Foodie Tuesday: Been There, Eaten That

Travel: good. Travel while eating delicious foods along the way: fabulous. Puerto Rico last week: a joy.

We went there for a specific reason, to attend the wedding of loved friends. But if one, well, has to go to an island paradise for any reason, one might as well enjoy as many other  aspects of said island as possible during the visit. So we did that, too. Good excuse to try out a few of the classic traditional foods of the place, enjoy a few modern additions, and relish the marvelous atmosphere that makes it all taste so wonderful.

Photo: Bacalaítos

Bacalaítos (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacala%C3%ADto) are a delicious small bite, fried seasoned salt cod that is often served with a dipping sauce to complement it—for example, here, a buttery garlic sauce; elsewhere, a sweet-bright guava sauce. When beautifully made, as tender and light as the most fabulous fish cakes or fish-and-chips cod anywhere.

Photo: Kitty Cat Fried Eggs

While we did sample our way through the trip, we couldn’t manage to eat *everything* on offer. I was left wondering what precisely this menu item was, if not eggs produced and cooked by felines, but it amused me to ponder on it all the same.

Photo: In Lieu of Ginger Ale

If what’s requested isn’t available, sometimes what you get might be even more fitting for the occasion. No ginger ale? Coconut soda suits a casual meal of Puerto Rican treats just fine!

Photo: Fried Pork Luncheon

A delicious lunch of fried pork, beans and rice, and tostones goes down ever so nicely and makes perfect fuel for a busy afternoon of exploration in San Juan Viejo, especially when eaten with a massive side order of mofongo.

Photo: The Apotheosis of Limeade

The current crisis of the Mexican lime crop notwithstanding, the fabulously refreshing limeade at Cueva del Mar is jammed with both limes and flavor.

Photo: Egg-Battered Shrimp

Seafood reigns supreme in island culture, and with good reason. The egg-battered prawns my spouse ordered were fresh and sweet and tender. Better yet, they were plentiful enough he was willing to share some with me. Hurray for seafood!

Photo: Conch Empanadillas

I, meanwhile, opted to get my first taste of conch. Also tender and flavorful! Diced up and seasoned as they were, they reminded me a little of something about halfway between ham and clams. And all the way delicious.

Photo: Yummy Little Fried Pies

I started with shrimp and mahi-mahi empanadillas, because despite the server’s assurance that my initial choices of conch and crab were her two favorite varieties, the kitchen was entirely out of them at the moment. Turns out they were *all* tasty little fried hand pies.

Photo: Mamposteao

One of the clear favorites in the dish derby of our trip was Mamposteao, the glorious beans-and-rice concoction originating as leftover bean stew mixed with rice and cooked in a hot pan until it develops a crisp crust around its tender and succulent insides. (https://www.google.com/search?q=mamposteao&client=safari&rls=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=z16BU7r7GdWVqAakwYLgBQ&ved=0CEEQsAQ&biw=1328&bih=763). We ordered it more than once, and I think I could eat it more than once a *week* if given the chance.

Photo: Madame St. Germain

A lovely drink, the Madame St. Germain; simply add a splash of St. Germain (elderflower) liqueur to a flute of Prosecco, and splish-splash, you have a sparkling glass of sunlight at any time of day or evening.

Photo: Chocolate Grilled Cheese

As it happens, the Madame St. Germain goes beautifully with the chocolate grilled cheese sandwiches at the magical Casa Cortés ChocoBar, made of brioche, cheddar and cocoa-blended butter and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar just in case you didn’t feel delightedly decadent enough already.

Photo: Swiss Pastries

Even with my seemingly boundless appetite, sometimes there were actual items I couldn’t quite manage to eat. It didn’t stop my wandering, food-lustful eyes from enjoying every bit, though, as in the Swiss bakery where we went with our friends to pick up a birthday cake. Because having a big wedding celebration for his sister and the opening of his new brewpub wasn’t quite enough celebrating for one fantastic man.

Photo: the Wedding Cake

There *was* a glamorous and deliciously moist wedding cake, should you wonder, and I assume it came from that same phantasmagorical bakery. So beautiful, so happily massacred by the hungry after-wedding crowd.

Photo: Pork, and All the Trimmings

But first there was the buffet of roasted pork with all of the trimmings: an unfussy and freshly crisp salad, more delicious rice and beans, what I believe were pasteles (a sort of tamale cousin—http://www.theawl.com/2012/11/puerto-rican-pasteles) and, oh yes, more pork.

Photo: The Pig in All Its Glory

All of the wedding feast was magnificent, but the star is and was, as it should be, the roasted pig in all its shiny, juicy, crackling-skinned glory.

What, you want more? Of course there was more, and plenty of it, beginning with a scrumptious party at the bride’s brother’s brewery (try saying that trifecta after a couple of glasses of his spectacularly creamy Scotch Porter style beer, infused with just a touch of Puerto Rican rum!) with all kinds of pizza made on the spot, my favorite of which was bacon and sweet plantains. We succeeded in eating more than was necessary, but not more than was enjoyable, on every single day of our visit, not counting having to get up at 4:30 on the last one to get to the airport on time. And I will certainly get right on board, fork in hand, with the opportunity to revisit the island and all of its culinary kindnesses any time I get the chance. You probably should, too.

Foodie Tuesday: Drinking Flowers and Eating Dirt

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When you can't afford to drink stars, why not drink flowers?

Molecular gastronomists amaze me. Their mastery of elaborate concoctions and decoctions, deep-frozen and spherized and powdered and atomized into unprecedented works of art is impressive, often–I’m told–just as extravagantly delicious (though few can afford to find out), and almost always results in an astounding display of visual artistry of one sort or another. Many practitioners are also preparing and presenting highly refined acts of theatre. I stand in awe of and sometimes deeply moved by the concept of what the molecular gastronome does. And think that perhaps no kind of cook is as deserving of a “gnomic” title as the mad scientist of the kitchen.

Yet both because so few people can stretch our pockets to carry large enough quantities of that other essential dining ingredient, dough–in its vernacular definition as money–and because trendy palates are so easily jaded, the stage for molecular gastronomy’s expression is necessarily a very narrow niche apart from its conversational appeal. I hear that many of the most famed practitioners of this very art are indeed delving into a new branch of the kitchen sciences, or more accurately, going back to the attics and cellars of it, by reexamining antique cookery of all sorts. No matter how much we hybridize and transmogrify the ingredients or tweak, deconstruct and reassemble them, there is and always will be a relatively limited palette of possible foods we can use for the culinary practice. For every pallet of russet potatoes shipped to the kitchens of the world, there are only so many truly new things we’re likely to be able to do with them and still result in an edible item, let alone one we want to eat.

The beauty of revisiting and rethinking traditions and successes of the past is that there are so many forgotten treasures that deserve to be enjoyed yet again. But far more than that, it’s because it takes us back to where we came from as families, as cultures, as homo sapiens, and allows us to understand better how we fit in the world. Think, for example, of the people that first took up and swallowed a handful of their native clay, not knowing but evidently instinctively sensing that it offered essential minerals and nutrients that the plants and animals in their usual diet could not provide. Imagine being the very first person to taste a mint leaf, an oyster, a strawberry. To eat honey, of all things. These intrepid adventurers advanced human existence immeasurably. Imagine, even, your own first taste of any kind of food–what a revelation, a revolution, for good or ill that was!

And so much of the origin of any culture’s cuisine is full of wonders and delicious things that we should be loath to forget and lose. While I would never be one to turn down a good glass of champagne or sparkling wine, there have been many discoveries to equal the joys of Dom Pérignon‘s possibly apocryphal but nonetheless fitting sensation that in such a quaff he was tasting the stars. One of my own favorites is the drink that has been a standard from farm to fancy-dress for uncounted generations, an elderflower cordial. It’s like a light lemonade with great floral top-notes. A classic home brew in the British Isles and Scandinavia and probably elsewhere as well, it’s both delicate and distinctive in its light and heady sweetness. My sister, who lives in Norway and has nice elders growing near her house, makes fabulous elderflower cordial with the technique she learned there. I’m neither so skilled nor so patient, but am not ashamed to rely on well-made commercial cordial, whether in syrup form as in the kind I buy off the grocery shelf when in Stockholm or at IKEA when here, or as sparkling pressé like that produced by the charming Belvoir Fruit Farms (nope, not getting any sort of payment for sharing this personal endorsement with you! But you should go visit their humorous and quirky and refreshing website just for fun even if you think “flower soda” sounds appalling).

A mighty tasty lunch or supper treat that’s different from the usual for me but is extremely simple to prepare and satisfies both my sweet and savory hankerings is fried cheese with a dipping sauce. I love the crumb-crusted and deep fried cheese with a tzatziki-like sour cream dip that we get at Bistro Praha, a very favorite haunt in Edmonton for innumerable delectable and delightful reasons from the uniformly fabulous central-European cookery to the marvelous people running the place. But again, limited in resources to get to Edmonton whenever I wish or, barring that, to get quite the right ingredients and find time to bread and fry and sauce it all up properly, I can do a variant here that’s also wonderfully satisfying. I find a nice slab of Halloumi or Queso Ranchero or (as here) Juustoleipä or some similar “heatproof” cheese and fry it on medium heat in my cast iron skillet with just enough butter or olive oil to keep it from sticking (this time the skillet was conveniently still seasoned just fine with duck fat from last week’s lunch) and just warm it through until nicely browned on the outside, melty inside. I had this with a cup of last week’s beef bone broth on the side, so between the two savories, both a bit on the salty side as I prefer them, I wanted the dipping sauce for the cheese lusciousness to be sweet and a tiny bit spicy to offset that. I mixed plum jam and ginger preserves and warmed them with a little minced fresh mint, and that did the trick perfectly for my tastes. Jam, cheese, broth: all slow foods in their initial preparation, but once in the larder or fridge, they become almost instant throw-together happiness. And there is a decidedly old-fashioned appeal to such a meal that makes me glad so many of our illustrious ancestors were venturesome gastronauts in their own right.

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A simple repast is not a thing of the past, but it needn't be dull as dusty history either . . .