Thursday, March 27, 2008

Comfort Food, New Mexico-Style

Last month, my husband Gabe and I went to New Mexico. We are from New Mexico; we grew up in Santa Fe, and try to get home to visit our families whenever we can. Packing for Santa Fe is always a dilemma. (Well, to be honest, packing for me is always a dilemma because I hate packing. I have always hated packing. I have written artic les on how to be a smart packer and yet, still I hate packing. There’s probably a deeper meaning there that I should investigate. Is it that I’m hesitant to compartmentalize my life into a pre-set structure? Do I fear the wrinkles that persist in cropping up in my plans? And what if I forget my pajamas? ) But packing for Santa Fe presents a special kind of packing dilemma because of what must always be brought back. Namely food.
The land I grew up in is home to too many tasty things to count, things like green chile, thick tortillas, posole, powdered red chile, tamales. Things I can’t get easily in New York. Things that make cold winter nights (and starry summer nights and rainy Sunday afternoons) that much more palatable. And so, whenever a trip is made to New Mexico, room must be saved in one’s suitcase to bring back much needed supplies.
Once, when I was flying back to New York from a Santa Fe trip, I left my two frozen pints of green chile on my connecting flight. I didn’t realize it until I had already boarded my second flight. A normal person would probably have surrendered to the inevitable, sat back, and started the crossword. I couldn’t give up so easily. Where there is chile, there is hope and so, I flagged down one of the harried flight attendants to ask if they could call over to the first flight and see if a rescue mission was possible. Bless them for actually calling, but it was too late. The cleaning crew had come through and my chile was gone. Still, I felt better for trying. Such is my dedication to the overall mission. I continue to hope that whoever found my pints appreciated them for what they were. I can’t linger too long over what probably happened when they did not.
Back to the packing: it’s easier to bring food back in the summer. In the summer, one tends to pack items such as sundresses, flip flops, tank tops. Ten carefully organized tank tops take up about as much room as one winter sweater. Meaning that in the summer you can take all the wardrobe that you want and still have plenty of room for tortillas (sounds a bit like a short story title: “Plenty of Room for Tortillas.” It would probably star a short order cook and a world-weary waitress). Winter is a totally different ball game. In winter, one wants boots and thick cozy sweaters and tall socks and ski pants. Ski pants do not allow enough room for tortillas. And so one must learn to be economical. Or if one is me, one simply delegates. One calls one’s husband into the room where an unreasonable amount of sweaters are stacked on the bed and asks him to choose three. Or maybe four because one really loves the light blue cable knit. This is the only way. We must make sacrifices for what we truly care about. And when all else fails, bring an extra tote.
This trip I ended up getting especially ambitious. I wanted to bring back two packages of tortillas (promised bounty for my good friend—also from New Mexico—and her husband who were babysitting our car), two pouches of frozen chopped green chile (good in soups, burgers, scrambled eggs, or to make sauce out of which I had never done, but wanted to try), a half-gallon of frozen green chile sauce from one of my favorite Santa Fe restaurants (good on burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, or even on its own with beans and cheese mixed in and a warmed tortilla on the side), and a large Ziploc bag of powdered red chile (to make into red chile sauce). Thank heavens for the extra tote.
There is somewhat of an art to packing all these goodies, especially now that security procedures in airports don’t allow liquids or anything that might be construed as liquid-like. Green chile sauce sometimes appears liquid-like. Hence all the freezing—airport officials tend to look more kindly on frozen blocks. So when I purchase my goods, into the freezer they go and then the night before our flight back to NYC, my mom helps me wrap up my frozen pints and pouches in newspaper. My mom and I are really good at this. Over the years, we’ve honed our skills: pouches wrapped like little presents, pints with lids taped on with packing tape, then rolled in newspaper and middles secured again with rounds of packing tape. We talk as we wrap. It’s a little like going for pedicures.
For those of you who are reading this and thinking that my devotion to New Mexican food is too much, that I am—in a word—obsessed, that perhaps I should turn my efforts to something more worthwhile like world peace, I have two stories to tell you. One: We have two good friends here in Brooklyn who are originally from France. There was an evening a couple of years ago when we had heard about a restaurant in Dumbo that supposedly imported green chile from New Mexico. It was a Saturday night. My husband and I were determined to go. There was at least a two-hour wait. We tried to rationalize to our friends why this really wasn’t so bad. This past December, we invited these same friends to come to Santa Fe with us for Christmas. After a week of enchiladas and burritos and huevos rancheros, my friend M said to me, “You know, that night when you were so interested in that restaurant that served green chile? I really thought you two were a little crazy. I really couldn’t understand why you wanted to go there so badly. I understand now.”
Two: On our way back after this most recent trip a month ago, Gabe and I were going through security in the Albuquerque airport. The tortillas and chopped chile pouches were safely nestled into my suitcase and on their way to the belly of the plane. My extra tote packed to the brim with the Ziploc bag of red, my frozen half-gallon of green, and yes, my ski pants went through the x-ray machine. Something in the bag looked suspicious. The official pulled my bag off the belt and asked me to accompany him. Sometimes this happens. It’s always the risk of carrying chile onto the plane. The officials will unwrap it. They’ll look at it dubiously. They’ll call over their supervisor to confer. Sometimes they’ll take it away. So, as a result, I always have an anxious eye on their faces as my bag goes through the x-ray machine and my heart is always pounding. This time, the official unzipped my bag and of course, zeroed in instantly on the chile. He pulled it out of the tote. “It’s chile,” I said chirpily, trying to convince him with my tone of voice that all was well, that I was clearly a good person, that my half-gallon shouldn’t be confiscated. “It’s frozen. I grew up here, but I live in New York now and you know how it is. I just can’t go long without my chile!” “Oh. Chile,” the official nodded sagely. He tucked my half-gallon back into the tote, he zipped it up. “Here you are, ma’am,” he said, handing the tote to me. “I would do exactly the same thing.”

Better Know a Riesling

In a business where decrees, diagnosis and haughty pronouncements are handed down often, it ‘s a good bet that quite a bit of this wine chatter is related to the noble yet often misunderstood grape known as Riesling. Riesling just makes sweet wine right? Nope, not really. In fact, Germany has a whole hierarchy of ripeness and sweetness written into law, ranging from totally bone dry all the way up to very sweet, making it only one of a handful of ultra-versatile grapes you could actually pair with every course of a meal. And the French and the Austrians often don’t vinify their Rieslings anything but dry. Oh, they grow that grape in Europe? Isn’t Riesling just grown domestically and in Australia and New Zealand? No again. Riesling has been cultivated on the banks of the Rhine and surrounding areas since at least Roman times.
Joining in a tasting through a box of rieslings were Ted Matern, co-owner of Blue Apron Specialty Foods in Park Slope, Michael Amendola of Brooklyn’s Slope Cellars, Evan Spingarn of David Bowler Wines and his wife Kate, and Andrea Browne of Ron Ben-Israel Cakes.

The wines in the slate were mostly German. There was much curiosity how wines of various ripeness levels would perform with different foods, so dishes and tastes were prepared to pair with this shape shifter of a grape. “The whole thing is about how the food and wine play off one another.” Michael noted. Some wines fold into the flavors of the food, some wines stand up to them.

The first wine was a sparkler, Reuter Sekt. The wine was paired with some younger cheeses like brie, and the contrast of the creamy rich cheese with the dry, racy Sekt worked. This example showed it’s lighter side when paired with older cheeses like Hirtenkasse; it just couldn’t stand up against them. This manhandling of wine by aged cheese came up again when we moved on to the dry Gobelsburger 2005 from Austria. Ted noted this wine would be great for salads or lighter fare.

Surely one of these wines would work with fish, though the perfect matches were not what some of us expected. The off dry examples seemed to work best. The 2004 Paumanok from North Fork, Long Island stood up to the lemony Bass Grenobloise, and the wine’s peachy smoothness dovetailed nicely with the browned butter. In a blind tasting, this wine might just be a dead ringer for something from the old country. “This wine’s trying to trick you!” cried Evan.

In wine and food pairing, sometimes acid will cancel out acid. To test the acid cancellation idea, Michael had brought some fresh tomatoes from his garden. “Tomatoes are revelatory for wines.” Michael said. Instead of settling down the acidity of both the tomatoes and the dry and off dry wines, the acidity was actually amplified, though in a pleasing way. The Alsatian Riesling, and a slice of fresh tomato was like a party in the mouth! Of course this was a full bodied zinger of a wine that absolutely crushed the bass. You almost need the complexity of a raw tomato to react with this Riesling. This wine showed more effectively in a classic pairing with some liverwurst and pate.

From here it got sweeter, and the food got spicier. Various elements of this tasting crew had suspicions that the conventional sweeter wine with spicy food wasn’t as effective as was believed. When the Lamb Vindaloo came out, this trend in wine and food pairing was put to the test. All but two of the wines simply vanished when showed with the vivid, eye watering spiciness of the vindaloo. Michael said he’d rather be drinking beer. The forcefully dry Alsatian bottle began to drink with an unpleasant bitterness when thrown against the Indian dish. The real winner with this plate was the Gysler, which had the zipping acidity and slight sweetness to contend with what was happening. It turned out salt and sweet was where it was at; spice and sweet was a little more challenging.

When the raspberry tart Andrea made for the event came out, it was time to test the mettle of the dessert grade Rieslings. The Rauen Eiswein was a perfect fit, the sweetness danced with the pastry cream, the matching zip got along famously with the berries.

Trying to contribute to a wholesale examination of what Jancis Robinson calls “Arguably the world’s most undervalued grape,” There was some reinforcement of what was previously held to be true, and there were some surprises.

Find the Goodies from this Article:

1. Schoffit 2002 from Alsace and dessert wines: Paumanok Gobelsburger, Rauen - Slope Cellars

2. Paumanok - Vintage New York

3. Hirtenkasse cheese- Blue Apron Foods

Chris Hiatt's Greenmarket Update

So, during this time of year I’m generally scarce around the Greenmarket. And for that matter, so is the ‘green”. But I did see mache at the Hawthorne Valley Farms booth. It was pricey, but they practically had the corner on the market in fresh greens. Some salad greens from one of the big Jersey outfits on the North side, and that was about it. One thing I really have noticed the last two times I’ve been to market, it the proliferation of cider doughnuts. It seems now, that everyone has them. Ladies and Gentlemen, a glut on the market! Be picky about your fave. Flying Pigs Farm can still be found this time of year at the Grand Army Market on Saturdays. Arcadian Pastures, relatively new booth at Grand Army on Saturdays, has an extensive line of butchered meats, including lamb, pork and beef. Hudson Valley Farmhouse has teamed up with Knoll Crest, poultry farmer extraordinare, and have entered the noodle business. They have a variety of flavors, but it start with the plain egg fettucine at $3 for a 10 ounce package. Look for them at Union Square Wednesdays and Saturdays. The frozen corn display at Migliorelli was a little tired, but I’m still excited just to see some local person attempting to use this aspect of the industry to their benefit.
Phillips Farm out of New Jersey is a huge market farm that I usually don’t go near when supply is flush. This time of year they come in pretty handy. They grow pretty much everything, and an increasingly comprehensive winter produce program has lead to greatly improved quality during the lean months of February and March, so they now fill a valuable niche. One can find decent root veggie of all sorts, salad greens, fresh spinach, though you have to pick through it a bit.
Prices are fairly reasonable on what little is available right now. Potatoes are generally $2/lb, apples and bosc pears are $1.25/$1.50/lb, with Migliorelli coming in on the low end of the spectrum. The glaring exception to fair prices is the $4.50 John Madura is charging for a dozen eggs. It’s easier to forgive this due to the fine looking mushrooms this outfit has been bringing to market lately, which are competitively priced. For eggs the undisputed champ is still Tello’s Green Farm, with large eggs for $3/dozen, They have stewing hens now as well. Some booths on Mondays have had cole crops and cabbage, for reasonable rates. Phillips Farm has rutabagas and butternut squash for a mere $1/lb, and competitively priced salad mix at $12/lb. Lynhaven is selling 3 oz. logs of chevre for $6. Monday at Union Square Troncillito Farms has ½ gallons of fresh apple cider for a reasonable $3. Sweet potatoes can be had for $.99/lb. The Friday fish booth had scallops for $15, basically the same as at a Whole Foods type store.