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Archive for June, 2011

Tapas is the inspired crossing of an abundant pile of appetizers (when those appetizers are miniature savory jewels) with the Chinese food tradition of sharing everything on the table. If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t share their tapas, I don’t want to know you. I love tapas because it spares me the agony of choosing just one thing on the menu–of which, though it might be delightful, I could grow weary after 27 bites–and trades up to 2-bite morsels of many varied and wonderful things. Shrimp? Veggies? Lamb? Squid? Pork belly? Figs? Yes, please.

The word “tapas” comes from the Spanish tapar, meaning to cover, and legend has it that King Alfonso XIII, stopping at a beachside Andalusian watering hole, was served a glass of wine covered with a slice of ham to keep out the sand. He liked it so much that he ordered the second glass “with the cover.” Maybe, or maybe restauranteurs discovered that a few tasty morsels covered the taste of mediocre wine. In any event, it is always a good idea to munch on a few things between glasses, or, as in my non-drinking case, to munch on a few things whenever.

Bill and I recently took a little jaunt to Charlottesville, Virginia, home of UVA, Monticello and the Dave Matthews Band, the latter having spread a bit of its fortune around on local restaurants. We ate well from the start, dining our first night at a pleasantly hip and aptly named tapas place called Mas (it means “more”) in the Belmont neighborhood southeast of downtown. The menu is a solid one-pager, packed with almost 50 tapa (in meagerly leaded 8-point type, my only complaint) that one checks off and hands to the waiter, like at a sushi bar.

So we checked, and here I’m going to give it to you straight from the menu, because there’s nothing, really nothing, more to say. We checked gambas a la parilla (jumbo Gulf shrimp grilled Catalan stye with aioli and grey sea salt;

porktopus (house-made chickpea roll of smoked pork belly, grilled octopus, pickled cabbage, sauce of insanity–that’s what it says–and baby greens); datil con tocino (applewood-smoked bacon wrapped date-liciousness: molten, mostly crispy melted parcels of joy, joy, joy); boquerones (scrumptious Mediterranean white anchovies marinated with lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh herbs); etcetera. There were more–steak, cheeses–but I was too delirious to remember.

I did come away with an imprint of an idea for a sauce to make at home. Not quite sure if it’s 100% authentic, but it’s tasty enough that I don’t care.

  • Take a bunch of dried chili peppers (I used some from Lorna’s 2010 garden), seed them and soak in warm water for at least an hour.
  • Blitz the peppers in a food processor with olive oil (EVOO), garlic, tomato paste and almond meal. I would have used fresh tomatoes if it were later in the season, or even canned if I’d had some, but the paste worked fine. As for the almonds, again, it’s what I had. The Spanish use a lot of ground hazelnuts in sauces, and on more ambitious days I have roasted the little darlings, rubbed their jackets off with a tea towel, and pulverized them to smithereens, but since I had a bag of almond meal in the freezer–laid in for just such an occasion–it was the obvious choice.
  • Thin with the pepper water and salt to taste with fine sea salt. Sprinkle in some smoked Spanish paprika and/or chipotle if you want a deeper burn. Delicious with everything.
There were other, equally fabulous meals in Charlottesville: Zo Ca Lo (“center of town”), where Bill swooned over the grilled salmon with green chile and goat cheese cous cous and a smoked pico and cascabel cream. My seared duck breast with chipotle port compote was pretty amazing too, especially since the duck was shockingly and delectably rare. And there was Maya (can it possibly mean “the power by which the universe becomes manifest”?), which deserves it’s own post, not to mention The White Spot, ditto. Did I mention that, while in Charlottesville, we had bacon at four consecutive meals?
Back to tapas and another place where the universe becomes manifest: the Centro Tapas Bar in Baltimore. We celebrated our 24th anniversary there with our daughter on the way home. The light was better than at Mas, and hence the pictures. Behold, for example, the arepa, a neat stack of corn masa, pulled oxtail meat, avocado and fried egg. We actually got two of these, they were so good.

It was here, my friends, where we were also served the pork belly with hominy and agave-chile sauce pictured at the beginning of this post. A couple of lamb meatballs (albondigas) were subtracted from that plate before I could snag a photo. The espinacas–spinach with chickpeas, dates and pine nut butter–was sauteed with such finesse that it seemed to gain in dignity on the plate, if you see what I mean.

It was our anniversary, and just past father’s day, so there was nothing for it but to have dessert as well. Make that two: quesillo–a thick coconut flan with burnt caramel, and cinco leches (rather fancier than it was good)–almond cake soaked in coconut-infused condensed milk, with sea salt dulche de leche, whipped cream, some very pretty splotches of red jam, and a biscuity rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge. 

¡Que aproveche! I’m two weeks into Spanish 101.

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Commencement

Sam graduated from college recently on a Saturday so sunny we had to crack open last year’s sun block and so bright one could almost imagine it a metaphor for the life that lies ahead. It was in fact for him simply the day he walked down the aisle in his cap and gown (the diploma having come in the mail three months ago and he with three months of a “real” job under his belt–praise be to the employment gods, to my hardworking son and his referring angels), but there’s nothing simple about it. Even with a job, a car, and a credit card, this commencement–this start of something new–is difficult, for it involves the loss of the comforts of home and the beginning, along with independence, of a lot of tedium. “I’m not ready to keep track of car insurance payments,” said his friend the other day at the gym.

I will get to the food, I promise, but first a detour through the grocery store in the late David Foster Wallace’s famous Kenyon College speech of 2005. Wallace pulled the veil off post-college tedium to urge graduates to reach for a kind of grace in the way we attend to the world outside “our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms.”

… let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home — you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job — and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register. Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

It’s enough to put you off your food when you look at it that way. Which–Wallace’s point–is why we may want to choose not to, but instead choose compassion, empathy, spaciousness and (hardest of all) the possibility that we might be wrong. Which these days is what I’m looking at myself, the mother of the graduate, challenged to my very core by his ideas, his philosophies, his ways of seeing my tiny skull-sized kingdom. He is hard on me, this son of mine, born not without trauma one snowy day in 1989, but isn’t that what I asked for when I raised him to think and travel and eat raw fish?

Isn’t that why we make such a fuss of college graduation, because it’s seismic in its import, because the bagpipes and velvet collars ritualize the glorious, wrenching, bloody birth of adults? It’s a big deal, the likes of which renders me all but paralyzed with emotion. Which is why I’m especially grateful to our friends Peter and Ed for hosting the festivities, and hosting them in spades.

Yes, dinner is served. Two dinners in fact, Friday and Saturday, herewith compressed into one long, amazing feast.

Friday night was like a rehearsal dinner–two extended families coming from afar on the eve of the Big Event. In honor of Sam and his friend Oliver, Peter had selected wines the same age as the boys, pairing the champagne with quail eggs, because, he said, “nothing goes better with champagne than quail eggs.” About that I couldn’t say, as I am no longer a drinker, but the quail eggs were pretty swell with truffle salt. As were the salads–a knee-weakening bouquet of lobster claw, shrimp, ruby-red langoustines, and columns of English cucumber hollowed out on top for a dollop of salmon roe. 

Salad was followed by lamb spiked with rosemary and slathered with a garlic mustard glaze, and accompanied by an onion-pepper medley and turnip mash. I have a sinking feeling that I’ve forgotten a course or two–a trove of fresh berries?–or collapsed the features of one meal into those of the other, but somewhere along the line there was most definitely a plate of cheeses to die for and, for “the two geniuses,” a chocolate chess set. It’s a wonder we’re all still standing.

But stand we did, for Saturday morning was the big day. The graduates stood too, through the miracle of strong young bodies being able to absorb great quantities of alcohol and hours of hilarity, and so we made our way to lunch in the charming village of Oxford, New York, and then back to Peter’s place for still more food.

This was a Party, capital P, with tents and balloons, appetizers (micro crab cakes, bacon-wrapped scallops, spinach feta cigars, gorgonzola-pecan-scallion-blueberry puffs), much milling about on the lawn with drinks in hand, and a sit-down dinner for 30-something. The light began to fail me at this point, but I managed to grab a few shots of the watercress soup and the main course: beef filet with a red currant glaze on portabella, garlic and root vegetable mashed potatoes and asparagus. In the dark, delectably, was a dense chocolate slab with lemon-lime tart and more amazing cheeses.

It was all amazing and still is–the food, the graduation, the generosity of friends, and the fact that my son is an adult. I’m feeling very simple these days, and like I don’t know much. To borrow again from David Wallace,

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

I just know that I love food and my family. I love cheeses, chocolate and celebrations, and that I’m grateful to be alive for all of this.

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