Saturday, April 19, 2008

Simple Pleasures in Artisanal Food

Simple pleasures offer authentic experiences free of embellishment and trappings. These encounters form our earliest sensory impressions and continue to shape our memories as we grow older. Appetite is instinctually drawn to artisanal food, permitting contemplation of utility, heritage and function in flavor. The following products nourish and heighten the senses, and serve as a balm in a fast-paced world that easily abides in distraction:

Brown Kalijira Rice (Lotus Foods)
Brown Kalijira Rice is a miniature variety of Basmati. Its demure grains resemble oblong sesame seeds and tease the mind with the question, “Can these tiny grains truly be rice?” Prior to cooking, Kalijira emits notes of bran, popped corn and wood, qualities that are common to its Basmati cousin. The similarity ends once the Lilliputian grains are added to the pot and begin to swell with water. Creamy aromas of coconut, jasmine and sweet grass mingle above the stove, filling the entire house with a compelling aroma that can last up to half a day. If rice is the food of comfort, Kalijira is the food of unadulterated beauty.

Dry Roasted DuChilly Hazelnuts (Holmquist Farms)
Hazelnuts are not eaten out of hand as often as peanuts, almonds and cashews. Their skins have a tendency to be bitter and few varieties are truly sweet. The natural sweetness of DuChilly hazelnuts from Washington State make Italy’s prized Langhe, a favorite of confectioners, look like a saccharine imposter. Though distinctive, the DuChilly’s inimitable character does not come without a price. Once planted, a tree may take as long as 15 years to mature. In addition, the slightly pruned and odd shaped nut is subject to irreversible blights that discourage many farmers from growing them. For the Holmquist family, who have owned their farm for over 104 years, the taste of DuChilly hazelnuts surpasses obstacles to cultivation. The nut’s sweet flavor saunters between a hazelnut and an almond, and has an addictive crunch in dry-roasted form. Try them in your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe or the one provided on Holmquist Farms' website.

Organic Heirloom Tea Flowers (Upton Tea)
Humans have praised the leaves of the tea plant for centuries, but its flowers have been a stranger to most brews. Upton Tea has ventured into new territory by offering a tisane made from the actual flowers of the Camillia sinensis plant. This rare yet affordable offering presents a new way to enjoy tea that is worth the effort of infusion. Heirloom Tea Flowers have an addictive perfume that melds notes of honey, blonde tobacco, apricots and citrus. The tendered cup retains an apricot note mixed with woody and muscat aspects traditionally associated with a good Darjeeling (think Margaret’s Hope Estate, First Flush). The tisane is significantly lower in caffeine than regular tea and contains polyphenolic antioxidant catechins. Qualities of good taste and health-giving properties make Organic Heirloom Tea Flowers a worthy addition to the teetotaler’s cupboard.

Dried Lychees (Trader Joe's)
The process of dehydration intensifies the flavor of fruit, highlighting primary characteristics while adding new and intriguing facets. Dried Lychees emit an intense rose note on the palate, this despite a generic quality of woodiness that emanates from the bag. The citric quality attributed to fresh lychees is accentuated in some of the pieces, a feature that is likely due to the use of unripe fruit in the drying process. The exotic snack has a compulsive quality due to variations in flavor and texture from piece to piece. Each morsel beckons another attempt at aromatic consideration, but efforts are not intellectual and the bag is quickly emptied.

Notes:

Photo of Buddha from Turning Stone Ranch

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Cooking Magic: The Perfume of Sofrito















As children we grow accustomed to the aromas and flavors of the kitchen as they are presented to us. They form a palette that we draw upon, coloring future experiences of taste. I recall the smell of my mother’s broiled chicken—the distinct mingling of garlic salt, sweet paprika, fatted chicken skin and fire. The scent would waft out of the kitchen, sneaking into hallway of our fourth floor apartment like a genie being slowly released from its bottle. Formative taste memories may seduce with nostalgia, but the flavor of sofrito teases and taunts like no other aromatic preparation I have ever encountered.

The soul of a great cook is possessed by an alchemist and a conjurer. The alchemist works in the realms of weights and measures, readying ingredients for transformation. The conjurer tenders a part of their spirit as an offering, the end result being a melding of essences—that of the cook and their creation. Josephine Nieves is an example such a cook. Returning home from a long day’s work, I would pass by her basement apartment door and become transfixed by cumin, garlic, and essences so well combined that I could not separate the individual ingredients no matter how hard I tried. The effusive bouquet would welcome me like a good friend, a comforting reminder that I was home at last.

Apartment living is a melting pot of cooking magic. Between 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. one’s appetite can be stirred by the ether of aromas escaping individual kitchens. Beckoning scents traverse hallways and stairwells, like friendly wide-eyed souls looking for company. The scents from Josephine’s kitchen coaxed my appetite until I was no longer satisfied with living in the fantasy of tasting what I smelled at her doorway. Josephine and I shared many conversations about life and as our talks migrated toward food, the subject began to take on a life of its own. I began bringing freshly baked Middle Eastern pastries like hamentashen, maamoul and all manner of cakes to her house. She reciprocated with arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), tostones (fried, sweet plantain) and the most fabulous rice and beans I have ever tasted.

One afternoon, I stood at her door with a copy of my hamentashen recipe in hand. I reached for the bell and drew a deep breath; it was that familiar savory bouquet I had become well-acquainted with over the years. As I exhaled, she opened the door and I stood there, intoxicated by the smell of her cooking. I didn’t even say hello, “What is that aroma?” I asked. “I’ve smelled it for years and always wondered what it was.” Josephine was beaming, but there was a glimmer of something very serious in her eyes. “I will show you one day,” she said. One day felt like a lifetime, but I knew that I had to be patient—not all cooks gave away their secrets. A week later, we met in the laundry room and she thanked me for the cookie recipe I had given her. “Wait here,” she said, “I have something for you.”

She went inside her apartment, the door slowly shutting behind her with a moan. Josephine reappeared suddenly, her footsteps virtually silent as she walked towards me with a carafe in her hands and said, “This is sofrito.” Fifteen seconds of stillness followed her pronouncement and I felt like I had been handed a kitchen scepter. Sofrito is the base that supports a vast repertoire of dishes in Latin cooking and aesthetically speaking, it is a cook’s signature, a unique mark that accents all savory dishes. For this reason sofrito recipes are not generally shared with others. A good cook has to figure how to make a sofrito recipe on their own, improvising on proportions based on what they tasted in the kitchens of their childhood. Josephine’s sofrito contains sweet peppers, culantro (a relative of cilantro that grows in tropical climates), garlic and olive oil. Some Spanish cooks add onions, but Josephine insists that they aren’t necessary. She would not write down the exact measurements because, like most of her recipes, they reside inside her—the carafe and folklore are all I was permitted. Grateful, I rushed upstairs to prepare an omelet using the sofrito.

I cracked three eggs into a bowl and added a tablespoon of sofrito. Beating the mixture with a fork, I leaned over to catch a whiff. The garlic was strong and I couldn’t get a singular sense of the other ingredients. I turned the knob on the gas stove and my anticipation grew with the heat. For a moment, I was ten and in my mother’s kitchen, arms folded on the table, the sound of aluminum foil rattling as it was being made into a makeshift tray to corral pieces of chicken. The eggs hit the frying pan with a low hiss and the air grew rich with a familiar aroma. I was transported through a revolving door of years, days, hours, seconds—I was nine and making eggs on the stove for the first time. Seconds lapsed into a crescendo of the present. I turned down the flame and put the eggs on a plate, recalling the glimmer in Josephine’s eyes when she handed me the carafe. As I tasted the eggs, a sense of separation and longing I had carried for years melted away. Knowledge and satisfaction could not deflate this truth; I was in possession of magic yet fully possessed myself.

Notes:

If culantro is not available, feel free to use cilantro, which is bright and citrusy in flavor, in contrast to the darker, earthier culantro. Josephine's recipe for sofrito might include 1 large handful of culantro (substitute cilantro), 4 garlic cloves, 1 red bell pepper, ½ cup of olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt. Grind in a mortar or a food processor until the mixture turns into a paste.

The November 24, 2013 edition of Glass Petal Smoke features a thorough recipe for Josephine's sofrito.

Photo of culantro by Antanukai on Flickr.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2007 edition of Bois de Jasmin.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Eau de Headache

Body sprays containing an ingredient dubbed “Molecule X” have triggered spontaneous human combustion in high school gyms across the country. Though it is not clear why this phenomenon does not affect young women, the problem is causing major headaches for manufacturers as well as victims.

A sixteen-year-old girl watched helplessly as one of her friends was reduced to ashes. “He kept holding his head in his hands saying it hurt, you know, and I was like take some aspirin or something. He was being such a baby about it and then there was this smell. It was like, so bad. He started screaming that he was burning up. That’s when it happened."

Scientists speculate that Molecule X, which is derived from formaldehyde, is responsible for the demise of over 500 teenage boys. Raymond Shrill, a journalist covering the fragrance industry, has smelled Molecule X and claims it is totally harmless. “It’s an indescribable scent, like the essence of car exhaust mixed with the sound of feral cats in heat who’ve dined on caviar,” says Shrill.

Toxicology reports are inconclusive, but manufacturers are working quickly to remove the product from store shelves to protect the public.

Note: Resemblance of photographic skeletal remains to anyone living, dead or about to die is purely coincidental. And in case you haven't guessed--THIS IS AN APRIL FOOL'S DAY POST.