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.