ryokan’s (inn’s) set dinner included a simmering hot pot (intended for vegetables or noodles or whatever) and beautiful sashimi from the local fresh water, an extremely risky thing for outsiders to eat due to potential parasites and such. Not wanting to cause the innkeepers to lose face, it was imperative to eat the fish. What to do? Sneak it into the hot pot to cook when they were not looking. And it was delicious.

Japanese Snow Monkeys

It is fun to think that parallel culinary universes developed in the Alps, in Mongolia, and in Japan, and no Marco Polo legends about why the similarities!

The Joys of Summer: Salad Caprese

“No Italian would ever eat that. It’s an American invention.”

Caprese Salad at Ristorante Santa Eufemia, Verona, Italy

Thus was spoken with authority by a fellow traveler in Switzerland, and myMEGusta had no internet at her fingertips to prove him wrong. And he was insistent on the subject, even as she pointed out that the cuisine of Italy is hugely diverse, from the Alps to the toe, from Sicily to the deep interior.

Tomatoes with buttermilk mousse.

OF COURSE it is Italian, a classic from the Isle of Capri. This combination of tomatoes and mozzarella, with a daub of pesto or fresh basil leaves, is beloved, and a plateful of heaven when made with top ingredients. Also known as Tricolore, it is said to been created to resemble the Italian flag; more likely, the name came after people had come to love the flavor combination.

It is so popular that variations show up all over, like the addition of balsamic vinegar or serving on a bed of lettuce (gilding the lily, but harmless). One delicious combination found in a long-forgotten restaurant, but wonderful, was heirloom tomatoes with pesto and a buttermilk mousse (OK, not mozzarella, but a relative). Sometimes, herbed smooth cheese is substituted.

Tomato with herbed cheese, olive oil and basil, La Girolle, Grenoble, France

Coeur de Boeuf Tomatoes at Marche Ste Claire, Gernoble, France

No Italian would eat Styrofoam tomatoes and slabs of dry mozzarella (intended for adequate pizzas, not eating plain). But they, and the world, love the flavorful tomatoes of summer, whether from a backyard in Minnesota or a market in Munich. The most frequently seen in markets and on menus on a recent trip to France and Switzerland was the Coeur de Boeuf, or Beef Heart, tomato, as tasty as it is beautiful.

The mozzarella available now in the United States, if you shop carefullty, is light years better than it used to be.

The best mozzarella, IMHO, is the freshest:

Tomato with buratta, basil, olive oil, balsamico, Brasserie Chavant, Grenoble, France

It can be the bufala, made in Italy with the milk of water buffalos (no relation to the American bison of Yellowstone Park), oozy with a little tang. This is flown to the US, but can be hard to find and expensive.

It can be buratta, made fresh everywhere with a fresh mozzarella skin enveloping heavy cream and stracciatella cheese, exquisite and a super-caloric treat.

It can be freshly made, still warm fresh mozzarella from stores like Fratelli Market http://fratellimarketct.com/ in Stamford, CT, or on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, where it is made continuously throughout the day.

Failing these options, the little “fresh” mozzarella balls you find in the supermarket will do in a pinch. Just stay away from the rubbery blocks whose only purpose is sit atop a bubbling pizza.

A Summertime Treat: Cold Asian Noodles

Soba Salad

Even if you’re avoiding carbs, it’s time to think about indulging in some refreshing Asian noodles in a light, zesty sauce.

Soba noodles, made with a mixture of buckwheat and regular flour (NOT for the gluten-free) are a really special summer treat. Readers of myMEGusta may recall an artlcle last summer about buckwheat: https://mymegusta.com/2016/07/28/pass-the-buckwheat .

Cold Soba with Dipping Sauce

Our favorite ways to enjoy soba noodles at this time of year (or at any time of the year, for that matter) are dipped in a tasty sauce found on the shelves of all Asian groceries, or in a salad, like they serve at Nippon Restaurant in NYC, offered with various garnishes. Both concepts are nice, light dishes in any case, served up either as a main course or as a little side dish.

Enthusiasts of Dr. Dukan or other low carb diet advocates may be familiar with shirataki noodles, made with potatoes and/or yams or tofu, and also known as harusame. Easy to prepare, these noodles can be found in supermarkets, usually in the refrigerated section near the produce department (the same area where hummus lives). One tip: Don’t attempt to freeze them, as they’ll disintegrate.

Harusame Noodle Salad

Gluten free, shirataki are beloved by carb-free and gluten-free dieters as a spaghetti substitute, and actually are reasonably satisfying in that context if one is desperate for a satisfying red sauce experience.

More traditionally, they are served with a light soy dressing, perhaps with chilis, lime juice, onions and peanuts over lettuce, as myMEGusta enjoyed recently at Haru Sushi in Manhattan’s Theater District http://harusushi.com/ .

Yes, you CAN try these at home!

Tofu Shirataki

Yam Shirataki

 

 

 

Getting a Dose of Dosas

Dosa at the Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur

This is the story of a pancake.

Think of a giant, crispy crepe, made of rice and lentil flours, stuffed with a savory filling, and always made to order. It started as a food for South India’s vegetarian masses, and became so popular that it is now served all over the country, whether as a breakfast offering in some India’s (and the world’s) best hotels, or on the streets of Varanasi, the mystical destination for religious pilgrims on the shores of the Ganges.

Street Dosa Maker in Varanasi

In the delightful novel, Selection Day (by Aravind Adiga), a Bombay slum dweller seeks to claw his family’s way out of poverty by molding one of his two sons into a star cricket player. The boys are forbidden to eat dosas, although it is unclear whether this is because of street food sanitation or carbs (most likely the latter); one son sneaks them from time to time and becomes a star anyway.

At the start of a group tour of India, myMEGusta was the only one eating this exotica at breakfast (in lovely hotels, not on the street). Then came odd gazes and comments like, “Hey, that looks good. What it is?” After 18 days, dosas were being savored by fellow travelers throughout dining room every morning.

Dosa at the Leela Palace in Delhi

The thin, rolled pancake is pretty much empty at the outer edges, with all the stuffing, usually spicy onions and potatoes, in the center. Start adding the accoutrements – a thin but chunky vegetable stew, spicy tomato sauce(s), and coconut chutney – one is quite challenged to eat this dribbly treat without making quite the mess. But, myMEGusta had never seen anyone eating it otherwise, whether in a New York restaurant or in the hotels, all tourists struggling with knife and fork.

Then, voila, came the great revelation at Navaratna, a fantastic vegetarian Indian (kosher) restaurant in Stamford, CT, where the clientele is primarily Indian businessmen and families (with a sprinkling of good eaters who keep kosher). http://www.navaratnact.com/ A dosa had to be sampled soon after my return from the sub-continent, just to see how the local rendition would compare with the wonderful breakfasts in India.

Dosa at the Vivanta Hotel, Cochin in Kerala

Two big news flashes: The flavors at Navaratna were actually more exciting than in all those fancy places that catered (deliciously, by the way) to tourists. And, the proper way to eat it is with one’s right hand, no utensils. It was amazing how easy it was to rip off a little crispy pancake and grab up some of the filling and sauces. Who knew?

This is one thing that myMEGusta is not about to make at home, particularly given the proximity of Navaratna, but you can get the pancake mix in an Indian grocery store, and the fillings would be time consuming but not difficult to make, assuming that you start with top quality, authentic ingredients from that same source.

Paella, The Heavenly Rice Dish of Spain

Paella!

When trips to Spain are coming up, myMEGusta’s thoughts turn to paella.

Paella at Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel

Paella on the beach! Paella in the moonlight (the locals do dine late)!

Pronounced pah-eh-yah, not pah-LAY-lee-yah, this mélange of rice and meats and/or seafood and/or vegetables transcends the idea of chicken and rice. It’s usually made with special paella rice, akin to the Arborio rice used in risotto. It is always cooked uncovered, and the quality of the ingredients (e.g. really good stock, the proper rice, fresh seafoods and such) and the sequence in which they are added make a huge difference. The “socarrat,” crisped rice at the edges and on the bottom of the pan, is an important part of the delicacy, and servers make sure everyone gets some.

Costa Brava Paella at Etapes in Barcelona

Like the great pasta dishes of Italy, paellas reflect local ingredients.

The best known type, from Valencia, is traditionally made with chicken and snails, although you won’t find the latter is most modern renditions outside of the city. Paella originated here, a major rice growing area, and was named for the unusual pan in which it is cooked, the “paellera.”

The owner of Etapes, a favorite Barcelona restaurant (http://www.etapes.cat/en/) , warns customers that theirs is the “local” paella, Costa Brava style, not the Valencian. I was delighted with this shellfish rendition – hefty shrimps, razor and cherrystone clams and mussels – from the seaside region northwest of Barcelona.

Black Paella at Madrid’s Mercado San Miguel

Then there is black paella, made with squid ink and shellfish. It sounds odd, looks odder, and is an exquisite creation that sings of the sea. Lovers of risotto nero, an Italian relation, will also adore this dish.

Paella, made correctly, is such a production that most of what is consumed in Spain is purchased ready-made at the market, like in this photo from Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel (two versions!) or from paella specialist caterers. Outside of Spain, you’ll find superb examples at places like Borough Market in London.

Paella at London’s Borough Market

One restaurant in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas market specializes in paella, which you watch cooking through a window, and it is on this year’s must-try list.

Paella Simmering in the Restaurant Window

Ambitious home cooks do make it, and my MEGusta has enjoyed a superb example, which took hours to create, in the home of Minnesotan friends.

And, there are festivals, large groups of people gathering late into the night to indulge in paella made in super giant paella pans on wheels. (You cannot make this up: The pan’s diameter was as wide as the man was tall.) The fixin’s for this “fideua,” a pasta based variation on paella, were in view from the sidewalk, mountains of dried egg noodles and other ingredients that were just being organized for a VERY late night feast. Maybe this is where the idea for Rice-A-Roni came from?

Giant Paella Pan

Fresh Minty Bevvies

Saturday, May 6, is Kentucky Derby Day, a time for celebration among horse lovers and an excuse to pull out the fresh mint!

Actually, it’s always a good time to enjoy fresh mint. The best will come from farm markets when they open in a few weeks here in New England, but good produce departments and ethnic, especially Indian, markets have it year round.

Mint Julep

The Mint Julep used to be the most famous drink utilizing fresh mint. It also incorporates sugar and bourbon, traditionally served in a silver or pewter cup with lots of crushed ice. Some people muddle the mint and sugar together (releasing the mint aromas), others make a syrup, and lots of folks serve it in a regular rocks or cocktail glass. Thousands of these will be served in Louisville, KY, on Saturday, and race viewers will join them in hoisting this treat as they watch the race televised around the world.

The most popular mint drink today is the Mojito, a Havana, Cuba, native, and very similar to the Mint Julep. It’s a little time consuming to make it right (and why bother if not?). First you take perfect mint leaves, washed, then put into a glass with sugar. Muddle them together, not long enough to destroy the leaves, add rum and fresh lime juice, add club soda, add ice and garnish with a sprig. One fine day, when lime prices go back down, it will make sense again to garnish with lime slices as well, but this is cosmetic, not adding flavor, so can be skipped.

Mojito

It is said that this was a favorite libation of Ernest Hemingway, but this may be apocryphal, made up by a restaurant he frequented or by other promoter in history.

Recipes for both cocktails are plentiful on the internet. Just beware of sponsored sites supported by brands other than good bourbons and rums, as they’ll tell you to use the wrong spirit, which might (or might not) be tasty, but will definitely not be authentic.

Muddled Mint Leaves

Don’t be daunted by the term “muddling”! This simply means that you smash the leaves around a bit, the sugar providing the texture to bruise the leaves a little. And, you don’t need to buy a muddling tool, which does make it easier, and also sets you up to make a traditional Old Fashioned, a bourbon drink with crushed fruit. You can use a spoon with nearly as good results.

A wonderful, non-alcoholic use of fresh mint is simply to infuse in hot water, and have mint tea, which is a step above what is made with ubiquitous tea bags.

If you have bought a bunch of mint leaves, and it’s just too much for the amount of Juleps or Mojitos (or Indian recipes) you are making, you may be able to root the sprigs. Simply put the stems into water, set on a window sill, and wait. If you are lucky, they will root, and you can pot or transplant to the garden. If not, have some more Mojitos next week, or the week after, as the mint will stay in great shape.

One safety note on these mint drinks: It’s a raw vegetable, and treat it as such if you are tempted to order one in any location where the water quality would cause you to avoid eating salads.

The World’s Remotest Island: Tristan de Cunha

Tristan de Cunha

Inhabited by just over 200 people (islanders as well as expatriates), this jewel of a volcanic island lies in the choppy South Atlantic 1750 miles (translation: 4 – 6 days by ship) from Cape Town, South Africa. And, just because you reach Tristan de Cunha doesn’t mean that you’ll actually get there; the seas are so rough that landing is often denied to casual visitors. The only way to travel by air is if your ship happens to have a helicopter.

It is visited several times a year by commercial vessels, e.g. boats to pick up the island’s specialty and financial bedrock, Tristan Rock Lobsters, as well as the occasional mail boat, cruise liner or yacht.

Tristan Rock Lobster

The economy is built on these “crayfish”, sustainably fished and shipped around the world. The Tristanians have harvested this bounty of the cold ocean responsibly since time immemorial, recognizing that what was once their main food staple (with potatoes) can continue to thrive only if they do so, with limits on what is caught commercially and even for family consumption.

Fishing Boats

Speaking with Constable Conrad (“Connie”) Glass on board Le Lyrial, a French cruise liner crossing from Ushuaia (Argentina) to Cape Town, myMEGusta learned about life on the island (“We respect each others’ differences. It’s a very small village but we are very independent people.”)

Having hitched a ride on the ship, Connie and his wife were en route to the Cape Town police academy for some advanced law enforcement classes. (“Crime” in Tristan is limited to occasional petty theft and DUI arrests.) He was thrilled to be on this yacht-style cruise ship with his wife, as journeys to/from Tristan de Cunha usually involve far less elegant accommodations (not to mention food bearing no resemblance to the Alain Ducasse designed menus on Le Lyrial).

We passengers were actually the lucky ones, as we had the benefit of meeting him, and hearing his talks about life on the island.

Connie shared his thoughts about favorite local preparations of the “crayfish”: Thermidor (with a mayonnaise/tomato sauce), in a chowder-like soup with potatoes, and in tarts with a different mayonnaise sauce.

Tristan’s other staple food is the potato, used in myriad ways, descended from some of the first potatoes that crossed the Atlantic from South America. There wasn’t a potato to be seen in the supermarket (more like a general store), because the islanders get them directly from the potato patch farmers. Because flour is an import (which can run out), Tristanian cooks have learned to use spuds creatively, for example in pie crusts. Perhaps in the crayfish tart?

Alas, myMEGusta didn’t get to taste anything.

Here are two links which readers may enjoy. Link from them amd you’ll find out more about the island and its really interesting history):

A very accurate description of Le Lyrial’s visit:

http://www.tristandc.com/news-2017-03-17-Le-Lyrial.php

More information about the lobsters and their processing:

http://www.tristandc.com/news-2017-02-28-schoolfactoryvisit.php

Tristan Rock Lobster for Sale in London

“The World’s Finest Lobster”

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