Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Kitchen Reader: Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain

This month's selection for the Kitchen Reader was chosen by yours truly.

I will start by saying that I'm an unabashed Anthony Bourdain fan. I've always been drawn to the blunt, abrasive types (which is why I think I gravitated to the investment banking industry), and the reason why I liked Bourdain from the moment he burst onto the celebrity chef scene 10ish years ago (my how time flies). I like him even more now that he's evolved into what seems to be a fully formed emotional individual, without losing his crass sarcastic sense of humor. However, I'm the first to admit that he's obnoxious, and if you can't get past that, then you're not going to like this book.

Medium Raw is the best example of Bourdain's writing since his breakthrough memoir, Kitchen Confidential. I would even go as far to say that it's better than the first, since he's lost the ignorant cockiness that permeated Kitchen Confidential. In a recent Forbes interview (found here), Bourdain discusses his transformation (though it may be better termed an evolution) and I found his latest book to be full of examples of this change.

The reason why I liked Medium Raw so much is that it felt, well, raw. It seems to be a predictor of the direction his Travel Channel show No Reservations has taken in the current season, where he doesn't shy away from the harsh reality in the countries that he visits. It's the same tone that he took in chapter 5 "So you want to be a chef", where he somewhat cruelly but truthfully points out that age, health and weight can put you at a serious disadvantage in the pursuit of a culinary career. This chapter is reflective of the best parts of the book for me, which consist of the stories that were deeply personal (breakup of his first marriage, desire to become a parent, selling out) or the most opinionated (industrial meat production, Alan Richman, tasting menus). The sections that I found to be the least interesting was his travel descriptions, simply because it felt like a repeat of his TV show. However I did find the descriptive chapter on Justo Thomas, the "fish guy" from Le Bernandin, to be an increadibly beautiful tribute to such a skilled and dedicated employee.

So if you find yourself in the camp of really liking this book, I would highly recommend following both @NoReservations and @OttaviaBourdain on Twitter, if only because their back and forth banter is hysterical but also because it provides another peek into the personal life of such a public figure.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Not so much a food adventure

We're not always obsessed with food. In fact, ever since we got back from vacation I've been sick with a nasty cold/flu, where I haven't been interested in eating for two weeks. It may have started on vacation, since our trip to Puerto Rico wasn't all about the food. It was also about the relaxation - sun, sand and surf. On our last day, we headed a few miles east of San Juan - here's a view from the front seat of the road to Playa de Pinones:

The lush greenery all of a sudden turned into this:
There was something about the area that reminded me of Martha's Vineyard - probably the wide expanse of coastline, but when I said it out loud, the husband looked at me like I'd gone mad and said "Without the palm trees?". Ok, and maybe without the blue-green color of the Carribean.
Note the turbulence with the crashing waves, as compared to this:
Same stretch of beach, but this area had a natural rocky outcrop that acted as a wall to keep the waves away from shore, which created this expanse of water that was as gentle as a bath tub.
But the best part of this beach is this:
This is a stretch of recently built, well-maintained food shacks. The road to Playa de Pinones is mostly filled with ramshackle huts on the side of the road with flames shooting out of the top of the grill and smoke billowing into the air. On Sundays, there are mile-long traffic jams as families flock to the beach, but we were here on a Monday afternoon and missed the chaos. The one stop that was highly recommended ("Donde Olga" has got to be the best name for a food stand) was unfortunately closed, so we made do with some sort of fried thing (empanada? taco?) stuffed with spicy shrimp. Perhaps not the full eating experience had we come on a Sunday, but we were in search of something other than food that day, for a change.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Finding Fruit

We love tropical fruit (who doesn't?). Since we were staying on a tropical island, we thought tropical island = lots of tropical fruits for us to eat.

Surprisingly, that was not the case.

We had fruit smoothies (mango for me, papaya for the husband) when we went for lunch in Old San Juan on the first day. There were sad pieces of fruit in the buffet at our hotel for breakfast that looked like they'd been flown to the US, then flown back, and then that was it - all the other food stops we made had no fresh fruit of any kind. The only fruit options we saw were shacks or carts on the sides of the road, but we didn't stop since our Spanish is weak at best.

On our last day, we decided to head over to a central mercado in search of fruit. We went to the same market that Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel was filmed at, but we went at 9am on a Monday so it was deserted. There was a good sample of fruit to be found, but we didn't recognize most of them.

Left: Unidentifiable fruits (mostly papaya, maybe some guava - I think...)
Right: Mini-bananas
There wasn't just fruit for sale in this market - there's veggies in there too, along with meat and fish stores along the perimeter. The interesting thing about the market is that a lot of produce out for sale wasn't perfect - I just happened to take pictures of the pretty stuff. There were boxes of citrus fruits (oranges? tangerines? dunno) with mostly green/brown mottled skin that would never be found in North American supermarkets, even though I'm sure they're prefectly good to eat.
The one thing we quickly discovered is that our fruit options were pretty limited without a sharp knife of any size - we weren't quite prepared to start tearing a papaya apart with our hands, so we settled on a bunch of mini-bananas. Oh, and one of those giant avocados made it home with us. We figured we'd bring back at least one edible souvenir from our trip.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts

Anyone remember Zazu from the Lion King? That's the song he sung to entertain Scar...

So why am I thinking about coconuts? Well, I've become a big fan of coconut water over the last 6 months - apparently it's an excellent sports drink because of all the electrolytes it contains, but doesn't have all the sugar. I'm not particularly brand loyal, but I did notice at our local Whole Foods upon our return from Puerto Rico that Zico now offers a liter size box.
Zico coconut water
I promptly picked up two liter containers and dropped them in our shopping cart, but the husband made a disgusted noise and said sadly "It's not the same..." I laughed but understood his comment completely, because just the day before, we were drinking these babies:
Cocos frios

Talk about coconut water fresh from the source - the vendor hacks open the young coconut (usually with a machete), sticks a straw in and it's ready to drink. It's wonderfully refreshing on a hot sunny day by the beach, and pouring coconut water out of a box into a glass on a chilly, cloudy New England day just doesn't compare.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Not all roads lead to roast pig (Guavate, Puerto Rico)

We stayed at the Sheraton in San Juan, located conveniently by the convention center but nowhere near a beach. While the pool area was large and very comfortable with many lounge chairs, pleasant pop music, and ample access to tropical drinks, it wasn't a beach. So on our first day, after exploring Old San Juan, our priority was to get to a beach. Here's the one we found:

Luquillo Beach, northeastern corner of the island
However, our major adventure for the day was a trip to the interior and the mountain town of Guavate. When we mentioned to our cab driver on the way to the car rental place that we were planning to head to this town, he exclaimed "lechon!", otherwise known as roast pig. Guess there's a reason why it's called "La Ruta des Los Lechones" or the road of roast pig. It's about an hour south of San Juan in the middle of nowhere, on a winding mountain road. After passing several lechoneras and traveling over a decent distance, we came to the one we were looking for - El Rancho Original.

The photos we took don't begin to capture the chaos in this one spot. There were 4 school buses parked on the road to the left. There are cars crawling along in both directions, trying to avoid pedestrians wandering on the road. There is a band playing and the music is blaring so loud, I can't hear myself think and we have to dodge people dancing on the side of the road. In the first picture below, that first tent that you see was some sort of gambling. It was a total zoo and it was only Saturday afternoon - apparently Sunday gets even crazier as the bigger day for family outings. But all that mattered to me was getting at the roast pig.

El Rancho Original

A view in the opposite direction
This is obviously a place where locals (in groups of huge extended families) come. There is no menu - it's served cafeteria style, with all the dishes on display behind glass with no descriptions. We don't speak Spanish beyond some rudimentary phrases and none of what we knew would help us navigate the ordering process. The husband started off by pointing at the foods we wanted to eat, but was promptly stumped when they started asking him specifics - like how much roast pig did he want? It turned out you order by weight. Luckily they found a staff member who spoke fluent English and got us set up with this impressive tray:
The star of the show is the roast pork with crispy skin - the server suggested a pound of meat for two people, and after trimming off the healthy amounts of fat, we nearly polished off the whole plate. By this point I was a) feeling better, and b) famished since I barely ate all day and it was close to 4pm by this point, so I could keep up my end of the eating. This was the best roast pork I've eaten in recent memory, and reminded me of Filipino lechon served at parties I went to as a kid. Roast suckling pig that I've eaten in and around Boston has been dry and flavourless with tough or limp skin, so I was thrilled to find moist, tender and flavourful pork in Puerto Rico with crispy salty skin.

It was a good thing that my queasiness had gone because the other meat product on the tray was morcilla, or blood sausage. This is something that I'd never had before, despite my adventurous culinary upbringing. It's essentially rice stained black because of the blood, with coagulated blood in and around the rice for good measure and heavily seasoned with fragrant herbs that I couldn't identify. The husband thought it was ok but certainly wasn't as enthusiastic about it as I was. I really liked the taste, but again that could be because I was starving or possibly because I'm slightly iron-deficient.

The side that the husband chose was rice since it was identifiable, but this version was seasoned with spices that turned it slightly orange (turmeric? saffron? I have no idea) and flat green beans that resembled plump lentils. We washed it down with Medalla Light, a local beer, and finished our meal off with a tasty flan - not too sweet, but creamy and rich. It was so worth it to trek into the interior where it was overcast and cooler - though by cooler we're talking about 75 degrees and not 90 degrees! It's all relative when you're in a tropical climate...

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Eating in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Even after arriving close to midnight the night before, we managed to pack in a whole lot of eating on our first day in San Juan.

First up - touring old San Juan, but not on an empty stomach. We hit up the institution La Bombonera, where we indulged in a cafe con leche and a mallorca. A mallorca is described as a Spanish danish, but it reminded us more of French toast because it's pressed and covered with a heavy layer of powdered sugar. I inadvertently asked for the mallorca to be plain - the standard is to slather it with butter, which I tried and promptly regretted when I was here last year since it sits in your stomach like a rock, even though it's extremely tasty while it's going down. At least we could walk it off on the path surrounding the old city with this view:

View from Old San Juan
Our stop for lunch was Cafe el Punto, where the specialty is stuffed avocado. I didn't write down the Spanish name for the dish and it sounds kinda lame in English. I think we were expecting something fancier than what we got based on the description, like meat stuffed inside an avocado. Instead, it's essentially a half avocado, piled with your choice of skirt steak (our selection), chicken, shrimp or crab. Not that it needed anything more to be done with it - both components of the dish were extremely tasty accompanied by a vinegar-based sauce, but check out the size of the avocado - it took up half the plate! I made an exception to my rule of no photographing meals in a restaurant because we were frightened by the size of the thing.
Giant avocado!

All that was left in the end
The other half of the plate was taken up by tostones, which are green plantains that are fried, pounded flat and fried again. They're very starchy since they're unripe and wasn't our favorite dish - it's hard to go wrong with double-frying, but we're very firmly in the sweet ripe plantain camp.

I should probably clarify that it was the husband who ate most of the meal - I only had a couple of bites because I was still feeling the ill effects of the flu I had the week before. It came back the day we left for our trip and I was not happy - it's not exactly a fun-filled adventure when taking a bite of food gave me a splitting headache and left me slightly nauseated! It also left me poorly-equipped to deal with the hoards of tourists clogging the small cobblestone streets. There were 4 cruise ships in the harbor which seemed to have brought Old San Juan to a standstill, so although we were trying to enjoy this beautiful part of the city, we ended up hightailing it out of there as fast as we could in search of calmer locations...

Saturday, March 5, 2011

On vacation....

Be back soon!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mmmmm, meat...

After a night of seafood (ok, even if it was a good amount of fried seafood, it's still seafood!), I was ready for some meat. I was at Savenor's recently and came across beautiful packages of these babies:

Yup, those are oxtail. In all their raw, meaty glory. Admire them, people!

On a whim, since I knew we had these gorgeous pieces of flesh in the freezer, I decided to pop into Market Basket to look for plantains. Full confession: I had never been in Market Basket. The parking lot for the one in Union Square (Somerville) was always so chaotic when I'd drive by that I was scared to go in. But I was inspired to pay my first visit thanks to Maggie at Eat Boutique, when she published her post on fried plantains. I hadn't cooked plantains in quite a while since the times I'd bought unripe ones at Whole Foods, they never ripened! I know some cultures eat plantains on the green side for more of a starchy taste, but I need mine ripe and tasting like a sweet but slightly savoury banana (I can't explain it any better, you just have to eat one).

Anyhow, at Market Basket, I was so pleased to find a big display of ripe plantains and at 79 cents for two, how could I go wrong? Now I was ready to make my mom's oxtail dish.

I grew up eating oxtails, so they don't freak me out, but it is a little disconcerting to think you're essentially gnawing on a cow's vertebrae. However, it's the part of the anatomy that contributes to the deliciousness of the dish - braising this cut for a few hours essentially melts the collagen and makes the meat incredibly rich, though from a practical standpoint, oxtail is incredibly hard to eat.

Why are these innocent-looking pieces of meat such a pain in the ass to eat? Let me show you a picture - unfortunately I forgot to a picture of our carnage, but I found a nice example over at the blog Simple Seoul Food:
from Simple Seoul Food blog
See the shape of those bones? They're not smooth, and the meat is wrapped all around those ridges. It's virtually impossible to use a knife to neatly cut the meat off the bone - and even if you did, you'd be leaving most of the meat behind. The only way to really eat oxtails the way I make them (braised, then sauteed lightly with onions, and finally back in its own broth with plantains and cabbage) is to pick them up with your hands and gnaw away with abandon. It's really not pretty, and even then it's still incredibly hard to pull the meat clinging stubbornly to every crack and crevice. Outside of developing a raspy tongue like a cat, has anyone thought of developing a special meat-extracting device for oxtail-eating? I would pay for one of those...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fun (and painful?) night at Island Creek Oyster Bar and Eastern Standard

We avoid the Fenway area like the plague. We're not Red Sox fans, so there's no reason for us to hang out in that neighborhood. But we've heard great things about the Island Creek Oyster Bar (including the Serious Eats review here) and we love oysters, so when it came time to celebrate my promotion at work, we decided to brave the Kenmore square neighborhood.

It pays to go out in terrible weather - it had been pouring cold rain all day, and it was a miserable enough evening to keep people indoors. For those brave or crazy enough to venture outside, like us, it meant we found parking right in front of the restaurant and no lineup to be seated. It did help it was only 6:30, but when we left an hour later it had only gotten marginally busier.


Island Creek Oyster Bar was surprisingly large - I guess we had in both of our minds that it would be more like an intimate oyster shack, as opposed to a swank restaurant. In spite of the somewhat impersonal setting, the bar is a perfectly comfortable spot to indulge in your seafood cravings. When settled in with a glass of prosecco, we proceeded to devour 10 oysters consisting of Island Creeks (obviously) and four varieties from WA state, with Kumamotos as the only type that we knew and the fave of the bunch. It's amazing how different they taste from each other, even though they're all oysters. I also realize that's a somewhat dumb thing to say, since different breeds or varieties of fruits, vegetables or meats can taste vastly different, but that's as deep as I could get on a Friday night.

We decided to go with a variety of smaller plates for the rest of the meal. We went with razor clams from Scituate, lightly grilled with olive oil, garlic and bacon bits. While tasty, they were disappointing when compared to the first time we tried razor clams - but that was in Barcelona, and it's hard to expect the same thing anywhere else. We also ordered a small basket of fried clams as per the recommendation of Serious Eats. These were non-greasy little bundles of fried goodness, but I find the novelty of fried clams wears off fast and I can only eat 10 at the most.

My favorite dish of the evening though was the small, unassuming oyster slider. At $4 each, I wasn't expecting much, but this crunchy fried oyster was paired with a great spread (tartar sauce, maybe) and placed on a delectably buttery brioche bun. Each bite was rich yet balanced by the acidity of the sauce and I could have eaten a few more of those.

Once we were filled with seafood, we moved on to Eastern Standard just a few doors down. Unlike the Island Creek Oyster Bar, Eastern Standard was hopping - long waits for tables, and a packed bar 2-people deep. The husband was thinking of eating a burger (where he puts it, I will never understand) and ordered a beer, but I was moving to dessert mode and ordered a Raspberry Lemon Fizz. This proved to be a delicious and lethal combination of raspberry vodka, limoncello, soda water and an egg white that froths up once shaken vigorously by the bartender. Light and summery, it was the perfect foil to the weather outside, which had switched from pouring rain to heavy snow by this point in the evening.

It seemed like ordering a second Raspberry Lemon Fizz would be the right thing to do under the circumstances, but on top of the glass of prosecco I'd had at the beginning of the evening and the fact that I'm a small person with low alcohol tolerance, it sent me to bed by 8:30pm. Maybe I should start working on my endurance...

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