Archive for the ‘Spanish/Hispanic’ Category

Sam is home and he’s hungry, plowing through the spinach, the broccoli, the escarole-chicken soup, and the eggs. He would put a dent in the 20lbs of Korean bulgogi marinating on the counter, but that’s for Charles and Bernice’s wedding on Saturday and he has admirable self-control. Once sated, he’s after me again to write a blog post. It has been too long.

So this is in honor of Sam, and in particular, Sam’s capacity for Chipotle burritos. How big is it? Soooo big!

“Let’s see how many burritos I can eat,” he proposed one recent weekend. He likes to take his own measure, not just in terms of food intake but bench press weight, philosophical discourse, and alcohol. 

“Why not?” said Bill and I. It’s not as if he were talking about shots.

Sam’s almost-23-year-old palate is astonishingly nuanced, able to discern subtle undertones of flavor that would be lost on most people, and to know just what to add–a pinch of fennel to the bouillabaisse, espresso to the mole. It is a treat to let him handle the ordering in a tapas place, provided one pays the bill. He is quite a good cook, but for the most part he’d rather not. Fortunately, home is not too far away, and in between he takes sustenance with generous foodie friends like Rafe and Robin Major, who happily works at Whole Foods.

Sam wanted us to bet on how many burritos he could eat. Bill guessed three; I thought that four might be Sam’s limit, but I voted for five to stir things up. He made me promise not to talk to everyone in the restaurant.

Of course he had a strategy: lots of green peppers and onions, hold the rice, and easy on the hot sauce. He ordered two for starters, chicken and beef. Bill and I, meanwhile, with the latitude of modest intentions, loaded up  one apiece with black beans and rice along with the veggies, cheese, and multiple sauces. Then we sat down to watch.

At Chipotle, a burrito a substantial, foil-wrapped bundle about the size of what I imagine is a human stomach before getting stuffed with burritos. Sam’s Burrito Number Three was pork, at which point I was too delirious to keep track.

Some weeks later, Sam texted me at 11:07pm.

How many burritos did I eat? I need someone to back me up.

Five, I replied.

This is Sam’s friend [read the next text]. I don’t believe it.

Believe it, said I, for it was true. Chin slightly abraded, fingers coated with sauce, Sam polished off five Chipotle burritos in one sitting.

Which fills me with admiration and reminds me of the wonderful Tom Cheney New Yorker cartoon I like to trot out each decade.

Not all of us are so lucky as to be able to play these games. Sam’s benefactor, Robin Major, is raising money through the Whole Planet Foundation for a microloan program for women in India. Whole Foods Market covers all administrative costs, so every penny goes to loans. I donated today; it was the least I could do to thank her for all the meals she feeds my son.

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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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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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