Sunday, July 8, 2012

By the Rivers of Babylon

I rarely read the Portland Press-Herald, so I did not know that Tandoor Bread on Forest Avenue had been reviewed until I entered the place. Good. Maine is truly blessed to have Audai Nasser baking his tenur here. (First hint at what a blessing: The article mentions that some of his customers come up from Boston.) We might be even more blessed to have his wife, Kanat Saad, cooking ful (fava beans) for us.

Ful and bread is the meal of poverty through much of the Arab world. When done right, however, it is also one of the most delicious things anywhere in the world. This ful was more right than I have ever had before. Hot Librarian, thinking ahead to a few nights wherein she will need to cook in my absence, asked, "How hard could it be?" I replied that ful is one of the easiest things to make--just onions, good olive oil, salt and lemon juice--and one of the hardest to make well. The proportions have to be exactly right.

We also had falafel, which came with the ful, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and onions and that wonderful tenur as part of a plate for one that would have been enough for three. Texturally perfect, and its flavored married beautifully with the ful and vegetables to form a perfect sandwich. That stated, if you're not in the mood to overstuff yourself, and opt instead to order a simple falafel sandwich, you will be offered amba (or, as the proprietress referred to it to a pair of bemused customers, mango sauce).

Amba, as I explained when it became clear that the other customers were reflexively inclined to reject it, is not at all sweet, and similar in flavor to an Indian mango pickle. It is also, I continued somewhat pedantically, Iraq's great contribution to world gastronomy and thoroughly addictive. Don't believe me? Ask any Israeli under the age of 50. When the Iraqi government lashed out after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 by expelling the massive, millennia-old Jewish community from Baghdad, one of the results was to expose millions of Ashkenazi Jews who had never had anything more flavorful than schmaltz to the joys of amba. Even if the ful weren't as fantastic as it was, I'd be planning a return visit just to get my next amba fix.

Fortunately, we had all three come from a nature walk at Gilsland Farm, in the mood to eat in great quantities. So in addition to my ful and falafel, HL had ordered a selection of pies for her and Little One to sample--meat, cheese, spinach, and za'atar. I did not sample the cheese, but HL and OL both relished it--salty and gooey without being greasy. The meat pie was perfectly seasoned with allspice, cumin and probably more, and the za'atar smelled like a Palestinian hillside. Only the spinach pie was disappointingly underseasoned.

I could not leave without bringing some baklava home: walnuts, almonds, honey, rose water and cardamom perfuming layer after layer of phyllo, at turns crispy and luscious. And there I wept for the rivers of Babylon.

Monday, June 25, 2012

What Portland Needs, Part 1

There's a fatal flaw in the premise of this blog, and that is: With my job requiring frequent travel out of the Portland area, I am now more likely some weeks to be dining out in another state than in Maine, or even than I am to cook in my own kitchen. Last week was one such week, which took me to Washington DC. In the interests of bringing it all back home, I will be starting a new series called What Portland Needs, describing good meals had elsewhere in order to evaluate whether they highlight missing pieces in our thriving, diverse restaurant scene.

District Kitchen: I dined at the bar in this remarkable neighborhood spot near the hotel I was staying. The basic idea: local farm-fresh ingredients, down-home Southern classics rendered with a culinary-school turn, and a well-stocked bar. Sound familiar? It should. It's what would happen if you brought together the kitchen chops of Duckfat, the regionalisms of Hot Suppa and the boozy splendors of Local 188. I started my meal with some deviled country ham, served with toast points, and a sampler of three types of pickled vegetables (rhubarb, asparagus and sugar snap peas). My starting cocktail was a house special called "Kindness and Cruelty," composed of gin, dry vermouth, Benedictine and absinthe, garnished with a generous twist of orange. Since it was so obscenely hot, I limited myself to a bibb lettuce salad for my second course, but what a salad--generously dressed with duck bacon, maple pecans and a "charred scallion - chevre dressing". I'm not entirely sure what that dressing description even means, but it was tasty, and went well with the DC Brau Belgian-style ale.

So does Portland need this?

Clearly not. The fact that I was able to readily define it with reference to the strengths of a few of our most popular local places shows that. But if some alumni of those operations were to come together with a similar concept, I would eat there gladly.

Meskerem: A good conversation with a colleague led naturally to the notion of a shared dinner, and what better food is there to share than Ethiopian? The nearest Ethiopian restaurant to where we were conferencing was Meskerem, an old favorite of mine: It was the first Ethiopian restaurant I ever went to, 21 years ago with my mother while I was competing in a national math competition at the same hotel I was staying in on this trip.

Unfortunately, the Meskerem of today is not the Meskerem I went to then, nor is it the Meskerem Hot Librarian and I went to regularly 12 years ago when we lived in Mount Pleasant, the neighborhood just north of Adams-Morgan. Back then, there were four different Ethiopian restaurants on the same block. Meskerem was the most popular, but the competition kept them on their toes. If I were in the mood for kitfo, for example, I would suggest one of the places on the same block that did it better.

When my mother and I went 21 years ago, we ordered the Meskerem Messob (sampler platter) for two, and got enough small portions of a wide enough range of meat and vegetable dishes to form a comprehensive sense of the cuisine, our likes and dislikes. This time, my colleague and I ordered the Meskerem Messob, and got large portions of four meat dishes and two lentil dishes. The spicing on all was toned down. I suspect, now that they no longer have nearby competition, that the best Ethiopian and Eritrean food to be found in DC is no longer in Adams-Morgan, but in other parts of the city or even decamped to the suburbs.

So does Portland need this? No, we have Asmara.

Jaleo: I saved the best for last. Amazingly, I never went here when I lived in DC, due probably to HL's ambivalent attitude toward Spanish food. Since then, Chef/Owner José Andrés has risen to celebrity chef status, thanks in part to his friend Anthony Bourdain getting airtime for his media-friendly ADHD symptoms. Yet the food has not suffered for it. On this visit, I sampled:

  • A watermelon-and-tomato gazpacho poured over sweet cherries and goat cheese
  • A mixed green salad tossed with pine nuts, capers and an anchovy vinaigrette and topped with toast points, shredded idiazábal and anchovy fillets
  • Arroz negro (rice cooked with squid ink), generously festooned with squid and shrimp
  • A miniature, two-bite cone filled with a soft white cheese and raw salmon, and topped with trout eggs
  • For dessert, a Charlotte Russe-type cake filled with apples, served with fresh vanilla ice cream and a jellied reduction of Pedro Ximenez oloroso sherry.

I had two glasses of a good txakoli with the savory courses and a glass of the same Pedro Ximenez as in the dessert to go with it.

So does Portland need this? It might be a bit much to expect a chef even approaching Andrés's caliber to set up shop in our little town, and we already have Masa Miyake filling the mad genius niche in our restaurant ecosystem. But it would not be at all unfair to expect Portland's otherwise excellent culinary scene to have at least one decent Spanish tapas place. Any young would-be-chefs who love Maine should think seriously about staging in one of Andrés's restaurants, or doing a tour of Spain, and setting up shop somewhere in the Arts District or the Old Port.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Taj Indian Cuisine

The Indian restaurant formerly known as Aroma has re-opened under new ownership as Taj Indian Cuisine. Hot Librarian, Little One and I attended their grand opening on Wednesday evening. The news for lovers of Indian food is mixed.

First the good news: Most of the former menu is intact, all the way down to the mini dosas and mini utthapams on the kids' menu, and the new owners bring some welcome new additions, with an emphasis on dishes from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The onion mirchi bhaji appetizer brings two whole hot green peppers, dipped in a chickpea flour batter and fried, then split and stuffed with a relish of red onion, lime juice and cilantro. Painfully delicious. Also tasty was the "Green Chicken". You know a preparation is authentic when a key vegetable ingredient is described on the menu using its Latin scientific name, which I've forgotten and therefore cannot look up. It doesn't matter. You don't need to know what it is to find it tasty.

HL and LO each ordered old favorites, and this is where the news gets more mixed. I should begin by stipulating that they each found their meals "tasty." Nonetheless, they were not quite up to the marks that Aroma had been hitting regularly. I hesitate to judge the dosa because it is a dish that can easily go awry when a kitchen is in the weeds--as they clearly were on this grand opening day. If it does not come off the flat top at just the right moment, it can either be wan and bland, if a bit undercooked, or crunchy yet unpleasantly flavored, if even slightly overcooked. This one was a bit undercooked. LO enjoyed it nonetheless. I sampled the sambar with it, and it was good--not as subtly spiced or generously festooned with vegetables as Aroma's, but fiery with dried red chilies and including the welcome addition of drumsticks. (A South Indian vegetable that eats like an artichoke leaf but tastes even better.) HL got the chole batura--the batura was thick and doughy, not airy and crispy, and the chickpeas with a bit too much tomato and not enough spicing in the gravy. Again, at least in the case of the batura, this could have been a result of the kitchen being in the weeds.

This is family-owned and -run restaurant, I suspect with the older generation working in the kitchen, and the younger, fluent-in-English generation working the front of the house. I have more than one soft spot for that kind of restaurant. Nonetheless, it could be the restaurant's Achilles heel if they don't work out the kinks in time. Clearly, there are some good cooks at work there. It is still the best Indian restaurant in Cumberland County. But good cooks do not necessarily make good restauranteurs, and even good restauranteurs don't necessarily find commercial success.

The opening day seemed to be going well for them in terms of numbers. The local South Asian community had come out in force, and many non-South Asian regulars of the old Aroma, like ourselves, showed up as well. But that also meant that the inexperienced front of the house staff was fumbling in so many textbook ways. So much so that I asked the young man who seemed to be in charge if this was the family's first restaurant--which it is. As the first-born son of an immigrant former-restauranteur, I more than sympathize. I remember the day I was in his shoes, a day that was only made tolerable by slow business and the fact that it was not my parents' first restaurant and I was mostly playing back-up to my consummately professional mother. So I offered him a lot of well-meaning, unsolicited advice, prefaced by the proviso that "I know exactly what you're going through."

Whether you were a fan of Aroma, or never got around to visiting, be sure to try Taj. Give them multiple chances. Tip generously and be open and honest with any criticism. Help them work out the kinks and find the success they deserve. You will be rewarded with delicious food.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sopes

With no posts in over a month, I suppose this blog lapsed into dormancy. There are legitimate reasons, none of which I care to share. In that time I have eaten at some very good restaurants, and some not-so-good ones. I have cooked some very good meals, and some not-so-good ones. Rather than attempt to recount them all, I'll just detail my most recent success.

On Saturday, one of the vendors at the Deering Park Farmer's Market had some cute baby summer squash with their blossoms still attached. Another had some gorgeous-looking rainbow chard. My first thought was chard-and-squash-blossom quesadillas. I mean real Mexican quesadillas, made fresh with corn masa and folded over themselves, not their norteamericano namesake--grilled cheese between two flour tortillas, also known as sincronizadas.

Unfortunately, the Bodega Latina on Congress Street does not appear to stock Mexican masa harina, which was not a surprise, as the proprietors are Dominican. (They did, to my surprise, have Venezuelan masa harina, for the making of arepas, which I will have to keep in mind, since Venezuelan arepas are delicious.) They did have, in their freezer case, some think Salvadoran-style tortillas, which in a pinch are great for making sopes, and they do also stock Mexican-style queso fresco. So that is what I made.

Sopes with Chard and Squash Blossoms

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch rainbow chard, leaves removed from stems and chiffonaded; stems reserved and coarsely chopped;
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2-3 jalapeño peppers (optional--see note on preparation below)
  • baby summer squash with blossoms--the squash thinly sliced, the calyx of the blossom finely chopped, and the petals chiffonaded, each separated from each other
  • chopped cilantro (optional)
  • 7 thick tortillas
  • grated queso fresco, to taste

Note on preparation of peppers: Hot Librarian and the Little One have such a low spice tolerance that I had to omit these entirely. I made up for it by eating too many of the La Costeña brand canned pickled whole jalapeños--I ended up eating five alongside my three sopes! If you are using fresh peppers, heat a large non-stick skillet or griddle over high heat. Put the peppers in when the surface is very hot. Turn them as needed so the skins brown and blister all over. Put them into a paper bag and fold over the top. When the peppers have cooled enough to handle but are still warm, peel off and discard as much of the burnt skin as you can (it need not be perfect). Remove and discard the tops, slice them lengthwise into thick ribbons, discarding most but not all of the seeds and ribs, and then chop into squares.

Cooking instructions:

  1. Heat 1-2 Tablespoons of cooking fat (olive oil, a neutral cooking oil, or good quality lard--I used olive oil) in a large pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add onions and chard stems. Saute until onions are translucent and stems are softened, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add garlic and peppers (if using). Saute another minute.
  3. Add squash slices and saute until just softened, 1-2 minutes, then the calyxes and do the same (another 1-2 minutes).
  4. Add the squash blossom petals and the chard leaves and cook until thoroughly wilted.
  5. If you are using the cilantro (which I can't, because it tastes like soap to HL), you can stir it into the still-hot chard-and-squash mixture after removing it from the heat, reserve it as as a garnish, or use it as both, as I would. Put a lid on the pan to retain the warmth and set aside.
  6. Place a large non-stick skillet or griddle on high heat until very hot. If your tortillas are fresh, you will need to work very fast, so you may want to do one at a time. If they are frozen, they will need to heat through, about 90 seconds on each side. Heat and lightly brown tortilla on one side, then flip it and add the chard-and-squash mixture and a handful of cheese. When the cheese has just begun to melt, it is ready.

Makes 7 sopes. Serving size for an adult: 3 sopes. Serving size for a four-and-a-half-year-old: 1 sope, plus an extra tortilla on top to make it into a "Mexican grilled cheese sandwich".

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Restaurant Selection

Consider the following limitations:
  • The restaurant must take reservations.
  • It must be able to comfortably seat a party of twelve.
  • It must have alcohol--wine, beer and liquor.
  • It must be on the Portland Peninsula, and thus be within walking distance or easy cabbing distance of one of the downtown hotels with conference facilities.
  • It must be open in early May, and on Monday evenings.

Within those limitations, which five restaurants would you select to exemplify the best of Portland?

I ask because I just came back from a day-job-related conference in Newport, Rhode Island, which may be held here next year instead, and if it is I will likely be asked to compile the list and logistically arrange for "dinner groups". In anticipation of such a hard task, I will be dining in the coming weeks at restaurants that would be strong candidates for such a list--and posting about them.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Gluttonous Weekend

This last weekend was a good one for both home cooking and restaurant visits. Let me just dive into the recipes, then:

Udon, Tofu and Bok Choy in Soup

Where to buy ingredients: Sun Oriental Market has the best selection of Korean and Japanese ingredients I've found so far in Portland. And lots of vendors at the Portland Farmers Market are coming up with bok choy.

Ingredients:

  • 1 piece of kombu (dried kelp), about 4 inches square
  • 4 cups of cold water
  • 1 small pouch of bonito flakes
  • neutral cooking oil (e.g. grapeseed, peanut, or canola)
  • 1 piece of fresh ginger, about 1 inch long, peeled and minced
  • 3 Tablespoons of light soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons of mirin
  • 1 block of firm tofu, cut into half-inch cubes
  • 1 head of bok choy, washed and roughly chopped
  • 1 lb of frozen udon noodles
  • Green parts of 3 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon of sesame oil

Directions:

  1. Place kombu in a cooking pot and soak in cold water for 20 minutes.
  2. Bring to a boil, then add the bonito flakes and remove from the heat.
  3. Let stand for 5 minutes, then drain with a fine mesh strainer, pressing the solids. Reserve the broth (dashi).
  4. In a clean cooking pot, heat just enough oil to film the bottom over medium-high heat. Add the minced ginger and saute for a minute.
  5. Add the broth, soy sauce and mirin and bring to a boil. Add the tofu cubes and reduce to a simmer.
  6. Simmer for 5 minutes, then add the bok choy and simmer for 3 minutes more.
  7. In a separate pot, cook the udon according to the package instructions (usually, 1 minute in boiling water), then strain and add to the soup.
  8. Once the soup comes back to a simmer, remove from heat and add the scallions and sesame oil, stirring to incorporate. Serve hot.

The other meal combines two dishes from opposite ends of the Middle East, a "tagine" from Algeria and a "sabzi" from Iran. I'm using scare quotes because this meal was improvised, based on recipes I've cooked before, dishes I have eaten, and ingredients I had readily available to me. I do not vouch for their strict authenticity--though they both tasted pretty good to me.

Lamb Shank "Tagine"

Ingredients:

  • 2 whole lamb shanks
  • coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 teaspoon each of: whole coriander seed, whole cumin seed, and whole fennel seed
  • 1 onion, sliced thin
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 4 carrots, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup dry, robust red wine
  • 1 large can of tomatoes, hand crushed
  • 1 cup of whole prunes

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325.
  2. Season the shanks with salt and pepper.
  3. In a large, heavy kettle or casserole (preferably ceramic or enamelized cast iron, though I did it in regular cast iron and it worked fine), heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sear the shanks on all sides, then set them aside.
  4. Lower the heat to medium and add the whole spices. Stir a few seconds until just fragrant.
  5. Add the onions, garlic and carrots. Saute until the onions are slightly caramelized.
  6. Add wine, turn up the heat to high until reduced by half.
  7. Add the shanks and the tomatoes, cover, and put in oven.
  8. After an hour and fifteen minutes, turn the shanks over and add the prunes. Return to oven and cook for another hour.
  9. Serve with cooked basmati rice and "Sabzi" (see next recipe)

"Sabzi" (Iranian-Style Braised Mixed Greens)

Ingredients:

    Several handfuls of fresh spinach, washed and stemmed
  • 3 scallions, sliced thinly, white and green parts separated
  • 2 Tablespoons of butter
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon (or so) of dried mint
  • 1/2 cup of chopped fresh parsley
  • handful of radish microgreens (available at Portland Farmers Market--if you can't find them, mix regular-sized radish greens with spinach and cook the same as the spinach)

Instructions:

  1. Melt butter in a large pan over medium heat.
  2. Add white parts of scallions and cook for a minute.
  3. Add spinach and cook, stirring, until all leaves are wilted, about 5 minutes.
  4. Season with salt, pepper and mint.
  5. Add green parts of scallions and parsley and continue cooking, stirring, for a minute.
  6. Remove from heat, add the radish microgreens, and stir in.
  7. Serve with lemon wedges.

As for restaurants:

  • Though both pho and Hanoi are in its name, the real thing to seek out at Pho Ha Noi may be a specialty of the city of Hue, bun bo Hue dac biet: A spicy broth with thick, wheat-based noodles, various cuts of beef, slices of slightly spongy pork meatballs and, my favorite, chunks of gelatinous tendon.
  • Two visits to the Sunday buffet at Aroma, and no disappointments yet. Protip: The pongal may look like baby food, but it's not, unless your baby likes red chiles, whole peppercorns and curry leaves. Top it with the sambar, and you'll be loving it until your next trip to the bathroom.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

More of Eco's Gourmandise

I'm not just doing this for your edification: I will have to return this book to the library soon, and I would like to have these recipes or the names of dishes available for future reference, research and practice!
My teachers liked to eat well, and this vice must also have remained with me into adulthood. I remember mealtimes, somber rather than lively gatherings where the good fathers would discuss the excellence of a bollito misto, prepared as my grandfather had instructed.

It required at least half a kilo of shin of beef, an oxtail, a piece of rump, a small salami, a calf's tongue and head, cotechino sausage, a boiling fowl, an onion, two carrots, two sticks of celery and a handful of parsley. All left to cook for various lengths of time, depending on the type of meat. But, as my grandfather insisted and Father Bergamaschi confirmed with emphatic nods of the head, once the boiled meat had been arranged on a serving dish, you had to sprinkle a few pinches of coarse salt and pour several spoonfuls of boiling broth over the meat to bring out the flavor. Not many vegetables except for a few potatoes, but plenty of condiments - mostarda d'uva, mostarda alla senape di frutta, horseradish sauce, but above all (on this my grandfather was firm) bagnetto verde: a handful of parsley, a few anchovy fillets, fresh breadcrumbs, a teaspoon of capers, a clove of garlic and the yolk of a hard-boiled egg, all finely chopped, with olive oil and vinegar. (63-64)

The above description, with its reference to cotechino, might have been the reason why I ordered the charcuterie special of duck cotechino at Duckfat last night. I need to find an excuse to replicate the bagnetto verde


Excellent beef braised in Barolo then arrived at the table.

"My son will never understand the beauty of such a thing," he said. "Beef with onion, carrot, celery, sage, rosemary, bay leaf, clove, cinnamon, juniper, salt, pepper, butter, olive oil and, of course, a bottle of Barolo, served with polenta or puréed potato. Go on, fight the revolution. All taste for life is gone. You people want to be rid of the pope, and we'll end up being forced by that fisherman Garibaldi to eat bouillabaisse niçoise. What is the world coming to!" (69)


Warning: Impending slaughter of an endangered species!

The sailors were about to haul up a large turtle of the kind to be found south of Corsica. Dumas was delighted.

"There'll be work to do. First you have to turn it on its back. The turtle innocently stretches out its neck and you take advantage of its imprudence to cut off its head - thwack! - before hanging it by the tail to let it bleed for twelve hours. Then you turn it on its back again, insert a strong blade between the carapace and the breastplate, being very careful not to perforate the gallbladder, otherwise it becomes inedible. Remove the innards and retain only the liver - the transparent pulp inside serves no purpose, but there are two lobes that, because of their whiteness and their flavor, seem like two veal noisettes. Finally, remove the membranes, the neck and the flippers. Cut them into pieces the size of walnuts, leave them to soak, then add the pieces to a good broth, with pepper, cloves, carrot, thyme and a bay leaf, and cook together for three or four hours over low heat. In the meantime, prepare strips of chicken seasoned with parsley, chives and anchovy, cook them in boiling broth, then add them to the turtle soup, into which you've poured three or four glasses of dry Madeira. If you have no Madeira, you can use Marsala with a small glass of brandy or rum, though that would be second best, un pis-aller. We'll taste our soup tomorrow evening." (115, 117)


My stay in Sicily ends here, and I'm sorry I won't see what is going on in Naples and beyond, but I wasn't here to enjoy myself, nor to write an epic. At the end of these travels I remember with pleasure only the pisci d'ovu, the babbaluci a picchipacchi (a way of cooking snails), and the cannoli ... Ah, the cannoli! Nievo also promised to let me taste a certain swordfish a' sammurigghu, but there wasn't enough time, so all I can savor is the aroma of its name. (139)