Saturday, September 3, 2016

Food I Like

Lamb curry. Diced sweet potatoes on the side.
I often talk about food with a Google+ friend and fellow foodie, and for a while she was telling me about things she didn't like. Since I do like those things—I never met a food I didn't like—there was a tendency to get into a back-and-forth of like & dislike, so I asked her to tell me what she does like. She came back with a fabulous list, and it turns out that we share many of the same passions for food. Her list inspired me to reply with a similar list, prompted by her own—so she gets a ghostwriting credit here as prompter. Lists are a favorite kind of writing, so I'm going to let that be today's blog.

My favorite corn on the cob is the elote sold by Mexican food trucks. They drive a stick into the cob, slather on butter and mayonnaise, and rashly sprinkle with ground mild chili powder. Elote delicious in the tradition of Mexican street food. I used to buy simple roasted corn with the shucks pulled back to make a handle. My favorite street food is the cucumber that the vendor with amazing wizardry makes into a florette, which he sprinkles with chili powder to give the cucumber the hue of a dark red flower. At home I have nothing like any of this, but I keep in the freezer little frozen ears that I can nuke, butter, and season with salt and pepper at any time. 

I love Brussels sprouts, raw and cooked. I also keep frozen steamer pouches that make delicious standalone meals in themselves or complement a nice piece of fish.

I love all beans. I was raised on pinto beans cooked with mild chili powder and garlic. At least once a month I make a batch of beans in the slow cooker, and I usually have a batch of cornbread to complete the traditional Southern combination.

I love leeks, but the only way I know to cook them is in leek & potato soup, which is a low maintenance, all-day cooking project.

I love okra all ways but especially fried. I love potatoes all ways with equal zeal. Baked potatoes are a special treat to me, and on them as a minimum I have butter and pepper, but in a Souper Salad I'll heap on all the fixings—butter, bacon bits, chopped chives, grated cheese, and of course sour cream. I keep instant smash (my personal nickname for mashed potatoes), and now and then have a meal of them with nothing more than a garnish or two like green onions or a hunk of cheese. Yet I also like to chop whole potatoes in large pieces, boil them for about twenty minutes or more if I want them to disintegrate a bit, drain, butter, season, and stir — sometimes they turn out like smash. 

Lettuce in millions of creative salads, but those iceberg salads with a few cherry tomatoes accompanied by single-serving packets of Waverly Wafers and insitutional scoopfuls of an idiotically bland Ranch or blue cheese dressing are an abominable sadness made palpable, and they bespeak of untasteable sulfites and morgue-like walk-ins.

Salads should be about the life in plants that have received the extreme unction of olive oil and holy basil and the bitter tears of vinegar, basalmic or wine. Salads should be a totally humanly narcissistic exercise in believing that these Christ-like fruits and vegetables have lived and died to feed us a sacrament for one day. This is why flowers look so good in a salad. Salads should bring together the flavors of a few strong-willed vegetables in a homily of competing opinions, the tasting of which is like the lone voice in the wilderness finally being heard.

Jicama is so refreshing! Artichoke, but I don't think I've had it done right because when I've ordered it in restaurants, its service is so perfunctory that it seems to say, "Ha! We don't know shit about artichokes either. We just have it on the menu to impress people."

If I stop wandering and dig in somewhere, build a cabin and have a garden, I'll grow tomatoes and chilis. I love guacamole, but Americans overdo it until you get that weighty green slime for which California is famous. When I bought the four ingredients in Mexico (avocado, onion, Serrano chilis, and lime juice), the Mexicans would eye my shopping bag and come up to me pleased I'd embraced their ways. "You're going to make guacamole!" 

I love all fruit, and the exotic tropical fruits of Colombia are exciting. Mangoes are a favorite, and they, fortunately, are readily available in the US. A favorite is the granadilla, or little granada (pomegranate), which it somewhat resembles by having a breakable shell-like husk containing the fruit wrapped in bits around the pits. Yet granadillas taste different—equally sweet but without the tart bite of a pomegranate or most red fruit (red is an unrecognized taste, a Western umami). The English word for this fruit is passion fruit, and I always think of that when I eat one by breaking a hole in its husk and pulling out the fruit in one slurping suck—it's like an intimate encounter with my lover. They also have those little short and very sweet bananas. So good! And I love all berries and all citrus fruits. 

I was raised on peanut butter (which I abbreviate PNB), and occasionally enjoy a PNB, banana, & honey sandwich. But mostly I spread PNB on a single slice of bread, fold it, and dip it in a glass of milk. PNB on celery or slices of apple are also good. I don't eat it as much as I used to though for fear of the fat content.

I love garlic, and I find something fiendish about people who complain about garlic smell on breath, in pores, my ambiental funk, whatever. Those people hate good things in life like whiskers on kittens and raindrops on roses, so I try to get away from them quickly. Sometimes when cooking I'll pop a clove of garlic in my mouth, which is wonderful but as strong as wasabi, so I don't make a habit of it. Roasted garlic, which takes an edge of the piquancy, makes a delicious snack of which I cannot get enough. Most of all I think an oven is a battleground where chicken should be conquered by garlic the way that Julius Caesar conquered Gaul—in three parts: in the meal with strong wine and furiously articulate company; in the erotic nightmares of the night; and in the anti-social reception of the following day when the kitten-haters make themselves known to me.

Pecans and almonds are my favorite nuts. Walnuts are OK, though they taste like rancid pecans. Cashews are excessive somehow, more like peanuts than real nuts. Macadamia nuts are wonderful but so expensive. Brazil nuts are richly nutty and so big, which seems appropriate for a place as passionate as Brazil.

I love all pasta and can't really taste the difference among egg, wheat, spinach, etc. Sometimes the marinara sauce plain or charged with mushrooms, or meat sauce, are welcome. Lately though I've craved simpler and more direct encounters with pasta, so I cook it, drain it, sprinkle on some seasoning like oregano or parsley, and drizzle on some olive oil.

I used to cook a lot of stews, goulash, soups, elaborate spaghetti sauces, and chili. I still do now and then, like the curry in the picture at the top of this blog was tonight's dinner, but overall I prefer more and more simplicity, so I tend to avoid dishes with more than a few ingredients. I'm very curious about curry right now though because it's a gap in my education, and it seems like what I was looking for without realizing it when years ago I made all those complex monstrosities. I ate curry when I was in India, but still came away without a full grasp of it because Indian food offers so much variety, and I feel like I wasn't there long enough to rise above the confusion of novelty and master it. So in a step back, I'm trying curry now—the lamb tonight was delicious. I'm using kits, like high-grade hamburger helpers, right now, but if this trend continues I'll be making curries from scratch soon. Though I'm not a vegetarian, most of the time I eat an ovo-lacto-pescado☺diet, but fortunately vegetarian curries abound.

I'm fond of rice (nobody who likes Asian food as much as I could dislike rice), though it needs at least a little something. Soy sauce is a nice basic topping. I love my rice cooker, which makes flawless rice easily. But it also cooks lentils, grains, quinoa, and it even does great with chicken & rice. 

My interlocutor and I share a strong enthusiasm for olives. There was an olive man in the market in Santiago with a fabulous selection including an oliva amarga (bitter olive), which remains the most olivey olive I ever et. Central Market, an upscale elaboration of an HEB supermarket, sells many kinds of olives both bottled and bulk. They also have a cooler fifty feet long of a thousand varieties of cheese, all of which I love and crave. I would try even Limburger cheese if I could find it. I was just reading that people eat the pungent (some say "stinky") cheese with strongly flavored foods—on rye bread with a thick slice of onion and washed down with strong coffee or a lager. I think I would have a stout at room temperature with it.

I can't resist this quote from Wikipedia:

In 2006, a study showing that the malaria mosquito (Anopheles gambiae) is attracted equally to the smell of Limburger and to the smell of human feet earned the Ig Nobel Prize in the area of biology. The results of the study were published in the medical journal The Lancet on 9 November 1996 (Wikipedia).
Mushrooms—wish I lived in Seattle (or Portland where I could also have Powell's Books?) for the selection. 

Donuts, particularly with chocolate icing and/or custard filling, are a vice of mine, and the chocolate √©clair is Satan's offer for my soul. I used to go through occasional spells when I ate massive quantities of candy—M&M's; Snickers bars; cinnamon candies like Red Hots, Atomic Fireballs, Hot Tamales—but I'm limiting myself on that. If I lapse, I get Jelly Belly cinnamon jelly beans or Altoids. Mostly I'm trying to stick with chocolate with high concentrations (85%) of cocoa.

I love any and all seafood in any form. Shrimp are my Beatles—couldn't get enough when I was young, but now I avoid them just so I don't get totally worn out on them. In their stead I prefer scallops and especially oysters, whether on the half-shell, fried, diablo, or Rockefeller. A raw oyster is a transcendal experience: no matter where you are lucky enough to be when you eat an oyster, you transcend time and space and experience the rich salty delicacy of the fruits of the sea. (And by the way: it's time to celebrate ostionically because September is a month with an R in its name.)

I also love squid (or calamari) and octopus, cooked or in sushi. I love all kinds of sushi, and someday hope to land at a good sushi bar and have them take me progressively deeper and deeper into the exotic end of sushi as Anthony Bourdain did in those chapters documenting his trip to Japan in Kitchen Confidential. Like Bourdain, I think I'll have to go to Japan for that adventure. I equally like sashimi.

Back in the 1990s I lived in Georgetown and frequented an anti-pretentious French restaurant and bar where my favorite dinner began with escargot cooked in a garlicky butter and followed by a small lobster split and laid open on the plate like an open treasure chest. I'd go for the tail first and work my way up the scale of difficulty. One just pulls the tail meat out, but the claws calls for some cracking, but it's worth it for the claws hold the sweetest, most delicate part of the lobster. Then there were those little legs, like a collection of straws, but I never seemed to get much out of there. I was just beginning to explore the bitter delicacies of the thoracic cavity—something green and pasty into which I'd dip a corner of French bread—when it came time to move on.

Varkala, on the coast of the Arabian Sea in the Indian State of Kerala, is a tourist resort visited mostly by Europeans—it's not too far for them especially considering the prices, but the opposite side of the earth from America. The Indian people, with exceptions of course, never seem all that drawn to the beach, and the town of Varkala lies inland a kilometer or so from the sea. The tourist area, however, faces a road that runs along a bluff, below which is the beach and the Indian Ocean. Along the road are hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and clothing shops. A practice of one-sidedness runs like a motif through the tourist area: there are buildings on only one side of the road, all facing the sea like a lonely sailor's widow, and in many restaurants chairs sit on only one side of the tables so diners can watch the ocean. I also find people with little stands or folding tables selling different things, most remarkable of which are the people selling spices: they give me a star anise, like a little gray dried starfish, which I pop into my mouth, and it is so pungently rich with anise flavor that it seems like licorice.

Alongside the street the restaurants set out tables of fresh fish on ice. The person watching over this table knows all about the fish and tries to bring me into his restaurant for dinner. The competition among eateries is so fierce they rely on gimmicks. Two or three show pirate DVDs of movies that are still in the theaters. I see the second film in the Jason Bourne series in such a restaurant—that movie's action opens in Goa, where Jason and Marie are hiding from the world and from the CIA, which was weird because just as the CIA follows them to India, Jason Bourne has followed me to India. Varkala resembles Goa, which is just a few hundred miles up the coast. In that restaurant, along with the movie, I have a big fish, somewhat bigger than the platter on which they serve it, a plate of fries, and a cold beer. They prepare the fish tandoori style: covered with the definitive tandoori seasonings, skewered, and lowered into a spherical oven lined with hot coals until it's cooked just right. This has to be the most delicious fish I ever ate. So sitting on my plate is this fish, and alongside there is a mountain of fries and my beer. Ahead of me is the big-screen TV with Jason Bourne dodging the bullets of the imperialist agents. To my right quietly hums the business of the restaurant, waiters coming and going, a grill, a kitchen beyond a door; to my left the open wall lets me see the sky reaching down to kiss the sea, a black space occasionally waving the flag of a whitecap, and near the horizon stretches a tenuous string of lights, the open boats of fishermen, who were bringing in more fish to feed everyone tomorrow night.

OMG ethnic foods. Bring them on! 

  • Asian in its infinite varieties of Chinese (regionally subdivided Szechuan, Cantonese, etc), Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian (again regionally diverse). I also like fusion restaurants, and Asian tends to be one of the styles most commonly fused. One of the richest fusion experiences I ever had was at Germaine's on Wisconsin Avenue (I hear it's no longer there) in Georgetown. Germaine's was reputedly Henry Kissinger's favorite place when he worked for Nixon. Germaine's was a pan-Asian restaurant that freely drew upon East Asian dishes of many regions.
  • Mexican, from Tex-Mex and Taco Bell all the way through authentic renderings of the many regions like northern Mexico, which is most like the old Tex-Mex; coastal regions like Sinaloa and Veracruz; Oaxaca; and Yucatan, among others. (I will stress that I consider Taco Bell a legitimate Mexican cuisine that is different but not inferior to other Mexican cuisines, and I consider critics of Taco Bell as a variety of faux snob trying to impress me with knowledge they don't have. Vicious criticism is a speedy way to counterfeit expertise, and it's popular with internet poseurs.) 
  • Italian, which again is regionally diverse, but I'm familiar with only the basic division between the tomato-based southern dishes and the creamy dishes of the north. 
Both chocolate and coffee came out of some primeval South American rain forest and share some deliciously bitter molecules that frolic on my tongue. 

I've wondered many times whether a diet comprising only my favorite foods would sustain me. I like many things, and many dishes fall under the heading of "My Favorites." Can one live on olives, cheese, tomatoes and chilies, fruit and melons, bitter chocolate, tea and coffee? I must try it someday soon.

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