Thursday, November 29, 2007

One Last Day Of the Dead Photo: Axel's First Calavera

The colored wax on this skull was more vibrant a month ago, and it's starting to dissolve around the edges. Still, it is my son's first art project and there was no way it wasn't going to be photographed. Just in time too, I've started to see ants in the kitchen.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Making Tortillas on El Dia De los Muertos

Not sure why I'm posting these photos now. They were shot at this year's Dia De los Muertos festival at Oakland Museum. I've had Oaxaca on the brain for a couple of years, and the New York Times "36 Hours in Oaxaca" caught my eye over the Thanksgiving break. Tonight we stopped at Cancun Taqueria on the way back from Tilden Park. Who knows, next I'll probably be posting my long-overdue review of Tamarindo.

Close-up of corn being ground into paste on what I want to call a molcajete. Not sure if a molcajete is ncessarily round-bottomed or not.

One of the things that stayed with me after the festival was the way that you would notice someone's painted face on a second or 3rd glance, through a crowd, or after you'd already photographed them grinding corn for tortillas.

Don't remember exactly how this corn kernel basket worked, but the cheap irony of the little girl wearing a Cornell shirt lingers on.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lablabi: Something New to Do With Your Turkey Carcass

On Friday we were invited to a Tunisian breakfast that our host described as a poultry broth with cumin over day-old bread. Only in this case he'd be using the turkey carcass from his Thanksgiving dinner. I phoned back to say that Amy had plans for a bike ride, but that it sounded right up my alley and that Axel and I would be there with bells on.

We met our hosts recently, and knew that both of them had spent time in northern Africa. First with the Peace Corps and then later to work on a documentary in Sierra Leone. Their twin girls are one month older than Axel. It was cold Saturday morning, Forty-one degrees when we piled out of the car and up the steps to their house. I could smell turkey broth through the front door.

Lablabi was as described but also included ras el-hanout, olive oil, lemon, capers, olives, harissa, and diced onions. Some of these were on the table as we sat down, and others appeared as Rob remembered them. He offered up that a more authentic version would also include a soft-boiled egg, that his non-traditional addition of choice is avocado, and that "ras el hanout" translated literally into "head of the shop".

You can dig up a handful of lablabi recipes through Google, but nowhere near the number of results you get for —say— tagine. I'm guessing there would be more recipes out there if the dish required some specially-shaped pot that Sur La Table et al could sell you. I'll be trying a version this week with a chicken carcass, and might have more to say about the various recipes then.

You can watch a video of the dish being prepared —egg and all— here.

Images are courtesy of, and linked to, and respectively.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Night Before Thanksgiving and No Wine

Somehow, despite my well documented interests and habits, the 21st of November arrived and we had no wine appropriate for Thanksgiving dinner. Last year, we nipped this problem in the bud by hosting a kegger. But we'd committed to bringing something red and something bubbly this time around. So at 6:00pm on the day before Thanksgiving, Axel and I headed down to Lakeshore Avenue with a $50.00 budget.

This didn't necessarily mean that I was phoning it in. On the north side of Lakeshore Avenue, across the street from Blockbuster Video sits the shoe-box sized Buckingham Wine and Spirits. You can drop by there now and pick up a bottle of Opus One or Silver Oak, something from Praeger Port Works, or a bottle of Rosenblum's Rockpile Road Zinfandel. Until recently you could even pick up a few bottles of Williams Selyem Pinot. Someone seems to have rescued those from the dusty shelves opposite the beer cooler.

Still, I figured I should check out the wine aisle of the new Trader Joe's. During a recent hotel stay in Santa Rosa I'd grabbed a bottle of England-Shaw Vineyard Syrah there, and it was good enough that when I spilled the little plastic cup of it that I was drinking on a hotel patio I nearly wept.

The Lake Shore Trader Joe's opened on October 26. On weekdays in the half hour before nine, you can see people queueing up outside the front door. I've dropped by a couple of times to pick up 3.00 goat cheese and it is almost always busy.

The night before Thanksgiving, no fewer then 10 people were milling in the wine aisle. Someone had managed to get the attention of the "wine guy". As soon as he spoke, every prospective wine buyer in the store took a step toward him. As we walked toward the exit I could hear him saying, "Spicy? This one is the least spicy. This one is spicier, and this one is really spicy."

At Buckingham, the guy behind the counter tried to get Axel to wave at him. I took a while to browse, before deciding on a 1999 Anzivino Gattinara and a non-vintage Beaumont des Crayères Champagne. You never really know how its going to go there. If the 8 year old bottle of some obscure nebbiolo is gonna pan out. I wasn't sure even after Googling. Most pages described the wine as dry and complex, garnet tending toward orange. It was great with turkey, and the lightest of three reds we had. Considerably more austere than the Ici/La Bas Les Reveles pinot.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Djemaa el Fna Square, Marrakech

Editor's Note: Since we began working together two years ago, Kurt Smith has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this blog. Kurt left the bay area for Barcelona earlier this year, and he has busted my chops transatlantic-style ever since over the lack of new material here. We'd talked about him guest-blogging on Barcelona's markets for months. Then, without warning, I receive this post via email yesterday morning on Djemaa el Fna Square. As Kurt would say,"And now for something completely different..."

I just returned from an all too quick visit to Morocco where one of the highlights was my visit to Djemaa el Fna square and market place in the Medina quarter of Marrakech. Mychal frequently writes about his trips to the Grand Lake and Jack London Square farmers markets and as I stood in the middle of the Djemaa el Fna I realized how far away I was from both.

The square has been listed by UNESCO as a "Masterpiece of World Heritage" and is undoubtedly the center of daily life in Marrakech.

The square is surrounded by the Souk (the traditional Arabic market place), small streets and alleys, hotels, cafes, and restaurants. I visited the Cafe Glacier for a cold coke (no booze allowed) and from their 4th floor terrace that overlooks the entire square you can watch the smoke rise from the food stalls amidst the ever changing world of snake charmers, magicians, storytellers, beggars, jugglers, musicians, monkeys and dancers. The aroma of grilled meats, cumin, and turmeric rises up as your ears are filled with a mixture of drumming and singing, Berber, Arabic, French, and Spanish. The whole experience is wonderfully intense.

As I left the relative safety of the cafe and ventured into the square, I quickly realized that there is a very active street that runs almost smack dab through the middle of the square. I just missed getting hit by a moped who was avoiding a taxi who had stopped for a donkey cart carrying who knows what. Kids on bikes swirl around everywhere as well as thousands of pedestrians. I made my way towards the smokey food stall area where locals and tourists were dining. The most popular stands serve snail soup, seafood, kebabs, grilled meats and vegetables and the local speciality, Sheep's heads. All of the food is prepared right before your eyes and since this is such an important area for tourism, the food is fresh and the stalls are clean.

The rest of the square is unofficially divided into different zones, orange juice sellers on one side and dried fruit and nut stands on the other. In between are Arabic and Berber story tellers keeping their ancient tradition alive, old women selling henna tattoos, musicians from both Arab and African lands playing all sorts of home made instruments, magicians, and just about every other form of entertainment you can think of. I even saw the old three-card Monte trick performed right before my eyes. All of this and I had not yet entered the Souk, which is literally a whole different story.

If you ever get a chance to visit Morocco and Marrakech I highly recommend it. I look forward to returning to Djemaa el Fna soon.

PS In case you are wondering I did have the Sheep's head and it was really really good.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Next Iron Chef: My Money Was On the Wrong Guy

So, my wife and son have been visiting family in Miami. Other guys may do other things when their family is out of town, but I see it as opportunity to watch a lot of football and braise a lot of meat. It also means I had to come to terms with the Next Iron Chef verdict in monk-like solitude. Congratulations are in order. I'll even withhold the lengthy judgement I nearly published a few minutes ago. Still, it does feel like the big game reserve of the Food Network, where they kept a certain old toothless lion, is now also home to something more domesticated. I quote:
"A dream," says Alex Trebek to the doctor with circumflex brows. "I have this dream where I'm standing smiling over a lectern on a little hill in the middle of a field. The field, which is verdant and clovered, is covered with rabbits. They sit and look at me. There must be several million rabbits in that field. They all sit and look at me. Some of them lower their little heads to eat clove. But their eyes never leave me. They sit there and look at me, a million bunny rabbits, and I look back."
Buffalo osso bucco with butternut squash hash and beet greens.

I'm gonna take a sip of a certain hard to come by zinfandel from dry creek valley, and assure my friends and loved ones that I'm keeping it all in perspective. We're talking about a Food Network show which featured a bunch of successful chefs, one of whom has over 300 people working for him, in a made-for-TV contest to see who will get the full weight of the Food Network's marketing machine pushing their culinary point of view on a willing consumer public.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Next Iron Chef: My Money's On Besh

I'll probably update this after I see the episode, but here goes...

Some of you know that I'm a big fan of Iron Chef America, Top Chef, and (to a lesser extent) Next Food Network Star. I've enjoyed moments of Next Iron Chef, which is drawing to a close tonight. Apparently some wiki has already spoiled the conclusion, but I haven't looked. Honest. And my money is on John Besh. This is an optimistic bet, based on the fact that I think he's cooking on a very different level from other show participants. This is not a bet based on who I think Food Network will want us to see and see again.

Each episode of Top Chef is supported by blogs from the judges, hosts, and food world notables. Next Iron Chef doesn't host blogs for the participants, and I've only enjoyed the entries from Michael Ruhlman.

I posted my take on the Next Iron Chef match-up in the comments of Ruhlman's blog, I'll quote myself here:
Coming to this conversation late, but I can't be the only one that thought the very likable Symon got his backside handed to him by Morimoto. Morimoto hamming it up and laughing that Symon didn't deserve to make sushi rice in a kitchen with him was it? Besh and Batali seemed close, even though the ingredient was right in Besh's wheel house.

Symon's mutant ability --everyone has one after all-- seems to be making good reads on situations. Cooking rather than warming his salmon with airplane oven, serving a drink with his plate of grilled birds. That knack will serve him less well in a show where the format doesn't change.

Based on the recent coverage, I'd say Besh's mutant ability is entrepreneurial. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's certainly something he has in common with Bobby Flay and Mario Batali.