Archive for July, 2011

Such is my Spanish to date:

Me gusta comida Mexicana. I love Mexican food.

And aren’t I lucky then to be in the fair city of Reading, Pennsylvania, with Hispanics comprising 58%–and Mexicans 10%–of its 88,000 people? Es fantastico!

I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently about food–and writing about food–and I’m beginning to understand what this blog is and is not about. Simply put, I am interested in bringing us closer to food, in making it more accessible and real–in the shops, in restaurants, and at home, where we really can make almost everything. The cooking shows on TV are fun in small bites, but most are silly and they all tend to distance us from real food, and the more popular the shows get, the less we cook at home. Instead, we sit there spooning yogurt out of a carton while watching other people “cook” with Class 4 lasers and cryofreezers. The trend is alienation, although every once in a while a usable idea will fall like a crumb to the floor (e.g., flavoring dried apricots with cardamom, which I will try tonight with farro). Best takeaway is the homespun Iron Chef practiced by our friends the Koslows: family of five breaks into two teams, picks a couple of theme ingredients, shops together for everything, cooks 5-course meals in parallel in the big open kitchen, and invites my son Sam to be the judge.

So on to Mexican food: this is not a survey of Mexican eateries in Reading and Berks County (I wouldn’t dream of being so presumptuous though would happily entertain a guide!) nor even a restaurant review, but, as usual, a random and idiosyncratic peep at some recent experiences. Stay tuned for posts on El Puente Mexican Store (fresh tamales and tortillas still warm from the factory across the street!), Mezcal’s Restaurant (chiripas!), and whatever else I find.

Bill and I stumbled into Taqueria el Carreton a few months ago and it rapidly became our go-to place for yummy, inexpensive Mexican food that makes us happy. The food makes us happy and so does the place with its friendly customers (someone always offers to help us understand which is the really hot sauce) and the comely Diana, pictured above. It’s located in a little strip mall on Oley Street, between 8th and 9th, in the heart of a neighborhood busy transforming itself from a defunct outlet center to a vibrant Hispanic-focused district.

We both ordered Huaraches last time we were there, underrepresented on the menu as an “oversized homemade corn tortilla topped with your choice of meat, cilantro, onions, cheese and avocado.” By way of illustration, consider what one huarache looked like next to Bill, a solid medium. I had the pulled pork (that’s mine at the top of the post) and he the spicy pork favored by Diana. Though I do not share the tendency of some of my fellow Berks Countians to rate restaurants according to volume–“Great place! Huge portions!”–it is a noteworthy factor at El Carreton, and sometimes you just want a ton of good food, cheap. Uno huarache: $6. Our friend Bernardo happened by while we were sitting outside, an endorsement if we needed one since Bernardo is Mexican-American and a good eater. He had a burrito: $3.75.

I’m all about challenging my suburban friends and neighbors to get their butts across the Penn Street Bridge and embrace the beautiful City of Reading. But I also want to give credit to what Consumer Reports rated as the best Mexican fast-food chain in 2011: Chipotle Mexican Grill. There’s one at the Broadcasting Square Mall in Wyomissing, across from the big boxes. Incredibly, the staff is enthusiastic and nice.

Founded in Denver in 1993, Chipotle has grown like crazy to more than 1000 restaurants, in part due to an early $360 million investment by McDonald’s, from which hamburger folks reaped $1.5 billion before fully divesting in 2006. Chipotle sells what they call “food with integrity,” which I am not so naive as to think is pure as the driven snow but does seem to be a significant step forward in the world of serving food on a large scale in that they use meat and dairy from animals raised without antibiotics or hormones, make their guacamole by hand in the shop with six ingredients you and I have at home, and mix their perfectly cooked white rice with fresh cilantro and lime juice. 

The burrito bowl ($6.85) is my favorite, especially with black beans, pulled pork and the really hot sauce. The other day I went lite with a salad ($6.85), which once I had piled on the ingredients was a lot like a burrito bowl on top of romaine. Delicioso!

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Koreans do celebrate independence from the Japanese–the holiday is called Gwangbokjeol, meaning “restoration of light”–but we are here in Wyomissing PA and we’re going to talk about Lorna’s multicultural, multi-course, multi-fabulous celebration of American independence.

But first, the Wyomissing Parade, which I rendered like this in a short story:

The parade pulsed along like a loud, cheerful river. There were kids on bicycles decorated with playing cards and silver streamers, motorized and non-motorized floats, wagons with Beanie Babies, antique cars, veterans in uniform and the Portuguese Water Dog contingent, announced to the crowd by a large round sign bearing a Presidential-looking seal: First Dog of the United States. Blue-eyed children sat on the curb with little flags on gold-tipped sticks while their plump parents, holding infants aloft, grinned from matching lawn chairs. Trios of elderly women in welders’ sunglasses clapped their skeletal hands in delight. Husbands in belted shorts stumbled over coolers in the effort to get it all on video while farther along, in a wheelchair, sat a large, beaming Marine.

The Wyomissing Parade is a throwback to what people like to imagine was a shinier, more innocent age when heroes were simply brave and fun wholesome. On this I tend to side with Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris when he says to Adriana, played by the sublime Marion Cotillard, “No, I do not want to go back to La Belle Epoche. They didn’t have antiobiotics.” I don’t want to be a spoil sport–I love the parade–but let’s just remember that in certain matters such as civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights we’re in better shape now than we were in the 1950s. And we have access to better food.

We certainly did at Lorna’s. She is my dear friend and partner in food, the neighbor who alerts me to local Asian treasures such as the  Tung Cheng Grocery and pools her resources with mine for frequent refrigerator feasts. A typical text exchange:

Dinner 2morrow night?
Whatcha got?
Chick breasts & caramel ice cream
Yummm ill bring big salad w/apple
B has lotsa red
Well bring white & Pelly. Time?

And therefrom springs a fabulous and fun meal for four or five or seven, depending on the whereabouts of the children. But the Independence Day dinner was a special occasion, and for it Lorna had done some serious shopping at Assi Plaza, the Korean superstore in North Wales, Pennsylvania. She was doing some serious grilling when we arrived, with shish-kebobs of zucchini, jalapeno, garlic, and crimini mushrooms, slathering the veggies with a sweet/salty bulgogi sauce. Check out the all-garlic sticks! Grilled meat came next–thin sliced beef short ribs and baby back pork rib morsels. Look how delectable this looks with the charred corners and juicy reds and golden browns! Lorna knows how to pack a grill to capacity.

While Lorna was toiling at the grill, the rest of us were leisurely sipping iced mint and jasmine tea, with and without booze. We might have been better served working out at the gym, for what followed was a tummy stretcher, but who cares when it’s so delicious and beautiful. Isn’t it marvelous that that this can be put together in Wyomissing PA in 2011? God Bless America.

Here’s the spread, starting with a medley of Korean sides–kim chee, pickled radish, peppered fresh radish, vinegared cucumber, sliced Asian pear, sesame-laced sprouts, and sauces representing the full hotness spectrum. As an antidote, a cooling bowl of soba noodles, flecked with cilantro and scallions, which Lorna remembers from her early days in Korea–and I from Japan–swimming with ice cubes.

The challenge, as you might imagine, was to wrangle all this onto a plate and then into our eager mouths. Let me just say this: Yes we can. See the beginning of this post for a BEFORE view of my plate and here for the AFTER:

By this time, I was as prone as one can be at a dinner party, which is to say stretched out on a big fat chair. But there was more, and it was my own damn fault–a cherry pie, in honor of G. Washington. This too we managed to enjoy; it’s the least we could do for our country. 

PS. The pie-eating contest, a highlight of the Wyomissing Independence Day celebration, was won by Nate Keller in the 10-to-12-year-old category; Melanie Witman won in the 13-and-older group.

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Our second and third Presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died on July 4, 1826, and 157 years later, so did my Dad, may they all rest in peace. But for the most part, in this neck of the woods at least, Independence Day is a cause for celebration–for the twin birthdays of our nation and my friend Sharon. The weekend was thus a double-header: a grillfest at Rob’s on the 3rd in honor of Sharon, and a grillfest at Lorna’s on Independence Day itself, which is what I prefer to call this holiday, “The Fourth” being way too telegraphic for such a big deal. I made cherry pies for each occasion in honor of George Washington, although I’ve heard that cherry tree story is a myth. Bill put together a riotous bouquet of red, white and blue (and purple and yellow) flowers he planted just so they would bloom this weekend. That’s my guy.

The fires were going strong at Rob’s despite the 90-degree heat. He had brisket in the smoker (above), chicken on the grill, cornbread in the oven and later, a fire pit where we roasted those new mega-marshmallows that are too big for their own good.

My big contribution was to blitz the chickpeas and spices into a smoky picante hummus that paired nicely with Rob’s roasted red pepper tapenade in the dip department.

Carbohydrates? We had a few. There was corn on the cob–picked a few hours before eating–and Rob’s buttery, creamy, bacon-tinged cornbread made in a Paul Bunyan-sized iron skillet. Claudia’s delectable baked beans concealed a hock bone that exuded its fatty goodness from within. Speaking of stealth flavor, I can usually give cole slaw a pass, but Rob snuck sour cream and blue cheese in this one. No, he doesn’t weigh 500 pounds; he works up a pretty good sweat chopping wood and and speeding down the byways on his recumbent bike.

Here you can see the table in all its colorful and savory splendor. Sharon’s watermelon salad is next to the vase (my mouth is watering just thinking about it) with feta, red onion and balsamic to splash it up. Also Larry and Samuel’s deviled eggs, which were yummy despite having four times the recommended mayonnaise.How lucky we are! Almost one billion people are hungry on this earth, and though we may complain about the price of whatever, how fortunate we are to enjoy such abundance–and in the peaceful company of good friends with birthdays. Indeed, there’s so much abundance going on here that I’ll save Lorna’s for a separate post. We’ll pace ourselves.

Isn’t this magical? That’s Sharon, the Goddess of Marshmallows.

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