Ok, so mixed results from last year’s lentils. Could be because I didn’t eat the lentils on New Year’s Day itself. This year, however, I was determined to do all I could to ensure a luck-filled year. And since the tarot card reader Celtic Cricket had informed me that I was in for some tough going in the early months, it was important that I make a strong culinary choice on New Year’s Day. What to do? 12 grapes at midnight, one for each month of the year, like the Spaniards? Or should I go with the Danes and serve myself up a nice dish of stewed kale sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon? Perhaps a little mashed sweet potato with chestnut, some simmered burdock root, a spoonful of sweet black beans, and some fish cakes – a few of the components of the Japanese osechi-ryori would be the way to go. But the decision was made when I received an invitation from a close friend to attend his family’s annual pork and sauerkraut party. Though of Italian descent himself, his wife hails from western Pennsylvania, where New Year’s Day pork and sauerkraut eating is a given.
Though some Pennsylvanians declare there to be no reasoning behind it, it’s simply the thing that you do, a number of sources claim that pigs root forward to look for food, and therefore the eating of pork symbolizes forward movement into the future. Pigs are apparently also symbolic of prosperity and wealth.
And so I welcomed 2012 with a plate of roast pork, sauerkraut, and linguiça (a nod to my friend’s love of New Bedford’s Portuguese restaurants). How about we touch base in mid-year to see how the luck is going?
I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have had a bit of a problem when it comes to lamb. I can’t quite put my finger on when it began, perhaps in my childhood when my mother occasionally served us what was probably an inexpensive cut, but somewhere along the way I developed an aversion to the taste. In all the exploratory cooking of my college and post-college years, I stayed far away from any racks, legs, and chops. It wasn’t a philosophical problem; it was a taste problem. Gamey. An intolerable gameyness on those few occasions that I gave it try.
A little anecdote from my honeymoon might help to give you the picture. . . We were staying in the unelectrified cottage of a friend, deep in a valley outside of Killarney. When the lights were off at night, it was black and quiet as a tomb. And cold – it was early April in Ireland. After several nights of soup and sandwiches in the cottage, punctuated by a pub dinner here and there, we decided to have dinner at the cottage across the meadow, that also functioned as a B&B. This meant crossing a pitch-black cow pasture (remember that scene on the moor in American Werewolf in London where Griffin Dunne meets his fate?) before arriving at the cottage, to find we were the only guests. And with a guest list so small, we were dining Chez Panisse style – no choices. It was lambing season. Dinner was Irish stew – lamb, potatoes, carrots. For this I had braved the werewolf-infested field?!!! And would have to return across it, belly empty??? If I recall correctly, a few tears were shed.
But fast forward! It’s 2011 and I find myself at a raucous dinner party in West Dover, Vermont, at the home of a hostess who never seems to hit a wrong note. On this occasion, the centerpiece of the wooden farm table is an enormous casserole of moussaka, the Greek dish consisting of eggplant, ground lamb, garlic and bechamel. As I considered the possibility of simply filling my plate with salad, I decided it was high time I faced my lamb issues. A little gameyness wasn’t going to kill me afterall. But surprise, surprise, not only no gameyness, but one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten! I went back for seconds. And then I spoke with Fiona, creator of this dish, to learn what sort of lamb she had used – perhaps that was the secret. She had purchased a shoulder and had the butcher grind it for her. I made a mental note.
A few weeks later, I happened upon Melissa Clark‘s recipe for Pasta with Turkish-Style Lamb, Eggplant, and Yogurt Sauce, from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite. I remembered the moussaka. I had the butcher grind some lamb shoulder. I prepared a lamb dish for the first time in my life.
When the pasta was ready, I spooned it into a bowl and hesitated. Could the moussaka incident have been a fluke? Would I be digging through my fridge for an alternative dinner of cheese and bread in a few minutes?
No! Dripping with garlicky yogurt and melted browned butter, it could not have been better. I may not yet be ready to move on to racks and chops, but I’m a long way from Killarney!
As I walked to the train yesterday, it occurred to me that the anniversary of my first blog post must be quite near. And so it is – it’s today! When I began, I wasn’t completely sure of the direction I would take, but I’ve come to realize that what I like most to write about is the intersection of food and life. I love to cook, I do love to eat, but it’s when those activities connect with the people and events of my life that the words flow most easily. So here’s how food connected with the Great Snow Storm of October 2011 . . .
Knowing that the forecast called for snow, and wanting to dive into one of the 29 recipes I had dog-eared in Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, I decided to make Ale-Steamed Mussels with Garlic and Mustard for Saturday’s lunch. As snow fell and leaf-filled trees began to bow under the weight, garlic, thyme, and ale steamed through my apartment. That and a bottle of ale, made a perfect greeting for Dr. S, who had narrowly escaped multiple fender-benders on his trip north. We sat down to a heaping bowl of mussels, a baguette, a salad of arugula, endive, cranberries, almonds, and Bayley Hazen Blue, and bottles of Anchor Brewing Company’s Liberty Pale Ale.
Out of respect for copyright laws, I’m not going to print Melissa’s recipe here, but I will tell you that where she called for 3 cloves of garlic, I used 6. 3/4 c. of ale? How about a bottle, can’t really have too much broth! Shallots? Damn – forgot those at the store, went with half a sweet onion. I figured there wasn’t too much you could do to mess up a mussel recipe. And based on the fact that when lunch was over not a mussel remained and the better part of a baguette had been used to sop up the broth, I’d say there’s at least one person who agrees with me.
“Will you make this for lunch, Mommy?” Anna asked as she held a magazine photo in front of my face.
She couldn’t have made a better choice. It was the Monday following Hurricane Irene and I had been rendered carless thanks to the flooding that occurred in the parking lot of our building. We were planning a walk to the grocery store later on, but for lunch I needed to work with what I had. And what I had, thanks to a day before gift from my sometimes-farming boyfriend, was a beautiful little assortment of fresh red and yellow grape tomatoes.
Into my favorite 50¢-at-a-yard-sale cast iron skillet went some olive oil and chopped garlic, followed a few minutes later by the halved tomatoes.
Basil, of course, would have been the herb of choice, but having only parsley on hand, we went with that. A generous shower of parmesan finished things off. Voilà – Anna’s lunch!
Our room being not quite ready, we drop our bags and head into town in search of our first meal.
Having spied a couple of taco stands on our drive in, we start off in their direction. We walk down the rutted unpaved road from the hotel,
past the Iguana Tree,
and around the town plaza.
We come upon a woman in an alley cooking split chickens on a large charcoal grill. We pause. But no, there are days ahead for pollo al carbon and today’s plan is fish tacos.
A block past the chicken lady we come to two side by side taco stands, set up on the sidewalk, with a couple of plastic tables on the street. We choose the stand with more customers, and after a brief review of the handwritten menu affixed to the back wall of the stand, we order 2 fish and 2 shrimp tacos. And then we wait.
Two women seated at the counter bar are eating their meal in courses, ordering something new each time they finish the plate before them. Our order is not making its way into rotation until the man handling the drink orders gestures towards us as he whispers a reminder to the woman running the stand.
A few moments later our tacos are before us.
Doubled fresh tortillas are filled with crisp battered shrimp and fish, topped with shredded cabbage, chopped onion, cucumber and tomato. On the table are a variety of hot sauces, limes, and a pale pink crema sauce. We both add a spoonful of crema and a squeeze of lime to our tacos, and after my first bite, I share with Dr. S my immediate reaction – I could be happy eating fish tacos for every meal of our trip.
Fast forward from Mexico to Cape Cod, where I am in the midst of an extended family vacation. I offered fish tacos as my contribution to one of our group dinners and they were a tremendous success. I marinated fresh cod in lime juice, olive oil, garlic, cumin and chile powder for about 45 minutes before grilling. Unable to procure any Mexican crema from the local markets, I prepared a substitute by mixing sour cream and bit of mayonnaise with lime juice, salt, cumin and chile powder. Purple cabbage, avocado, pickled red onion, chopped tomatoes and scallions, and cilantro were the additional toppings.
Sipping my margarita and taking a bite, I could just about imagine that the waves outside were those of the Pacific.
After a day of reading and resting, which had been somewhat imposed by rain that had persisted through the night into the day, we were ready for outdoor activity and adventure. Well-sunscreened and armed with a big bottle of water, we set off with a loose plan to head for the northern end of Sayulita’s main beach, which appeared to be fairly deserted.
As we passed the last of the beach chair and umbrella set-ups, supplied by the ocean-front restaurants, we were joined in our walk by two dogs. They jumped and played with one another, often ending up under foot or banging into one of us as we walked along. They were oblivious to the fact that we were not interested in their companionship and unmoved by our shouts of “Go! Go!”
Though they’re welcome to sleep beneath our beach chairs, and Dr. S even went so far as to share our bottled water with one such lounging pooch, no one would mistake us for dog-lovers.
The homes along this stretch of beach, a mix of large villas with landscaped lawns and gated condo complexes in palm-tree shaded lots, were quite different from “our” part of town. Eventually, these gave way to jungle, and we found ourselves on empty beach headed toward an outcropping of rocks. We suspected that if we could make our way over or around these rocks, we’d find Playa Las Cuevas, a tiny horseshoe-shaped beach favored by those seeking a little privacy. Forceful waves crashed up against the rocks, and though we could see sand as each wave receded, I was inclined to go over the rocks rather than try to scoot around in between waves. As I surveyed my options for descent, Dr. S appeared to offer a hand down, having made his way around between waves without problem.
We now found ourselves on a small crescent-shaped beach, backed by steep rocky cliffs rising to the jungle. There was no way to move further north, as the rocks at that end jutted out into deep water and offered no easy way over. The cliffs would provide some shade until the sun moved higher in the sky, so we spread out our towels, pulled out our books, and appreciated the sound and sight of nothing but the ocean and diving pelicans. A review of our reference information convinced us that this little patch of beach was not, in fact, Las Cuevas, but we were more than content nonetheless.
A few hours passed, the sun discovered us, and we decided it was time to begin thinking about lunch. We also decided that we would try to find the “jungle road” for our return to Sayulita. Following an arroyo away from the ocean, and into the jungle, we soon hit a path and made the leap of faith that this was the jungle road and that a right turn would bring us back to Sayulita. It was along this walk that we became acquainted with the ubiquitous land crab. After some initial uneasiness at the sight of them, we quickly realized that they were as happy to avoid us as we them. The dried palm leaves on both sides of the path crackled and popped as the crabs ran for cover at our approach.
The path ran up hill and down,
finally meeting up with a cobblestone road beside a large home.
We followed the road into a part of Sayulita we were unfamiliar with, passing the elementary school, and eventually arrived at the Medusa Grill & Bar. With its palm frond thatched roof, open walls, and promise of food and cold drinks, it was a welcome sight.
The sign on the door showed the hours to be 1 – 10 p.m. It was now 1:30, and we could see the proprietress busy in the kitchen, but the restaurant was empty and had the air of being not quite open.
“¿Está abierto? “
“Sí, en cinco minutos.”
Tuckered out from the hike in the midday heat, sweaty and hungry, we sat down at a table beside a large fan.
A toddler, apparently the son of the owner, came over and gave us a big grin of welcome. A young woman, perhaps his older sister, brought us menus and took a drink order. It was the frostiest cerveza we had had so far. A little bit later arrived a shrimp burrito for me, and a fish burrito for Dr. S.
The Medusa menu mentions their use of organic vegetables and fresh-caught local fish. Dr. S’s burrito, for example, would normally include marlin, but the owner told us that no marlin had come in yet today. Mahi mahi was the substitute. A lightly-dressed salad of greens, avocado, tomato and sprouts accompanied our burritos, along with crisp and properly salted french fries, which had clearly been fried in a clean batch of oil. The burritos were stuffed with our respective grilled seafoods and rice, and served with a sweet and faintly hot mango habanero salsa. There was also a little crock of what we at first thought to be some sort of homemade ketchup. We liked it very much and found our fries to be an excellent vehicle for its consumption. I asked the owner what it was. Tamarind sauce. Ah! And the ingredients? Her reply, as translated by Dr. S,
“Tamarind, honey, garlic, and a lot of me.”
As we finished our cervezas, enjoying the breeze from the fan, and the pleasure of simply sitting in the shade after an active morning, bellies full and nowhere to be, the owner brought over a small silver bowl of fresh strawberries, topped with a spoonful of crema and a sprinkling of raw sugar.
When we finally achieved sufficient motivation to head back for some more hard time at the beach, I tried to figure out how we might work a Medusa dinner into our remaining days in Sayulita. But, alas, it was Wednesday and we had a mere three dinners left but now more than 5 contenders. And as it turned out, another Medusa experience was not to be. But here’s what I like to say about that – – next time!
Between fish tacos and margaritas, I got quite a bit of reading in during our visit to Sayulita. Mediterranean Summer by David Shalleck, the story of his summer as a chef on a private sailing yacht in the Mediterranean, was a perfect beach read, except that it made me want to race to my kitchen. But on Sunday night, when I had retrieved my daughters from their annual week in Massachusetts with my parents, it was time for David’s Linguine with Clams and Zucchini. Additionally, Greta informed me as we were driving home from our Connecticut rendezvous spot that she was feeling the need to do a little baking.
“Can we do that, Mommy? Can we bake something?”
“Well, I picked up some nectarines at the farm stand this morning. How about a nectarine crumble? And we could use some of those blueberries you’ve got there from your blueberry picking expedition with Nana and Grampa. How’s that sound?”
The thing that made me want to give this clam recipe a try, was the idea that the almost over-cooked zucchini provides a coating that allows the sauce to better adhere to the linguine. (Plus, as you know, I’ve just got a thing for linguine and clams. New twists always welcome!) You cook the zucchini in garlic and a nice amount of olive oil, remove the zucchini, and then cook the littlenecks (I had to use mahogany clams from Maine on this night) in the zucchini-garlic-flavored oil. Add some hot red pepper (which I had to forgo in consideration of my daughters’ sensitive palates) and parsley, toss it all (including zucchini) together, using a bit of pasta water to make a bit more of a sauce, and va bene!
As for the crumble, we peeled the nectarines, added the blueberries, and Greta did her magic with cinnamon and grated nutmeg. She then mixed together some whole wheat flour, oats, brown sugar, dash of salt, and pinched it all together into crumbles with half a stick or so of butter. Many would insist that vanilla ice cream is the only appropriate accompaniment, but I prefer something to cut the sweetness a bit – honeyed yogurt or creme fraiche will do the trick. If you’ve got some heavy cream in the fridge, how about that?