Saturday, August 15, 2009

Adventures in the Horn of Africa

When I lace up my shoes for work, I'm not going for any kind of statement. So when I needed a replacement pair recently, I headed to the Silver Spring DSW - where the plain, cheap loafer is perfectly constructed for the government employee just looking to fit in.

Shoe-shopping works up an appetite. With a box of new and shiny yet unmistakably conventional shoes in hand, I left DSW in search of a meal more interesting than my footwear selection. It was my first time in downtown Silver Spring, but its reputation for ethnic foods preceded it.

Taste of Morocco on Colesville Rd was alluring, but I settled on Abol, an Ethiopian place a few blocks away. The cuisine of the Horn of Africa has had the attractive force of a magnetic field over me ever since, well, the Horn of Africa - a food cart in Portland where a red lentil stew left me like an alphabet letter longing for a refrigerator door.

Inside Abol, I noticed a City Paper review that rated the restaurant one of the top 50 joints in the DC area. Abol, it said, means "authentic" or "original." I checked my shoes at the door and grabbed a table.

But the waitress/co-owner, Birtukan, and I got off to a rocky start. I wanted to order the very last item on the menu, the kuanta firfir - dried beef sauteed in berbere sauce and mixed with pieces of injera. Birtukan was against it.

"You will not like it," she said. "Trust me!"

"Okay, okay," I said. "But why won't I like it?"

"You just won't!"

The more she resisted, the more curious I became. Her broken english was emphatic but less than cogent. I told her that if she didn't let me order the kuanta firfir, I would go to another restaurant. Defeated, she stomped sullenly back to the kitchen to relay my order to the cooks.

The kitchen produced the dish quickly, and Birtukan placed it on my table with one last look of disapproval.

I peeled back a covering layer of injera expecting the worst. At the same time, I was intent on proving my exotic palate to Birtukan no matter what. I would finish whatever atrocity of Ethiopian cuisine she had tried to protect me from.

But underneath the injera there was nothing festering or discolored or slithering. Just dried beef with pieces of injera soaked in spicy berbere.

Still, Birtukan watched me anxiously as I took my first bite, probably waiting for me to grimace or spit it out. But the dried beef was crispy like bacon. Actually, it was slightly chewier, which was fantastic because it gave me more time to enjoy the smoky, blended flavors of chili pepper, coriander, and ginger. There will be no justice as long as we as a society allow naive Westerners like the one who ordered this dish before me - and protested it enough to psychologically scar Birtukan - the privilege of continuing to dine at Ethiopian restaurants.

"Excellent," I said to Birtukan from across the dining room. I saw her smile for the first time, beamingly.

Her husband, Belete, visited my table and explained that Ethiopians consider kuanta firfir to be a light meal and typically have it for breakfast. I admitted that as a Westerner I wasn't crazy about the idea of eating dried meat for breakfast, but lunch and dinner were another story.

Belete was quick to reward my enthusiasm for his food. At no charge, he gave me an extra side of yefasolia - string beans and carrots cooked with vegetable oil, tomato, garlic, ginger, and green peppers.

As if my visit to Abol wasn't already rewarding enough, as I was leaving the restaurant, I realized the significance of discovering the City Paper's Top 50 list: my guide to DC dining for the foreseeable future. I have now marked my refrigerator door with a printed copy of this list. If Julie Powell can cook 524 Julia Child recipes in one year, Marcy and I can go to 50 DC restaurants by March. The standard's been set high for the other 49.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Galician Clams

1. Alejandro Perez and his four younger sisters take the path through the pine and eucalyptus trees to la praia de Testal, the nearest beach to the town of Galicia, Spain. Scaling the small dunes, they look down on the wet sand that continues out to the sea. Before them in the sand they find three other children, crouching, digging into the dark wetness, red buckets at their sides. Alejandro throws a rock that skips off the tighly packed beach about a foot from the youngest child's foot, and the three young intruders yell insults over their shoulders as they scamper away, disappearing over the dunes. Alejandro watches them run, then turns back towards the sea. He knows that the water is shallow with no threatening undercurrents or surprise slopes. He finds irony in the beauty and calmness of the surrounding landscape. His clothes are sandy from yesterday's work.

Different parts of Testal have historic clam collecting rights bestowed on specific families, and it is an offense to remove even a single live clam from the beach if you don't have a license. Alejandro doesn't need his license, though. Everyone in these parts knows that the Perez family's terroritory extends from the tallest eucalyptus tree on the north side to the ice cream hut on the south side. The stretch of coastline belonging to the Perez family measures only 15 feet.

A car engine sputters behind him, and he turns to see Jorge rolling over the dunes in his 4x4, the barrell tip of a homemade mac-10 visible by his shoulder. The two echange nods. Alejandro spits as the 4x4 disappears out of view. Jorge and the rest of his "shell police" patrol the beach in uniform all year looking for thieves. They take a 10 percent cut of the Perez family's proceeds in exchange.

Alejandro sets his bucket down, crouches and begins a long day of digging his fingers through the soggy sand. His sisters follow suit. The clams are a couple inches under the surface. It is autumn, time for the seafood-loving world to turn its attention to Galicia's famous clam harvest.

2. Seven hours later, Alejandro picks up three full buckets, two in one hand, and starts back towards the dunes. His body jerks awkwardly with every step - his muscles might curse the bounty of his catch, but his mind barely registers the strain. His ripped shirt sleeves flutter with the wind like flags raised to celebrate the day's harvest. Soon, he hears his sisters' footsteps scraping the hot sand behind him. They walk quickly, showing the urgency of lawyers punching up a brief for a COB deadline. Somewhere inland someone is waiting for them.

They trek miles into the forest without speaking, vines and mosses cracking underfoot, through a clearing and back onto the path that leads eventually to a boiling-hot paved road. It's by the side this road that Kelvin Cochran has parked his minivan. Kelvin is the 23-year old former fraternity brother of Don Harris, Jr. Don Jr. is the grandson of Don Harris, Sr., who came to Spain as a U.S. Navy chaplain in 1965, and after retirement, started a mail-order company called La Tienda.

Alejandro and his sisters set six buckets on the ground, and, one-by-one, Kelvin inspects them and throws the good ones into an icebox in the back of his van. Twenty minutes later, Alejandro dumps about half the buckets - the discards - into his filthy backpack. Kelvin knows Spanish and Alejandro English, but the two 23-year-olds conduct business in silence as usual. Kelvin pays his supplier 1,000 pesos and then Kelvin's cell rings: it's La Tienda's pick-and-pack facility in Alicante, Spain, wondering where their delivery is. Behind Kelvin's back, Alejandro and his sisters take handfuls of the bigger clams back out of the ice box and slip them into the backpack.

3. Kelvin zooms his La Tienda minivan alongside the Duero River to the closest airport, 40 miles away in Santiago de Compestela. He drives right up to a bright blue midsize plane on the runway and unloads the icebox filled with Perez family clams, in addition to fourteen other iceboxes that look just like it, into the arms of the American pilot. Minutes later, Kelvin watches the plane bump along the runway and then wobble into the air and kiss the setting sun. He examines the interior of his thin wallet and heads towards the black volcano sand for a night of drinking at various shacks that dot the feet of the Cliffs of Los Gigantes. Beats studying for the LSATs back in the States.

4. The blue plane touches down on a runway a couple hundred yards behind the pick-and-pack plant in Alicante, where the clams are taken off the ice and quickly poached in sea water. They are cleaned by hand, placed one-by-one in small gold cans, and moved onto another, larger plane. Destination: Williamsburg, Virginia.

5. I sit on my couch in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I have already eaten two dinners this evening, but, perversely, I am still thinking about food. I leaf through Gourmet Magazine and find an article urging me to visit La Tienda's website for the opportunity to spend $64 on a 5.3 ounce can of 12 Galician clams. Almeja Blanca, or white clams, are one of the kings of European seafood, and 100% satisfaction is guaranteed. I go to the website and, twenty or so punched computer buttons later, I become one of the thousands of people who buy "Los Peperetes" clams from La Tienda each month. Los Peperetes is an example of a long Spanish tradition of canning gourmet seafood, the La Tienda website explains. Unlike in other parts of the world, Spaniards have just as much respect for canned seafood as for fresh, especially for the fish and shellfish of Galicia.
Don Harris has written a special note on his website about the quality of La Tienda's food. It's signed, "Tu Amigo, Don Harris."

6. Five days later, I pull into a driveway in Port Republic, Maryland. It leads to my friend Lolly's cabin, which sits in a thin forest and looks down on the Chesapeake Bay. I grab my beach bag, which contains the gold-color can, and I head down to the water. It's the end of the day and the sky and water share the same shades of pink and glaucous. Bald cypress trees with smooth gray bark cast great shadows over patches of wildflowers.

We get the can open, revealing a pungent sea salt smell that dominates the milder scent of the Chesapeake, with its mixture of Atlantic Ocean salt water and fresh water from various rivers and tributaries.

Our friend Sarah says she doesn't usually like clams, but she likes these. Lolly says they remind her of oysters. I like the texture combination: the gills on the surface are unusually tough, the fleshy organs on the inside unusually soft and creamy. Each clam is large and plump. Their taste is simple and appealing like the faraway sea they come from.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mexican Hot Dogs and Popcorn Ceviche: An Evening at Las Peliculas

I was recently inspired to recreate classic junk food as a fine dining dish. I wish I could say that the inspiration came from some ironic life experience like happening to walk past Gramercy Tavern while eating a Twinkie, but it was actually just a quickfire challenge on Top Chef Masters.

Lachlan Patterson from Boulder, CO, who won a James Beard Award and Best New Chef from Food & Wine, made a popcorn ceviche for his appearance as a contestant on Masters. I decided to steal his idea. And the other junk food I was craving? Hot dogs. Apparently it's been a while since I went to the movies.

But how do you turn hot dogs into a gourmet plate? Has anything remotely sophisticated ever been paired with dogs? If so, was that a wise decision? As inclined as I am towards innovation, I was not prepared to be the first person in culinary history to waste caviar or pate upon a wiener.

Mexican hot dogs would have to suffice. These francos double the guilty pleasure of the relatively tame American version. They're wrapped with bacon, stuffed with jalapenos, beans, tomatoes and onions, and caressed with mayonaisse, ketchup, and mustard. I used Smart Bacon and Smart Dog JUMBO Veggie Protein Links because the judge, Marcy the vegetarian, likes her hot dogs intelligent.

The menu was already pretty theateresque with my popcorn and hot dogs, and I decided to embrace the movie theme. A South American movie theme, at that.

I paid a visit to a movie theater in Chevy Chase to pick up a few accessories for the dinner table: Good & Plenty's and Raisinets. I also wanted some empty drink cups to serve the popcorn, but Jarrod, the pimply counter boy, was apparently angling for Mazza Gallerie employee of the week and refused to give me the cups free of charge. After a tense five minutes arguing that he was wasting his youth unless he rebelled against the corporate machine, I paid nine bucks for two empty soda cups.
Back home, I got to work on the ceviche. I'd already bought some black tiger shrimp from A&H Seafood Co in Bethesda and marinated it in orange and lime juice. I now mixed this marinade with a sauce of tomato juice, sriracha, cilantro, onions, and suprisingly good avocados. Surprising, because I found them at Giant. I ladled the finished product into a couple of martini glasses.
I tore open a bag of popcorn, drizzled it with olive oil and sprinkled on some cayenne pepper. Some of the popcorn was applied as a garnish for the ceviche, the rest filled the exhorbitantly expensive soda cups.

At 8:30, just as I'd added the final touches - adorning the placemats with the movie candy - there was a knock at the door. I'd purposely scheduled a late dinner to ensure that Marcy would be hungry - typically guaranteeing a 1-2 point spike in my grade - and we wasted little time before diving in. The hot dogs were excellent considering that they were made out of soy, wheat gluten, and "evaporated cane juice." Marcy said the highlight of the ceviche was the avocado, although I noted that the sauce had turned it slightly soggy.

It was time for my grade. For all this creativity and attention to aesthetics, would you believe that I was rewarded with nothing more than a lowly 93? Marcy deducted points because she suspected a low degree of difficulty. Were my verbal fisticuffs with Jarrod not difficult? She agreed to raise the score to a 95, but I continued to sulk before reviving my spirits with multiple handfuls of Raisinets.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ali Baba Gets Mainstream Props

My friends Mohamed and Nordin of Ali Baba Falafel have become Wisconsin Avenue celebrities.

As Mohamed made my falafel – which, thanks to the most recent of Ali Baba’s many falafel evolutions, now includes red cabbage – he detailed the star treatment he has received over the past few days. Customers have asked him for his autograph, and they’ve taken photographs of themselves with Mohamed’s bright green parakeets, Sharazad and Shahryar.

All thanks to a good review by Catherine Cheney in Wednesday’s Washington Post. “The difference is amazing,” says Mohamed. He estimates that he usually gets about a hundred customers on a given week day. Since Wednesday, that number has doubled.

But Mohamed hasn’t let his new rock-star status go to his head. He’s as friendly and generous as always. I’m used to receiving Mohamed’s gifts of free beverages, side dishes, and deserts. But I saw some newcomers regarding Mohamed’s offers with suspicion. They took their free food and drink tentatively, seemingly checking for bear traps.

Mohamed is a nice guy, but he's also a shrewd self-promoter – he has already laminated the Post article and a series of other reviews for display by the side of the stand. He isn’t the only self-promoter, though. I’m currently printing out my first blog about Ali Baba so Mohamed can laminate my review, too.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Taiwanese Burgers at North China Restaurant

I had a bad cough towards the end of last week. Neither of my parents’ doctoral degrees came in medicine, but that didn’t stop them from announcing that I probably had whooping cough. I decided to spend the weekend in the confines of my apartment to rest up, conquer my illness, and prove that, although my immune system might get caught napping once in a while, it gets up quick.

I tried to get friends to come over and watch movies, but telling them the whooping cough story wasn’t a wise choice.

Bored alone in my shadowy apartment, I contemptuously watched through my windows as people enjoyed a beautiful, sunny day. I took another swig of Tropicana and became consumed with self-pity. Figuring that comfort food would improve my mood, I cooked a big bowl of spaghetti for lunch, but all I could think about was how poorly my pomodoro compared to the version at Scarpetta (picture, below).

After reattaching myself to the couch, I sat through a heart-wrenching screening of Rachel Getting Married. It was now dinner time, and after vicariously living Anne Hathaway’s fractured relationship with her family, I craved comfort food more than ever.

It was time to call in the big guns: dirt-cheap, Americanized Chinese food. Is there anything more reassuring than the salty, greasy goop of your typical corner-store Chinese restaurant? You know, the thousands of hole-in-the-wall joints offering the same, time-tested menu perfectly designed for our unsophisticated American palates? If a swamp of starch and MSG thickened hoisin sauce can’t revive your spirits, you know you’re in some serious trouble.

I hadn’t tested out any Chinese restaurants in Bethesda, so I got on Google, and my first search result was a place called North China on Georgetown Ave. A quick scan of the menu triggered a Pavlovian rush of endorphins. Hunan shrimp, kung pao beef, moo shi pork – all the right classics to help a sad soul.

I picked up my phone, dialed the delivery-line, and was placed on hold. Then my evening took an unexpected turn.

Reading through the rest of North China’s website, I found a series of other menus, mysteriously labeled “menu 2, menu 3, menu 4.” At first, the scanned versions looked like every menu you’ve ever seen at a cheap Chinese restaurant: low prices printed in red font on thin paper, good for slipping into your to-go bag. But then I noticed that the generic categories were gone. “Healthy Diet” and “Chicken Dishes” were replaced by strange words like “Traditional Chinese” and “Taiwanese & Shanghai Style.”

“Hello?” came the voice at the other end of the line.

And the dishes in these categories totally defied Western expectations. My jaw dropped as I read down the long list of exotica: braised fish stomach, tomato shrimp with scrambled egg, smelt with peanuts, and so on. No kung-pao? Where was General Tso? Was the war over?

“Hello? Sir?” I realized that North China was about to hang up on me and stammered through my order as I admired the options.

“That’ll be 57 dollars and 23 cents,” the girl said. I snapped out of my trance and realized I’d ordered no less than six dishes! I don’t know if it was the need for comfort after fighting whooping cough all day and two hours of Ann Hathaway in tear-smeared make-up, or just the thrill of anticipating interesting food, but I felt like I would need every bite.

A little later, the delivery guy handed me two bags stuffed with smelt, jelly-fish, hamburger Taiwanese-style, crispy intestine, conch in red hot sauce, and cherries with beef.

I pried the to-go lids and sampled. All were interesting and generally good, but the third, the hamburger Taiwanese style, or gua bao, was fantastic. The burger consists of fatty, melt-in-your mouth, braised spare-rib. It’s like a shot in the arm especially when you’re expecting an average, dried-up beef paddy. And it’s topped with salty-sour pickled cabbage, relish, and cilantro. Not to mention the ingredient that really puts it over the top: they sprinkle it with that peanut-sugar powder that works so well in Pad Thai. The bun is fresh and steamed, and lightly touched with, I think, oyster sauce. I promptly added this dish to my list of 6,348 reasons to stay away from McDonald’s.

Next, I tried the crispy intestine, which was fine – I liked how they fill the hollow parts with white onion – but I kept thinking about that burger, which, sadly, was completely devoured. How had I never heard of these things before?

An internet search suggested a possible explanation: few people have. I only found two acknowledgements of their existence. One was a quick write-up in the Los Angeles Area Digest Weekly that called them a “madly wondrous thing.” The Digest shows good taste but doesn’t register a blip on the culinary radar screen.

The other was a chat room thread on Chowhound titled, “Where can I find Taiwanese burger in DC/Maryland.” Practically nowhere, according to the responses. “Good luck finding a place around DC,” said dwbengals. Bluejeans22 lamented, “I haven’t seen them on the menus anywhere in NoVa.” Strangely, no one brought up North China; I guess maybe this 2007 conversation predated their version. Chowhound reported only one Taiwanese burger sighting in the whole region: Bob’s Noodle 66.

I quickly saved Bob’s Rockville address as a note in my cell phone, grabbed my car keys, and charged the door, hoping that I’d get there before reason caught up with my feet and interfered with my stomach’s agenda. It didn’t work. I stopped in my tracks. A trip to Bob’s just didn’t make sense. Damn whooping cough. Plus I already had about four pounds of good Chinese food sitting on my dining room table.

I slumped back to my buffet and took care of business. The conch with “red hot sauce” had good texture, but I thought it was a little duplicitous to give American customers the expectation of Tobasco when the sauce was actually chili oil. The strips of jelly fish had just the right crunch and weren’t too salty. The smelt was your average dried fish but smartly paired with peanuts and the kick of sliced jalapeno. The cherry and beef dish was … well, I’ll have to tell you later. The five dishes that came before it had me pretty full.

When I hung up my chopsticks for the night, my cough was still there, but North China’s innovative Chinese comfort food had given my spirits a huge boost. When you’re sick and resting up, no matter how deprived you are of the sunny weather outside, know that you too can brighten your home by ordering a bag of Taiwanese burgers to your door.

Ali Baba Falafel Update

On my most recent visit to Ali Baba, co-owner Mohamed dropped his spatula and ran over to ask me how I’d been. The guy all but hurdled the counter and offered to make out. Mohamed, and his business partner Nordin, are usually full of personality, but today Mohamed’s enthusiasm had reached new heights.

It didn’t take long to find out why. “I have been meeting many of your co-workers!” he beamed. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to him that I was recommending Ali Baba around the office at work as a good lunchtime excursion. Mohamed reported that he’s been reaping the benefits: my apparently falafel-crazy colleagues first came in curious strolls, then stampedes.

I’d like to think that my co-workers view me as some kind of culinary prophet. You can’t fire the guy in charge of discovering good lunchtime hangouts, right?

But I’m not as sure as Mohamed that I deserve credit for the recent lunchtime pilgrimages to Wisconsin Ave. I may have given him the impression that I was roaming the halls at my job with a megaphone and disrupting meetings with rogue powerpoint presentations about falafels, but I only remember praising Ali Baba to maybe three people. Afterwards, they never said anything about actually having gone there. A few of my agency’s 200,000 employees might have acted independently.

But if Mohamed wants to believe that I am to Ali Baba as William Shatner is to and reward me with even more complimentary tahini dogs and falafel fritters than usual, so be it.

In any case, I’m sure my colleagues haven’t been disappointed. Mohamed has tweaked his technique for frying up his fritters, with exceptional results. He divulged his secret new method to me on the condition that I wouldn’t spill the fava beans on this blog. I can say, however, that the revised approach allows him to fry the fritter more deeply while achieving an exterior that’s light and crispy, not tough and burnt like Moti’s Falafel in Rockville.

And another recent change that works well: they now fry the falafels in sesame seeds, giving them a fuller flavor.

So, by the virtues of charm and innovation, the future for Mohamed and Nordin looks bright. There’s just one possible rain-cloud on the horizon. Mohamed explained that Nordin was absent from the falafel stand so that he could watch the soccer team from his home country, Algeria, compete for a spot in the World Cup. The only thing standing in Algeria’s way? The squad from Mohamed’s home country, Egypt. Could a soccer match really come between these old friends and business partners?

Nordin threatened that if Algeria lost to Egypt, he could never show his face at Ali Baba again and would start his own falafel stand. Mohamed said he wasn’t completely sure that his buddy was kidding.

A few days ago, I read that Algeria lost. That’s okay with me – there’s a nice grassy patch across from my apartment just waiting for Ali Baba #2.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Guest Blog Your Foodie Adventure

Are you by any chance traveling to California to hang out with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse?

Or did you just spend a week and a half in Sweden unwrapping delectable licorice?

These experiences were recently enjoyed by a few friends of mine, and I've been trying to convince them to blog their trips on this website. They acted like they needed invitations on a gold-plate. Well, I couldn't scare up any gold plates, but I expect points for using the classiest of the eight fonts that are available on Google blogger:

If you have any foodie adventures that you think I'd like to live vicariously, please feel free to write a guest blog. Keep in mind that I would like to vicariously live the vast majority of foodie adventures, so this shouldn't be too hard. Thanks!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Scarpetta Chef Scott Conant Diagnosed with Spaghetti Brain

I think I’m just about ready to open up my own psychology practice. My credentials are impeccable. Not only did I minor in psychology while in college, but I’ve been dating a psychologist, and I used to watch the Dog Whisperer.

Believe it or not, there are some naysayers. To see if I’m really ready, lately I’ve been on the lookout for unusual people to analyze, and this past weekend in New York, I found a gem. His name is Scott Conant, and he is one of Food and Wine’s ten best new chefs in the country and winner of the prestigious James Beard Award. Conant currently runs the kitchen at Scarpetta in a Greek revival townhouse on the edge of the Meatpacking District. It was at Scarpetta this past weekend that I tried Conant’s spaghetti with tomato and basil, and, within the first few bites, I knew that he would be my Anna O.

The spaghetti dish is, as Chef Conant says, “simple.” The noodles, served in an elegant, molded heap, have rough-cut edges and coarse-textured surfaces, perhaps to prove that they’re made on the premises. They absorb Conant’s long-cooked tomato sauce to their cores. The sauce has the pale orange hue of parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and is piqued with thinly cut, fresh basil and crushed red pepper.

In other words, spaghetti and tomato sauce. The ingredients are as uncomplicated as the soil-tilling Italian peasants who came up with the dish hundreds of years ago. Uncomplicated, yet it’s considered one of the best plates in the City.

With innovators like Jose Andres running around saying things like, “Traditional cuisine that does not evolve will disappear,” how do you explain an old-school oddball like Scott Conant? Hasn’t this guy read the rave reviews for Mario Batali’s spaghetti on a stick and Japan’s spaghetti sandwich? Does Conant belong on a food farm or the funny farm?

To find out which, and to prove to the District of Columbia Board of Psychology that I’m ready for professional licensure, here’s my analysis of Scott C. Just to show I mean business, I’m basing my examination on the major schools of psychology.


Cognitive psychologists study mental processes, including how people remember.

Scott C. doesn’t need his scrap books. He remembers just by cooking. When he hand-mixes a heap of flour to make spaghetti, his mind plays movies from his childhood that star him and his grandmother cooking in a small town outside of Benevento, Italy. His fingers move in synch. “One of my first pasta memories is watching my grandmother make cavatelli and orecchiette from scratch on a big wooden board,” he says. He adds that his biggest influence wasn’t the Culinary Institute of America or his internship as a teenager at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. It was his nonna.

Is the frequency of these memories simply the inevitable imprint of Conant’s extraordinary food experiences growing up? Or are they actually part of an adaptive, cognitive strategy that he’s developed over the years? The psychologist in me says that Conant plays back these memories of tradition to remind himself how to cook well, even when he’s bombarded with all the flimsy trends around him like spaghetti on a stick. Frank Bruni certainly thinks the strategy paid off; he gave Scarpetta a three-star review last year. Who says psychology never helped anyone.


Humanistic psychology focuses on individual free will, personal growth, and self-actualization.

Just because Scott C.’s grandma showed him the pasta ropes early on doesn’t mean he had it all figured out as an eight-year old. You don’t get to be a guest judge on Top Chef without losing a few personal quick-fire challenges first.

I like New York Magazine’s description of this growing process. They compare the development of world-class chefs to world-class prophets. “Like prophets, chefs sometimes disappear for periods of time to wander introspectively in the desert.” For Conant, that meant abruptly quitting gigs at midtown Italian restaurants Alto and L’Impero and wandering for a year in the wilderness. The prophet analogy breaks down a bit when you learn that he spent his year away from the restaurant business in the Hamptons. If Moses helped the Israelites to salvation by finding water in the desert, maybe Conant saved himself from the Hamptons by stumbling upon a wine tasting at Wolffer Estates.

And, like Moses in the desert, it seems Conant also saw a vision of God while he was at the Hamptons – Tom Colicchio, whose casual, inviting style he borrowed for his new restaurant, Scarpetta, when he came back from his cooking hiatus. Whereas L’Impero was stuffy and filled with tuxedoed waiters and opulent menus, the dining room at Scarpetta is spacious and colored in muted, earthy tones.

Maslow said that one of the final phases before self-actualization is the need for symmetry, order and beauty. With Conant’s improved sense of style and aesthetics at Scarpetta, he appears to be on his way.


Gestalt psychology is based on the idea that we experience things as unified wholes. Reality is organized in the simplest form possible.

When Conant reads this post and calls begging for more insights, I’ll provide a full battery of psychological tests, but one that I’ll skip is the inkblot. It would be pointless. Whereas more eccentric chefs like Batali would probably see a bunch of complex images (orange crocs with ponytails?), Scott C. strikes me as the type of guy who would only see the blot. Blots are blots, just like spaghetti is spaghetti.

“I love a simple spaghetti,” Conant explains. “It holds so much potential. Just let it be, and it’s already great. Less is more. Pasta is my favorite thing to cook.”

According to a 2007 article in the Times, the Italians who perfected spaghetti in the 18th century shared Conant’s instinct for simplicity. Their red sauces occasionally included meat, but they were often just tomato and basil. Today, Italian families in America add ingredients like oregano that would be alien to their ancestors. Kim Severson explains, “This is a cuisine of adaptation, of nostalgia, of comfort. By overemphasizing some of the seasonings Italian immigrants brought from home, they could more easily conjure it up.”


To this point, I’ve described a stable guy with a healthy exuberance for making some of the finest spaghetti in the world. But now it's time for Conant’s dark side.

Behaviorists describe punishment as a consequence that causes a behavior to occur less frequently. And Conant’s most punishing experiences have come at the hands of Italian chefs. Conant is only half-Italian, and the pure-breeds judge his cuisine harshly. Asked to describe his most humbling moment, he said, “I’ve had so many. They usually involve an Italian standing over me saying ‘You stupid American.’”

As Pavlov would have predicted given this mistreatment, these days Conant isn't about to give Italian chefs any love. This was an unfortunate reality for Top Chef contestant Fabio Viviani, nicknamed the Italian Stallion, when Conant appeared as a guest judge. Conant’s anger was palpable as I watched him through the two-way mirror at my psychology lab / television screen, and I vigorously scribbled down the following exchange in my log book:

Conant: What matters is what is on the plate.
Fabio: I understand.
Conant, wagging his finger: Do you understand?
Fabio: I do.
Conant, still wagging his finger: I don’t know if you understand that. The greens you provided were wilted. The cheese that you put with those greens with no acid on them …
Fabio: Acid with cheese, chef? Please. You have an Italian restaurant.
Conant: Excuse me. Excuse me. [Puts his hand up.] Take it easy. I’m the judge here. Not you. Relax. It didn’t work. You failed at making a perfect dish. You failed. That’s not our fault. That’s your fault.

Conant said later, “I really think Fabio was capable of far more. That’s why I was a little tough on him.” Or was it because Fabio is Italian? Is there anything sweeter than punishing the punisher?


This school of thought emphasizes the influence of the unconscious mind on behavior, and Freud would have a field day with Conant. Isn’t all of Conant’s dedication to traditional Italian cuisine really driven by his unconscious desire to convince Italian chefs that, despite his genetic limitations, he’s as Italian as they are? I also think Freud might have a theory to explain why Conant rejected the cuisine of his father’s American ancestry - not going there.

Self Psychology

William Kohut described human empathy as a therapeutic skill. When a patient acts in a certain way, “put yourself in his/her shoes,” and find out how it feels for the patient to act in this way.

Following Kohut’s guidance, I found some of Conant’s recipes on the internet. By imitating his approach to cooking tomato and basil spaghetti, I would better understand my troubled patient. Maybe there was a slight conflict of interest in choosing this course of treatment: the prospect of eating four servings of the tastiest pasta on the planet. Dr. Marcy had not participated in the other treatments described above, but she thought her guidance would be crucial for this one.

You have a better chance of getting a treasure map from a pirate than a chef’s award-winning techniques, and Marcy and I were a little skeptical about how honestly Conant had recorded his recipe. When we had this dish at Scarpetta, we both attributed the richness of the sauce to excess butter, but Conant claimed to only throw in one tablespoon.

The rest of the ingredients, though, looked about right: a pound of high-quality spaghetti, 20 ripe plum tomatoes, a pinch of crushed red pepper, a tablespoon of parmesan, and fresh basil leaves.

How could we mess up anything so straightforward?

Ed Levine of Serious Eats has some thoughts on the matter: “[Conant’s spaghetti with tomato and basil] is one of those dishes that you swear you should be able to make at home, and yet you know you won’t be able to. His food is deceptively simple. Each dish calls for many steps deftly executed.”

Our first misstep was forgetting to buy a potato masher to mince the tomatoes as they cooked in the saucepan. Through some extreme mistreatment of my University of Maryland coffee mug, I managed to finely chop them, but when Scott Conant says mince, you mince.

I did remember to mix the spaghetti, which was nearly al dente at this point, with the sauce after it had simmered for exactly 45 minutes. I then turned my attention to a process that Conant calls “aeration,” which seems more aerobic than gastronomic. You toss the pasta “high above the pot” with “a lot of exaggerated movement” and “a pan-jerking motion.”
The technique is supposed to coat the pasta with the sauce; introduce a little air so the dish feels lighter and brighter; and make the chef look cool. Whether I achieved the first two goals is debatable, but I definitely fell short of the third. My exaggerated movement mostly consisted of losing my balance while attempting to twirl the heavy pan about like a lacrosse stick. Spaghetti noodles sprung boldly from the pan and gracefully bathed in the air, only to crash-land all over the stovetop.

To the surviving strands we added fresh basil, cheese and butter. We saved these ingredients for the very end of the cooking process so they wouldn’t be diluted by any further heat, and plated. The result wasn’t unsatisfying, but Bruni probably wouldn’t call it “pure Mediterranean bliss,” the description he chose for Conant’s cooking.

So maybe self psychology is harder than I thought. But next time, when Marcy isn’t looking, I’m secretly adding more butter. That way she’ll think it’s authentic and tasty. Maybe I know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of Scott C., after all.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cook Report

It’s a sad day when you come face-to-face with the fact that your foodie teachings are provided almost entirely by Professor Travel Channel and Sensei Bravo. I recently took a hard look in the mirror, my eyes glazed over from a Bizzare Foods marathon, and I didn’t like what I saw. Nothing against the tutelage of Andrew Zimmern U., but it was time to consider some exchange programs.

But short of taking off for culinary school (my frequent fantasy), how exactly does the amateur foodie become an encyclopedic expert? When NBC and my agent finally work out the terms of my contract to host Foodie Jeopardy (frequent fantasy #2), will I have to make a pathetically bad, Trebekkian attempt to act like I know all the questions?

Well, a couple weeks ago, I was over at my Aunt Sue’s house for dinner when I wandered into her office. What I saw inspired the foodie in me to take action like a Stephen Covey book: about twelve different magazines, spread out on her desk, all dedicated to the art of acquiring foodie wisdom. Sue is well-recognized as my family’s go-to foodie for both cooking advice and restaurant recommendations, and if she’d attained that status by subscribing to every macuisine in circulation, then I was eager to do the same.

The only problem is that my pockets aren’t deep enough to subscribe to so many magazines. So I went to Borders to see which ones I like best. Back at my apartment, I dumped three bags of magazines (and a few books) on the floor and dove in like a kid swimming a pile of leaves.

Below, some fascinating info from the best reads so far. I’m hoping to place my subscriptions soon and blog similar cook reports every Thursday.

  • Food and Wine honors Tokyo as World’s Best Food City. “Japanese chefs are dictating the world’s dining trends with their fierce devotion to seasonality and respect for aesthetics.” Rounding out the rest of the top 5 were Barcelona, Copenhagen, London, and New York. In their write-up of New York’s “hot food zone,” F&W mentions Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, which Marcy, Don and I checked out this past weekend.

  • Saveur notes that rapper Ludacris has opened a successful restaurant in Atlanta called Straits Atlanta. “Why Ludacris, who had little if any familiarity with Southeast Asian cooking, chose to open a Singaporean place is another question. ‘I just wanted to be versatile,’ he explains. There are, to be certain, rap-star touches at Straits Atlanta; the Billionaire’s Margarita goes for $50. But the real draw is the food.”

  • The Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) is waging a campaign to discredit historians who say that Hitler was a vegetarian. Nazi Party propagandists celebrated Hitler as a vegetarian and animal lover, but JVNA claims he enjoyed sausages, chicken, and “other fleshy delicacies.” JVNA is concerned that Hitler’s ostensible vegetarianism somehow discredits vegetarianism altogether. But Gastronomica says, “It seems relatively clear that the decision to eschew meat has nothing to do with the decision to kill Jews or invade Poland. Generations of men have grown mustaches despite the fact that Hitler sported one, and the Nazi penchant for calisthenics has not made anyone avoid yoga classes.”

  • “The idea of preparing an appetizer just by opening a can might sound hopelessly 1950s to many Americans (SPAM, anyone?), but in Spain the practice remains as common as arguing about politics.” Saveur says the best canned seafood comes from a Galician company called Los Peperetes. I found Los Peperetes on the internet, and, $64.50 later, I'd mail-ordered one 10 ounce tin of gooseneck barnacles.

  • According to Gastronomica, artist Jess Dobkin recently hosted a Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar at a gallery in Toronto. “The softly glowing bar that Dobkin placed at the

back of the room provided the ‘station’ from which the artist dispensed modest samples of breast milk donated by six women. More than three hundred people attended the event, with nearly one hundred sampling the breast milk.” Beer critic John Filson reports, “Breast milk has a silky mouthfeel, leaving a slight film – but much less even than the skimmest milk from a cow.” I do not plan to mail-order breast milk any time soon.

  • In his collection of essays It Must Have Been Something I Ate, Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten provides an interesting explanation for why Asian restaurants are terrible in Paris: “Paris did not benefit from the exodus of chefs and money from Hong Kong in the eighties. As Hong Kong Chinese with command of a second language speak English, they immigrated to Australia, Canada, and the United States, where they could be understood.” As of 2002, when Steingarten wrote this essay, only one Asian restaurant in France had ever received a Michelin star.

  • Meatpacking plants are increasingly cited for excessive cruelty to animals on the kill floor. Observing this trend, Jewish food activists have advised kosher consumers against purchasing meat that is “kosher” in the traditional understanding of the word, but fails to meet other Jewish ethical standards. Conservative and Reform movements are working together to create a kosher certification called Hekhsher Tzedek, which would indicate that food is traditionally kosher and ethically produced. Gastronomica

  • As a final note, I have to say that, as much as I enjoyed these magazines, their ubiquitous, excessively positive comments about food are a little annoying. It's like Dick Vitale calling every college basketball player over the past 20 years who could dribble between his legs "so special baby!" Everything is "delicious" - I'm going back through my old posts and erasing any trace of this word. And foie gras doesn’t just taste good, it’s “insanely indulgent.” Indulge me while I roll my eyes. But my personal favorite was one author’s description of her experience with pasta in Italy: “The dish brought tears of joy to my eyes.” Really? If my dinner companion found the food so good she began to weep, I’d hand her a Kleenex dabbed in pepper spray, pick up my food and move to another table.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ali Baba: The One

I’d resided in Chevy Chase for five months and had yet to fall in love with any of the local restaurants. And like Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed, I was worried that I would have to kiss a whole lot of losers to find the right one.

As with so many great romances, I found Ali Baba, the new falafel stand on Wisconsin Avenue, in unlikely circumstances: driving home from dinner on a full stomach. But when you see a new falafel place a mile from your apartment, and you’re starved for love, you don’t make excuses. You slam on the brakes and pull over.

“All bias is a form of corruption,” writes food critic Trevor White in his book Kitchen Con. Still, I couldn’t help wanting to like Ali Baba from the start.

The ambiance is cute and comfortable like a well-worn pair of jeans. In front of the stand is a modest, wooden porch, where you have the choice of a few lawn chairs to relax while your food is prepared. Bright green, baby parakeets sunbathe in their cage and look at you thoughtfully as you order.

And what’s cozier than an elderly husband and wife management team? No, the two owners aren’t an old married couple, but they reminded me of one. As I waited for my falafel, they bickered to pass the time. One owner, Mohamed, repeatedly yelled in a thick Egyptian accent, “What is burning? Something is burning!” The other, Nordin, from Algeria, answered, “Nothing! What are you talking about?”

I can be no more objective about Ali Baba than I could be about a puppy licking my face.

But Ali Baba’s appeal goes beyond cuteness: it’s the classic underdog. For years before opening the falafel stand, Mohamed and Nordin ran a struggling antique shop. They had long dreamed of opening Ali Baba, but Montgomery County doesn’t like food stands. Mohamed had to argue in front of the County planning board before they finally approved the proposal.

Of course, Ali Baba must do much more than jump in the ring if they want to be crowned heavyweight falafel champion. The duo will have to endure a bruising bout against bigger opponents just to survive. Apollo Creed is five minutes away: Lebanese Taverna, whose falafel is popular throughout the region, recently won People’s Favorite Restaurant of the Year award. And, in Rockville, it’s Drago: an Israeli joint called Moti’s Falafel Stand has become increasingly popular since opening a couple years ago.

If that weren't enough, it’s been over a decade since Mohamed and Nordin managed their last falafel stand, and that was in Paris. The birds are nice and all, but I had to wonder, do they really remember how to fry their chickpeas?

I settled into a lawn chair and took a bite. Sparks flew.

Over the next two weeks, I went back for half-a-dozen trysts, and I was almost ready for a serious relationship. But I had to know if my love was real. So I decided to test out some other suitors. Here’s how Moti’s and Lebanese Taverna compared:

Ali Baba

Personality: A+. As the fava beans and chickpeas sizzle behind the counter, Mohamed and Nordin hold forth on topics ranging from the economy to Obama’s popularity in their home countries. But conversation isn’t all that they volunteer. As we talk, Nordin usually gives me a few falafel balls with tahini, and it’s not uncommon for him to pack my takeout bag with an Algerian side-dish, on the house. The one downside to all this hospitality? They make me feel so at ease that, twice, I forgot to pay.

Nordin also shows off a big pair of falafel balls when talking smack about Ali Baba’s formidable competition. He claims he doesn’t even remember the name of “the place around the corner,” Lebanese Taverna. And he’s equally brassy when I ask about Moti’s. “The Jew?” he asks, incredulously. Middle Eastern countries with a proud history of falafels look at Israel’s version like the movie remake of Planet of the Apes: the late-coming bastardization of a classic. To Nordin, Moti might as well be Helena Bonham Carter in a chimp suit.

Falafel: A-. Ask Ali Baba about their falafel, and they won’t just say it’s good. They’ll tell you it’s “right.” In other words, Mohamed tells me, they base it on the style found in Egypt.

To make the falafel balls, they mash fava beans and chickpeas with a special ingredient. “What is the one that looks like parsley?” Mohamed asks. He might forget the English word for cilantro, but this North African herb makes Ali Baba’s fritter one to remember, giving it a green hew and a unique, citrusy kick.
The next step is apparently a difficult one to remember. Mohamed's mom calls from Egypt once a week just to remind her son to add eggs and carbonation, which make the balls moist and fluffy. Then they're then fried and thrown into a pita along with tahini, chopped tomatoes, and finely sliced banana peppers and cucumbers. Nordin usually gives me a side of pickled vegetables – the salty burst pairs well with the slightly bitter tahini.

When I was enjoying Ali Baba’s falafel for the first time, I closed my eyes and imagined my lawn chair perched on a sparsely inhabited river bank along the Nile some 1,000 years ago. That’s when historians say the Egyptians invented it. The only problem is that everything I’ve read suggests that the Egyptian fritter is made with 100 percent fava beans. No chickpeas. So, painful as it is, I have to deduct some authenticity points from Ali Baba. Even puppies get yelled at when they pee on the carpet.

Eatability: A. Ali Baba creates a neat package by stuffing their pitas with a mixture of falafel balls and toppings. By contrast, other falafel places let you pick from a bunch of toppings and then crown your pita with Israeli salad, chopped onions, peppers, and even eggplant. It’s fun to play dress-up with my falafel like this, but the more ornaments you hang on your Christmas tree, the harder it is to take down. Ali Baba’s pita is wrapped securely so loose toppings don’t cascade from the falafel with every bite.

Supporting Cast: A. When I first approached his stand, I asked Mohamed to recommend something to go with my falafel. His answer almost sent me scurrying away like fingernails on a chalkboard: “How about the hamburger?”

If you can work around the owners’ perception that Americans crave Fuddruckers in every eating experience, you’ll discover some classic Egyptian street food. Ask Mohamed to make you his tahini dog: tomatoes, fava beans, chickpeas, and lettuce tossed in tahini and cayenne pepper and served in a hot dog bun.

Moti’s Falafel Stand

Personality: B-. I came to Moti’s with more questions than a star trek geek in a sex ed class. Did Israel steal the falafel from Lebanon and Egypt? If so, should they really call it “Isreal’s National Snack”? Is it true that Israelis stuff their falafels with French fries?

The teenager behind the counter was swarthy, spoke broken English, and cranked out a falafel like most people tie their shoes. I identified him as Moti’s son and peppered him with falafel queries. He provided some interesting answers, which I won’t include in this post because after a ten-minute conversation he admitted that he is Salvadorian, his closest tie to Israel is that he thinks Natalie Portman is hot, and all his thoughts about falafels are creative guesses. Moti, he said, is never there.

Falafel: B. Marcy only spent one semester in Israel during college, but with the Salvadorian kid disqualified, I resorted to her as my Israeli falafel expert. We both thought that the taste of the falafel fritter was fine, but the fried surface was oddly tough and perhaps a little burnt.

Eatability: C+. Moti’s gives you a wide selection of toppings. This is Israel’s most notable contribution to the evolution of the falafel: they cram novel accompaniments, from shredded beets to jalapenos, into their pitas. But because you place all the toppings at the mouth of the pita, they aren’t evenly distributed. So your first few bites are all topping, and the rest of the sandwich is plain fritter and tahini. The next time I go to Papa Johns, I’m bringing an Israeli with me to see if he downs all the pepperonis before turning to the pizza.

Supporting Cast: C. The first time I went to Moti’s, I was excited to see that they offer a Jerusalem Mix with chicken liver. But my Salvadorian friend always shrugs when I order it. Like Moti himself, it’s never available.

Lebanese Taverna

Personality: B-. At Lebanese Taverna, all the elements of a restaurant with great personality are in place: the Abi-Najm family that started Lebanese Taverna fled civil war in Lebanon in 1976 with their five small children and found themselves without support in a foreign land. They had so little money when they took over an Arlington pizzeria that they could only afford to alter half the sign that hung outside. Fast-forward three decades, and Taverna has become a mini-empire with 10 locations across Virginia, D.C. and Maryland.

When I went to the D.C. location, I imagined that the wizened matriarch of the Abj-Najm family would greet me at the door with riveting tales of escape from a war-ravaged land. During her arduous journey to America, she would tell me, all she had to keep herself alive were four falafel balls – made with the same exact recipe that Taverna uses to this day.

Instead, I didn’t see a single member of the Abj-Najm clan. I guess if your restaurant is successful, you earn the luxury of never having to go there.

Falafel: C. The mezze dish consisted of four small falafel balls, served with one tiny cup of tahini and about a pound of pita bread. This ratio of balls to pita to sauce worked well as long as I used half a falafel ball and three drops of tahini for each pita.

As for the falafel, I give Taverna credit for following the traditional Lebanese approach of using a combination of fava beans and chickpeas. Unfortunately, spices were undetectable. And the fava beans gave the fritter a dry, sticky consistency. What will it take for Taverna to add egg or baking soda to lighten the fritter? Does Mohamed's mother need to provide weekly reminders?

Eatability: N/A. With a falafel this dry and plain, who cares?

Supporting Cast: B-. A side dish of tomato, chickpea, and pilaf reminded me of Ali Baba’s tahini dog, but it wasn’t as good.

My route to both Lebanese Taverna and Moti’s took me right past Ali Baba, and it was painful to have to drive by without stopping, especially when there were no customers. But I’m happy to report that my falafel philandering ways are over. Ali Baba is the one. Now I just need a little help from you to keep her alive:

Ali Baba
Open every day for lunch and dinner
Corner of Wisconsin Ave & Willow Lane
Bethesda, MD

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pork Belly: It's Worth the H1N1

Times are bleak for our slobbery friend, the pig. He just wanted to roll around in some mud, eat a little hay, and, if Babe was accurate, herd a few sheep. He had no intentions of scaring us with a global flu pandemic. But he stands accused of just that.

Revenge against the pig has been swift. Wall Street analysts predict a sharp decline in pork sales. And that would be tame compared to the response in Egypt, where the government ordered every pig in the country slaughtered and burned.

If pigs could do more than oink, I think they would make some sound arguments in their own defense. They’d note that people can’t get swine flu from eating properly cooked pork. In fact, there’s no evidence that people who’ve become sick had any contact with pigs at all.

I would add that I’ve eaten a lot of pork belly over the past month. My strong sense is that I don’t have acute febrile respiratory illness.

If you’re still thinking about swearing off pork, you should consider just how delicious the last month has been.

1. David Chang’s Tonkotsu Soup

About a month ago, I discovered pork belly by accident at David Chang’s Ippudo. I’d read an interview in which Chang, apparently suffering from some self-esteem issues, said that his restaurant serves “crappy pan-Asian ramen made for round-eyes.” As luck would have it, I’m in his target audience, so I figured Ippudo’s popular tonkotsu soup was perfect for me. And I was right, but not because of the noodles, which were average, or even the ramen broth, an excellent emulsion of pure pork and pork fat. What hogged my attention was the pork belly.

I’d never had pork belly before, and my inexperience showed. From the menu, I knew that the soup was supposed to include pork belly. But when I searched with my chopsticks, all I saw were noodles, a few vegetables, and some brownish slabs that I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t until after I demanded a complementary side of pork belly that I identified the slabs: pork belly. I could almost see David Chang in the kitchen, rolling his slanted eyes at my round-eyed ignorance.

So my mistake didn’t earn me any cool points with Chang, but once I tasted the pork belly, I didn’t care. It comes from the pig’s underside, but unlike bacon, they don't cure or smoke it. Instead, it’s usually chopped into thick, square bites and braised in a liquid that ranges from a seasoned stock to soy sauce. Chang’s preparation was precise: slow-cooked to render out just enough fat, so each piece was meaty, but also slightly buttery. At the beginning of the heating process, he’d blasted it to give the surface a crispy, bacon-like crunch. Finally, his braising stock was sweet and smoky. And because of the extra side, multiply all of the above times two.

Egypt, go ahead and slaughter your pigs if you want, but do New York a favor and send them to David Chang.

2. Zac Palaccio’s Pork Belly Sandwiches

It should come as no surprise that when I woke up the next day with my stomach growling, my first thoughts were of pork belly.

I only had to wait until the following weekend for my next taste, but it wasn’t as good. I was in the Meatpacking District at Zac Palaccio’s Malaysian restaurant, Fatty Crab. Vogue calls Zac’s pork belly sandwich a “witty nod to British colonialism.” In other words, they’re tea sandwiches.

But Vogue also says that this dish features an “unctuous chunk of pork belly.” Maybe I took a wrong turn and end up at Skinny Crab? The layers of pork weren’t just thin, they were barely visible, a light streak of white between the grains. I get angry when restaurants try to make the strange textures of novelty foods more palatable to customers by hiding them in bread. And I’m talking to you, Bromberg brothers.

3. Red Cooking with Cheong Liew

I was on the bus back from New York to DC, wondering how I could pursue my passion for Chang’s pork belly with his restaurant over 400 miles away. Like so often when life throws a problem my way, I received guidance and inspiration from OK Magazine. One article offered evidence that Oprah smokes crack to get ready for her show. Her ex-boyfriend says that he used to cook it for her, but when he wasn’t around to provide culinary guidance, she had to learn how to do it on her own.

I found strength in her story and decided I would find a way to reproduce Chang’s pork belly myself. If I could pull it off, my high would be just as exhilarating as Oprah’s.

Like all great chefs, Chang only uses the best ingredients, so my first objective was to get a high-quality cut of pork. I thought about Berkshire, an heirloom breed that offers a cleaner flavor than the typical supermarket pork. But when I asked for Berkshire at Wagshal’s Market, the manager, Pam, examined me with contempt.

“Everyone wants Berkshire,” she growled. “Well, let me tell you something: we’ve tried out pigs from all over the world, from as far away as Spain, including Berkshire.” After years of sampling different suppliers, Wagshal’s eventually concluded that the best-tasting pork came from a small, private farm in Iowa. “The breed doesn’t matter,” Pam said. “It’s all about how you treat the animal.”

The result? Wagshal’s moves 300 pounds of pork belly per month.

Back home with some freshly purchased Sioux City Swine, I wondered about Chang’s cooking methods. I searched pork belly recipes online for hours, but none of them seemed capable of replicating Chang’s masterpiece. Then, I was flipping through my copy of Fat, Jennifer McLagan’s book about “a misunderstood ingredient,” when my eyes fixed on a picture of glistening, reddish-brown, spice-flecked pieces of pork. My pulse quickened. 400 miles felt like four feet. I was back at Ippudo.

I learned with some disappointment that McLagan had borrowed the recipe from Cheong Liew (in foreground, below), not Chang. But then I read that Food & Wine Magazine had chosen Liew one of the “ten hottest chefs alive” – a list Chang probably wasn’t even considered for.

Per Liew’s directions, I marinated the pork with tangerine zest, cinnamon sticks, sliced ginger, and star anise. I browned the meat in lard and then started to braise. Liew’s technique is called “red cooking” because the braising liquid is soy sauce, which gives the meat a dark, red-brown color.

I took my first bite and thought about Christmas in the 1980s. Being a Jew, when I was a kid my family would always go out for Chinese food on Christmas day. Being a bad Jew, I would always order the spare ribs.

That this dish reminded me of the inexpensive cut of breastbone used by a mediocre Chinese restaurant in Nashville doesn’t say much about Wagshal’s Iowa connection. I don’t suggest changing the state slogan to “We Do Amazing Things with Pigs.” And it tasted nothing like Chang’s version: the zest gave the pork belly a distinct, tangy quality. Next time, Pam’s getting me some Berkshire. But Liew’s braising process did make the fatty streaks rich and succulent, and I thank the pig farmers of Iowa for the childhood memories.

4. Korean Pork Belly

After taking down three pounds of Wagshal’s pork belly, I thought it was a good idea to have a week off before pigging out on Berkshire.

But this past weekend I was at Nam Kang, a Korean restaurant in Baltimore, and my friend Erin and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get their grilled pork belly. Erin is a grill master, but I was still happy that the waitress hung around our table to helm the portable stove as the pork sizzled. The last time I worked the grill at a Korean restaurant, I received an angry lecture in Korean when a short rib caught on fire.

Koreans like their pork belly sliced thin, so it looked a lot like bacon as the waitress finished the cooking process and scraped the crackling meat from the grill. But the pieces weren’t cured or smoked, and my eating companions found them to be too bland. I was the exception; Korea’s perspective on pork belly worked for me. Following the Korean custom, I happily piled the meat onto lettuce leaves along with chopped garlic and jalapeno pepper, over which I drizzled bean paste (daenjang) and a salty sesame oil sauce. It was interesting to think that the first time David Chang, who is Korean, had pork belly, it probably looked just like this – and yet, the version that he now serves in his restaurant bears almost no resemblance.

As a side note, I enjoyed watching my friend Dave attack Korean comfort food with the same aggression he used to show during college. Living in Manhattan, he’s had many fine dining experiences since his undergrad years, and I wondered whether bim bim bap would still meet his standards for excellence. The action shot below answers that question. His head is blurry from attacking the plate with such force.

Hopefully you won’t let a little thing like the onset of a global pandemic get in between you and the delicious pork belly experiences I’ve described above.
And hopefully, health officials won't tell us to stop eating pork. Then again, if grocery stores suddently go hogless, other belly options still exist. At just $42 per pound, tuna belly might be the next big thing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dining with Real Estate Moguls: New American / Indian Cuisine at Eletarria

We humans don’t like our food to surprise us. Deciding to put something in your mouth is a big commitment, and we want to know just what we’re getting ourselves into.

This idea was recently supported by scientists in the Netherlands. They told research subjects that they were about to feed them one type of food, and then surprised them with another. The subjects reported feelings of fear, anger, and even depression (the Netherlanders, apparently, are a fragile people).

But an evening at Elettaria in Greenwich Village this past weekend proved that culinary surprises don’t have to be sour. The evening was full of the unexpected:

No Robo Waiter

Elettaria had been recommended to us by one of my dad’s old fraternity brothers - currently a commercial real estate mogul in New York. We were interested to see what type of restaurant satisfies a mogul’s appetite for excess. I pictured ornate mosaic marble floors, Versace tableware, and baby grand pianos. Maybe my own cyborg waiter named Jose.

Instead, Elettaria was furtively located behind a red painted door among a jumble of knickknack shops and seedy shoe stores. The interior was more grunge than grandiose, with a big bar towards the entrance, a mysterious staircase that ended abruptly at the ceiling, and a softly glowing, lounge-style eating area. The space used to be a nightclub, and the kitchen is reputedly located at the same spot where Jimi Hendrix played his guitar.

And the prices were actually reasonable. Was this the mogul's favorite place before or after the economy crashed?

Bombay Meets the Bible Belt

Elettaria describes its cuisine as New American, but most of their dishes use at least one element taken from Indian cooking. For example, the pork ribs are dressed with garam massala and drizzled with pureed lychee, and they sprinkle cardamom on the duck. Makes sense, then, that chef/co-owner Akhtar Nawab (below) is of Indian descent.

The surprise came as we were waiting for our table, when the hostess overheard me talking about my childhood and chimed in that Nawab also grew up southern, in Louisville. Nawab would probably be just as surprised to hear about me, the Jew from Nashville. In any case, I wonder how much he cherishes his dixieland heritage, considering that his menu is free of southern accents. I recently read an interview in which Nawab said that, when he was a kid, his mom cooked only Indian. For Thanksgiving, they made Tandoori-style Cornish game hens.

But to be fair, he does have a drink at the bar called “Kentucky Firing Squad.”

The Foodie Gives the M.D. an Anatomy Lesson

Compared to the entrées, the non-trées/appetizers looked more adventurous to me. I ordered sea urchin and curried rabbit, but the non-trée that sparked the most interest at our table was my sweetbreads. By interest, I don’t mean that anyone was actually willing to try it. I mean morbid fascination that I would eat something as weird as that.

The question soon came up: what exactly are sweetbreads? Mark and I sang out a duet that sounded something like “brart,” – he said brain, and I said heart.

Cue that whistle-y music from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The foodie and the doctor were about to go pistols at 40 paces over who knew more about anatomy (of a cow, admittedly). His credentials: med school, residency, and over twenty years of medical practice. Mine: I hang out at butcher shops. The rest of the table sized us up and put their money on the doctor.

Well, foodies, put those hands together, because I took it home. Instead of settling the dispute with a gunfight, we asked Mark’s wife, Wendy, to research the question on her blackberry. Neither of us was exactly right, but I was closer. There are two kinds of sweetbreads: stomach sweetbreads – also known as heart sweetbreads – which are an animal’s pancreas, and neck sweetbreads, an animal’s thymus gland. The heart sweetbreads are favored for their delicate flavor and texture.

Everyone was impressed by my sort of accurate answer. I felt smart for about ten seconds before receiving a flood of questions about every other unfamiliar term on the menu. I was shrugging like Atlas. Tatin? Kalonji? Didn’t see any of those at the butcher shop.

No Bone to Pick

The menu had described the sweetbreads (picture, below) dish as “risotto, bone marrow, and szechuan pepper.” I’m new to bone marrow and still in my honeymoon phase, so you can imagine how excited I was to tickle the ivories with an Indian twist.

But the dish arrived bare bones – just the risotto, sweetbreads, and pepper. I realized that this was a Milanese risotto. To make it, a chef scoops out the marrow and chucks the bone. He adds the marrow to butter and then uses this mixture to coat the rice before covering with wine and saffron. I’ve had this kind of risotto with osso bucco and enjoy it, but I’d been looking forward to scooping the marrow from the bone and savoring its oozy fattiness straight-up.

I was depressed like a research subject in the Netherlands. But the surprise turned sweet when I noticed how well the sweetbreads paired with the risotto. In one sense, it was enjoyable because of the flavor contrast: the tang of the risotto was a good complement to the unctuous sweetbreads. What’s more, the sweetbreads actually reminded me a lot of bone marrow – both are rich and creamy, reminiscent of butter. So I drew a parallel between this dish and osso bucco, which, afterall, is bone marrow with Milanese risotto. Did these very similar Italian classics develop independently, or did one inspire the other?

Authentically Ignoring Indian Food

Mark, the doctor, is from Nashville, where opportunities for authentic Indian food are few and far between, if not fewer. We misunderstood Elettaria to be an Indian place, and so on the way to the restaurant we got Mark’s hopes up. After he read the American-influenced menu, he looked upset, like he’d just lost an anatomy quiz to a foodie.

He found some solace that there was at least one authentic Indian dish on the menu: saag paneer, which he ordered. The paneer was spinach, and the saag was sheep’s milk ricotta.

But Mark was in for another surprise. Initially resentful of Wendy's non-Indian halibut with Israeli couscous and squid ink, by the end of the meal his napkin was black and he was leaning away from the saag, hovering over his wife’s plate.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Interview with Jose Andres and Wylie Dufresne, Part 1

Are Americans too conservative to appreciate innovative cooking?

If so, the line waiting to see avant-garde chefs Jose Andres and Wylie Dufresne was no indication. It spilled out the back of the National Museum of Natural History and spanned forty people.

I joined the tail and scanned the crowd. The Embassy of Spain was sponsoring the event, so were these people Spanish nationalists or food celebrity stalkers like me? Their bellies didn’t seem big enough to be foodies. On the other hand, they enthusiastically spread rumors that the event would include a cooking demonstration and tastings.

As I was ushered into a crowded auditorium, the evening’s main attractions brushed past me on their way to the stage. Wylie looked about as pretentious as a school bus driver, with long, flat hair and outfit by Eddie Bauer. Stocky Jose wore a bright red scarf and spoke loud Spanish into his cell phone.

The two chefs were there to talk about vanguard cuisine. Depending on who you speak to, the vanguard movement is either the art of creatively challenging the culinary status quo, or, in the words of Jeremy Bentham, “merely nonsense upon stilts.” Jose is a native of Spain and is credited with introducing Americans to both avant-garde Spanish food and traditional tapas. Wylie’s WD-50 specializes in avant-garde cuisine and ranks fourth on New York Magazine’s list of the City’s best restaurants.

The lights dimmed, and the crowd rolled their eyes when the President of the Embassy mispronounced Wylie’s name “Dufrez” during the introduction. But the dialogue that followed was fascinating. Here are some highlights:

The Ghost of Salvador Dali

Both chefs, and moderator Coleman Andrews of Saveur Magazine, talked passionately about recent food innovations in Spain, but they admitted that the food there hasn’t always been so dynamic. Andrews recalled that in the early 1980s he set out to write a book about Spanish cuisine. After spending a year working his way from Barcelona to Sevilla and finding nothing but paellas and French food, he wrote a travel guide about the Riviera instead.

But in 1984, at the age of 22, a skinny kid named Ferran Adria got his start as line cook at El Bulli in northern Spain. 18 months later, he was head chef, and soon his innovations were rapidly replacing the three hundred year-old paella recipes, not to mention le diner.

Pictured above, Adria started a style of cooking based on the imagination, studying all the creative possibilities of traditional ingredients and playing with form and mouthfeel. Each year, he closes El Bulli and devotes six months to laboratory research in Barcelona to come up with new ideas. As the eccentric pioneer of the vanguard movement, he's has been called many things: genius of El Bulli, mad culinary scientist, and on stage, Jose inexplicably referred to him as the Devil.

Despite suggesting that Adria was pure evil, Jose also gushed about him. He noted that the legendary chef was born in the same Catalonian village as Salvador Dali, and Catalonians believe that artist was reincarnated as Adria.

Throwing Out the Blueprint

Adria’s approach took root all over Spain and in the United States, and although Jose was too proud to say it, he implied that his innovative and playful style was inspired by Adria.

Wylie was a little more forthright about having used both Adria and Jose as models. Only months after Wylie arrived in Manhattan, Jose took an interest in him and arranged a series of trips for his sloppy-looking American protégé to study vanguard cuisine in Spain. During one of these trips, Wylie picked up a recipe book in Catalan with photographs of food so beautiful that to this day he still flips through the book for inspiration, even though he can’t read a word.

“Don’t worry,” said Jose in his thick Spanish accent, “the same thing happens to me with English books.”

But Jose’s influence on Wylie extended beyond a few TripTiks. “For me and many others, Jose legitimized throwing out the blueprint,” Wylie explained. “It’s not that I’m copying Jose. It’s that I’m willing to throw out the blueprint because Jose had the courage to do so first.”

For the second half of this blog, go to Interview with Jose Andres and Wylie Dufresne, Part 2.

Interview with Jose Andres and Wylie Dufresne, Part 2

For the first part of this blog, go to Interview with Jose Andres and Wylie Dufresne, part 1.

Pacojets and Thermomixes

If you want to be a vanguard chef, you might as well get a PhD in chemistry.

The movement has actually been labeled molecular gastronomy because, to truly think outside the lunchbox and use food like no one has before, you have to know how to manipulate the cellular structure of your ingredients. So practitioners end up learning many of the same theories and tools that are used by biochemists when they’re splitting stem cells. Maybe that’s why Adria’s famous cookbook, “El Bulli 1998-2002,” is over 500 pages long.

And just like chemists, the best vanguard chefs build laboratories and fill them with high-tech equipment. Gadgets include the Pacojet, a Swiss-made, 2,000 r.p.m. frozen-food processor. And for $945, you can have your very own Thermomix, a German all-in-one kitchen aid that grinds hazelnuts to a powder in 5 seconds.

Even if you’re willing to hand over thousands to get this gear, the panelists all agreed that the techniques of molecular gastronomy aren’t for your average Joe Gourmet. Wylie gave the crowd that old, “Don’t try using your CO2 dispenser to convert liquid into an ethereal froth at home,” cliché. And when someone in the crowd asked the panel to recommend the best brand of sous-vide machine for preventing toxins, Jose suggested that the guy just stick with the microwave. It’s not that cool, but neither is botulism.

Death by News Cycle

Winner for most awkward moment of the night was Wylie’s attack on American food writers for not supporting this country’s avant-garde movement. “Spanish journalists have done a lot more to encourage avant-garde,” Wylie said. Just when it looked like Coleman Andrews was about to get his skull cracked with a Pacojet food processor, Wylie caught himself. “Look, I’m not going to criticize American journalists, especially with one sitting right here.”

Despite the effort at diplomacy, it seems like Wylie’s got a point. American vanguard cuisine has been criticized in a number of articles, including one in which the New York Times called it “shallowly theatrical.” Slate writer Lisa Abend counted five signs that vanguard cuisine was no longer haute, including Death By News Cycle. Abend explained, “Food writers have to write about something, and if we can’t write about a new trend, we might as well tear down an old one.”

Wylie’s on-stage rant reminded me that I recently saw him on Bickering Foodies getting huffy with cookbook author Barbara Kafka when she claimed that vanguard food is half-baked.

“Where does one cross the line between experiment, and searching, and the final result in terms of pleasure?” Kafka asked.

Wylie said he thought his cooking was more than just experimental. It tasted good, too. “I wouldn’t put my good name on it if I thought it was disgusting.”

“Oh, let’s not get bitchy,” said Kafka.

Even Jose, whose ego is bigger than Adria’s 500-page cookbook, acknowledged that the backlash hurts. “You’ve got to cook first to please yourself,” he said. “But, sure, I get upset when people tell me my food is too out there. It’s like, in this museum, you wouldn’t say, ‘let’s change that Matisse.’”

But is it possible that bad press actually helps vanguard chefs? In an interview for the Slate article, Aponiente chef Angel Leon suggested so: “There are people who say, ‘this is over, let’s put it behind us,’ but that’s just marketing.” If the mainstream ever really celebrated avant-garde, would the movement lose meaning and disappear like the vapors from Jose’s mojito mists?

Jose Andres’ Green Card and Foie Gras Cereal

Throughout the evening, a projector showed photographs of the chefs’ best dishes, while Jose and Wylie explained the creative processes behind each. Every time they showed a new picture, my friend Rupa’s stomach growled.

One photo was Jose’s deconstructed New England clam chowder (picture below), which he serves at Minibar in D.C. “Now, what is wrong with the traditional New England clam chowder?” Jose rhetorically asked the crowd.

“Nothing!” said Wylie, who happens to be a native of New England. This comment got the biggest laughs of the night. Wylie might be a freedom fighter for avant-garde cuisine, but don’t mess with his hometown’s clam chowder. That’s not cool.

Jose disagreed, saying that the clams in the traditional version are “so overcooked.” Jose breaks the classic dish down into its component parts: cream, potatoes, clam, clam broth, onion, bacon and chives. From each of these elements, he creates a puree, or sauce, thickening them to a slightly unexpected viscosity: the onion, for example, is a thick jam. He adds a raw clam and a sprinkling of potato chips to the surface for textural contrast. The diner’s spoon gives the final stir that blends the ingredients and sets the “chowder” in motion.

The avant-garde community raved about the dish almost as much as New Englanders hated it. “I almost lost my green card with that dish,” Jose said.

Another celebrated vanguard dish is foie gras cereal: corn flakes are combined with little balls of foie gras, which provide a liquid burst that mimics the textural experience of milk.

“American food is an excuse to get involved in creative cooking,” Jose told the crowd. To him, our cuisine is just a black and white movie in need of Technicolor.

But the purpose isn’t just to improvise and shatter tradition. The main criticism of vanguard chefs in the U.S. is that they get caught up in flamboyance and irony. In so doing, they overlook a key tenet of Adria’s philosophy: innovation, in addition to being playful, should also enhance flavor. Mr. Adria once told Frank Bruni that, “what he was always after was ‘the pure taste of things,’ and that his manipulations were paradoxically in the service of that.” And Bruni reports that, “Most of the meals lived up to his motto.”

Spain’s Snobby Embassy

As the dialogue wrapped up, Rupa and I were disappointed to note the absence of any food carts in the back of the room. Not only was it dinner time, but for the past hour we’d been looking at pictures of some of the best food in the world. Maybe it was a bit much to hope that Jose would serve everyone his famous cotton candy foie gras, but no edible swag at all?

I staved off hunger and focused on the business of autographs. Wylie was an easy mark. He was lingering by the stage and his entourage of groupies was sparse, possibly due to his bad haircut. Still, he was in a good mood – he’d found out a few hours before that his wife was pregnant with his first – and when I told him how much I enjoyed the evening’s dialogue, he seemed to genuinely appreciate my input. If he ever gets in another fight with Barbara Kafka, I’ve got his back.

Jose, on the other hand, was enjoying the admiration of his chef groupies way too much to be bothered by me. At least one tightly clothed female groupie (a Tom Colicchi-ho?) eyed him like he was a deconstructed clam chowder as he talked about his PBS show. I finally got him to sign, but, as you can see from the action shot below, he wasn’t interested in a photograph with me. Thanks to Rupa for taking one anyway.

As we made our way from the auditorium to the lobby, I noticed a roped off section of the room that was only being penetrated by the Spanish Embassy crowd. Dressed up in black ties and evening gowns and walking with a purpose, they appeared to be headed for food.

I was still wearing my suit from work, so I figured I had shot of fitting in. I maneuvered so I was right behind Jose as we neared the roped dividers, and when he made what appeared be a joke in Spanish, I cracked up. I did everything but roll my r’s and wave a red cape, but when I told the swarthy Spaniard who was standing guard at the ropes that I’d left my Embassy id at home, he turned up his nose and pointed me back to the commoners.

If only all embassies were like Korus House.