Getting into the Oaxacan groove

atrium in the strars
From our third floor perch in the stars, out across the city of Oaxaca.

We are sitting up in the room that is the third floor of our little house in the Colonia Estrella neighborhood of Oaxaca, Mexico, with windows at floor, wall and ceiling, an atrium of sorts. We look down over the city, and we can hear 100 dogs barking, doves cooing, and just a moment ago, the propane delivery truck announced its presence on our street with a loud, recorded announcement and a horn that sounded like a cow bawling. Oaxacans, people and animals alike, are loud.

And happy. So much joy here, and a simple irony about things: we passed a funeral shop yesterday, with caskets neatly arranged for viewing in the doorway, with cardboard Christmas stockings hanging above on the lintel. Wouldn’t want to go to the other world with cold feet and no Christmas spirit, now, would you?

El Infierno
Simple squash soup, with warm tortillas and a bowl of black beans.

So far, the food is plentiful, delicious and very cheap. Restaurants serve a meal here called comida corrida, which is a multi-course meal, whatever the house prepares that day. You can usually choose the main course, but the rest just arrives: a pitcher of pomegranate refresco, a squash soup, very simple, pureed with celery, then a plate of warm corn tortillas wrapped in a woven napkin, with a bowl of warm brothy black beans, and a very spicy green salsa. Next came our main courses (I was full already, by the way): Stu had pollo stuffado, a slow-cooked chicken thigh in chili sauce, with rice; I had potatoes and mushrooms with chilies and cheese, with rice and a small lettuce salad with tomatoes and avocado.  And finally, yes, dessert, an apple and raisin strudel. Which I, in my very poor Spanish, asked for: “me postre, llevar?” (to go) and which Stu enjoyed for breakfast today. The cost? 120 pesos, or $7.20. That was for BOTH of us. As in, $3.60 apiece.

We walked all over yesterday, which is a bit of an exaggeration, really just getting our feet wet, and a bit sore. Sleeping like babies at night.

Is it authentic, or is it a poisoned carrot?

Authentic. We bash that word around a lot, and like great sex and a Tesla, it’s what everyone wants.

Stu was telling me about some tourism ads for Pendleton, Oregon, targeted at hipsters who want a handmade, authentic experience: real cowboy stuff, handmade saddles and blankets, which you might really want if you had a horse, but I haven’t seen too many hipsters riding them in downtown Portland. This seems to me to be people thinking too hard about authenticity, rather than just being authentic.

Stu and I took a hike today. We’d been working in the yard all morning, and were still in our hauling-rocks-in-the-rain attire, which for Stu, included wearing these socks. He keeps all his old socks in a drawer in his night stand. I don’t know why he puts them there, but it’s as if he knows they would be shunned by sockshis decent socks, across the room in the tallboy dresser. I don’t know why he keeps them at all, but there they are. This is authentically Stu. No artifice, no worry that the people at Solera Brewery, where we decamped after the hike,  might wonder what a guy in homeless-person socks, a threadbare sweatshirt, $5 Walmart basketball shorts and a 25-year-old gimme cap from a pharmaceutical firm, was doing filling a bowl from the popcorn machine. He didn’t need to think about it, because that’s just who he is. And because Solera is a real place (read: authentic) no one gave him the slightest of inspection.

What is authentic food? I have wondered about this a lot, in a world where it is possible to buy fish sauce, epazote, dried grasshoppers, Argentine wine, Israeli feta cheese, reindeer sausage and kalamansi limes, all within a few miles of home, or closer still, from Amazon.

If you crack the code of another culture’s most famous dish … Spanish paella, say, or Brazilian feijoada or Chinese scallion cakes, and you make them in your own kitchen, as close to the original as you can with what you have at hand, trying hard to honor that dish, what is it that you have in the end? Is it authentic? Or is it, “buzz … thanks for playing! better luck next time!”

I have never been to India. At Nora’s Table, we worshiped Indian food. We gave it our all. We ground our own spices, we toasted them in a pan. We browned our onions for curries until the edges were deep brown. We made paneer from whole milk and a little vinegar. We brought in chick pea flour and kari leaves and nigella seeds. And then we passionately threw in what grows here. No Goan has ever had pear chutney. But we honored the idea of chutney, slavishly, with Gorge pears. And when I saw Indians in our dining room, I would go out to say hello. And here’s what they often said to me. “I have never had a dish like that in India, but it was so perfect, so real, so amazing. Thank you.” Authentic.

That is what authentic means to me now. It is making food as honest as you can, with what you have. And if you do that well, the real owners of that cuisine will recognize what you have created. It will be real to them, as if their aunt had made their favorite dish, but maybe just got creative one night and took it in another direction.

If we have trouble defining what authentic is, it is surely much easier to say what it’s not. It ain’t “Limited Edition” carrots from Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce of San Diego, grown in Mexico and distributed, last month,  in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. The shipping cost a pretty penny, but the salmonella was free. The carrots sickened 285 people and killed one. Not sure what makes this a limited edition, but perhaps it’s because the carrots didn’t sicken or kill people in the other 24 states.

If we want authenticity, the real deal, then we need to stop buying carrots that qualify for frequent flier miles. Yes, you are correct, a kari leaf will never grow in the Columbia River Gorge. In my passion for Indian food, I will find a way to keep a package, grown somewhere in Florida, in my freezer. And there will likely always be a lime in my refrigerator. But there is a line to be drawn, a way to know that those holey socks are authentic. If we stand back and look, we can see where that line is. In a world that craves the real, the honest, the enduring life, we have to draw the line.

A chutney of found objects

My friend Gwenn Baldwin drove out from Portland today with a brown grocery bag full of Brook’s plums from the tree in her yard. I walked through the Hood River Farmer’s market this afternoon and bought two red Italian frying peppers from Quercus Farm. Stu came home from windsurfing this afternoon, and gave me two huge yellow onions, grown by his friend Bob Danko, up Parkdale way.

Now they are sitting on my butcher block. Tomorrow I make chutney.plums

This is a mysterious thing to me, a thrum, a subsonic hum, making it’s way through the human history of cuisine. Who made the first chutney in India? Was it a mother with six hungry children, an onion, two peppers and a bag of plums? How did that inspiration for some combination of fruit, spice, vinegar, herbs, peppers, onions and garlic, find itself repeated in Mexican salsa, Spanish romesco, English pickle relish, French persillade, Italian salsa verde, Indonesian sambal? And on and on through cuisine after cuisine?

Is there something in the human psyche that just can’t stand to lay a slab of meat on a plate and pass it down the table, naked, gray, left to its own devices? At Nora’s Table, we looked at our plates like a drag queen’s make-up artist. We walked around them, twiddled our fingers on our cheeks, tilted our heads, hands on hips: something’s missing. It needed SOMETHING. Not a garnish, some wasted sprig of chive or dusting of pepper. It needed a ding-dong: that thing that popped, that banged against the plate so loudly of umami, of crunch and chew and sweet and salty and hot and sour.

In those days, I combed the pages of recipe books and traced the history of cuisines, always looking, always stealing, always on the lookout for a great dingdong, the crow jewel, the legitimate heir to the throne resting atop the slab of meat, the bowl of lentils, the poached fish, the grilled lamb chop.

I’ve never stopped wondering how they came to be, essential to so many cuisines, eons before a Burmese chef could Google a Mexico City chef and steal his ideas.

And so here is my chutney of today’s found objects. Tomorrow, who knows?

Plum Chutney

1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon nigella seeds
six cardamom pods, lightly crushed with the side of a knife

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a small saute pan. Add the spices and stand stalk still till the seeds begin to pop. Set aside

In a two-quart saucepan, bring the next five ingredients up to medium high heat and stir until the sugar melts, then turn the heat to low and cook until the onions are translucent:

1/2 cup minced yellow onion
2-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 Italian frying pepper, minced

Add 1/4 cup water, your popped seeds, and the last five ingredients:

¼ teaspoon cinnamon
six whole cloves
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
zest of half a lemon
2 cups diced Brooks plums (prunus domestica)

Simmer for 15 minutes. Add:

Generous pinch of salt
2 tablespoons apple cider or other sweet vinegar.

Remove from heat and let cool.

Lunch: it’s what’s in the veggie drawer

It’s Tuesday, 97 degrees, and I’ve got to get rid of some eggplant, potatoes and green onions.

What could these things possibly have to do with each other? Tuesday is the day I jump in the car and head down to Kickstand Coffee at 4:00 to pick up my weekly CSA from Wildwood Farm. On Sunday night each week, I start the frantic consumption of vegetables: everything from the previous Tuesday’s CSA that I have not yet managed to put on someone’s plate. And since it’s summer, and we’re off flitting around at friends’ houses for dinner, or getting a wild hair and going out for same, sometimes there is a lot of last-minute consuming to do.

Today for lunch, I see a big, shiny Globe eggplant in the vegetable crisper mocking me: Eat me now, baby, or I will be brown and flaccid and ready for the compost heap in a matter of hours. I pull it out thinking: baba ganoush on a sandwich? eggplant tapendade on a sandwich? grilled eggplant and feta … on a sandwich? See what ya do to me, eggplant?  When I pull it out, hiding underneath are some new red potatoes, and a head of wonderful romaine lettuce I haven’t even tackled yet, and some scallions, and I start thinking: hot, too darn hot for a sandwich. How about salad? Maybe … a curried eggplant and potato salad on that lettuce with a nice curried yogurt dressing, and then I see, out of the corner of my eye, a brown paper bag on which Stuart as scrawled, “Pears ripening” and the whole thing just goes “BING!”

So, I cut the eggplant and potatoes into nice, bite sized pieces, and because it is 97 degrees and no fool would turn on the oven, I fire up the gas BBQ out on the deck, toss the potatoes and eggplant with olive oil and garam masala, and pile them (along with a couple of whole serrano chilies) into a vegetable bbq basket, and leave them out there, banked off to the side on indirect heat in the 97 degrees, with another 400 degrees on the ‘que, for eggplant saladabout 45 minutes.

When they are crispy and brown, I bring them in and let them cool a bit. In a bowl, I toss them with a diced pear, yogurt, sliced green onions, sliced grilled serranos, salt, pepper, more garam masala, and a squeeze of lemon juice. I pile a big scoop on the chopped lettuce, and sprinkle some dry roasted peanuts on top.

Now that’s a hot day lunch. And two empty vegetable drawers to boot.

Barwikowski settles in

Jason Barwikowski is no ass. And that makes him somewhat unusual in the swaggering world of successful young chefs. He has the hipster glasses, and the eager, quick hands of a talented cook,  but his ego is Baby Bear sized: just right.

And so refreshingly so. Jason (first name on second attribution? yep, I can only type Barwikowski so many times without misspelling it) is the new executive chef at Vintage Grill. We had dinner there last night with friends, the kind who will let you stick your fork into their plates for tastes. More on that taste thing in a minute.

Jason has a difficult road ahead of him. He’s been dropped into a menu and a restaurant that haven’t got much respect of late. It’s the tight-rope walk of the executive chef: put your own shape and creativity on dishes, when the menu isn’t exactly yours. I’ve seen plenty of chefs in Jason’s position leave a swath of destruction as they move through a new kitchen, shredding an existing menu, and then quitting, leaving the owners in panic mode trying to keep the new dishes afloat as their creator ascends into heaven.   But restaurant lessor Brian Kemp (who is leasing the space from the Hood River Hotel) and Jason are coming at this from a position of mutual respect. Jason is slowly, week by week, adding his own hand to the somewhat Southern US focused menu. Last month’s collard greens are now a silky, tamed collard green pesto, layered under fresh corn and cornmeal-crusted Oregon rockfish, for instance.

Which leads us back to that taste thing. The crowd last night, a smattering of local foodies, show that word is getting around town: there are plenty of good reasons to traipse back into Vintage Grill. In addition to the Oregon rockfish, there’s a confit of pork shank, fork-tender as a summer thunder cloud, with yellow runner beans and a peach and pepper sauce. A wedge salad, not of iceberg lettuce, but of a Wildwood Farm romaine, gets a light vinagery blue cheese dressing,  tomato confit, and a big plank of bacon.  And those crab cakes (see my piece on these at Stu’s “Biz Buzz” blog) so plumb with Oregon Dungeness that it’s a bit scandalous.

Time for a reservation, no?

Where I’m going

Nora’s Table is a sweet … and savory … memory. The building is still there, but the wicked

Kathy Watson, plating up breakfast at Nora's Table, back in the day.
Kathy Watson, plating up breakfast at Nora’s Table, back in the day.

good food, the cooks, the hiss of the compressors, the diners, the broken lock on the bathroom door … history.

But I’m still cooking and eating, and I hope you’ll do both with me here.