Friday, August 17, 2007

Memories of La Comida

Growing up in Northern California I was certainly no stranger to Mexican food, but it’s funny how cuisines can change over time. The Mexican restaurant of my past is a far cry from the Mexican restaurants I visit now. My tastes have changed, grown more sophisticated and so has the cuisine. Very often, Friday night was Mexican night for my family and that meant a trip to La Comida Restaurant for carryout.

Located in a 1950’s strip mall across from the Chico cemetery, La Comida featured counter service only with tables for dining in and baskets of free chips with salsa. The salsa was put in clear plastic squeeze bottles so you could add just the right amount of salsa to each individual chip and everything was served on plastic or Styrofoam. You had to be careful because, sometimes the salsa would stop up at the top of the squeeze bottle and then explode through the opening like Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I always ordered the beef and bean burrito with a bean tostada. A foil wrapped flour tortilla was filled with seasoned ground beef, refried beans, lettuce, cheese and tomatoes. No sour cream. No ranchero sauce. Mexican restaurants didn’t do that at that time. The tostadas came with a choice of dressing and as a kid I always chose Thousand Island. My dad always ordered a beef enchilada with a chile relleno. The enchilada was filled with the same seasoned ground beef as the burrito and topped with a mild red sauce. The chile relleno was a deep fried egg battered pepper filled with LOTS of Monterey Jack cheese. It was good. It was cheap. You could get lunch with a soda for about three bucks. In high school, La Comida became a favorite lunch spot for me and my circle of friends.

Then, on a summer trip to southern California, after many hours driving in our Westfalia “Pop Top” Volkswagen camper van, my family made an emergency stop for food in San Juan Capistrano at a rather dodgy looking Mexican carryout just off the highway.

We were scared.

Unlike our beloved La Comida, this Mexican restaurant was full of … Mexicans. There were even Mexicans behind the counter! I ordered the beef burrito, expecting my tried and true La Comida burrito with ground beef, refried beans, lettuce, cheese and tomatoes, but when I bit into the tortilla something unexpected happened. It was full of beef; rich succulent chunks of slowly cooked, tender beef in a smoky and spicy sauce. It was delicious. It was a revelation. I knew then, at the very first bite, I would never look at my La Comida burrito the same way again.

When I started college a small family-run corn tortilla factory opened in downtown Chico. It was called El Indio. To promote their products, El Indio opened for lunch each day at 11 AM and served authentic homemade Mexican cuisine featuring their own homemade corn tortillas, literally until they ran out of food. You had to get there at least a half an hour early if you didn’t want to get shut out because they typically ran out of food by 11:30 AM.

I had always been burrito boy, but El Indio changed my predilections. I loved their taquitos. Corn tortillas were rolled with shredded chicken or beef and served with homespun guacamole and pico de gallo. The flour tortilla became passé, and unauthentic to me, but I should have known that would change too.

My good friend Nanette Flores and I were involved in a production of the play Two Tables, a 1930’s, English parlor room comedy cum Noel Coward set in a British seaside resort dining room. I played the dashing young doctor on his honeymoon and Nanette was a waitress for the Inn. After rehearsals we would go back to Nanette’s house where her mother would make the most fantastic things for us to eat.

Her specialty was homemade flour tortillas with refried beans. The tortillas were thick doughy rounds of hand pressed flour with a deep smoky flavor from heating them on the stove burner. Her refried beans were creamy and dense flavored only with salt and Manteca, pork lard. This very simple meal taught me something critical about good food. Simple food executed flawlessly is sublime.

As an adult, my taste for Mexican has progressed even further. Once happy with the likes of Chevy’s Fresh Mex now I seek restaurants featuring the cuisines of regions like Oaxaca or Chihuahua. Tex-Mex has given way to Red Snapper ala Vera Cruz and mole con Pollo. Cheddar cheese has been replaced by Queso Cotija and tacos need to be filled with things like beef tongue, halibut or chorizo.

Recently, in Crofton Maryland, a restaurant has opened up at the Staples Corner strip mall, across from the Reno’s Motel, next to the Paceway gas station and no more than 5 minutes from my house called Mi Casita. I will be giving you a proper review of the restaurant in a coming post, but I have to tell you that there is something rather nostalgic about this place. It’s not La Comida, but it has hints of it. The salsa comes in miniature plastic carafes and the tacos are wrapped in foil. There is something very comforting about it.

Finally, my dear readers, if you are ever in Chico California, you can still visit La Comida in the same location that it has always been in and sample the exact same menu my family did when we started going there well over 30 years ago, except now you will pay just under five bucks for the meal I ordered.

Oh, and please be careful with the salsa.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Summer Pasta

Here’s a quick summer pasta recipe that is as spectacular as it is easy. I threw this together last night and I really don’t know what to call it. It’s sort of a combination of Carbonara and Amitriciana. Traditionally, Carbonara or Amitriciana would be served with spaghetti, but I used penne rigate and it was fantastic. Honestly, this would go well on just about any non-filled pasta.

Patrick’s Summer Pasta

1 lb dry Pasta
1 TBSP Olive Oil
4 strips bacon or pancetta (cut into bite sized pieces)
½ onion (diced)
1 large homegrown tomato (chopped)
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
3 egg yolks (lightly whisked)
2 TBSP heavy cream or water
¼ cup loosely packed fresh basil and parsley

Prepare the pasta according to the directions on the box. As the pasta is cooking you can start on the sauce. On medium heat add olive oil to a large sauté pan. Add the bacon or pancetta to the pan and let it render. You are looking for crispy bacon pieces. Halfway through the cooking of the bacon, add the onions to the sauté pan. Toss in the crushed red pepper flakes and once the bacon is thoroughly crispy, drain the pan of most of the bacon grease and set aside.

Once the pasta is cooked, set it in a colander to drain. DO NOT run cold water on the pasta or even shake the colander. You want to retain some of the pasta water on the noodles as it will impart extra starch that will help thicken your sauce.

Pour the drained cooked pasta into the sauté pan and return to medium heat. Pour the whisked egg yolks over the pasta and add the grated parmesan cheese. Mix well. Add the chopped tomatoes. Cook for NO MORE that one minute. You just want to make sure the yolks are up to temperature. After taking the dish off the heat, add the chopped herbs and mix again.

Place in a large bowl and serve immediately. Offer additional fresh grated parmesan or romano cheese as a condiment.
Serves 4-5 people, unless Steven is one of those people, then it only serves 3

Dinner in 15 minutes, what could be better than that?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Carlos was not impressed

It is one of my proudest accomplishments that after taking Carlos to a Zagat rated restaurant, he looked at me with a “ho-hum” expression in his eyes and said, “I’m not impressed”.

It is just a scant year since we met Carlos, who is here from Bogotá, Colombia. Colombian cuisine is very simple and to the uninitiated borders on the bland side. Colombians are concerned with the basic taste of an ingredient and, as such do not use a lot of seasonings. With that said, when Carlos arrived here in the states, dining was often a perplexing experience for him. The portions were too big, the spices too forward and for a while it seemed he would never be able to eat again. That is why it is no small achievement on my part that Carlos can now sit in a restaurant, sample its offerings and express his casual disdain with the meal.

The radio station WRNR in Annapolis must be sick of me by now. I listen to the station almost exclusively and when they do “give-aways”, I always try to win. Lucky for me, I have been successful on numerous occasions. I have won tickets to concerts, CD’s etc… I even won a Thanksgiving turkey from Whole Foods one year. Last week I won tickets to see John Mayer at the Verizon Center.

Steven had ZERO interest in attending a John Mayer concert on a Wednesday night, so I hit up Carlos who has become my stalwart concert companion. Of course, we had to have dinner and since the Verizon Center is in Chinatown, a Chinese restaurant was the obvious choice. I have a few Chinatown favorites (Full Kee, Eat First and Tony Cheng’s), but I was in the mood to try something different so I consulted the Zagat dining guide for ideas. That is where I discovered Chinatown Express. The restaurant can boast a “23” in the food category of the Zagat rating, which is very respectable. They are known for their hand stretched noodles, as well as roasted and barbecued meats.

The restaurant is a small, “divey”, basement affair with formica tables and dead ducks hanging the window. The ceilings are low and the walls are dingy. Large tanks of fresh fish welcome you, and they are not for decoration. The walls are adorned with long strips of Chinese calligraphy advertising the “off the menu” items that only those who can read Chinese can order. Paper napkins are set with cheap silverware that feels like it came from an elementary school cafeteria. Needless to say I was thrilled. These are all good things to me. Oh and did I mention that the place is cheap? DIRT CHEAP!

I ordered too much food.

I couldn’t help myself, the prices were so damned cheap! 12 Hand-made steamed dumplings filled with ground pork and leeks for $4.95! Stir fried hand-stretched noodles with chicken for $5.00! The barbecue sampler for $10.00, and the, much touted, House Roasted Chicken with Special Sauce for only $9.95! What else could I do? The meal also came with complimentary hot tea.

Did I mention that everything was really cheap? Oh yeah, there’s a reason for that. The steamed dumplings were sodden and doughy. They were accompanied with the traditional soy dumpling sauce, but nothing could hide the fact that they weren’t any good. The filling had a strange texture and little flavor on its own. Carlos thought they weren't actually cooked. He may have been right. The hand stretched noodles were better. The noodles were fantastic, appropriately chewy and fresh. They had a great hand made quality about them and I liked the sauce, which I assume was some combination of soy and oyster sauce. The chicken in the dish however was dry and sparse. Lots of noodles… not a lot of chicken.

Dry. You’re going to see that word again.

The barbecue sampler had some great moments and some really bad ones. A small platter with an array of roasted and barbecued meats was presented. It included, smoked squid, roast pork, barbecued pork, roast chicken and roast duck.

The roast pork with crispy skin was a revelation. Like a good crackling, with great flavor, perfectly roasted with unctuous rounds of pork fat capped by an incredible crispy skin adding to the overall pleasure and guilt of the dish. The duck was fine, but overly spiced with Chinese five-spice and a bit dry. The roast chicken was dry, flabby and dull. The barbecued pork had the flavor of Chinese barbecued ribs, but again, the meat was dry and seemed reheated to me. The squid was virtually flavorless and chewy. We had to ask what it was. I suspected it was squid but wasn’t sure.

The House Roasted Chicken with special sauce was the least successful of the dishes. A whole roast chicken was hacked into many pieces and presented in a deep dish over a savory soy sauce. It was topped with fresh ginger, scallions and cilantro. Thank God there was some sauce on the plate because the chicken was, I’m sure you’ve guessed by now… dry.

Despite the obvious flaws in this restaurant, I would go back. Did I mention that the place is cheap? If I did go back, though, I would order more selectively, concentrate on the noodles and the pork and I would lower my expectations, because just like Carlos, over all, I was not impressed.

The Beet Goes On

A friend of Steven’s from work gave him some home grown beets the other day after he had driven her home. Steven said she was growing beets in her yard and that he had never seen so many beets in one place at one time. Half the garden was dedicated to beets!

I have never been a fan of beets, which you typically get out of a can, and for which, I have likened their flavor to tasting something like pickled dirt. With that said, here I was…faced with fresh beets and a lot of them. I remembered that Tyler Florence on the Food Network had made a panzanella out of beets once, and I thought that was intriguing. Panzanella, if you don’t know, is a simple Italian toasted bread salad.

I borrowed heavily from Tyler Florence’s recipe, but with a few of my own twists here is what I did.

Summer Beet Panzanella

For the Salad
1 Bunch of Beets
½ pint Cherry Tomatoes cut in half
½ Red Onion (sliced as thinly as possible)
1 Bunch Arugula

For the Croutons
½ Loaf Quality French Bread*
2 TBSP Olive Oil
1 Garlic Clove
½ Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese

For the Dressing
1 Shallot (Diced Fine)
¼ cup Honey
2 TBSP Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tsp Fresh Marjoram
1 TBSP Dijon Mustard

Begin by roasting the beets. Thoroughly clean and trim the beets leaving just a little of the stem for easy handling later. Place the beets on a sheet of aluminum foil and douse with a little olive oil. Fold the aluminum foil into a packet and place on a cookie sheet. Bake at 425 degrees in a pre-heated oven for approximately 40 minutes, or until beets are tender. Remove beets from oven and let cool. You can place them in the refrigerator and cool them overnight if desired. Once cool, using plastic gloves, remove the outer skin of the beet simply by rubbing it. The skin should slide off easily. If you do not use gloves, the beets will stain your fingers.

To make the croutons, cut of the crust of some quality French bread. Cut into 1 inch slices and then cube into 1 inch squares. You want big pieces of bread. In a bowl, add minced garlic and olive oil. Place the bread cubes on a baking sheet and coat with the garlic and oil. Toss the parmesan cheese over the cubes and mix well. Make sure the bread is lightly coated, but not drenched. Place the bread in a pre-heated 375 degree oven for approximately 12 minutes. You want the croutons to have a nice crunch on the outside, but still remain slightly soft.

To make the dressing, place the minced shallot into a bowl. Add the balsamic vinegar, honey, olive oil and Dijon mustard. Strip the leaves off the fresh marjoram and give a loose chop. Add to the dressing and whisk to combine. If you don’t have marjoram, try fresh thyme, oregano or basil. All would work fine in this recipe.

To assemble the salad, place the dressing at the bottom of a large salad bowl. Cut the beets in half or quarters depending on how large they are and place in the bowl. Add the halved cherry tomatoes, sliced red onion and the arugula. Add the croutons and toss until the dressing is well incorporated. The croutons should take on the beet color. I grow nasturtiums in the summer and the edible flower makes a lovely topping to the salad.

*Use a light French bread. You do not want a dense or crusty bread as that will create croutons which are too hard to chew.

Variations: Mix in sliced cucumbers and dates to the salad for some added sweetness. Another suggestion is to top the salad with some crumbled goat cheese or feta for an added twist.

As I look at this recipe, it seems that there is a lot of work here, but in actuality, this was very simple. You do have to plan ahead, since you have to roast the beets, but once that is done; it’s smooth sailing; just some chopping and tossing, really.

The verdict: I liked the salad. I liked the taste of the beets, especially with the dressing which has a lot of sweetness to it. Apparently, it’s a good thing, because Steve’s friend confessed that she can’t have beets and promised to provide us with lots more.

Oh, and by the way, after Steve tried the salad, he was reminded that he hates beets and it really doesn’t matter what I do to them, he is going to continue to hate them. It looks like I have a lot of solitary beet consumption ahead of me. Now where did I see a recipe for Borscht?