Friday, April 25, 2008

Easy enchiladas

Since I got back from my travels, I've been drawn to simpler meals and simpler flavors. Partly, it's because working two part-time jobs is exhausting. But mostly, it's because the trendy American obsession with food--and my obsession with food--has gotten a little exhausting as well. One of the things I loved most about eating in Mexico, Spain, and Korea, was how good food felt very easy. I didn't have to search for it, I didn't have to pay a lot for it, and most of the time, it came from a stand or restaurant that specialized in one thing. More and more, I want to feel that way about the food I cook and eat. I'm still drawn to recipes for Georgian chicken broiled with yogurt or Tunisian chickpea stew, things I can only cook with a carefully drawn out grocery list and a propped-open cookbook, but I'm not making three-course meals for myself these days. My favorite food memories are small and singular, one dish or sometimes even one new, bright fruit, and it feels good to be building new memories that way at home.

So in that spirit, I've been cooking things like pasta in tuna-tomato sauce, or squid sauteed with bitter greens and a splash of soy sauce and lemon juice. And when I'm feeling up for a challenge, like a Rick Bayless fish enchilada recipe, I'm happy not to take on a salad, rice, and a roasted meat at the same time. That way, I can reserve energy to make my own tortillas.

I can't say that I've mastered them, as easy as they are supposed to be with masa harina, the instant tortilla flour. (You can't make truly authentic tortillas at home without fresh masa dough, and because fresh masa dough goes bad so quickly, you can only get fresh masa dough in the U.S. by living next to a tortilla factory.) But they were better than the last time I tried, more flexible and less doughy in my throat. Making tortillas is almost therapeutic, to roll each ball of dough, flatten it in the tortilla press the way I'd seen women do all over the streets of Oaxaca, and toss it on a cast-iron griddle.

The filling was a bit more work. There was the tomatillo-serrano sauce, made by first broiling 12 ounces of tomatillos and 2 serrano chiles under a broiler, about 5 minutes on each side. The tomatillos and chiles then melded in a food processor. In the meantime, I sauteed half a diced white onion until rich and brown, stirred in 2 chopped cloves of garlic, and when that had just cooked a minute more, the onions and garlic got added to the tomatillo-chile mixture and pureed until smooth. The whole sauce had to be transferred to a skillet to be fried, its flavor getting deeper with a bit of fish broth.

Then there was the half a pound of sea bass I bought to poach. I ignored the potatoes in the recipe and focused on the fish, flaking it and then mixing it with half a cup of the tomatillo sauce.

Finally, following Bayless's recipe, I added a bit of thick Greek yogurt to the remaining tomatillo sauce, since I couldn't find any creme fraiche or sour cream at the corner bodega.

The assembly was the easiest part: spoon some fish on a tortilla, fold it over, and then ladle on more sauce with a sprinkling of crumbled cotija cheese (my substitution for the queso anejo I didn't have) and some chopped raw onions and cilantro.

I ate nothing else that night, just these enchiladas with a beer. I was very happy.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Living it up, San Francisco-style

When I told my friends I was coming to San Francisco, Erin suggested that we cook a big dinner together and invite the rest of my San Francisco friends. She and her roommate, who I will continue to call "Zizou" out of politeness to her and fantasy for me, share a beautiful apartment with the kind of kitchen only rich New Yorkers can dream of. It's filled with light, equipped with an island and even a prep sink, and the stove has some gaseous power that I can't even grasp, something about BTUs. All I know is that it boils up water like you wouldn't believe.

We started our shopping at Alemany Market, my favorite farmers' market in San Francisco. Unlike the famed and rather bourgeois Ferry Building, Alemany doesn't truck in artisanal chocolate sprinkled with grey sea salt. So there are few tourists, and instead plenty of resident yuppies, Chinese bargain-hunters, and those who really want a live chicken, which probably overlaps more with the Chinese bargain-hunters than the yuppies. While Erin and I bought meyer lemons, strawberries, asparagus, and lilacs, Zizou took it upon herself to buy a few dozen Kumamoto oysters. She doesn't cook, but she sure knows how to eat.

The rest of the meal we picked up here and there, from the prosciutto I bought at the Cafe Rouge meat counter (not so exciting) to the walnut bread Lika picked up from Tartine (unbelievable, made me feel slightly less annoyed at Tartine).

And Diane brought the wine from Sonoma. She had called me the night before, telling me she was packing and wanting to know what I was serving for dinner. I momentarily forgot she makes wine for a living and asked, "Does the food you're going to eat affect what you're going to wear?

But what really amazed me is how relaxed I was planning and cooking the dinner. Partly it was that Erin was there. I don't normally cook well with others, but I trust her cooking judgment, especially when it comes to risotto. It's nice working with someone when you don't have to worry that she'll "dice" carrots into uneven chunks. And partly it was that after we baked our anise-almond biscotti, we took off to go eat sausages at Rosamunde's and then went for a walk at Crissy Field, where it was unusually sunny and characteristically gorgeous. I've never done that before, go somewhere in the middle of cooking an elaborate dinner for anything other than a missing ingredient.

So when we ended up being late getting home, and Anne had to stir the citrus risotto for another hour after all the guests arrived, I didn't really care. I did care how good the Zuni pistachio "aillade" was on the roasted asparagus, which required Lika to pound away at 2 ounces of pistachios for a good 20 minutes, pulverizing them to a dust that I could bind up with a couple of tablespoonfuls of olive oil, a mashed garlic clove, a splash of grappa, orange zest and salt and pepper. If you have a friend with a powerful arm, I can't recommend this enough. The flavors blend together as you let it sit, and it's so much more complex and delicious than you could have imagined. We were torturing Elena, who's allergic to raw nuts, with our oohing and ahhing. The citrus risotto, also a Zuni recipe involving sections of grapefruit and lime, was also surprising and tasty, the tartness cutting the usual heft of risotto in my stomach. It eased the pain when it turned out the scallops were pretty low-grade.

But I think the star of the show was the meyer lemon ice cream we served with anise-almond biscotti and early strawberries. Happy birthday to me!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Har gow and tacos and chaat, oh my!

My friend Lina asked me recently if I’d gotten tired of my blog. I protested that I hadn’t, but I think I had, just a bit. But I recently spent a long weekend in San Francisco and got reinspired. I didn’t have any culinary epiphanies, despite the city’s reputation. In fact, I got seriously annoyed that my favorite bakery, Tartine, is no longer a place to have a quiet breakfast with a paper on a weekday morning. I think it was having an intense, packed weekend of opportunities to share good food with people I love, who I hadn’t seen in so long. One of those friends even ended up taking me on an all-afternoon eating tour of the East Bay.

"Zizou" (as she prefers to remain anonymous) did preliminary research, and as you can see, provided a full write-up as well. So I’m not going to repeat everything she said, just highlight my most lasting memories.

1) We went to eleven places!

2) We only ate at eight. The remaining three, we picked up food to eat later.

3) Zizou packed a cooler for stop #3, the meat counter at CafĂ© Rouge. She always carries a cooler, “just in case.”

4) I had ice cream that rivaled Il Laboratorio del Gelato and I do not say that lightly. The Catalan flavor at Ici, started by the pastry chef from Chez Panisse, was so good, I didn’t want it to end. It had a curious flavor that I didn’t recognize immediately, a mixture of anise, lemon, and something else that made it special and absolutely inimitable. I ordered it in a cup, to which Zizou said, “What! You want the cone. She’ll take the cone,” turning to the laughing ice cream scooper. She was right. The hand-rolled cone had a nugget of chocolate at the bottom.

5) Vik’s Chaat is as good as I’d hoped all that time I lived in San Francisco and never went there. I especially loved the chapati that came with the hyderabadi fish special—simple, flavorful, chewy, everything a flatbread should be.

6) Tao Yuen in Oakland’s Chinatown had crispy, not at all greasy, tofu skin rolls that I would never have believed could come out of a take-out dim sum place. I think they were 50 cents or something equally obscene.

7) We found at the Cheeseboard a bigger, pizza-only place next door to the cheese shop, with an elderly musical trio performing and young, happy Californians spilling out of the restaurant and just sitting on the grassy median in the middle of the busy two-way street. Pizza as excellent as ever. I love San Francisco when it just does its own thing and doesn’t worry whether its pizza crust lives up to some NY/New Haven ideal.

8) Taco trucks are the best, always.

I did eat dinner afterwards. I told Anne I had to eat vegetables, and she, former Midwestern carnivore, suggested we go to Greens, where I had a very simple and refreshing salad of greens, celery root, cheese, and butter beans. I was embarrassed that the waiter might think I was the kind of woman who only orders salad, but he praised my choice, saying, “Beautiful! That’s my favorite salad!” I was in such a good mood, I only giggled quietly and was thankful for all that the Bay Area had bestowed upon me that day.