Friday, April 8, 2011
Sunday, February 13, 2011
It's not just me. Everyone loves soup. I've never met someone who emphatically or otherwise expressed a dislike for soup. For me soup is more than just hot and soulful comfort food, reminiscent of home. It's all that plus more. Soup was the first thing I ever cooked. The first dish I ever made. And more than being a fondly recalled distant memory, soup serves as the basis for everything I love about cooking. While I couldn't have put it into words at the time, I was fascinated by the idea that one could start with water and create a flavorful liquid. And, as I was preparing chicken soup for matzoh balls at the time, the fact that we - mom and I - were dipping a chicken in our pot just like a tea bag into a mug made perfect sense to me. I was instantly entranced with the idea of extracting flavor from meat and vegetables. Even as I kid, I had a visceral objection to using a bouillon cube or other concentrated flavor boosting aides. Cheating! And so it began there, an ongoing experiment to make a better soup, a more flavorful soup, a more comforting soup by exploiting everything the natural ingredients hold within them. Every project I take on and every dish I cook is a new version of that first soup. And so that's why soup is so special to me. Oh, and it's just plain delicious…
My travels took me to some places where soup reigns supreme. These far off manifestations of our favorite steamy elixir are not unknown here in America. In fact, the pho of vietnam and ramen, udon and soba dishes of Japan are so accessible here that they are on the verge of being ingrained in our own melting pot culinary tradition. The fusion has begun. Going back to the source didn't necessarily bring any new revelations, but oh what I treat! I loved seeing how a dish that we have tightly confined images and definitions of in America can be wildly varied on its home turf. Think of the hamburger, a (sort of) iconic American food. On native land, there are endless variations of it. It's just what we eat and everyone is allowed to do it how they do it. I found the same to be true of pho, ramen dishes and especially miso soup at their respective sources. It made discussions of "authenticity" seem ridiculous to me. Some foods cannot fit a mold that is rigorously defined by a panel of experts, and soup of all things cannot be shackled. After all, what is more down home than soup? What is more open to the interpretation of every family feeding mother and every DIY epicurean? Nothing, that's what.
One thing I know for sure is that enthusiasm for soup is human nature. It's not a trend or particular taste. It's not pop culture. Soup has always been here and soup is here to stay! All food starts as water and all food can end as soup. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. In South East Asia, where you'll find the ever popular Vietnamese pho among other regional riffs on the subject, people live on steaming soup in a stupidly hot climate. While I was visiting Hue, Vietnam I braved the heat to eat what are two of the most memorable meals of my travels. One afternoon I wandered down a side street to find a little tent where an old lady was stirring a massive cauldron of beefy rice soup. I was sweating so profusely over my food, I thought the bowl would never be empty. I chased the soup with with the juice of a basketball sized coconut while a sassy Vietnamese lady jokingly fanned me with a palm branch and her clique sat cackling at the silly looking American. Nothing but soup could outweigh the embarrassment of being reduced to a cultural punchline. The following night I walked with a two other travelers to find a place recommended to have the best Hue style rice noodles. We got a little twisted around with a less than accurate map, but ended up finding the little roadside setup that was packed with people sitting at kiddie sized tables. There was only one soup to order, so I flashed three fingers and waited for our three bowls to arrive. The tables all were set with baskets of boiled quail eggs and pork sausage steamed in banana leaves to adorn your soup with, as well as the ubiquitous chili sauces. To our right, three ladies sat hand cutting the rice noodles from handful of dough rapid fire, directly into giant bubbling pots. The noodles were paired with a simple fish broth, none too fancy but all made from the heart. Both of these soups atypical to what we commonly know of as Vietnamese, but just part or life where they come from. Just a local's twist.
It was in Japan, however where I witnessed a passion for soup that even made ME blush a little bit. I had been there a little over a week and already eaten myriad styles of ramen and udon. I was on an overnight bus from Tokyo to Nagoya. As we all tucked into our luxurious reclining seats, complete with electrical outlets, reading lights and complimentary slippers; I notices the salaryman sitting caddy corner to me was reading a magazine…a girly magazine. America is a little prude when it comes to boobies in printed media. I caught myself staring in amazement. What? Am I not human!? At least it was tastefully done. He flipped one page, and then another. On the third turn, I saw a page cover not with nude women, but bowls of soup. There was ramen and there was soba. Dressed up with fish cakes and char siu pork, side by side with undressed women. It was magnificent, and a little titillating. But hold all of your jokes regarding "food porn!" I can't stand that term. Pornography is something consumed with no feeling. It's overly processed empty calories, laden with preservatives. Soup is beautiful. It touches us with nostalgia and warms the heart. Soup is for everyone. It's the anti-hipster. We all have some form of it personal to our history, and through soup we relate to one another, one bowl at a time.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Some people are great spontaneous storytellers. They can literally captivate an audience by regaling it with the mundane details of their days. I used to the think that these folks had more interesting lives than yours truly, but that's not necessarily so. They just have a way of relating the minutiae that can really move a listener. I've always wanted to have that ability, but alas, when I am asked over and over again to "tell some great stories," of my travels it always puts me on the spot. What stories? Nothing really happened to me. I went a bunch of places, read some books, looked up at a great many tall buildings and ate way too much delicious food. What I can't produce on the spot however, comes back to me a little bit at a time with the memory of each meal or morsel. My stories are a subtext of all the great food and tall buildings I looked up at. They lace together the larger memories into one cohesive experience to tell people about. So while I may not be much around the water cooler or campfire, it turns out I do have some stories to tell. Here's one…
Spain is a glutton's paradise. Eating and drinking is woven so tightly into the social fabric, it's candyland to an outsider with an adventurous palate. Except, instead of gumdrops and lollypops you have ham and vermouth. Salted pig parts and barrel aged libations are essentially dripping from the walls and falling from the sky. The culture encourages sampling and little here and a little there, all before you actually sit down for a meal. After nearly a month in Spain I had made this a job, fully tricked out with a mission statement and itinerary for each day.
On this particular day in Grananda, I had gotten up disgustingly early for the second morning in a row to see La Alhambra, the previous being a failure because I arrived too late to get one of the limited tickets sold each day. After spending more than half the day touring this more than magnificent historical sight I headed back into the old city to revisit two great tapas bars I had discovered the day before. The first was an old school operation, complete with aged, unkempt men in white shirts and black vests. I watched one guy loose his marbles because the beer keg blew in the middle of service and he just couldn't deal with the stress. This was right before he raised his hand in a feigned smacking motion to the back of a younger, cockier waiter who was carrying way too many plates, and made a classic, "why I ought!" face. It was a priceless moment that only I witnessed. In Granada you get a complimentary tapa with each drink that you order which is fabulous, but can fill you up quick. I had come for the sesos - fried brains - and was not to be deterred. You're cringing, I can tell. Honestly though, brains have a really creamy texture, sort of like oysters. I'm convinced that an unsuspecting diner could scarf down crisply fried gray matter happily until told what it actually is.
Anyway, I digress. I finished up and moved on to the other bar I had enjoyed the day before. It was a little more modern and a little less smoky. The day was young and I still had free tapas on the brain (get it?). While the day before this particular dive had been empty, it was hopping on this visit. The bartender, a cheerful and quirky young gal remembered me from the day before. She came to get my order as I squeezed between groups of people just beginning their afternoon siesta. It's a little awkward drinking by oneself in a crowded bar, but I seemed to have it down by this point. It was a little too loud and bustling to concentrate on a book, but I always had my smartphone's internet connection to keep me company if conversation failed. For a moment, though I watched the bartender who had made a nice impression on me the day before just by being friendly. She was working this crowd like a pro, with a deft yet graceful hand. Perky, cute and just a little strange, she had a pet name for each regular customer and you never had to tell her what you were drinking more than once. Oddly, she also looked exactly like someone I worked with way back when. Also a bartender, these two gals looked similar and acted the same. Same skills and talents. It was like I was watching the same former colleague, once removed, miles and years away from the last time we worked together, in a different language. Strange. It got me thinking maybe people exist in duplicate or triplicate even, all over the world. Different bodies, but here to serve the same purpose, play the same role. It's some weird, new-agey shit, I know, but interesting to think about. A man sitting next to me at the bar kept tapping me on the arm and pointing at her, the pixieish bartender, with a slightly drunk smile, as if to say, "ain't she great?" I nodded and smiled as I always do when people babble to me in a foreign language. My own cosmic pontifications aside, I was not about to get into an esoteric conversation with this guy on the subject. I was reading about post season baseball with my phone, and in an effort to relate, he pulled out his cell and showed me a picture of himself with a woman - very pretty - who could have been a wife or a daughter. I hope the latter, because she looked much younger than him. He kept at it in Spanish and I kept nodding, which probably encouraged him to open up even more. At one point, he pointed at the picture and put his hand over his heart. Now this I understood as the international sign for, "my love." Still unsure if the special lady in the picture was spouse or child, I figured it didn't matter because this show of affection would be endearing for either. This guy is ok! Next he pointed to our friend, the bartender and indicated that she too, belonged to his heart. I can see that. She was really that sort of service professional. Even I was beginning to care about her a little. I mean, she remembered my name and brought me free food. He continued chatting me up and I continued nodding. Then I noticed that he was crying. Not sobbing, but tears were welling up as he spoke. Instead of being awkward, it was surreal. I was having trouble believing that this was all really taking place in this universe. I don't know why, but it made me want to think of all the things and the people that are important to me. Not in a way that made me gloomy, but rather appreciating what I have and the ability to choose my own direction. I can't speculate on what he was so emotional about, but considering he was talking about love while drinking and eating great food there is equal chance that they were tears of joy, of pain or just plain allergies. I'll never forget this moment. I came for the food and it was wonderful but I left thinking about how lucky I am. So you see I do have some stories to tell. They create an important context in which I can enjoy and remember epic dining experiences. Eventually the soul sitting next to me at the bar perked up and the tears stopped. Our spritely, playful bar maiden, who was calling me "chipi" or "chiki" or whatever in a high pitched whine bid me fond farewell and implored me to call my mother...
Sunday, November 7, 2010
I´ve spent the last five days in Barcelona following a month long tour of Spain. Keeping to my longtime policy of not designating favorites it will suffice to say that Spain has been a highlight of my travels in all respects. I managed a fairly broad sampling of locations while here and even made it to Portugal for a spell. I also spent some time up in the mountains, away from the gr of cities. I did not improve upon my meager Spanish language skills, which was a goal I had set. I guess being a tourist doesn´t force you to rely on the native tongue enough to absorb more of it, and five weeks is certainly not enough time. I was able to experience culinary immersion, though. I attacked the native cuisine of Spain with vim and vigor reminiscent of my time spent in Chaing Mai. I drank vermouth and Basque cider for breakfast simply to get the complimentary tapas, while bouncing from barrio to barrio in the bustle of Spanish night for just one more beer and one last morsel to remember my time here by.
As I lamented in the past, even after all I´ve seen I can barely feel as though I have scratched the surface of what Spain has to offer, what the world has to offer. Options abound when there are endless eateries as well as market stalls to choose from. I was forced to parse out my time in each location by when I would walk the streets in search of sustenance and when I would ransack the markets to enjoy cooking from the local offerings. Do I try something new, or go back for more of an established show stopper? These are the dilemmas I face daily. And a week from now when I fly from London back to the United States and begin the life of responsibility anew, I´ll be faced with the same sort of dilemmas. I´m faced with myriad decisions of where to live, who to live with, where to work and what trajectory I want to set myself on. Where do I want to go from here? It´s how I´ve lived my life for the past eight months, in essence. Each day deciding where the next place to visit will be. Sometimes planning, often times not. There are so many options. Too many options. A world of options, if you will.
Life changing...is a phrase people toss around when I discuss my decision to put things on hold and travel for the better part of a year. Life affirming is more appropriate, I would say. For instance, I have affirmed that never will I be adept at figuring out here I am on a map or finding my way to any location. (Thanks Dad!) I get lost on foot and in cars. I get lost even with a compass and a map to help me. I get lost in museums. I´ve affirmed that I have no particular allegiance or passion for one type of culinary style. The discovery of something new and the revisiting of something old is what moves me, no matter what it is or where it´s from. I love it all, relish it all. I´ve also affirmed that there is no easy answer to the question, ¨where am I going next?¨ First hand experience is the only way for me to work things out. Jump on that next train or walk down the next alley, and see what happens.
I suppose that is why I have chosen, for the moment at least, to take up lodging in New York City in the near future. Well, there so many reasons, to be honest. But, it occurred to me that I´ve never found one place I like more than all others. No place whether lived in or visited that I want to call home for the rest of my life. Having seen so many different places over the prior eight months I have affirmed that there is no such city, town, village or hamlet....for me at least. I figured then, New York has variety, opportunity and intrigue on a scale that most other cities don´t. Options. It seems to me the ideal place for people who can´t decide. Don´t want to decide.
So the short answer to where I will be next, is NYC...back on the East Coast, grinding it out with everyone else. I´m not fond of short answers though, but I´ll spare you the minutiae and leave it at that...
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Always do your conversions ahead of time. Weights, volumes, distance and especially currency.
Getting lost can lead to the most worthwhile discoveries, but it is important to recognize when you are about to cross into the realm of being hopelessly lost, and turn back.
This is not all fun and games (and getting lost)! Managing costs is central to continuing the show. Master it.
As a tourist you can flit from attraction to attraction in a city or really explore it, get to know it and "take it's pulse" so to speak. If you don't dig in, then you haven't really been there.
Have a tasting spoon with you at all times...
Make sure you keep your eye on the big picture. Why am I here? What do I want to walk away with? But don't focus so intently on it you loose sight of the small, unexpected details as they pass by.
Screwups are unavoidable. Don't repeat them.
Always have a quality, comfortable pair of shoes.
The simplest route to your next destination is usually the best.
Pork is simply the undisputed champion of meat worldwide...hands down!
Maps...recipes...kinda the same thing. Everyone has their own approach and it can be a polarizing topic. All I can say is, make sure you've got one handy, just in case.
Technology makes life easier and can enhance your experience. Use it, but don't be consumed by it.
There is always time for a coffee break.
Frustrating situations are inevitable. How you deal with them makes all the difference.
You get what you pay for.
Fresh food markets are fascinating and not to be missed. Fresh and seasonal fruits and vegetables are central to understanding where you are and how people there live, eat and love.
Don't take anything - especially yourself - too seriously.
Only bring what you can carry. Don't bring what you can't afford to loose.
Getting angry and yelling at people who don't speak your language is an exercise in futility.
Seeing grandeur day after day may get monotonous once in a while, but that doesn't make it any less magical.
More fancy and expensive gear doesn't make you better at what you do.
There is a reason why some things and places are "touristy." Don't forswear that which has been proven through time and trial just for the sake of being different. It will be your loss.
Planning is overrated. The perils of not planning are understated.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
My trusty Timbuk2 messenger bag reeks of the sweetness that only salted flesh and fat can devise. For weeks now I've been picnicing with various cured meats and cheeses from myriad European markets, but here and now in Italy the sheer meaty madness has reached it's zenith. Yesterday it was lardo that I paired with a succulent walnut sauce meant for pasta, but equally fulfilling as a dip for fat wrapped Tuscan bread. Today though, is a treat the likes of which you don't stumble on every day. Most great Italian cured meats are widely available in the U.S. either as imported products or domestic representations. I've made plenty of them in my capacity as both a chef and hobbyist. Like any import though, some of the true gems don't readily make it out of the homelad. Today I have ripening in my bag as I trudge the streets of Firenze the Calabrian specialty: Nduja (in-doo-ya). Similar to salami only in that it's made from ground pork, heavily spiced and salted, and stuffed into intestinal casing to be smoked and aged; nduja is soft and spreadable. Native to Calabria it has a characteristic firey pepper flavor. Don't let it's bladderesque appearence fool you...this is an epic treat for someone as geeky as myself.
Heretoforth, I had only indulged in nduja (say that five times fast!) once. As far as I know there is only one place in the United States producing this product and I can now attest having had it in the homeland that their's is an exemplary recreation, true to form and flavor in every way. Boccalone of the Ferry Building in San Francisco brought nduja to my attention when Chris Cosetino and Co. started producing it not too long ago. I was lucky enough to sneak a taste when I passed through SF and was impressed to say the least. Stumbling upon it in Florence - not technically where it is produced - was a welcomed accident. I picniced in one of many Florentine piazzas with some bread:
And, being salty and spicy in an extreme way the nduja begged for something sweet. Luckily I had an grotesquely large apple obtained from the same Mercato Centrale where I procured the fatty spread.
The previous night I had the pleasure of dining with some friends at a lovely modern Italian restaurant where we were treated to fresh riccioli tossed with warmed nduja. As a sauce for pasta, it is peerless.
Why the play by play you might ask? Normally this blog is babbles rather than bullet lists...
I feel compelled to share. What may simply seem like lunch is actually one of those rare travel experiences that set a benchmark for all others. For some folks it's ancient basilicas or bungee jumping. For me it happens to be edible culture. Nduja is a DOP product, which essentialy means it's name and character are protected by the Italian government (my definition, not nearly detailed enough, I know!) I can scarf salami and pack away prosciutto until I bleed grease, but that is more or less something I can do anywhere. Access to a native food I rarely see, a cultural culinary icon so to speak, of a small region or town tucked away in the hills - that is a memory to frame my whole experience with. I've spoken before of context and how important it is to the enjoyment of great food. I think the contextual implications of finding such a product while here in Italy - so fresh, so close to the source - speak for themselves.
I visited Florence once before, many years ago. With all the locales I've been to recently, it occured to me as I rolled into Santa Maria Novella train station that this is the first place I am revisiting. Over ten years in between has rendered me a completely different person, able to appreciate being here in different ways. It's a rare treat to be able to visit someplace so far from home not once, but twice or maybe even more. New discoveries, experiences and meat based products lie in wait each time you arrive. The context in which you enjoy and appreciate a city or place changes and evolves as you do. In the professional kitchen, we trudge through the same service day in and day out. Prep the same food, fire the same orders and wash the same dishes. Yet it's different each time, isn't it? That is what I have always loved about working in restaurants. The layer of monotony is only skin deep. Under the surface are new perspectives, contexts and situations each and every day. Years and years down the road, life in the kitchen can still keep you guessing and you can trudge through it knowing that tomorrow will most likely bring some sort of new surprise.
I wasn't sure I would make it to Italy. When I arrived here I had visions of going to all the places I missed last time around. As circumstances would have it, I will mainly haunt the two cities I have already spent time in once before long ago - Florence and Rome - before I leave. The disappointment I feel for not having more time and money to explore is almost fully offset by the excitement of all the new layers I will discover this second time around.
Many people figure they can put off travel until the golden years. A grave mistake. Do it now. Do it often. And then do it again...
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Whenever people reference cooking as an art form in conversation, I have always responded that I consider it more of a craft, for myself at least. My meaning is that I treat cooking professionally as a skill that must first be honed before you can embellish with creativity. While I enjoy the imaginative side of cooking, I have always recognized that in my employment situations, keeping quality and adaptability at the root of the cuisine is the most intuitive way to operate. Well, sometimes I skew the line a bit. Furthermore, the non cooking responsibilities of a chef which can be daunting at times would seem to fall more into the craftsman way of looking at this question.
There are chefs though who are undoubtedly artists. Their efforts have pushed food forward throughout time just like masters of all other art forms. Food as art is subject to all the familiar critiques and whims. It can be celebrated or rejected. Bland or bold. Dated or ahead of it's time. Curiously, since food is a fleeting medium being created and destroyed almost instantly, the ability to catalog, study and celebrate it as we do most other genres in galleries and museums is radically different.
I'm curious what others think about this...